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Hacking Our Way to a More Sustainable Future

When you think about some of the greatest sustainability challenges facing society today, what comes to mind? Creating a conflict-free minerals supply chain? Making cities smarter?  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Perhaps increasing transparency and responsibility in business operations and supply chains? 

Now consider which of these big-picture issues you might be able to develop a solution for in the span of, say, twelve hours. Seems like a slightly more challenging task, right?

That didn’t scare the 30 or so hackers who joined BSR’s inaugural Sustainability Hackathon at the organization’s annual conference. On November 7, concerned citizens—engineers, students and BSR conference participants—turned up to “hackathon central” at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco to try their hands at solving these problems and others.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with BSR, it’s a global nonprofit business network dedicated to working with companies on sustainability issues.  BSR envisions a world “in which everyone can lead a prosperous and dignified life within the boundaries of the Earth’s natural resources.”

This year, the theme of the BSR conference was “The Power of Networks,” and the event focused on ways that networks can be leveraged to make positive changes and solve our biggest sustainability challenges, from climate change to effective reporting and promoting human rights.

This was the first time BSR hosted a hackathon to harness the idea generation the conference is known for to inspire concrete action to make those ideas a reality. Qualcomm was excited to sponsor the hackathon, as the opportunity to promote innovation in such an important space was too exciting to resist.

After the event—more or less a “programming marathon,” to borrow The Guardian’s description of the event—kicked off at 6 p.m., the hackers were left to brainstorm and code the night away. While some teams had been planning their strategies for weeks (no work on their hacks beyond strategy was allowed prior to Thursday evening), others met on the spot and started tossing around ideas. The energy in the room was palpable as teams broke off into separate corners to set up shop for the night.

Friday morning found me too excited to sleep, and the closing plenary was buzzing with eagerness around what sustainable solutions had been produced overnight by a roomful of creative people with a fridge full of caffeine.

The hackers did not disappoint.

One idea improved travel decisions; another made a user-friendly nonviolent resistance manual into a mobile app; and yet another developed a network to provide information about socially responsible 401k funds (to name a few). The group was narrowed down to three finalists, who then presented in a rapid-fire, two-minute format on the plenary stage to all BSR Conference attendees.

Qualcomm’s own Kiva Allgood, senior director of Business Development, and Ariel Schwartz, senior editor of Fast Company’s Co.Exist, were the official judges, and the audience used BSR’s conference mobile app to cast their votes. Participants were judged on originality of their ideas, ability to have a positive social or environmental impact, connection to the conference theme and presentation of their applications.

Ultimately, Anna Schneider, Gabriel Harp, Gavin McCormick and Robin Kraft of team WattTime Windshed took home first place for their hack identifying opportunities to increase wind power in the Northeastern United States. Angela Chen, Ling Cheng and Mikael-Alexandre Pouliot of Team ProductBio earned second place for their seven-hour “Who Cares?” hack, which allows stakeholders to register real-time approval or disapproval of corporate sustainability practices. Third place went to Team Baja for their “disaster response network for everyday people.”

Overall, though, everyone wins when we hack a sustainable future. I’m already looking forward to the innovation I’m sure is in store at BSR’s 2014 conference in New York on November 4-7.  In the meantime, though, I’ll be catching up on some much-needed sleep... I hope the hackers do the same.

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