Internet of Things and the Power of Feedback Loops

This 2011 Wired post from Thomas Goetz about Feedback Loops is about how we can change (or improve) our behaviour just by measuring it.  I would add another factor that I think is as important to make us change, that is when we put our behavior on display. As example, if you have been on a diet, you know the valuable help of letting people know you are on a diet, social pressure will help you to keep in track and reach your goal.  Thomas Goetz gives the example of showing your speed:



















The potential of the feedback loop to affect behavior was explored in the 1960s, most notably in the work of Albert Bandura, a Stanford University psychologist and pioneer in the study of behavior change and motivation. Drawing on several education experiments involving children, Bandura observed that giving individuals a clear goal and a means to evaluate their progress toward that goal greatly increased the likelihood that they would achieve it. He later expanded this notion into the concept of self-efficacy, which holds that the more we believe we can meet a goal, the more likely we will do so. In the 40 years since Bandura’s early work, feedback loops have been thoroughly researched and validated in psychology, epidemiology, military strategy, environmental studies, engineering, and economics. (In typical academic fashion, each discipline tends to reinvent the methodology and rephrase the terminology, but the basic framework remains the same.) Feedback loops are a common tool in athletic training plans, executive coaching strategies, and a multitude of other self-improvement programs (though some are more true to the science than others).

Despite the volume of research and a proven capacity to affect human behavior, we don’t often use feedback loops in everyday life. Blame this on two factors: Until now, the necessary catalyst—personalized data—has been an expensive commodity. Health spas, athletic training centers, and self-improvement workshops all traffic in fastidiously culled data at premium rates. Outside of those rare realms, the cornerstone information has been just too expensive to come by. As a technologist might put it, personalized data hasn’t really scaled.

Second, collecting data on the cheap is cumbersome. Although the basic idea of self-tracking has been available to anyone willing to put in the effort, few people stick with the routine of toting around a notebook, writing down every Hostess cupcake they consume or every flight of stairs they climb. It’s just too much bother. The technologist would say that capturing that data involves too much friction. As a result, feedback loops are niche tools, for the most part, rewarding for those with the money, willpower, or geeky inclination to obsessively track their own behavior, but impractical for the rest of us.

Remember this was written 2 years ago, and at the pace of technological advances, the limitations he saw on collecting and storing personal data are not so relevant anymore.

For you, entrepreneur reader, check the article for the provided examples, and hereunder for some general ideas that can make use of this loop model:

And today, their promise couldn’t be greater. The intransigence of human behavior has emerged as the root of most of the world’s biggest challenges. Witness the rise in obesity, the persistence of smoking, the soaring number of people who have one or more chronic diseases. Consider our problems with carbon emissions, where managing personal energy consumption could be the difference between a climate under control and one beyond help. And feedback loops aren’t just about solving problems. They could create opportunities. Feedback loops can improve how companies motivate and empower their employees, allowing workers to monitor their own productivity and set their own schedules. They could lead to lower consumption of precious resources and more productive use of what we do consume. They could allow people to set and achieve better-defined, more ambitious goals and curb destructive behaviors, replacing them with positive actions. Used in organizations or communities, they can help groups work together to take on more daunting challenges. In short, the feedback loop is an age-old strategy revitalized by state-of-the-art technology. As such, it is perhaps the most promising tool for behavioral change to have come along in decades.

I like his way of turning the expression around:

[…] But as GreenGoose, Belkin, and other companies begin to use sensors to deploy feedback loops throughout our lives, we can finally see the potential of a sensor-rich environment. The Internet of Things isn’t about the things; it’s about us.


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