Climate Solutions and Technology: From Idea to Application
Author:Marisa Lopez
Date:October 3rd, 2016

Every mobile application out there, from Uber to Tinder, started with an idea. But when you look at your iphone, do you see a screen full of images that will help you to make the world a better place? Or are you looking at a screen full of bright, attractive logos which help to make your own life more efficient . . . to pay bills, catch a ride, find a date, or monitor personal fitness? What if your mobile device gave you instant access to a variety of means to make the world a better place? Would this accelerate the progress of social movements such as solving climate change or alleviating poverty?

New, innovative “climate solutions” was a hot topic at the Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP). Organizations such as Etho Capital, PRIME Coalition, Energy Excelerator, and the Center for Carbon Removal are looking for new approaches to solving climate change. Fresh, more effective approaches are necessary for the survival of the planet.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013), “a large fraction of the anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emission is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period.” Given the scale of this problem, and that is primarily caused by people, it leads me to wonder what people can do to reverse this? How can we leverage technology to help?

Innovation is one possible solution. “There are still a lot of specific areas where innovation is needed,” noted Nicole Systrom of PRIME Coalition during a breakout session about Broad Challenges and Innovative Solutions to solving climate change. Digital application development is an example of such an innovation.

While at SOCAP this year, I had the pleasure of meeting several people with innovative ideas for digital applications for everything including education, environmental issues, and climate change. However, I started to notice a common thread. Several people expressed they have an idea, but don’t really know how to bring it to reality. Without a technical background, it is hard to know where to start. This article outlines the first steps to take in order to move from the ideation phase to actual app development.

So you have an idea? Now what?

Great ideas are hatched every day. Unfortunately, many of these ideas fade into oblivion due to a lack of understanding of the steps required to turn an idea into a new reality. Say you want to build a mobile application that will help contribute to solving climate change, but you don’t know where to start. For example, Al Gore’s “Our Choice” app is an interactive educational tool, that encourages users to learn more about how climate change is affecting the world. It is also a fundraising tool as all proceeds from app sales are donated to the nonprofit Alliance for Climate Education. But how did this group go from ideation to creation? Where do you start, if you don’t have prior experience rolling out a mobile application?

The first step is to make a high-level list of what you want from the app. For example, do you want to create an application that enables users to track their actions and assess their impact on global warming? Also be sure to describe your audience. What kinds of activities or actions would users be tracking? Under which circumstances would they be logging information? Where would they be? At work, on the subway, at home? Understanding who will be using the app where, and when they will be using it will enable your design team to create the right user experience.

Don’t overthink the initial list of needs. Over-analyzing your requirements when you are still in the conceptual phase can impede progress. It is more efficient to start with a short and specific list of needs for your app than to try and identify every last feature up front. There will be plenty of opportunity, and need, to refine your app further down the line.

After you have a list of your three to five highest priorities, and have a description of your audience and how they will use the app, it is time to reach out to a professional, typically an external consultant for nonprofits. They will help you to further define the initial scope of the application. This means that this person will help you decide where to start, how much it will cost, and will help guide you to think through the process of developing the minimum viable product. Typically, a few meetings are required before a consultant is able to develop a scope of work.

In addition to a development partner, you will need a design partner to create the look and feel and of the app, and work with the development team to define how the user will interact with the app. An effective User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) are necessary to ensure the functionality is usable and engage the app user on an emotional level. Large development firms often have in-house design staff. Smaller firms usually have go-to design partners they trust.

For many nonprofit organizations, the scoping process happens before funding for app development is secured. A formal proposal from a development partner can be a helpful tool when you are ready to approach potential funders such as foundations and major donors.

Managing an Agile Development Project

Your involvement is critical throughout the implementation process. It is incumbent on both the development firm and the client to ensure that a project is successful. This being said, you should expect that the staff at the firm you partner with are experts in application development. They will expect that you will be the expert at managing your vision for the application and the solution you want to bring to the table.

If this all looks like a lot of work, that is because it is. But this should not discourage you from starting down the path of exploring your ideas. My hope is to enable more environmental organizations to step forward and leverage digital applications to create change. Now is the time to pursue climate solutions. As said by Rick Ridgeway, VP of Environmental Affairs, Patagonia, “The trouble with despair as a response is that not only does it offer no solutions and is useless, but it also isn’t any fun.” Let’s focus on potential solutions, and not get stuck in the problem.

We need to disrupt our current approach to conservation. Professionals in every field, especially those in technology, must leverage their expertise to develop and promote new solutions. We need to work with environmentalists to bring the best thought leadership and the best service delivery to make the world a better place for ourselves and the generations to come.