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The Beijing Energy Network’s Environmental Challenge Open (ECO-BEN)

June 21, 2011

This post originally appeared on Greening the Beige.

The Beijing Energy Network (BEN) is a grassroots organization that facilitates discussion of energy issues. A couple of enterprising members of BEN, interested in the burgeoning start-up community in Beijing and seeking to apply business oriented solutions to environmental problems, established the Environmental Challenge open or ECO-BEN for the acronym-inclined.

The organizers, Ms. CC Huang and Mr. Daniel Enking, saw an opportunity to bring the entrepreneurship and energy of the start-up community to BEN; they chose six teams of three members (Full disclosure: the writer was a participant) to compete in creating and presenting a business-oriented solution to an environmental problem. The event worked to “create a space for innovation and discussion and provide new perspectives on environmental and energy issues in a Chinese context.”

The day of the event brought the groups together at 6:30. The organizers introduced the schedule of the night: first, advice from the judges; secondly, the groups would take one hour to formulate their business plan and create a presentation to explain it to the audience; next, each group would present their plan to the audience and judges for five minutes before answering the questions from the judges for five minutes; lastly, the judges would pronounce the winning group.

Ms. Huang presented the challenge, create a business plan that uses technology to solve an environmental problem. The judges, Kunal Sinha from Ogilvy and Mather, Kaiser Kuo from Baidu, and Darrell Barnes from Climate Action, offered some very valuable advice to the participants. Mr. Sinha summarized some information from Ogilvy’s recent fact-finding report (PDF) on marketing sustainability in China, suggesting that many Chinese consumers do not want to want to be the first in their social circles to be thought of as “environmentally progressive,”* and that the marketing of environmental products should focus on money, energy or time saved, instead of the environmental benefits. Mr. Kuo emphasized the reality of the level of development for most Chinese–about half of the Chinese population lives in rural areas with minimal access to sophisticated technology. Mr. Kuo also deemphasized the current trend of game techniques, as well as socializing and localizing every electronic tool (through social network interfaces). Mr. Barnes offered advice related to his years of experience on environmentally-related start-up businesses.

After the words from the judges, the teams were given an hour to create their business plans and create their presentations. Audience members filled-in empty seats and crowded behind busy groups, frantically trying to put the last edits on their presentations as Ms. Huang shoot her flash drive-holding fist at them.

The presentations fell into a few categories: group one and four presented Groupon-inspired services, group three and five presented digital traffic-avoidance solutions, group two presented a environmentally-focused charitable search engine, and group six presented a tool to track ones carbon footprint.

After the presentations, the judges convened for ten minutes to discuss the groups. The judges decided on group five’s plan (Full disclosure: the writer was a member of group five) to create a program to dispatch a sytem that estimates the length of trips with respect to real-time traffic updates taken from state-run traffic information services to taxi drivers who make up two percent of city vehicles but twenty percent of city traffic. This plan would later be rolled out to include services for regular drivers.

BEN aims to host more of these events in the future.

More thoughts and pictures from Mr. Sinha’s blog at Ogivy Earth here.

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