Pokemon Go: Green business opportunity or environmental headache?

As people of all ages roam the streets in search of Pokemon, has this new, interconnected age of smartphone capabilities provided a green business opportunity for a fully fledged sharing economy, or will the increased energy demand spoil the environmental potential?

It would appear that 2016 is the year that keeps defying disbelief. Amidst the copious amounts of celebrity deaths, the past eight months has churned up some truly unprecedented moments.

In both the social and environmental spheres, new trends are blossoming, for better or worse. While the globe is currently engulfed in a war on terror – which has its own ties with climate change – hundreds of countries united to sign the Paris Agreement in April.

While the latter created a platform to transition to a more sustainable and low-carbon future, two rather bizarre political occurrences are now threatening to destabilise the movement. In a shock result, the UK voted in favour of leaving the European Union (EU). And while the environmental ramifications of the Brexit decision remain unclear, the potential negatives could be heightened by a new climate-denying US President in Donald Trump.

Once we’ve all fully absorbed the above developments, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that millions of us around the globe are running around, glued to our smartphones, in search of imaginary monsters.

But that is exactly what Pokemon Go is causing people to do. In a blink of an eye, the app developed by Nintendo and Niantic has evolved into something of a cultural phenomenon, which sees numerous people of various ages huddled around churches, museums and even strip clubs in search of those elusive Pokemon.

The app set a new Apple record for most downloads in one week, and has now been downloaded more than 75 million times across the iOS and Android mobile platforms, surpassing social media platform Twitter and dating concept Tinder in the process. This means that, at any given point, up to 75 million people could be outside, hunting for Pokemon.

Surely this would lead to a newfound appreciation of the great outdoors? Well, seeing as the Pokemon Go app has only been available in the UK for less than a month, it’s hard to identify any tangible environmental trends so far – other than the fact that people are seemingly willing to walk into established nuclear disaster zones just to escape swarms of ‘Pidgeys’. Earlier this week, it was also revealed that families have been roaming landfill sites in the UK – one teenager was even spotted by Business Waste climbing industrial bins filled with metallic waste behind a factory, in search of a ‘Jigglypuff’.

Into the clouds

But even in this small timeframe, analysts are beginning to pick up on a few notable signs of where the Pokemon Go phase might be headed, from an environmental perspective. And while the craze could promote some fairly promising and innovative new business models, those early signs suggest that Pokemon Go is at odds with the environment’s needs.

During the first few days of the app’s launch, digital traffic expanded to the point that Cloud servers were strained. This led to a delayed launch in Japan – the developmental home of Pikachu and co – as tech specialists scrambled to create larger infrastructure.

You only need to look at the measures that Google has gone to in order to manage its data clouds and servers to get an idea on how taxing this can be on energy costs. High-bandwidth, wireless networks are a necessity for the app, making the Pokemon Go craze the ‘Snorlax’ of energy consumption – it’s huge.

A recent Forbes article analysed numerous research papers on energy consumption related to smartphones. When combining this with Cnet research which suggests that a phone’s battery can last just seven hours while running the Pokemon Go app, we are left with an annual energy demand that equates to as much as 20,000 cars being added to roads, when accounting for all Pokemon players worldwide. And, with Swedish communication technology company Ericsson recently claiming that ICT emissions now account for around 1.6% of global emissions – a figure that is expected to grow to around 2% by 2020 – this starts to create a pretty worrying picture.

Beyond the carbon footprints and increased energy demand caused by Pokemon Go, the Pokemon concept as a whole represents a less tangible, but equally important environmental issue: a growing disengagement between young people and the environment. In the early 2000s, conservation scientists from Cambridge University published a journal on the Science magazine website, which investigated the educational impacts that the Pokemon trading card and Gameboy games might have on younger children. While eight-year-old players could name 78% of the Pokemon they were shown, they could only name just over half of the British plants, birds and insects they were shown.

This lack of interest in British wildlife was exposed further when, in 2010, a start-up tried to piggyback the global success of Pokemon by launching its own card game – ‘Phylo‘. The card game (pictured below) uses real creatures, replacing Pikachus,Pidgeys, and Snorlaxes with ladybirds, flowers and foxes. But the game has been unable to capture the imagination of gamers in the same way that Pokemon Go has. 

The recent re-emergence of the Pokemon franchise through the Pokemon Go app only underlines its cultural dominance – especially amongst younger ages – and there is a real danger that people could become completely disengaged with their environment and wildlife, as they remain glued to their smartphones.

Green business in the virtual world

But, with video games now operating within a $15bn industry that looks set to be driven by an ‘augmented reality’ boon, Pokemon Go could act as something of a trailblazer that effectively aligns business models to either an economic platform, or a sustainability-orientated one.

While McDonalds has already paid for 3,000 of its Japanese restaurants to be transformed into ‘Pokemon Gyms’ to boost customer levels, other companies are already beginning to realise that their own apps, if developed effectively, could drive consumer interest in sustainable living.

Taking one recent example: speaking exclusively to edie, the chief executive of ‘social delivery’ service Nimber has claimed that the rise in social movements such as Pokemon Go could pave the way for an increased interest in last-mile journey deliveries.

“As far as Pokemon Go – which I don’t play – is concerned, it would be awesome if you could turn a game on and there’s a package available, where you can go and collect it it and then get paid to deliver it,” Nimber’s Ari Kestin said. “I don’t know how functional it would be because Pokemon is about fun, but if you can combine the two it would be very exciting.”

While Kestin admitted that Nimber may not be as “sexy” as Pokemon Go right now, he envisages a future where GPS maps capture the “wild encounter” experience of Pokemon Go to essentially create a system that informs a gamer if a deliverable parcel is nearby, instead of a Pokemon. Game-enthusiasts could essentially go around cities hunting Pokemon, while also hunting small-scale deliveries which they could actually earn money from.

The potential for green businesses to say “Gotcha!” to this ‘virtual world’ concept and begin offering their own environmentally-focused products, services and games through an app certainly holds weight, but only if Pokemon Go marks the beginning of a new era of social behaviour, and isn’t just the latest in a long-line of temporary trends.

Matt Mace

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