Understand the World’s Biggest Problems and Hack them

This post originally appeared on Geeklist, and is reprinted here with permission. Many thanks to the author Dan Cunningham.

Over the last year we’ve learned a lot about running hackathons for social good.

When you’re setting out to make a big real world impact, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that you need to work with and get input from those who understand the problem deeply – those who struggle day in and day out – often against the odds – to make a difference on key issues they are passionate about. People who are striving to make lives that bit better, safer, easier and richer for their fellow humans.

A couple weeks ago we brought together some world-leading organisations at the forefront of the fight against climate change for a workshop in London. These were people who are seeing in their everyday work the increasingly disturbing effects that we are having on our planet and the knock-on impact on our own livelihoods, security and wellbeing, and taking action to address these issues.

The purpose of the workshop was to define challenges and tangible problem statements for teams of expert developers and engineers to hack innovative solutions to at this September’s global #hack4good against climate change.

Joining the session we had the British Red Cross, the Campaign Against Climate Change, Cleanweb, the Environmental Investment Organisation, Fauna & Flora International, Friends of the Earth, Forum for the Future, Hack Humanity, Global Power Shift UK, Save the Children, WeForest, and a sustainability consultant at Tesco. An awesomely diverse group of participants!


Workshop participants


I teamed up with the very talented Amy Wilson and Mike Dunn of Sift Digital, an agency specialising in exactly this kind of collaboration and bringing innovative creative and technology solutions to non-profits. Sonny Masero from Cleanweb andJames Lethem helped facilitate.

We designed a workshop that would guide participants into thinking deeply about the biggest climate change challenges, the people affected, and the underlying reasons behind these problems.

Skills Matter – an open source software development training community and events space in London – provided the ideal location for this intensely collaborative session. (if you’re in London, check out some of their awesome speakers, courses and sessions coming up)

We started out broad: define as many challenges and problems as possible on lovely yellow index cards!

Card sorting climate change challenges

Then we grouped them up (which was much easier than I anticipated with so many cards!)

Climate change challenges sorted into groups

The themes that emerged were:

  • Activism / Personal Impact
  • Messaging and Communication / Visualising Impact
  • Finances / Responsible Investment
  • Supply Chains
  • Renewables
  • Community Action
  • Biodiversity

Each group took a theme and now it was time to think about the people involved…

Persona development - persona photos

Creating a persona

Completed persona

Completed persona

From all of this each group now had a vivid picture of the lives, motivations, environmental impacts, hopes, dreams, fears and pain points of people affected by or who could influence climate change in multiple global contexts.

What emerged next were a series of rich problem statements, infused with a dose of reality that I can just see will give developers, designers and engineers this September a clear picture of some of the things that need to be solved.

Here’s the headline statements we came up with:

  1. How can teachers and parents help children feel empowered to make a difference and positive impact?
  2. How can home owners living in high flood risk areas reduce their risk and live safely and securely?
  3. How can grassroots community leaders break down barriers preventing local groups and communities from generating renewable energy?
  4. How can investment professionals manage climate change risk and redirect capital away from carbon intensive companies to low carbon technologies?
  5. How can climate change campaigners work together and join up their work to be more effective in their campaigns?
  6. How can office workers reduce the energy waste in their office to reduce carbon emissions?
  7. How can smallholder farmers cope with reducing crop yields due to climate change without just using more fertiliser?
  8. How can teachers in the UK provide fun and informative lessons about climate change impact that children can relate to?

Reading these, I for one am brimming with ideas!

What are some of the ideas these inspire in you?

If you consider solving these kinds of problems an awesome challenge you’d like to take on, please join over 3,000 of us gathering all around the world this September at the world’s largest global #hack4good against climate change!

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