University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise

The Issue

Many sustainability solutions have focused on densification. By bringing people and places closer together resources can be used more efficiently, transportation distances are cut and humans’ impact on the environment is lower than unbridled urban sprawl. Creating this densification is difficult especially in the United States. However, with the advent of social media such as Facebook, we are virtually denser than perhaps any other time in our history. This virtual density may provide sustainability opportunities and solutions where physical densification has not been possible.

Our Approach

NiSE has been exploring the possibilities of accessing the opportunities in virtual density through two projects that use mobile devices that provide real-time location through GPS and maintain virtual networks of people through websites like Facebook. These mobile devices have the potential to revolutionize transportation and delivery systems in ways that drastically decrease greenhouse gas emissions and provide access to humanitarian products in even the most rural of areas. Our two projects are:

  1. Last-Mile Delivery: By materializing social relationships and leveraging spatial and networked information our models explore how sharing excess transportation capacity between friends can reduce the environmental impacts associated with the “last-mile” package delivery systems from online purchases.
  2. Smart Delivery:   We are looking at human daily movement and activities in a rural area in Northern Tanzania to determine the possibility of using cell phones and “Facebook” like social media to create a network of people capable of moving small batches of childhood vaccines into rural areas.

Potential Impact and Expected Outcomes

This initiative has already demonstrated enormous potential for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the last mile of delivery of a package in urban and suburban areas. We will continue refining our models and exploring their applications for solving environmental and humanitarian sustainable densification problems.

NiSE is a program of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

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