Three start-ups aim at implementing the SDGs

Participants take part in a Balinese "Day of Silence" ritual, March 2014. One of the finalists in a recent contest is helping Balinese Hindus switch to biodegradable material for religious events and prioritize clean-up. (Phenyx7776/Shutterstock)

How do you encourage millennials — or the tech world at large — to get excited about tackling the most intractable problems faced by the world’s cities?

Stage a 48-hour brainstorming “hackathon” in nine venues around the globe.

Nine start-ups were selected to compete for a chance to facilitate implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the U. N. SDG Action Campaign.

On 18 April, the field was whittled to three winners. They are:

  • Tablets for the blind: Erasable, magnetic Braille slates could help blind children in Chandigarh, India, and other cities communicate without the expense of replenishing paper supplies. It’s also easier on their fingertips.
  • Sustainable festivals: Bali’s Niskala has an idea that could impact many cities, aiming to reduce waste from religious ceremonies and festivals. The start-up is focused on helping Balinese Hindus switch to biodegradable material for religious events and prioritize clean-up.
  • Ethical shopping: London’s eQuality created an app that allows a smartphone user to scan a barcode to learn about a company’s reputation, politics and environmental record. A consumer who discovers something worrisome — such as a history of worker mistreatment — might decide to choose another vendor.

[See: Can cities get the global car industry to ‘clean up its act’?]

Several of the proposals would use smartphone apps. For instance, African start-up Smart Transit wants to offer real-time transit information in Lagos, the continent’s most populated city. This would shorten wait times for passengers and make it easier to purchase tickets and plan trips. The municipal government would benefit from data analytics that could inform decisions about routes, funding allocations and planning needs.

Rio de Janiero’s Jardim Digital created Unonu, an organization that plans to team with NGOs to match refugees with jobs offered by reputable employers. The connections would be made through an app that features a vast job-placement database.

Another example is the Lettuce Grow project that seeks to improve the economy of Portugal through an app that connects small farmers directly with urban customers. The approach cuts out corporate middlemen, returning 95 percent of profits to farmers, its sponsors say. The app’s creators hope to expand the concept to developing countries.

Three SDGs

The three winners now have a shot at expanding the reach of their efforts to make cities more resilient and inclusive.

Each will send two-person teams to New York City next month to meet with officials at U. N. Headquarters to discuss implementation of their ideas. That opportunity will come 15-16 May on the sidelines of the second annual Science, Technology and Innovation Forum.

[See: Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function]

The winners were selected from a pool of around 1,000 participants from nine cities and five continents who competed during the mid-March hackathon.

The SDGs are a global framework for addressing humanity’s greatest challenges, including poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.

The hackathon’s focus was on finding innovative solutions to three of the 17 goals. They are Goal 9, which emphasizes greater investment in sustainable infrastructure; Goal 10, which seeks to reduce racial, social and income inequality; and Goal 12, which advocates energy efficiency and basic services delivery.

Arranged by the U. N. SDG Action Campaign, a Bonn-based special initiative of the U. N. secretary-general, the event was held in Bahrain, Bali, Chandigarh, Geneva, Lagos, Lisbon, London, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

The competition is supported by Influx Trust, a global community that seeks to use technology to improve interaction between the United Nations and the public.

The weekend-long brainstorming event resulted in more than 90 ideas that the SDG campaign describes as “world changing”. Influx Trust launched a crowdfunding platform to raise money for the nine finalists.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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