Mobile technology’s role in a sustainable future

In an interview this week in the StarPhoenix of Saskatoon, Canada, urban issues expert Diana Lind discusses the power of technology to enhance sustainable living in urban and rural areas. Lind is the executive director of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Next American City and a contributing author of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012 report.

Lind observes that in urban environments, smart phones can make it simpler for people to use public transportation, as users can look up directions to bus stops or check whether they’ll catch the next train. Computer mapping applications can also highlight relationships between crime and poor housing, or school districts and infrastructure. Establishing these types of connections can enhance the ability of municipal governments to improve safety and serve the public.

Melbourne City Skyline and Train lines (Photo via Flickr, by Andrew Hux)

The widespread and increasing use of mobile technology is also transforming lifestyles in rural areas, including large regions of Africa and Asia. Residents are using the technology in a variety of innovative ways. Not only do mobile phones facilitate communication, but they enhance mobile banking and enable farmers to access up-to-date agricultural information, such as crop prices and weather.

As of 2011, Africa had more than 600 million mobile phone users, more than the United States or Europe. In Kenya, mobile technology is improving sustainable use of water supplies as people utilize the phones to report broken pumps and leaks. Additionally, researchers from Oxford University are exploring how mobile phones can be used to measure the movements of hand water pumps, collecting the data needed to estimate water flow. This information can then be transmitted back to a central office, which can monitor the pump’s use, maintenance, and the overall rate of water consumption.

In Bangladesh, mobile phones have been used to issue alerts about impending weather events, such as flooding. In 2009, Bangladeshi officials signed deals with two large mobile providers to notify phone users when a cyclone or flood is forecast. With 26 percent of the country’s 150 million people subscribed to a mobile service, these alerts would improve the population’s ability to seek shelter before a hazardous weather event.

Despite the many benefits of information and communication technologies, Lind is quick to note that technology alone is not the solution to our sustainability challenges. A sustainable future will be one that balances technology with other innovative solutions, including many that are relatively simple and inexpensive to implement.

 (Written by Antonia Sohns) 

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