How to growth-hack a sustainable future

Most technologies that might disrupt our business future are neutral in terms of sustainability — or at least start that way. It is not until they are applied that they become supporters, or detractors, of a sustainable future.

At Forum for the Future, we want to see more of the latest and best thinking applied to sustainability challenges. Leading companies are making commitments to that effect. DuPont's sustainability aims, for example, focus on using science to address three global challenges: feeding the world; building a secure energy future; and protecting ecosystems.

But just as exciting is the potential for new technologies, particularly digital ones, to be more systematically applied for the good. Take "growth hacking," an approach used by Facebook and others to boost user numbers. It combines data analytics with behavioral psychology and uses those lenses to design and test user experiences. It hails from marketing, but uses the rise in really detailed user information to track how people respond to certain things and what makes them share, then uses that information to take recruitment to the next level.

Growth hacking was coined at the launch of Hotmail, when organizers sent emails saying "PS: I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail" — a simple initiative that resulted in 12 million users within 18 months. This was basically viral marketing, but now growth hacking is applied in more sophisticated ways. Dropbox has multiple teams focused on data science, analytics and monetization, but sees the key lever for growth as promoting sharing and studies ways to do that.

This may all be repackaging of traditional product and marketing (and this sort of tracking is not to everyone's tastes), but it has been shown to be really effective at creating scale in the digital space. At the moment, that scale is often focused on sharing streams of consciousness (or in the case of my friends, photos of glorious holiday destinations that are painful for me to see when I am stuck at my desk). But imagine what it could do for sustainability where scale is sorely needed. How could it be applied to behavior change on energy, to support for action on climate change, to buying more sustainable products?

This is starting to happen. Avaaz and 38 Degrees use basic referral and sharing techniques to drive campaigns on anything from bees to Syria. At Forum, we have a "Lab" aimed at creating more of such experiments. The Internet of Things Academy was born out of the Lab and focuses on sharing hardware and software tools that people can use to improve things for people and planet. Buggy Air is an example of this, where parents are shown simple ways to create sensors that go on their child's buggy and then share the results; this creates awareness of air pollution and through sharing can stimulate people to do something about it.

But these still feel like isolated examples. Too much innovation is still taking us on an unsustainable course. Those of us interested in a greener future need to take the latest and best thinking — from companies' R&D to the latest digital toolkits — and use it shamelessly to drive us in a better direction.

Top image of data by kentoh via Shutterstock.