Can an Ad Agency’s Hackathon Approach Help Solve the California Drought?

Deutsch L.A. and USC hope to spark big, workable ideas

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California's water problem is getting worse and worse—the drought is in its fourth year—and this weekend advertising and marketing professionals will team up with University of Southern California students to look for a a solution. 

The inaugural Futurethon event, called Saving Water and organized by Deutsch in Los Angeles in collaboration with Hack for L.A., a civic hacking organization, and Global Shapers, a youth leadership group, will take place this weekend at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"We called it 'Futurethon' instead of 'Hackathon' because we want to take it more into the realm of thinking about future opportunites," said Christine Outram, vp and invention director at Deutsch L.A. 

Sixty people will participate in the event, 30 of them professionals from fields like marketing, technology and design, and the other 30 students from USC. They'll expore ideas around reducing water usage, reclaiming sustainable water and reminding L.A. residents that their water usage makes a difference. The top five ideas will be presented to judges on Sunday, with the winning team receiving smart watches. 

To keep momentum going after the event, Deutsch partnered with the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and Local Shapers to create a fellowship opportunity for the students involved. Professionals are also encourage to keep tinkering with their ideas, for L.A.'s Innovation Week in the fall. And of course, other California agencies have tackled the drought previously, with, for example, barrettSF creating a funny video about dropping a brick into a toilet and Omelet using lawn signs to encourage less watering.

"One of the major problems with Hackathons that you see is that everyone gets really excited, there's all this momentum, all these people together for 48 hours," said Outram. "Then you think you're going to work on the project when you get home, but you don't."

"Americans tend to be so separated from how water impacts them," said Hollie Stenson, director of Change the Course, a water conservation organization. "I don't think currently people are completely aware of how big of an issue this is and how big of a problem it will become if we don't start figuring out solutions."  

Stenson, who will serve as one of Futurethon's judges, says events like this can make an impact. Erin Reilly, managing director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and a Futurethon judge, said that "the goal is public education" and that "bringing this type of awareness can inspire local change which can create a wider scale of change."

"Nothing really challenging can be solved in a weekend, and we acknowledge that," said Winston Binch, chief digital officer of Deutsch North America. "But there's a great opportunity here to bring creative minds together to think about a solution." 

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.