Sustainability Design Challenge

Sustainability Design Challenge Logo

Design, build, hack, or prototype sustainability projects for USF and beyond!

When is the Sustainability Design Challenge?

Kickoff Night

Wednesday, September 18th | 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm, McLaren 251

Get oriented and create your team! All majors welcome! Food will be provided.

The Challenge

Saturday, October 5th | 9 am - 7 pm

What is the Sustainability Design Challenge?

What is a design challenge?

  • You are presented with a problem, and you work in a team to find a solution.

What's the goal?

  • To propose a solution that will help promote good habits of environmental sustainability here on our campus. Your solution will likely be in the form of a concept proposal and development plan that addresses one of the priority areas identified.

What kind of solution?

  • The format is up to your team. Maybe it's a physical thing, or a smartphone app, or an educational campaign. No limit to the form your solution can take!

Who's on a team?

  • Teams will be multidisciplinary, representing at least two areas of study: arts/humanities, sciences/health care, and business/social science.

How are proposals judged?

  • Your team's proposal will be judged on its feasibility, impact, and innovation by a panel of judges expert in the fields of sustainability, design and social impact.

Sustainability Design Challenge 2018: Top 3 Teams

Concept: Plastic Water Bottle DisincentiveTeam Eco Friendly sitting in a hallways discussing their project.

The problem that we are trying to assess is the large use of bottled water in USF. Bottled water costs 2000 times more than tap water. In addition to being costlier bottled water’s taste deteriorates and there are various health risks to consuming bottled water (United States Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2017a). Not only might one be hurting one’s pocket, enjoyment and health, buying bottled water contributes to ocean debris as well as being the one of the top three trash item found during Coastal CleanUp Day, with 988,965 plastic bottles collected (Ocean Conservancy, 2018a). Choice architecture dictates that design can affect behavior. Cafeterias are a common place in which choice architecture is applied usually to promote healthy eating by for example placing healthy food in hard to reach places or inconvenient places. Our idea is to use choice architecture to decentivize the purchase of bottled water in the USF cafeteria by placing bottled water in harder to reach places and spots. As part of the young new field of behavioral economics, choice architecture is a strategy that is used in many scandinavian cafeterias and other progressive places. This is an idea that is truly revolutionary in that it is so multidisciplinary.

 In addition a survey was conducted at the University of San Francisco to find out the extent to which choice architecture could affect the behavior in the cafeteria with the goal of decreasing the use of bottled waters to help the environment. We created a logo to help the recognition of water fountains and water dispensers already provided to students. We also came up with the idea to add on the location of water fountains to an existing map on the USF website that shows the places where bike racks, LED light  and disabled-friendly facilities are available. Our project costs $0. Yes, NO COSTS, and it can be implemented as fast as in an hour! With the cost being none, even the slightest effects will outweigh the cost. The effects of choice architecture successfully changing consumer behavior is well supported by empirical data.

Concept: Flexi Donation App

All members of Team Plate posing for a photo.

One of the biggest problems is food insecurity. Nationally 36% of university students are food insecure. Here at USF 2,500 people live on campus, and on average have 400 dollars excess on their meal plans at the end of each semester. Our focus is on social sustainability, especially enhanced livability. If people's basic needs are met they will be able to have more opportunities to better themselves as well as their communities. Unused flexi tends to lead to less environmentally friendly decisions and with this we could reduce food waste in the cafeteria as well as bringing people to a place where composting and recycling are more accessible. We have a solution to these excess funds as well as food insecurity, Plate. Plate is a fully designed fully functional app that incentives users to donate unused flexi to those who need help. This allows us to give food to those who need it while reducing waste, we are also creating a sustainable community where students aren't worried about their basic needs. This app is absolutely free, there is no cost associated with it. We can easily grow beyond our campus to make our entire nation more sustainable.

All members of Team Redwood sitting at a table together.

Concept: Don’s Quiz

Our team created a survey to find out USF student’s current attitudes and beliefs around sustainability, and found that students guide and encourage their peers to lead more sustainable behaviors such as recycling, taking shorter showers, etc. however, our data also revealed that students feel that they do not have sufficient knowledge on the subject and therefore aren’t confident in leading peers. Students also reported that they felt USF needed to promote education and awareness regarding sustainability. We then asked how they preferred this education to be facilitated, and a significant majority chose via a mobile application. So, we built a prototype for a mobile application that functions on a basic level.

