Ant Forest, a personal carbon account launched in 2016 by the mobile and online payments platform Ant Financial, a subsidiary of Alipay , itself part of the Chinese giant Alibaba, is changing consumer behaviour in China through gamification. Gamification applies typical elements of game-playing to other areas of activity, to stimulate engagement with a product or service.
Users are prompted to consider their carbon footprint in different ways including paying their bills online; cutting paper; walking and using public transport. All the activities are tracked through Alipay and users accumulate carbon points which are deposited in a carbon account and then converted to virtual ‘green energy.’ After accumulating enough green energy customers are awarded a real tree which is then planted. Planting is monitored via satellite so users can track their own progress as well as the collective efforts of their fellow customers. And a bit of competition between friends is encouraged!
Individuals want to know how they can make a difference and this initiative is a route for the public to do just that. The scale of Alipay with its millions of users means it can have a serious impact and is one way in which harnessing digital energy is helping to meet an environmental challenge.
Governments and institutions around the world will be taking note of this positive impact, but there is a more difficult issue to overcome.
Data privacy, which is a sensitive issue, comes into view. Last year Ant Financial was reprimanded for having a default setting whereby users were opted into sharing personal information with the company. It is worth remembering that Apps like Ant Forest are dependent upon capturing data, but the company needs to show that initiatives like Ant Forest are not just another way to capture more data and risk compromising privacy. Consumers in developed markets tend to be the most concerned with this, but questions about big data and how it is being manipulated or used will remain under scrutiny as corporate governance becomes increasingly important to investors.
The impact on privacy will become clearer over time but in the meantime the trees are bound to help!