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Renee Farris headshot

Meet 5 Companies Making Sustainability Sexy


Editor’s Note: This post is part of TriplePundit’s ongoing coverage of SXSW Eco 2015. You can read all of our coverage here.

When you talk to people about sustainability, do their eyes glaze over? Do they fall silent and listen to you ramble on … their mind wandering and wondering when you’re going to shut up?

Most people find sustainability boring. The topic is the opposite of sexy. There are a few unsexy things that become popular … think Crocs, Donald Trump and hipster ear gauging. But most of the time being beautiful is essential to gain popularity.

Enter the SXSW Eco conference: the tree-hugger addition to SXSW’s family of festivals. What sets it apart from other conferences is that it adds the much needed flare of beauty and fun to sustainability.

If SXSW knows how to do anything well, it’s how to be beautiful and popular. They throw three festivals every year: music, film and interactive (tech). They’re so popular that over 80,000 people swarm across the country to join in the fun.

At the recent SXSW Eco Data + Tech competition, each contestant addressed a traditionally boring topic: air pollution, fire hydrants and lamp posts, river recovery, a solar garage, and dilapidated cultural sites. Are you asleep yet? These beautiful and fun projects will wake you up.

Here’s a rundown of the top five projects, all of which are meant to push for social and environmental change in a beautiful and engaging way. Feel free to ohhhh and ahhhh over the fun and artistic elements. Hopefully exposing yourself to these new ideas will trigger new creative thoughts about how you can connect people with your particular mission to create good in the world.

1. Solar-power your car in style

You’ll feel like a fashion model from Vogue when you use this solar pavilion to charge your electric car. Its luscious curves will quench your thirst for beautiful design. Hellooooo, sexy sustainability! Seriously, this pavilion could be an art exhibit in a gallery.

You might think it was inspired by the roof of the Sydney opera house, but you’d be wrong and surprised to discover it was modeled after soap. Yep, soap. The stuff you wash your hands with has glamorous membrane surfaces, minimal surface structure, low impact, high performance and is lightweight. That’s a quintuple win.

The brilliant designer, Alvin Huang, has sustainability at the heart of this project. He put the design into environmental software which will analyze it for 365 days of the year, at 360 degrees of rotation, eight hours per day, and calculate the solar impact.

The pavilion is also highly portable and can be packed into a duffle bag and stowed in the trunk of a car. Set-up time is a mere 45 minutes. Living out of your car just got a fashion upgrade.

Future applications could include disaster relief, and the pavilion’s ability to produce power quickly is also very appealing.

2. Stand on top of a pyramid

Fires broke out at the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga royal Ugandan tomb. The tomb, a World Heritage site and a sacred place of worship for 700 years, burned to the ground and was lost. Fortunately, a year earlier, CyArk had shot the structure with lasers so they could preserve a 3-D digital scan of the site. The company provided a prince with highly accurate blueprints, and the tomb is now being rebuilt.

World Heritage sites are suffering from the ravages of time, urban sprawl, war and natural disasters. They are crumbling. But CyArk is a pioneer of digital preservation. It is coming to the rescue by using lasers, drones and high-def cameras to archive human history. How do they do it? By bouncing laser lights off the structure’s surface, technicians can collect millions of points per second. The points are connected together to form a mesh of triangles which then create a solid surface and 3-D model. Photos are used to color the image.

If you go to the company's website, you can view a free 3-D online library of 200 cultural sites. You can also experience what it feels like to stand on top of a pyramid from the comfort of your couch.

This amazing project took home the trophy for first place.

3. Text a fire hydrant

“When was the last time you noticed a fire hydrant or utility pole? Have you ever thought about what the world looks like from their point of view?” This question was posed by contestant Carrie Brown from Hello Lamp Post.

We all knew the city of Austin is weird in a cool way, but now it has people mumbling to lamp posts and fire hydrants. The program is called Hello Lamp Post and it has a playful SMS platform that invites people to chat with objects around the city.

Players can text a number to wake up a sleeping inanimate object like a fire hydrant, a turtle pond or a tree. When the object writes back, it asks you questions and a dialogue ensues. Discussing the Texas drought just became fun.

The messages vary depending on the object, location, time of day and weather. The objects also share stories that other users have told them. In return, people share their memories and opinions. The most surprising aspect occurred when people started confessing deviant things they had done ... I'll let your imagination run wild here.

The project's goal was to connect people to objects and each other in a playful way. However, there could be more serious future applications. One panel judge commented: “You could see this project becoming delightfully political very quickly… If a lamppost asked why that person hadn’t written to the state legislature for more infrastructure funding” it would be very entertaining and insightful.

4. Pop bubbles of air pollution

Wouldn’t air pollution be more fun to talk about if it was turned into an art installation? Airbare thought so. It uses air quality sensors to detect air pollution particles floating around the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and then projects the pollution bubbles onto a screen for people to interact with. Users can tap the bubbles of pollution and learn how to decrease pollution. “It’s like [popping] bubble wrap for air pollution,” said the contest’s emcee, Jeanne Lambin.

The plan is to install several of these interactive screens in different high schools to raise awareness of pollution. Future applications could involve developers creating an app that show residents the bike and walking routes with the least pollution.

5. Discover hidden rivers under the city

“Our relationship with water is not very good right now,” said contestant Carolina Ferrés from Brazil. She told the judges that São Paulo has over 300 rivers under the city. The rivers are covered, and most people don’t know they exist. Her organization, Cidade Azul (Blue City), decided that needed to change. It painted river areas a playful blue and created a mobile map so people can walk the city and learn where all the rivers are. The goal is to raise awareness and one day uncover the rivers for everyone to enjoy. “We want to make people cry,” Ferrés said.

All of these tech and design projects are beautiful and fun … a perfect cocktail for engaging the public and making sustainability become popular. Creating behavioral change is complex, but these creative projects are helping people understand their connection to the larger world and realize that we all share the responsibility for making the world a better place.

Note: Special thanks the contestants for their brilliance and hard work. Many thanks to the well credentialed contest judges: Kory Bieg (Founder of OTA+); Helen Davis Johnson (Arts and Culture Program Officer at the Kresge Foundation); Anne Guiney (Director of Research at the Van Alen Institute); Daniel Sauter (Associate Professor of Data Visualization at The New School); and Joel Slayton (Executive Director of Zero 1: The Art and Technology Network). And the most thanks to Julie Yost, the Design Program Curator; the design competitions were her brain child.

Image credits: SXSW Eco

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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