Search By Topic


Hacking for urban sustainability

A hackathon is the human equivalent of the reaction deep in the heart of a nuclear reactor. You bring the right people together for a moment and an explosion in innovation and creativity results.

On 5-6 December, the Stockholm Resilience Centre hosted its first hackathon, Switched on Nature. For 48 hours, researchers, computer programmers, app developers, industrial designers and entrepreneurs gathered to develop digital solutions to the challenge of long-term urban sustainability.

Hackathons originated in the world of technology startups as a way for employees to take time off from their everyday job to code and develop new ideas. Apply this formula to science and you turn the idea of co-design on its head.

Instead of bringing together scientists and stakeholders around a research question, the hackathon pushed researchers to identify the challenges and pushed innovators to find solutions.

“We wanted to create an event that was fun, creative and multidisciplinary in its deepest meaning,” said political scientist Victor Galaz, one of the organizers.

“We wanted to bring in new creative communities to look at solutions from the perspective of resilience, ecosystem stewardship and social-ecological innovation.”

The Stockholm hackathon generated an intense burst of ideas, for example a neat proposal from one group to pit cities against one another in a race to reduce emissions. But it also succeeded in turning on a whole new community of app developers and start-up entrepreneurs to ideas relating to resilience and global sustainability.

“I see this kind of community building and interdisciplinary collaboration as really key to what Future Earth is all about,” said co-organizer Per Olsson, also from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, who is currently working with Future Earth Science Committee Co-Chair Melissa Leach on Future Earth’s transformation to sustainability theme.

The event kicked off with a wide-ranging “Intelligence Briefing” which set the scene, and described the challenge. Centre director Johan Rockstr√∂m outlined the Anthropocene, planetary boundaries and the new responsibility humanity has for the Earth system. NASA scientist Michael Flynn discussed life support systems for the journey to Mars and Earth’s own “life support system”. Then experts from Spotify, MIT Media Lab and Google discussed digital innovation and design. Several start-up entrepreneurs explained how they went from idea to development to launch. Finally, Thomas Elmqvist, professor in systems ecology and urbanisation specialist from the centre, and others outlined urbanisation trends and the opportunities for sustainability.

The group broke into small teams and worked for the next 36 hours to develop ideas. Come 5pm on Friday, about eight ideas were presented, some grand in scale and ambition, some much smaller. One team proposed an app that helps people make sustainable energy choices by showing the periods when their energy supply is predominantly from renewables. Drawing down energy production data in real time, the app would allow you to plan your heavy energy consumption – using a washing machine for example – to coincide with renewables making a large contribution to energy supply. The team presented some preliminary design ideas for the app.

A second team had a stroke of genius with an idea for an app for children’s pocket money. The app would identify household chores which, once completed by a child, would result in pocket money accumulation. So-far-so-so. Here’s the genius bit: children can earn extra money if they can actively reduce household expenditure for example by switching off unnecessary lights or coming up with new ways to reduce, reuse or recycle. 

The hackathon is part of a new initiative within the Stockholm Resilience Centre called Shift. Shift was set up by a group made up of entrepreneurs and researchers and communicators based at the centre.