The Smarter DC Challenge: A Creative Approach towards Sustainability

By Ann Li, CELI Fellow and Coordinator at Groundswell  CELI participated in the local Smarter DC Challenge

This spring, the Clean Energy Leadership Institute held an event with Patty Rose, the Executive Director of Greenspace, to familiarize the CELI community with the Smarter DC Challenge she is administering. The Challenge is a free, citywide initiative that aims to help the private sector meet Sustainable DC’s ambitious goals by encouraging companies to complete activities, earn points for participation, and engage in some friendly competition to move up a leaderboard.  By 2020, the Challenge hopes to engage 1000 DC organizations and businesses on sustainability issues, and turn them into green leaders within the community

Ms. Rose kicked off the event by explaining the context and rationale behind the program.  With Mayor Bowser’s ambitious sustainability goals, the District Department of the Environment and other sustainability stakeholders need to strategically target the buildings and industries with the biggest potential impact. Ms. Rose surprised us all by relaying that commercial office buildings contribute to 75% of DC’s carbon footprint.  In recognition of their huge impact, the Challenge connects companies and nonprofits to guided action plans and Sustainability Resource Providers that provide the expertise to make them happen.

The agenda for the evening went beyond the details and rationale behind the program – Ms. Rose also wanted to integrate the “more creative and fun” gaming component that is a key part of The Challenge. She strongly believes that “changing behavior and educating the community to achieve broad-based sustainability demands learning approaches and environments that require the development of systems thinking and problem-solving. Games require players to collectively engage in the pursuit of common goals.”  To that end, she provided us with two boxes full of art supplies, and asked us to create our own sustainability game in accordance with the themes of the Challenge.

Our goal was to create a competition (intra-office, inter-office, or inter-department) that encouraged consistent and measurable sustainability actions, and then to provide a visual representation of it using the cornucopia of bright construction paper, pipe cleaners, and other crafty items set before us.  After quite a bit of back and forth, we realized there were some key questions to ask ourselves as we evaluated different ideas for fun, yet practical competitions.  Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned while working at Groundswell, a nonprofit resource for residents and organizations in the District to switch to clean energy:

  • Are the actions easily measurable? Once you track the actions, are the results visible to participants as competitors? Some of us were interested in creating a game that measured the amount of waste vs. recycling that each office produced, but realized it wasn’t practical for small offices to navigate the questions of how to store, weigh, and track the waste. Not being able to see in real time how one office stands in relation to another also dampens the excitement and energy that competitions are meant to encourage.  When we hold competitions in our office, we keep track of each person’s progress on a blackboard in our common area, so everyone knows just where they stand (and how far they have to go to win).
  • Are there incentives to participate? Helping our communities become more sustainable and resilient should be reward enough, but people certainly do respond to recognition and prizes. We are all inundated by emails, announcements, and contests, but find the time to participate when the greater good lines up with our own needs as well.
  • Do people know and appreciate the impacts of their actions? People are brought into the sustainability world by their desire to protect the environment and build a better future, but these motivations aren’t often communicated once plans get boiled down into daily to-do’s.  What does it really mean for an office to switch to clean energy?  We should talk about it in terms of cars off the road, tree seedlings planted, or gallons of gasoline not burned – images that people understand and care about.

The first of two ideas we came up with was a “whiteboard challenge” that tracked the number of sustainability actions each department or office took.  Biking to work earns you a “T” (for transportation) sticker, while packing a vegetarian lunch earned you an “F” for food sticker.  These are to be publicly displayed on a large poster, whiteboard, or blackboard, and at the end of each week or month, tallied for points.  Our team found this idea appealing because each term’s progress is immediately apparent (via bright stickers or badges) and easily tracked.

The second idea was for a sustainability advent calendar titled Uncover Sustainability.  Offices are to hang these calendars on their walls, then each day, week or month (choose your own interval!) peel off the flap to reveal an action that they can take.  We thought the novelty of getting to “uncover” something new each time would draw attention to it, and make sure this resource guide isn’t forgotten in the daily goings-on of an office.

The evening was a great exercise in how to taking lofty goals and build fun, strategic and practical programs around them.  We CELI participants were grateful for Ms. Rose’s wealth of experience, as well as the opportunity to honor the spirit of the Challenge and actually craft something with our hands.  To participate in this collaborative, district-wide effort, sign your office up here.