When it comes to energy and the environment, most people want to do the right thing. But how many people actually contribute to improving energy use and environmental impact is another story.

That goes for just about any industry, and few know it better than those at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive. The conference, held annually in Austin, Texas, is a breeding ground for innovation and entrepreneurship in design, Internet and mobile technology—Twitter, for instance, started its rise as a global phenomenon there in 2007. Naturally, I had concerns about giving a seemingly unrelated presentation on observed barriers to electric vehicle adoption. But it turns out that the SXSW crowd is ahead of the curve on the subjects of environment and energy use.

Two buzzwords, “Gamification” and “Big Data,” were in frequent use at SXSW earlier this month. The two are closely related, and when combined, could have interesting implications for energy use. By applying principals of gaming to non-game applications, it is believed you can encourage people to change their behavior. Mobile app developers have had great success doing this by incorporating location-based awareness data into their products. Think about foursquare, which awards users with digital badges for frequently checking into various locations. Being a regular at Starbucks, for instance, isn’t a prestigious honor, but it might earn you a free coffee. What if you could do something similar for energy?

Energy and driving behavior have always been difficult to change. RMI has traditionally sought to shift the business paradigm by using profit motive as the key lever. The business audience tends to respond to financial incentives with much more regularity than consumers, who exhibit more emotional behavior. In his study, “Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment”, Dr. Robert Cialdini looked at homeowners and their rate of adoption of energy efficiency and renewable options like insulation, lighting retrofits, and solar panels. Cialidini found that even when homeowners were presented with the finances that showed an attractive return on investment, they rarely implemented the measures. Instead, Cialdini argued, peer pressure drove these decisions.

“Most people say they care about saving energy—for either financial or environmental reasons,” said Yoav Lurie, founder of Simple Energy. “But, like in weight loss, smoking cessation, and personal finance, caring is often an insufficient motivator. We find that it’s much more effective to get people to act as if they care.”

Lurie’s company works with large utilities across the country, using social game mechanics to motivate people to save energy. Using extrinsic rewards, normative comparison, and social pressure, the company is trying to shift the dynamic between the utility and its customer.

When it comes to energy use, though, few people have access to enough information to shift their behavior or compare themselves to their peers. Realizing this, the Obama Administration recently announced the Green Button initiative, an effort to open access to household energy use data. Though this has yet to be adopted by every utility in the country, two California utilities, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas and Electric, are making it easier for companies like Simple Energy to gamify energy use.

Gamification could also pose interesting opportunities for personal transportation. In my panel, Electric Car: Lessons Learned from a Global Movement, during the Q&A portion, we discussed an interesting new website called VoltStats.net, where owners of Chevy Volts are providing driving behavior statistics through their OnStar accounts. The website has aggregated data from over 200 drivers, displaying their mileage information. So the drivers have been able to benchmark their mileage against each other.

“Adoption rates for new technologies like the Chevrolet Volt are accelerated by the use of social media forums which creates real-time awareness,” said GM spokesman Rob Peterson. “Volt owners use these forums to share their enthusiasm and real-world results with others who are intrigued by the Volt’s technology and how it could fit into their lifestyle.”

The Volt, which is an extended range electric vehicle, will travel 40 purely electric miles until a back-up gas generator kicks in to assist the battery. So what has emerged is a new term called “gas anxiety,” a play on range anxiety, or the notion that drivers are nervous about running out of battery power. In this case, drivers are engaging in a game of sorts, to prevent the gas generator from operating—charging enough to keep their miles fully electric. In most cases drivers won’t need to charge much extra because the average driver travels about 30 miles a day. Those miles can be provided with an overnight charge at home. What’s interesting is that Voltstats.net is showing drivers with significant mileage, nearly all powered by the grid. One driver has over 17,000 miles on his Volt, 98 percent of which have been grid-powered. Encouraging this kind of participation at scale is a tough challenge.

“It’s on us to make this happen,” an audience member said during another panel, answering the question of whether government or utilities should lead the way. An entrepreneurial startup, he contended, was the best equipped for creating that killer app to change the way we use energy. Given the caliber of the crowd at SXSW this year, there’s a strong argument that he’s right.