Sept. 26, San Jose, Calif. – Green home builders could learn a thing or two from the Toyota Prius. Homes that provide feedback on the amount of resources and energy they’re using—much like the Prius provides continuous data on miles per gallon usage—encourage more efficient behavior, according to presenters at a West Coast Green session  entitled, “Measuring What Matters.”

The concept is called generative feedback, or information that changes behavior, and the three speakers offered visions for “sustainability dashboards” that provide feedback on different scales.

“We believe that given real-time and high-quality information, people will make better choices,” said Peter Sharer, CEO of AgileWaves, a company that builds resource monitors for homes. “The time is right for us to have much better information about the buildings in which we live and work.”

No one looks at their electric meter, Sharer said; besides, the electric bill provides too little information, too late. “We have little or no insight into the performance of the building.”

Nevertheless, AgileWaves’ resource monitor provides real-time information on energy usage or statistics like carbon footprint, and allows users to dial in on floor, room, or appliance details. It can connect with controls to modify systems based on the home’s performance, and it can display information on the Web or even mobile devices.

Sharer said that aggregated research  shows that high-quality feedback can improve a home’s efficiency by 20 percent or more. He noted that an AgileWaves application in a Tiburon, Calif., home  brought energy consumption down by 50 percent. Meanwhile, an installation in another dwelling discovered that portions of the solar thermal and solar photovoltaic systems were failing.

Other presenters envisioned sustainability feedback on a larger scale. Warren Karlenzig created How Green is Your City?, an analysis of a sustainability study of the 50 largest U.S. cities. Like a green report card for each city, the report measured performance in areas like public transit use, planning and land use, and air and water quality. California is already using such metrics on recycling, transportation, and more to create carrots and sticks to encourage better performance, said Karlenzig, president of research and consulting firm Common Current.

Gil Friend, president and CEO of sustainability consulting firm Natural Logic, described his proposal for a regional feedback system that would provide real-time information on environmental, economic, demographic, and social trends. The system could be displayed on  billboards, in science museums, and on the Web, Friend said. He compared the communication to the council fires that Indian tribes throughout history have used to tell stories.

“What we’re talking about is a new kind of council fire and a new kind of conversation,” he said. Friend even envisioned bringing some competition to the conversation, keeping score so that people can see the results of their actions.

On any scale, the three presenters agreed that live feedback can provide a powerful tool to address climate change.