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SXSW: Techies Can Save the World. Why Aren’t They?

| Saturday March 26th, 2011 | 3 Comments

I’ve had a little bit to say about South by Southwest not being as focused on sustainability as it could be. That’s not to say there aren’t techies out there doing incredible things. Take a look at the Surui Carbon Project being underwritten by the Google Earth Engine team:

The project puts android handheld devices into the hands of the Surui tribe of Brazil who use them to monitor carbon emissions associated with deforestation, as well as resource misuse and other data gathering projects.

One of SXSW’s most provocative panels asked, however, why aren’t projects like this more commonplace?

Many in the room agreed that a lot of technical talent in silicon valley is being spent on projects that are not particularly “meaningful.” I’d argue that there’s a risk of premature judgement in a statement like that, but nonetheless, one does wonder – how can the vast technical talent that arrives every year for SXSW be put to higher use? It’d argue that it already is, but it’s not always obvious.

In any disruptive industry there is often a spirit of revolution. This is a wonderful thing and can be seen as a part of bringing concepts of “sustainability” into the mainstream. The first bloggers thought of themselves as revolutionizing publishing in the name of democracy, radical transparency, and the sharing of ideas. Today, even if it’s less obvious, anyone working to make computing faster, graphics more realistic, and data more connected is helping the evolution of all sorts of new ideas and societal improvements. Take keepstream, for example. It’s a simple way to organize and archive twitter conversations about particular topics and expands upon what twitter can do by including videos, images, and more. Here’s the keepstream for the techies panel at sxsw. Note that you can no longer find this information directly on twitter any more. It’s just one of dozens of twitter related applications that blossomed this year at SXSW.

Lest you call out video games as irrelevant, their incredible development is also of huge importance to sustainability. Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR, gave a smashing keynote address which convincingly painted games as part of the solution to innumerable social problems.

JouleBug wants to help you save energy

For example, I had a chance to sit down with Grant Willard, founder of JouleBug – a simple game which runs on facebook and mobile devices. The game challenges people to take various steps to save energy and resources and then rewards them with a “badge” they can share on Facebook. They earn various rewards and status along the way, although the business side of the game remains to be worked out. One idea is to connect the gamer’s account with their utility bill so that actual savings can be verified and rewarded by either the utilities themselves, or perhaps local government.

Finally, RecycleMatch, whose co-founder Brooke Farrell was present on the panel, has a fully operational business plan that’s beginning to pay off: Create an industrial scale online marketplace for waste. Companies save on disposal by selling waste to other companies who can use it for raw material and so on. Only a highly scaleable technical platform would be able to bring enough companies together to make this kind of market a success. You can read more about RecycleMatch in an earlier 3p article here.

If there is a problem with applying techie skill to sustainability, most in the room ultimately agreed it’s more about finding business models that can be applied to global problems via technology. The technical skill is there and ready for hire, but sustainable business needs to be harnessed to think creatively with technology before techies will automatically start saving the world.

It’s only a matter of time.


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  • Christian

    It certainly is only a matter of time. If there isn’t a sustainability think tank or incubator focused on building businss models and business cases there should be.

    Very exciting to see games being developed with social purpose. Seems to me it as all part of our evolution.

  • mamalinda

    The story is a good one, but the Surui tribe is not in Ecuador. It is in Brazil. Sort of a wildly poor mistake for Google Earth to make!

    • Nick Aster

      Thanks! Actually my mistake. Should have been obvious when the guy spoke Portuguese :-)