Building a better neck badge: My dream SXSW hackathon

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Rob Walker
Yahoo! News

By Rob Walker

With SXSW Interactive in full swing, it’s as good a time as any to ask: What’s the most irritating thing about conferences? There are many choices, but here’s one that I happen to believe is a solvable problem: those stupid lanyard badges.

It was actually at SXSWi a few years ago that I had this epiphany. Every time I go to a conference, I'm bugged by all the wasteful materials—the crummy branded swag and the imminently disposable conference handouts and guides, sure, but especially the name badges. Of course I understand why attendees need to be identifiable at these events, where meeting new people is at least half the point. But the minute I get my “badge,” all I can think about is how hundreds or thousands of these paper rectangles in a plastic sheath, attached to a branded lanyard, are bound for the landfill.

Somehow, this primitive system—which I believe has been in use at least since the first Rome Chariot Show & Expo at the Amphitheatrum Flavium in 81 A.D.—strikes me as particularly embarrassing at a technology conference. Here’s a gathering of supposedly the most forward-thinking entrepreneurs, code geniuses, interactive designers—and everyone’s walking around with a piece of analog garbage-to-be proudly displayed around their necks.

I’ve skipped SXSWi this time around, but here’s a suggestion for all you clever attendees to chew on while you hobnob and meet up to toss disruptive mind bombs to and fro: Figure out a replacement for the current lanyard-badge system—a smarter, zero-waste alternative. Maybe it's a change in the materials, maybe it's a setup that involves turning in your badge for future reuse, maybe there’s a technology fix. I don't know—I'm certainly not smart enough to solve the problem. But all the brains at SXSWi could do it before happy hour, right?

Besides, this isn’t just some kind of meaningless thought exercise, like redesigning the American flag or whatever. It’s a potential business. An effective no-waste conference ID system could easily catch on, from CES to TED and all events in between. Somehow I suspect that if that happened, absolutely no one would lament the passing of the lanyard.