At the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious new exhibit, “Talk to Me” (curated by Paola Antonelli, who spoke at the BSR Conference 2010), visitors are greeted by a “Tweenbot,” a small, cardboard-covered, constantly moving robot that depends on the kindness of strangers to reach its final destination. Videos show the Tweenbot maneuvering through Washington Square Park as passersby rescue it from potholes, protect it from dangerous streets, and usher it toward its goal.

As designer Kacie Kinzer put it, “Tweenbots demonstrate that a clever situation staged by a designer can set a dialogue in motion between people and objects.” That Tweenbot was able to get notoriously tough New Yorkers to gently point the way underscores the exhibit’s theme of communication designed to nudge people toward benevolent behavior.

With nearly 200 dazzling examples of new technologies, data visualizations, and artifacts, “Talk to Me” prompted many ideas about the role of digital communications in promoting sustainable behaviors. A few examples:

  • Back Talk: This installation asks, “What if our electronic devices kept talking back to us after we disposed of them?” Created through a partnership between Qualcomm, World Computer Exchange, and Peace Corps Teach World Teach, the project turned used electronic devices into “reporters” that could send home images and coordinates. The results are a series of stunning visualizations that shed light on the scope and scale of global e-waste. For example, one image shows the global trajectory of a set of cells phones first discarded in Seattle that make their way across the country and eventually to Mexico, Kenya, and Jakarta. Another video shows the Jakarta village where a Netbook ended up in after traveling16,022 kilometers in 12 days.

  • Homesense Research Kit: Created by designers at Tinker London, this monitoring system helps people track and understand their own energy usage. Unlike previous attempts at smart homes, Homesense is personal and engaging, allowing users to co-create their own devices and monitoring systems that can help with chores. Examples include plant-watering machines, bike-share locators, and trash bins that can help people sort household waste.

  • Change by Us: This online interface uses a Twitter philosophy to help create opportunities for community problem-solving around questions such as, “What would encourage you to walk, bike, and take public transportation more often?” or “What skills would you love to develop professionally or put to use?” The resulting patchwork of ideas, appearing as a wall of digital Post-it notes, is reviewed by community leaders, who can also respond to their favorite posts.

One of the ideas championed at “Talk to Me”—how the fast-moving field of digital communications and social media can lead to more sustainable communities and sustainable consumption—is similar to an idea we plan to discuss at a BSR Conference 2011 session “Swap! Rent! Share!” In that session, featuring The Mesh author Lisa Gansky, will look at the fundamental shift in people’s relationship with the things in our life, and how access to goods is increasingly trumping ownership of goods.

In the lead up to the Conference, we would love to hear your ideas about how new technology, visual communication, and design are changing the way you relate to the objects in your life.