Even though electric cars are everywhere in Trondheim (here at St Olavs Hospital) and in Norway, CO2 emissions from transport are a substantial part of Norway's greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Nancy Bazilchuk, NTNU
Even though electric cars are everywhere in Trondheim (here at St Olavs Hospital) and in Norway, CO2 emissions from transport are a major part of Norway's greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Nancy Bazilchuk, NTNU

Hacking Trondheim to cut greenhouse gas emissions

NTNU and Norway’s technological capital—Trondheim—hosted a Climathon to give the city the tools it needs to make ambitious greenhouse gas cuts. The results might be helpful to other cities around the globe that face the same problem.

CLIMATE CHANGE: The city of Trondheim has a problem. City leaders want to make aggressive cuts in the amount of greenhouse gases directly emitted in the municipality, from everything from businesses and buildings to cars and buses.

Du er ikke den eneste som ikke skjønner alle faguttrykkene. Klimaordboken hjelper deg. Foto: Thinkstock

Hackthons have been used by the software and hardware industry for two decades to solve challenging problems. Now the technique is being used to solve climate problems, including in Trondheim in early January.

The goal, said Trondheim climate adviser Simon Loveland, is to cut all direct CO2 emissions in the city by 70-90 percent by 2030. But the city doesn’t actually know how much is emitted now, which makes it difficult to know if any action they take makes a difference.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Loveland said.

Turns out that Trondheim is not alone in facing this problem. Cities across the world will need to figure out how much CO2 that they emit as they seek to cut emissions, like Trondheim. And like Trondheim, they need to be able to collect that information in an affordable way, and for it to be understandable to everyone from city planners to the person on the street.

That challenge brought three dozen people from across Europe together in downtown Trondheim in early January for a Climathon, a 24-hour hackathon sponsored by NTNU and Climate-KIC. Climate-KIC is the EU’s largest public-private partnership to develop innovative approaches to address climate change. NTNU became an academic partner in the organization in September 2015.

Twenty-four hours to solve the problem

The assignment for the Climathon: figure out what kind of greenhouse gas data are out there, figure out what kinds of affordable sensor systems can be built and deployed, and figure out how all this information can be presented in such a way that it can help the city of Trondheim make changes.

The agenda: solve the problem, do yoga, and maybe swim in Trondheim Fjord. Well, with -18 degree C temps, maybe not... Photo: Nancy Bazilchuk, NTNU

The agenda: solve the problem, do yoga, and maybe swim in Trondheim Fjord. Well, with -18 degree C temps, maybe not… Photo: Nancy Bazilchuk, NTNU

Oh yeah, and it’s a competition, where you compete for the ability to develop your idea further at T:Lab, a business development group in Trondheim. Plus, you have 24 hours to come up with the solution. Or at least to get started.

It sounds impossible, but Solveig Zophoniasdottir, education manager for Climate-KIC Nordic who helped facilitate the event and has been involved in similar events in the past, says it can work.

“Twenty-four hours is not a long time, but things can happen,” she said. “Our main goal here is cross-pollination. There is so much more we can do. And it’s a good way to reach people who want to make a difference.”

Volunteering for the climate

Hackathons are nothing new: they’ve been used by the software industry since the early 2000s to bring creative minds together in a playful but intense way. The idea has spread to the extent that even NASA hosts an annual hackathon called “the International Space Apps Challenge,” and there’s a DementiaHack designed to develop products to help people with dementia.

Climate-KIC has also embraced this approach, with a 17-city, six-continent Climathon last year designed to bring potential ideas forward for the Paris Climate Summit in December. A total of 19 winners with best ideas from the Climathons were set up with city officials at the summit in a matchmaking event, Zophoniasdottir said.

Solveig Zophoniasdottir , education manager for Climate-KIC Nordic, talks to Climathon participant Taru Uusinoka.

Solveig Zophoniasdottir , education manager for Climate-KIC Nordic, talks to Taru Uusinoka at the Climathon in Trondheim. Photo: Ole Tolstad, NTNU

“It can be difficult for young startups to meet with municipalities,” she said. “And it is a beneficial inspiration for cities to hear about the possibilities … There are fantastic possibilities when it comes to climate change solutions, and hacks are one good way to identify them.”

Polar bears and dodos

At the Trondheim event, five teams of 4-5 people each were created to take on various aspects of the problem at hand. Team names, like “Melting Snowmen”, “Polar Bears” and “Dodo” reminded everyone what was at stake.

