Reducing the carbon emission of emails. Harnessing big data. Helping companies understand their environmental footprint. And aligning investments with sustainable development.
These are some of the themes addressed by hundreds of university students from across the UK as they created and pitched ideas as part of the Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) Sustainathon UK 2021. The Sustainathon is a problem-solving competition that aims to inspire students to find solutions to pressing environmental challenges, using digital technologies.
After a virtual pitching marathon, judges backed Biophilic, a team from University College London. They overcame stiff competition with their vision of an app that could work alongside Scotland’s National Entitlement Card (NEC) — a public service access pass — to incentivise more sustainable choices by users. The team received their award at the 2021 TCS Innovation Forum at the Design Museum in London.
Biophilic explained that their vision was both local and global. “We used the fact that you can use an app to not only focus on Scotland but in turn make it a much bigger thing — possibly globally,” said team member, Eden Habtou.
Challenges and partnerships
From its origins in Singapore in 2020, TCS Sustainathons are expanding worldwide, with the UK event held during the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
“TCS launched the Sustainathon because serious times require serious intervention,” said Yogesh Chauhan, Director of Corporate Sustainability at TCS. “That intervention for us has been about inspiring and giving young people an opportunity to participate as problem solvers for some of the pressing and urgent environmental challenges we are facing as a society.”
Altogether 45 teams of students got a fortnight to choose and develop solutions to four key challenges— empowering communities to be more sustainable; finding new ways of reducing the carbon footprint of emails; helping students to live more sustainably and making spending more eco-friendly.
The students weren’t alone. In the spirit of TCS’ Co-Innovation Network™ (COIN™) of industry and academia, the teams collaborated with customers, non-profit organisations and government agencies. Masterclasses were delivered in virtual mode by experts on topics from inclusive design to careers in sustainability.
“When we partner with a business like TCS, that’s when an energy and a synergy and a dynamic happens,” said Professor Moyra Boland, Dean for Global Engagement at the University of Glasgow and one of Sustainathon’s partners. “Our students see a live business with real-life problems to solve, and they get to take their academic studies and apply them.”
The challenges were set by TCS’ partners. This exposed the students to real-world business dilemmas, as Gopalan Rajagopalan, Head of TCS Scotland, explained. “The Sustainathon, as we conceived it, was really identifying certain real-life problem statements, not by TCS, but by our customers.”
“We approached our customers, who were from a diverse set of industries, covering public sector, financial sector, energy sector, and each of them came up with problem statements. We then invited the students to participate in providing solutions using technology.”
The winning combination
The challenge that prompted Biophilic’s winning entry was submitted by Scotland’s local government support organisation, the Improvement Service (IS).
IS wanted to explore how individuals could be empowered to adopt more sustainable behaviours using digital technologies. They asked for ideas on expanding the scope of Scotland’s NEC service and to consider how users could be rewarded for making sustainable choices.
Biophilic envisioned a digital-first solution. “The idea that we had was to create an app that would go alongside the NEC and to digitalise it and to make it more accessible to a wider demographic, and in turn making it more inclusive,” explained Hora Behnejad from the team.
“We also wanted to incentivise the card and make it similar to a loyalty card. So, the more sustainable choices that you make — such as using public transport over your personal vehicle — the more points you gain. Then you’d be able to redeem these points at local sustainable businesses.”
Biophilic’s vision drew plaudits for its ability to transcend boundaries. “The important thing about [the team’s] ideas were that they were inclusive,” said Martin Brown, Head of Digital Public Services at The Improvement Service. “They spoke to old Scot, middle Scot, young Scot, they also spoke to the business community.”
The innovation generation
From a sustainable vision of university living — courtesy of Team Glen Girls for the Future — to Team Godiva’s big data analytics-powered low carbon emails, and Team EcoRunner’s plan for sustainable investments — the ambition and range of ideas did not go unnoticed by judges and mentors.
“We all get a little bit focused in our jobs, same people, same conversations,” said Annie Smith, Head of Corporate IT at EDF Energy. “Working on the Sustainathon, working with the university students, honestly, it blew my mind,” she added.
K Ananth Krishnan, Chief Technology Officer at TCS, put it this way, “This competition as well as our Innovation Forum represent our commitment to accelerate effective collaboration between businesses, governments and academia, inspire the younger generation and build long-lasting, inclusive and sustainable futures for everyone.”