Have you ever wondered what your toaster would say to you if it could talk? According to Peter Hartwell, an HP technologist, it will soon talk and it will say “if you clean me, I will be 20% more efficient.” Your refrigerator will also tell you what’s in it, what’s spoiling and maybe what you need to buy.

In his plenary talk at Sustainable Brands ’11, Hartwell referred to the internet as a brain for the earth, except it’s blind, deaf and dumb. Sensors, he believes, are the next huge thing and will bring awareness to the equation. HP Labs has coined their sensor technology CeNSE: Central Nervous System for the Earth. The idea is that through sensors, products will soon be able to tell people how to use them more efficiently and, thus, more sustainably. Take the smart meter. While it has done an incredible job of helping homeowners see their energy use and lower their bills through behavior change, one complaint is that users don’t really know what to do with the data. Sensors can fill this gap. Instead of just giving you a total use number, a sensor would go beyond to tell you the information you need to change. As Hartwell says, sensors will help you find the problems that you didn’t necessarily know you were trying to solve.

Doing this involves integrating circuits and merging data from varied sources: traditional sensors, wireless sensors and social media. Sensor-driven systems will work by sensing, networking, computing and acting. They take into account the context — or system — in which they operate. Sounds sort of human, no?

Though the picture painted above sounds futuristic, a new generation of sensors are already being incorporated into our daily lives. The Nike+ Sensor enables users to track data from their runs like distance, pace and time. Runners simply install a Nike+ Sensor in their Nike+ ready shoe and it syncs with a Nike+ SportWatch or an iPod. They can then host this data on nikeplus.com where they can also interact with other runners.

A future with more human-like technology always raises red flags but we don’t have to conjure images of HAL just yet. In terms of sustainability, it’s become more and more apparent that people need little pushes to change their behavior. If sensor technology can provide information that improves user experience while increasing efficiency, let’s give it a shot. What do we have to lose?


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.