Participants came from all over Europe and Norway.

Lars Moen, a 2014 grad from NTNU’s Cybernetics programme, took two days free from his work at Jernbaneverket, the Norwegian National Rail Administration, to join the effort.

“I think it is important for the community to drive change,” he said. “I have expertise in cybernetics, and I want to participate in making change.”

Ben Kuster, a Swiss master's student at the Technical University of Berlin, talks to Thomas Ulleberg from Wireless Trondheim. Photo; OIe Tolstad, NTNU

Ben Kuster, a Swiss master’s student at the Technical University of Berlin, talks to Thomas Ulleberg from Wireless Trondheim. Photo; Ole Tolstad, NTNU

Ben Kuster, a Swiss master’s student in geodesy and geoinformation science at the Technical University of Berlin, came to the Climathon because he’s working on a similar project in Germany. He also works part time for a company called virtualcitySYSTEMS GmbH and said that building a network with other people interested in solving these kinds of climate problems was extremely useful.

“I’m a student, and I like to learn,” he said. “And I learned a lot about what decision makers want.”

No need for gold-plated solutions

Patrick Driscoll is a project manager at NTNU’s Department of Architectural Design, History and Technology who was one of the main Climathon organizers.

Patrick Driscoll, project manager at NTNU's Department of Architecture, and Urban Planning and for Carbon Track and Trace, talks to Climathon participants. Photo: Ole Tolstad, NTNU

Patrick Driscoll, project manager at NTNU’s Department of Architectural Design, History and Technology and for Carbon Track and Trace, talks to Climathon participants. Photo: Ole Tolstad, NTNU

He said the bottom line for the Climathon hackers was to make something practical that could be put to work right away.

“You want stuff that is cheap, you want stuff that is usable, and you want stuff that is scalable. No reason to build gold-plated anything,” to solve this problem, he said.

Driscoll is also manager of Carbon Track and Trace, a cooperative project between NTNU, the city and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. The Track and Trace project is focused on designing an automated greenhouse gas emissions inventory software system for the city of Trondheim, and set the parameters for the Climathon in Trondheim.

Eyes—and CO2 sniffers—in the sky

In the end, the winners—the Polar Bears—succeeded because they delivered a system that “solves the whole problem,” said Hans-Einar Lundli, Loveland’s supervisor in the city’s climate and energy group, and one of the judges. The Polar Bears found a way to “take low quality data and aggregate it so that it is high quality data that the municipality that actually use to plan the future,” he said.

“Municipalities lack the expertise to bring this data together and crunch it and make it meaningful,” Lundli said. The Polar Bears solved that problem.

The Polar Bears, from left Atle Vesterkjær, Jie Ren, Arne Jenssen and Pål Preede Revheim, had the winning idea from the Climathon. Ren, an NTNU master's student in Electric Power Engineering said "I didn't expect us to win." Photo: Ole Tolstad.

The Polar Bears, from left Atle Vesterkjær, Jie Ren, Arne Jenssen and Pål Preede Revheim, had the winning idea from the Climathon. Ren, an NTNU master’s student in Electric Power Engineering said “I didn’t expect us to win.” Photo: Ole Tolstad/NTNU

Atle Vesterkjær, a senior software engineer at a company called Numascale, based in Oslo, was a member of the winning team. He said the group was able to use free, open-source data from a satellite that measures site-specific CO2 and figure out when the satellite was passing over Trondheim.

They were then able to combine this with air quality measurements (but not CO2) collected on one of Trondheim’s main, heavily trafficked streets, Elgesetergate. That gave them confidence that the trends they saw in the satellite data were correct.

Nevertheless, Vesterkjær and his fellow Polar Bears encouraged Trondheim to invest in CO2 sensors to actually measure results on the ground. The city “will be implementing expensive measures to cut CO2 emissions,” said Polar Bear member Arne Jenssen, a consulting software engineer. “We would like to measure CO2 directly” to see that the measures actually work.

Trondheim’s Loveland said the city welcomes the ideas coming from NTNU and the Climathon, especially as the city works to update its climate action plan by the end of this year to include accelerated cuts.

“These new targets, which have come from political level, they are ambitious, no question about that,” he said. “But Trondheim, as Norway’s technological capital and with a young and dynamic population, we really should be in the driving seat and have a head start. We should be ambitious.”