Contest fosters local solutions to global sustainability challenges

SoleProvider won the Sustainable Solutions competition created by rising senior Richard Ling. The automated texting system offers Philadelphia’s homeless a simple way to request a particular need and for users to fulfill it.

A person in a pink button-down shirt leaning against a brick wall.
Rising senior Richard Ling started a nonprofit, Collective Cause, and through that, ran a competition called Sustainable Solutions. The goal was to encourage high school and college students to brainstorm local solutions to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The link between homelessness and sustainability may not seem obvious, but to Penn rising senior Richard Ling, the two go hand in hand. “Sustainability relates to the human condition, to people’s ability to live,” he says. So, when four Penn rising seniors came up with a simple tool to help Philadelphia’s homeless residents, then entered that tool into the sustainability competition Ling created, he was thrilled. 

“One of the main messages I want to get across is that sustainability is not only about the environment,” says Ling, who is part of the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research  (VIPER) in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Sustainability simply means the ability to persist.” 

That, in a nutshell, is the point of his competition, which he called Sustainable Solutions and which falls under the umbrella of the nonprofit he started, Collective Cause. The idea was to encourage high school and college students to brainstorm local solutions to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 lofty objectives focused on addressing large-scale global problems like poverty and climate change. SoleProvider, created by Steffen Cornwell, Jesse Cui, Faraz Sanal, and Wenhan Zhang, took home the top prize. 

Four people standing n a row, in front of a yellowish wall with two framed images.
SoleProvider, a team of Penn rising seniors Steffen Cornwell, Faraz Sanal, Jesse Cui, and Wenhan Zhang, won the inaugural Sustainable Solutions competition for their automated texting system, which offers Philadelphia’s homeless a simple way to request a particular need and for users on the other end to fulfill it.

SoleProvider evolved from conversations between Cornwell and friends of his who live below the poverty line or lack a permanent place to call home. They had often expressed to him the frustrating challenge of breaking the homelessness cycle and hearing this time and again spurred Cornwell to take action. He enlisted the help of three classmates, and together they devised an automated texting system that allows homeless residents to request a particular need—say, a size-10 black shoe for a job interview—and for users on the other end to fulfill it. 

“You can’t find a job unless you have good clothes, but you can’t secure good clothes unless you have a job. It’s a catch-22,” says Cui. “We wanted to create a one-stop solution that leverages modern technologies like machine learning, which can understand texts and relay requests to people who can best meet them.” 

It’s precisely the type of project Ling had in mind when he dreamed up Sustainable Solutions during the summer of 2018. While on campus to conduct research for VIPER, Ling filled his spare time considering ways to bring the U.N. goals to Philadelphia. Conversations with Joanne Spigonardo, director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) and Eugenie Birch, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR), crystallized Ling’s vision for Collective Cause. 

From there, he started to raise money for a competition, bringing in $10,000 in total. He secured in-kind support and donations from Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, IGEL, and Penn IUR, as well as from outside organizations Essity, a health and hygiene company, and The Green Program, which runs trips focused on sustainable development. Twenty Penn students joined the advisory board, helping to propel the contest, which accepted submissions during the 2018-2019 academic year. 

“The goal for Sustainable Solutions was a competition that would mobilize high school and college students to act upon the U.N. goals,” Ling says. “At the very least, we hoped to put these goals on people’s radars. That was our mission.” 

Sustainability is not only about the environment. Sustainability simply means the ability to persist.  Richard Ling, rising senior, founder of the nonprofit Collective Cause

Ten groups, mostly from area colleges, ultimately entered. The judges, Birch, Spigonardo, Amy Bellcourt of Essity, Kleinman Center director Mark Alan Hughes, and Stephanie Chiorean of the Philadelphia Water Department, were asked to evaluate projects based on their technical and financial feasibility, progress to date, future plans, and the team itself—in other words, whether those who proposed a project were the best to carry it out. The panel selected four finalists whose ideas focused on fixes for energy security, homelessness, waste-energy technology, and social entrepreneurship. Eventually, they narrowed it down to SoleProvider. 

Hughes says he liked the beyond-recycling approach of their proposal. “It’s pretty innovative to think about the waste stream in this sense, as a social program that can help empower less well-off individuals and families,” he says. “It’s a really nice marriage of a problem and a solution,” particularly given the recent cultural emphasis on decluttering. 

“There is this excess, this waste, as people try to simplify what they own,” Hughes adds. “This tries to capture at least a piece of that, by diverting from the waste stream and triggering people’s philanthropic impulses” at the same time.  

This coming fall semester, Ling will meet with the SoleProvider team to understand where the project currently stands and to discuss a marketing plan. According to Cui, the core of the app and the user interface have both been built; SoleProvider is now working to link the two, plus come up with the best means to connect giver and receiver for each transaction. 

“What’s most feasible at the start might change depending on how big SoleProvider scales in the future,” Cui says. “For the future, we have this grand vision of expanding SoleProvider to tackle other sustainability challenges beyond homelessness and poverty such as recycling and transportation. At its core, SoleProvider focuses on resource conservation and improving the way people live.”

The fact that these soon-to-be college seniors are even thinking about the Sustainable Development Goals is extraordinary to Birch. “I don’t know many students around the world doing this,” she says. But “there are 193 member nations that say, ‘This is what we think we should be doing around the world to have sustainable development.’” 

Ling doesn’t plan to stop here. He’s received the Shah Prize from Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which will allow him to focus his next round of outreach on high school students. He hopes to recruit five or so from West Philadelphia high schools who he can teach about the SDGs. 

He also wants to launch an open-innovation platform on the Collective Cause website—version 2.0 of the competition, as he sees it. “You find the problems, you post them on a website, and then anyone can go in and solve them,” he explains. “We’d like to identify the biggest problems for the 17 SDGs in Philadelphia in a clear way, and then people can pose ideas to solve them. That will carry on the spirit of this competition.” 

Richard Ling is a rising senior from Riverside, California, and part of the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, majoring in systems engineering and environmental science. He started the nonprofit Collective Cause in 2018. 

SoleProvider includes Steffen Cornwell of Highland, Maryland, who is majoring in statistics and computer science; Jesse Cui, who is from Hershey, Pennsylvania and is majoring in computer science and operations; Faraz Sanal of Falmouth, Maine, who is majoring in math and computer science; and Wenhan Zhang, of Singapore, who is majoring in philosophy and computer science. They are all rising seniors. 

Mark Alan Hughes is founding faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and a professor of practice in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. He is also a faculty fellow of the Penn Institute for Urban Research and a research fellow of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.

Eugenie Birch is co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research and the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research & Education at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.