Can Millennials and social networking lead us to a sustainable future?

If you had to bet on the future, would you bet on a dystopia of competing self-interest or a world mobilized and capable of staving off the great challenges of our time by proactively investing in a better future?

Let's see if we can stack this very real bet in our favor.

By definition, the future is the most uncertain element of our day-to-day existence. One thing we do know: a sustainable future requires change from business-as-usual. While the required change has been slow at best, today we think two forces are worth betting on: The rise and connectedness of the social web, and an increasing desire for sustainability and better self-governance amongst the Millennial generation.

Social networking and sustainability share common ground

It turns out that social networking and sustainability share similar as well as complementary DNA — with some meaningful differences in their ability to capture the hearts and minds of Millennials.

Both have evolved rapidly over the last decade, expanding from faint signals to large-scale drivers of social change. Both are persistent and inevitable. Both have created their own lexicon and content formats — and both are largely produced and consumed by the Millennial generation. Yet both have had difficulty in creating long-lasting, action-orientated connections. And perhaps most important, both compete for our finite pool of attention and participation in their platforms.

Social networking firmly has anchored itself as a sticky behavior, developing a previously unimaginable level of connectivity and community through easy to use and purposeful communication formats. But in a world where Millennials frequently associate sustainability-based content with a better personal future — and make increasingly collaborative decisions online — it is critical that Millennials leverage the reach of social networks to scale-up sustainable behavior change.

It's lamentable that we are recklessly gambling with our future "all-in." But like all good gamblers we know which outcome we would prefer, and have identified three points of leverage to stack the deck in favor of a thriving future.

Today, the Millennial generation may use three fundamental social forces to extend the social web into a behavioral support architecture that is appropriate for developing more sustainable lifestyles.

Force 1: Transparency

We are now able to capture and share unique moments in real time, creating a rich tapestry of individual and shared experience throughout different points in our lives — from the monumental to the trivial.

WWF Instagram account. Screenshot taken by Laura Blackwell for GreenBiz.Made possible by the increasing reach of smartphones and interconnectivity of the social graph, our ability to document, describe and direct photo-based stories to each other with exact precision has grown astronomically over the past few years. From a collective behavior standpoint the implied transparency of photos, formatted conversations and the low-transaction costs of the social web seems to be a winning combination for organizing a shared behavioral context, establishing trust and motivating action.

Contrast this with historical efforts to engender sustainable behavior change, which are often underpinned by factual content, yet delivered through opaque and largely symbolic formats devoid of personally relatable experiences.

Take for example the often undecipherable and oblique eco-labeling standards; with over 460 variants in existence today, simply labeling them as "standards" seems like the ultimate contradiction. While the intent of eco-labels is admirable, their continued role in framing sustainability initiatives as competitive, rather than compounding, makes them largely ineffective as synergistic devices in activating better lifestyles.

In effect, a label is often a thousand words masquerading as a picture. What we need today is a way to exchange billions of picture-based moments that add up to create label-like narratives.

Force 2: Simplicity

A primary barrier to advancing sustainable behavior change is the enormous effort it takes to translate new and complex eco-information into personally relevant opportunities to act. Even the most obvious sustainability challenges tend to be highly complex, and are nested within a plurality of people and issues.

All too often, this intimidating reality leaves individuals caught between digesting a global narrative (think global food security), which lacks personal context and actionable guidance ("where should we go for lunch?"), and the very real burden of managing ad-hoc efforts that often fail to visibly add up. It is simply too hard to find and take meaningful action, and too easy to free-ride off of the efforts of others.

But what if we could systematically tame this "wicked" social problem by reducing the personal barrier to contributing our own initiatives, using a common design guide and integrating our respective efforts within a larger community to build the future more collaboratively?

Screenshot of Kickstarter solar charger imageIt should be possible. With social networking, we have the ability to build up the sustainability conversation by adding together our bite-sized efforts. We can use a human-centered lens to better align these moments with the science of sustainability, and leverage people to create and share dialogue around new opportunities to do what they want to do better.

For instance, consider the capacity-building role of Yelp, Kickstarter and Angie's List, each of which combines features from the social web with unique organizational architectures aimed at crowd-sourcing a common direction. These services each provide a purposeful frame of reference, filled with specialized concepts and features, and populated by people who share similar interests and intent. The result is a unique ability for people to work together at their own pace and level of intensity and still arrive at a common goal.

Whether your goal is to find the best contractor, fund your new film project or find ideas for changing the world, the lesson here is that it is easier to get results when working together with other people like you. You just need the right framework.

Force 3: Amplification

Motivation is the fuel for leadership and real-world change. However, the motivation for individuals on networks and for the networks themselves is different. Individuals on social networks are motivated, in part, by a combination of personally relevant content and the current events they experience through their smaller, trusted digital world.

Image by StockThings via Shutterstock.Networks as a whole, on the other hand, become powerful mechanisms for sharing and collaboration when linkages are made between these diverse sets of motivated individuals, and the larger group of their less motivated friends. This is the force behind tipping scale in online social networks, and why some content diffuses rapidly to reach the masses while other content becomes barely visible.

So, how might sustainability leverage the latent capacity of social networking to systematically create pathways to scale? In the same way that any social marketing effort scales: Sustainability needs active influencers armed with the right toolkit for generating and scaling activities within their sphere of influence.

Start by enabling those who are both highly motivated and who already promote and share specific solutions across their networks. Serve them with an easy-to-use and trustworthy sustainability framework to inform and support their ideation and action as they work on their respective efforts. Make it simpler for them to seed their message into other networks and thus build self-organizing, voluntary communities around their actionable ideas over time. Then, work to provide a format for others to reciprocate the gesture as they encounter new opportunities and actionable ideas. In this way, one builds a crowd while using the crowd to the create shortcuts back to personal stories of success.

Putting this all together, one can see the emergence of a general outline for the integration of the social web and building more sustainable lifestyles in a collaborative environment. Support motivated and highly-networked individuals with the right sustainability framework, social networking architecture and toolkit to massively scale actions using a sustainability lens to guide the process at an everyday level.

The architecture must evolve past just another checklist, or a list of checklists, or even a standard for that matter. It cannot just be a pile of possible actions that exist within a flat organization, but needs a more directed way to select and prioritize decisions. Most important: it cannot be somebody else's idea of what is important and what is not, what is possible and what is not. It must come from the ground up, through trusted sources, and be supported by tools that create cohesive and shareable pathways for both individual and group success.

In this environment, newly empowered social-collaboration leaders can share personally relevant actions for more sustainable everyday decisions, all via sticky and crowdsourced media such as narrated pictures. Taken together, this can be foundational for collaborative platforms that combine everyday actions with better decisions — helping individuals and groups do what they want to do every day with sustainably as a tool for their success.

Socially networked Millennials could just be our best bet for positive action toward sustainable future.

Phone image by Pixsooz via Shutterstock.