"Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment".

That's the theme of Imagine Cup 2008. And I have to admit, it's a tricky one. How do you reduce carbon emissions with software? How do you stop deforestation using embedded design? And how do we bridge the gap between a real world problem and data that exists virtually? It seems a stretch, but it is very possible.

My first advice to anyone wishing to enter Software Design this year is to properly define your problem. The theme means you need to have more background information than in previous years, because saving the environment obviously requires a scientific basis. But belkieve me, once you do a little bit of research and start to understand your problem, lightbulbs start flashing and pieces start falling into place. Your solution will necessarily have to take into account the science behind saving the environment. Your best bet is to go and talk to lecturers in environmental engineering subjects at your university, who will be able to give you guidance on what problems are solvable, and how to go about doing so. Alternatively, go to organisations like EnergyAustralia, Sydney Water, Queensland Conservation etc who will be able to give you insight into what they're already doing to ensure sustainability, the problems which are yet to be addressed, and maybe give you some guidance as to which of these problems you could potentially solve. There are also organisations such as The Big Switch, who might be good for some ideas.

The Big Switch gives you a list of small, everyday things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. Think of ways you can take these tips and use technology to make them faster / easier / automated / seamless.

Secondly, START NOW! Last year's competition saw a large drop off in numbers as the competition drew to a close, as students ran out of time. Spend a couple of weeks over the Christmas holidays after exams working on this project, and look at it as an investment - last year's Australian Imagine Cup winners are about to donate their entry to the Canberra Blind Society, which is a fantastic reflection on their work and will also be a fantastic highlight in their application for any grad jobs they are now going to apply for. To even make the Australia finals is a fantastic achievement, and with Imagine Cup becoming increasingly recognised as the world's premier student technology competition, it's a major boost for your CV.

Thirdly, check out the world final winners from 2007's final in Korea - these can be your benchmark. Whilst there were some entries that were obviously part of bigger research projects, there were world final entries that I think plenty of Aussie CS students are very capable of beating / bettering. Judges take it into consideration when there are projects that were obviously not designed specifically for Imagine Cup, which is why entries like Jamaica and Ireland did so well - they started from scratch and addressed the theme properly. Your final product doesn't have to be a PhD thesis to win; it just has to be effective, well-thought out and above all, something that solves one of the big environmental problems we are facing. 

I saw this story which I thought would have made a really good Imagine Cup entry (although I know now it has already been done). The beauty of technology such as this is that it does not rely on people to consciously focus on being 'green' - using GeoEye, organisations save money, regardless of whether they have an environmental conscience or not. For other ideas, I'd suggest you subscribe to eWEEK technology's rss feed - they've always got good stories there about tech companies who are doing really interesting and innovative things to help the world become 'greener'

Keep an eye on this blog for ideas on how you can help save the planet - in the coming weeks / months, I'm going to be talking to a wide variety of people about how we can use software to change the world. Watch this space for inspiration!