Years from now, when someone decides to produce a period piece about western culture at the turn of the century — whether a nostalgic look back or a biting satire — odds are they’ll throw in a Segway as set dressing. There’s just nothing else that quite captures that mix of hubris and frivolity and technophilic hype at the dawn of the millennium quite like the Segway.
The Segway was supposed to be a transportation device so miraculous and disruptive we’d soon plan whole cities around it (so went a line of hype attributed to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple's Steve Jobs ahead of its launch); instead, it turned out to be a piece of instant kitsch, seen mainly in theme parks and other tourist traps or (in a masterful bit of wordless characterization) beneath the feet of the clueless, pompous, do-nothing brother Gob on "Arrested Development."
By way of further explaining what I mean by the essence of innovation (click here for Part 1 of this discussion), I’d like to contrast the highfalutin technology and limited application of the Segway with what I believe to be one of the most important energy innovations of the last decade: The Opower energy bill.
Opower is a consulting company specializing in energy efficiency, and for the past few years it has been working with former Arizona State business professor Robert Cialdini to turn his academic work into everyday energy customer reality. Cialdini’s great breakthrough was in the field of behavioral economics, which attempts to bring psychology and the science of human behavior to bear on the dismal science.
His work started with those ubiquitous countertop cards in hotel bathrooms urging guests to reuse their towels or sheets to SAVE THE PLANET! Cialdini decided to investigate how to get more people to participate in those programs using the messages on the cards as a persuasion tool. He experimented with all manner of do-good messages — appeals to the planet’s health, frugality, future generations — before discovering that the most effective message was another kind entirely. Tell guests that most people in the hotel were participating, and towel reuse shot up 26 percent. Tell them that most people who’d stayed in that very room had participated, and 33 percent of guests reused their towels. All the facts and arguments in the world were nothing compared to the simple fact that people will generally do what they believe is expected of them.
To apply Cialdini’s discovery to the household energy bill, Opower advises its clients to add a simple, color-coded graphic to each bill — a three-bar graph, with one bar for the customer’s energy use, one for the neighborhood average, and one for the energy use by the most frugal customers. This simple illustration of how all those Joneses up and down the block were performing proved far more effective than the most passionate and slickly produced of marketing campaigns — with one flaw. While people who learned they were on the wasteful side of the average got more careful, those on the frugal side actually grew more wasteful, as if they’d been given permission to be less diligent.
So how did Opower fix this problem? With the powerful high-tech communications tool known as a smiley face. Slap a smiley face on one of those high achievers’ bills, and they kept at it. Opower’s bar-graph-and-smiley-face innovation, which costs virtually nil to implement across the entire customer base, has been bringing down overall energy use by as much as 3 percent on average for its clients. This may sound like a pittance, but in energy conservation circles — which generally see buy-in on the kind of one-in-a-100-at-best scale of direct-mail marketing — this was a huge victory. And it’d been a whole bunch cheaper than an ad campaign.
It may be that the technologies embedded in the Segway evolve in unforeseen ways that fulfill that initial revolutionary promise. But its creator, though undoubtedly a great inventor, failed in his first attempt at real innovation in human mobility because he didn’t really consider people and what they want and how they change from one pattern of transport (or behavior) to another.
Robert Cialdini, on the other hand, is not really an inventor, and his innovation is barely technological at all, unless you think of psychological data, bar graphs and smiley faces as “technologies.” But it’s a great innovation nonetheless, because it is changing the whole energy business’ understanding of people and how they act. Once you’ve cracked that nut, finding tools to make it work doesn’t always (or even often) require radical new technologies. As every elementary school teacher knows, sometimes a simple smiley face will do the trick.
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