“Alexa, can you save the planet?”
Search in the 21st century has created a level of efficiency that has changed the course of humanity — it has never been so easy to access information. (Whether the most accessible information is the most accurate, of course, is another matter.) At the same time, successful innovation and new hardware devices have reduced layers of abstraction, leading to easier use and a more direct search interface with every new generation. This means that touchscreens, for example, are casting a wider demographic net than keyboards and mice ever did, and the latest wave of voice assistants are no exception. “At your fingertips” used to be the turn of phrase to describe the ease of the information age — now, you just need to ask.
As with so many innovations, voice technology traces its origins to military research and development. Siri, the first consumer application, stemmed from a DARPA project called PAL (Personal Assistant that Learns). Once Apple acquired the offshoot of that project, it wasn’t long before Amazon was finding ways to make it easier for people to shop, and Google to make it easier for people to control their environment, digitally.
Remember Steve Ballmer saying, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”? He may have been right about other things, but it’s an extreme example of how consumers will dictate trends according to convenience, regardless of what the thought leaders of the day might think about it.
The Big Trend: Voice Technology is Taking Off
Voice assistant usage across the country is skyrocketing and it’s no longer just about the novelty of devices. So far, the most common point of access is through smartphones. People are already starting to use the technology every day – and en masse. Nearly 70 million smart speaker devices have already been installed in the US, and uptake has been faster than almost any previous new platform — this is because they’re easier to use for a wider range of people and in a wider range of scenarios. Form is dictating function in ways that were previously unforeseen and undoubtedly will yet in others that are still to be discovered. It’s clearly becoming the new way to interact with technology and perform many everyday tasks.
Voice assistants, overall, have been more quickly adopted than smartphones were in their ascendence. Smartphones were, and maybe still are, perceived as luxury goods denoting status. Smart speakers and voice assistants, by contrast, are utilitarian and often largely invisible devices designed primarily to make it easier to access information, and for the most part for the purpose of shopping.
Technology giants such as Google with Google Home, and Amazon with Alexa, are placing massive bets on these search technologies. They recognize that while the first wave of search itself gave rise to their existence, and to their becoming the largest companies in the world, evolution of that technology similarly provides a bridge to their future. Much of this suggests that to stay relevant Smart Cities should be at the forefront of adoption.
Why Is Voice Search On The Rise?
It’s not hard to see why this might be. Voice assistants are more accessible for people who can’t type or swipe — either permanently due to disability, but perhaps even more often, temporarily due to circumstance. They’re in the yard or the kitchen, and their hands are messy; they’re driving; they’re in the bedroom or bathroom and they’re not wearing their glasses. As behavioral scientists have long known, for tasks where motivation may be low, the ability required to complete that task must also be low if we expect it to be performed.
Voice technology may increasingly drive the engine of the economy, but at what price? We already know about significant challenges facing the waste industry from packaging, and that’s before even considering all the additional wasted or recoverable material from the extra consumption that results from this convenience. Voice assistants will never completely replace reading and text. People will want to know more about recycling and government services and quick answers cannot supplant the need for education. However, effecting behavior change is also very much about getting the right answer to the resident in the moment when it matters most.
The Right Technology In The Right Place Increases Engagement
While there are corners of the waste industry which may be lagging in the adoption of technology, the past couple of years have also seen rapid changes. Elsewhere, people expect to be able to search for information without extensive digging. Sadly, for most, waste and recycling is not at the top of mind, and there is a limited window of opportunity to get that information into their hands when they need it and can act upon it. So much of the education in this space becomes most effective when it is task-based and centered around behavior change.
For correct disposal of any material there is often only one right answer, and getting it right at source consistently is crucial for recycling programs to remain viable. This is especially true in the hyper-localized markets for recovered materials, where neighboring governments may have completely different sets of rules. Any communications platform — voice, web or mobile — must recognize this reality and find a way to ensure the information is credible and accurate. Buyers of technology are starting to ask questions about optimizing websites for voice search vs creating a voice skill. To impact behavior change, the information should be accessible in every home — and everywhere in the home that people might be facing a disposal decision.
What Does This Mean For Waste and Recycling Managers?
Whether it’s a matter of producing a stream of recyclables that’s ready for market, or aligning residents with state guidelines, bans and legislation, getting the right message out about recycling has never been more critical.
In the solid waste industry, we’ve already seen a rapid growth in the adoption of communications technology for municipalities, as well as private waste haulers – and the people they serve. Every week, millions of people have easier access through search technology to better and more accurate information about services — and in a way that is more efficient for the organizations providing that content than ever previously possible.
Not infrequently over the years, when first speaking with a solid waste manager, I hear something like “our demographic is uniquely old and less technologically savvy”. It is truly amazing how often I hear this and how non-unique this point of view is! Sadly, municipalities sometimes fall behind in providing access through platforms that younger generations use and expect in other areas of their life. For some, voice may still mean only telephone. But doesn’t it seem likely that the demographic we know best is defined by the platforms through which people routinely use to communicate or learn from us? What happens if someone doesn’t have the time to make that phone call, or spend a lot of time digging through a website, or can only do so outside of business hours? Trends indicate that millennials and subsequent generations will expect automated and self-service through newer platforms like voice search that are already commonplace outside of government and the waste industry.
Voice assistants and the devices on which they’re accessed are intentionally subsidized by search giants in order to make it easier to shop, or to interact in novel ways with their environment. In that sense, they may be the most democratic communications platform yet of new technology. But they can also make it easier to do other tasks, such as recycling. Every voice, web or mobile app search represents the preferred alternative to, at best, a saved phone call or inconvenience for somebody — at worst, a pattern of bad decisions that can contaminate waste diversion streams.
Does your organization have a voice in the 21st century? Being present where your residents search gives you the best chance of not only enabling the right decision on their part but also doing so in a way that limits the burden on both the planet and call-center resources. Contact us to learn more, or browse our resources section to learn more about our approach to the challenge local governments face in communicating with their residents.