Our idea is for an interactive trivia game that includes trivia questions centered around environmental science, USF’s use/waste statistics, etc. Students will be able to compete against one another, or even against faculty! We have included a feature that allows students to create questions that will then be approved (or not) by students/professors in the Environmental Studies. Furthermore, we have been discussing rewards that will include possible internship opportunities at Hienrich Boll Stiftung, opportunities to attend conferences (provided by connections through the Sustainability Office at USF), and possible extra credit/day late passes given on a one-to-one basis depending on the professor. Our idea does not require funding, but it will require labor to maintain the mobile application and also to monitor and vet questions. We propose that this duty can be taken care of by students in the Environmental Studies department, or an environmental club on campus. 

Sustainability Design Challenge 2017: Top 3 Teams

Concept: Reusable Cafeteria ContainersThe Green Team members posing for a picture.

On average our cafeteria goes through 5,000 transactions a day. Many of these transactions are food taken to-go in compostable containers. But are these containers really sustainable? We are proposing to implement a reusable container system to replace the compostable containers. Reusable containers use far less energy and resources over their life cycles in comparison to disposable ones. One-time use compostable containers are not only wasteful from an environmental standpoint, but come with health hazards associated with the production process that harnesses fertilizers and pesticides. The cost of buying compostable containers per school year (estimated at $26,000) far outweighs the cost of a one-time purchase of the proposed bento boxes (estimated at $50,000) which have a life span of two to three years. Reusable containers given to freshmen students through the GIFT fund will be used to take food from the cafeteria through a checkout system implementing barcode technology. After use, the student will return the container to a station in the cafeteria where it will be checked back in and washed. If the student chooses to take food to-go again, they will be able to check out another container. This process would bring awareness to students on the importance of reusing over composting in terms of energy consumption. This practical and cost-effective initiative would be beneficial in reducing USF's carbon footprint to benefit future generations! 

Concept: Food Recovery and Sustainability EducationThe "Addressing the Inconvenient Truth" members posing for a picture.

There are thousands of pounds of food being wasted in the average restaurant, and USF cafeteria serving 1500 meals a day, there is even a higher amount of food being wasted. There are about 7 and a half thousand homeless in San Francisco who have become accustomed to hunger. Instead of sending delicious food to the landfill, our solution would be solving two problems: wasting food and hunger. Our solution, we have students participate in a class very similar to urban community garden outreach, where they meet once a week and proactively reach out to the community. This class would help to incentivize students using volunteering hours and address the schedule system so that students are consistently serving the platform. 


Concept: One Card Activated Dorm Lights

The members of "HOMIE-ostasis" posing for a picture.

The current lighting system in the USF dorms is incredibly wasteful. Because students are not personally responsible for the utilities in their room, they have no incentive to conserve lighting energy. This is wasteful to USF’s budget, contributes unnecessarily to USF’s carbon footprint, and teaches students to be irresponsible with resources. A simple solution to this problem is to make it impossible for students to leave the lights on when they leave the room. A card activated lighting system will accomplish this goal. Students will place their One Card in the cardholder when they enter the room which will allow the lights to be turned on and when they leave they take their card with them, turning off the lights and saving energy. This card system is relatively inexpensive to implement and the money saved will pay back the implementation cost within two to eight years. However, before the system pays for itself, it will be funded by a Kickstarter campaign. An Outdoor Sustainability Event will take place on campus before the Kickstarter to raise awareness. The Outdoor Sustainability event will take place annually to fund future sustainability projects and continue to raise awareness for the need for sustainability on campus. The One Card activated lighting system will save USF thousands of dollars every year while also reducing the college’s carbon footprint. The system is easy and relatively cheap to implement and is convenient to use. This system will also teach the students of USF to be more responsible with their resources, a skill they will take beyond USF to become more environmentally conscious throughout their life. 

For more examples of Sustainability Design Challenge entries, check out the previous entries from other years.

If you have any questions, please email us at