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Changing behaviour bottom up, not just top down

December 2015

Tackling air pollution isn’t solely a legislative issue, people have to be encouraged into new behaviours, argues Lord Drayson

Air pollution is getting a lot of air-time. In the last few months, there has been the VW corporate scandal, a report by Defra on the serious health impacts of vehicle emissions and a raft of proposals prepared by central and local governments to tackle it.

But the news agenda moves fast and, even now, I think the health effects of air pollution are still relatively under-appreciated. Louise Francis from University College London’s Mapping for Change initiative summed up the perception deficit on BBC News recently: “The fact is, this is a public health emergency. It’s up there with alcohol; it’s up there with smoking, but it’s just not discussed.”
In London, new regulations are coming in response to the growing concerns. In 2018 all new taxis will have to be zero emission capable. In 2020 City Hall plans to introduce an ultra low emission zone, so only the cleanest vehicles will be able to enter central London without paying a charge.

Of course these initiatives should be welcomed, and yes government has an important role to play, but tackling air pollution isn’t solely a legislative issue. Legislation and regulations that seek to change individuals’ behaviour take an extraordinary amount of time and support to justify and enact, no matter how strong the argument. I believe that the most effective way of changing behaviour is to encourage it from the bottom up, not just the top down. And that requires information that people can readily understand, that relates the issue to their everyday lives and concerns.

If you look back to the 1950s, when medical opinion first began to realise the harmful effects of smoking, legislation to ban smoking in public would have been completely impossible. It would not have had the public’s support. It took just over half a century of campaigning, educating and debating for the public to become aware of the effects of smoking on both the smoker and to those around them and to create the space within which it was possible for politicians to take action and for legislation banning smoking in enclosed public spaces to be passed.

Today, with the tools of social media at our disposal, we have much more instant, personal and effective ways of communicating our message to people and we are seeing this being used now to improve everyone’s understanding of the importance of air quality to our health. As the medical evidence mounts up, the need for change becomes more pressing. Modern technology, the use of smartphones and wireless sensor networks all have an important role in providing people with better information, relevant to how they live their lives.

This September we launched CleanSpace, a new wireless sensor network to provide people with better information about the quality of the air they are breathing using connected personal air sensors that they carry with them. The CleanSpace app and sensor are designed to work together to provide people with relevant, actionable information on pollution exposure and to inspire them to help improve air quality themselves by making cleaner travel choices – like walking or using a bicycle.

While CleanSpace is first and foremost about providing up to the minute information on your personal exposure to air pollution, it also uses that information to build a better map of air pollution for everyone. CleanSpace is about helping everyone to see the collective impact of their own individual efforts.

Available now is the CleanSpace Tag, a world-first personal air pollution sensor. It works by continuously monitoring air pollution data to show people exactly what they’re breathing, wherever they are – while commuting, exercising or taking the kids to school – and presenting that information on an easy to read screen on your smartphone via the free CleanSpace app.

Powered by revolutionary Freevolt technology, which means you never have to charge it or change its battery, it shows people exactly what they’re breathing, wherever they are. It works alongside the CleanSpace app which shows users the cleanest routes and areas available, records when they are making clean travel choices and provides them with rewards for doing so; helping to reduce the personal health risks of air pollution exposure, and helping to reduce emissions from travel at the same time.

With widespread adoption of the CleanSpace Tag and app, we can build the world’s most detailed map of air pollution and use that data to effect real change. It will not only provide users with more personal pollution exposure data, but also give a reading of air pollution at the height at which we breathe, improving our computer models for predicting and estimating air pollution.

Our role is to provide everyone with the information they need to understand and avoid air pollution and to help reduce it. While we expect our politicians to regulate to improve air quality, it is also down to each and every one to take action too. In this age of hyper-connectivity, armed with the right technology, we can collectively make a real difference. Air pollution is man-made – so is the solution. 


Lord Drayson is a former Science Minister and founder and CEO of Drayson Technologies

Drayson Technologies | UK & NI Ireland | Pollution


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