Posts by Lindsay Borthwick
Thomas Thwaites’ design odyssey took nine months and cost a little more than $1,000. It led him from the pits of a retired iron mine to the peak of a Scottish mountain, and from an e-waste depot to his mother’s microwave oven -- all in an effort to create a toaster from scratch, from raw materials. “It all began with the observation that most of what we rely on today began as rocks and sludge buried in the ground. I’m interested in how this insane and magical transformation takes place,” Thwaites told this morning’s audience at PopTech.
Over the next 20 minutes, he led us through his pursuit of a toaster’s core elements (steel, copper, nickel, mica and plastic), an adventure that came to be known as The Toaster Project, and has since evolved into an exhibit, book and television series.
Thwaites was driven by the fact that, like most of the consumer products we use, nothing about a toaster belies its provenance. “There’s a lot of effort, intelligence and history that goes into making even something like a toaster. On the one hand that's great…On the other hand, is it worth putting all this time, effort and energy into something that is a pretty marginal addition to our existence?”
Last year, Sarah Fortune came to PopTech looking for a solution. The 2010 PopTech Science Fellow and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health had hit a wall in her research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She needed a way to analyze streams of images of the bacteria -- as quickly and cheaply as possible -- or one line of her research would stall.
“I thought maybe we could crowdsource it,” she recalled yesterday in front of a packed house at PopTech 2011. “So I asked onstage, ‘Is there an app for that?’ Unbelievably, someone in the audience called out and then made it happen.”
That someone was Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, who connected Fortune to Lukas Biewald, co-founder of CrowdFlower, an Internet-based crowdsourcing company. The rest, as they say, is history.
Shahidul Alam walked on stage on Thursday wearing a marigold-colored salwar kameez, a camera over his left shoulder, and a beltpack slung around his hips. There was no mistaking his calling. The Bangladeshi photographer, activist and social entrepreneur has almost single-handedly rebalanced the world of photojournalism, long dominated by Western photographers and their worldview. He has shifted its lens eastward and southward by training legions of photographers in his homeland, creating an award-winning photo agency to sell their work and founding a prestigious international photography festival to showcase their talent. And this fall, he published a book, My Journey as a Witness, telling the story of Bangladeshi photography as an instrument of social justice. He serves as an ambassador of this movement, in the words of PopTech’s executive director, Andrew Zolli, “travelling the world leaving new cultures of art makers in his wake.” We sat down with Alam backstage in Camden, Maine.
PopTech: You founded Drik, a photo agency, and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography. Why did you feel it was important for Bangladeshi photographers, as well as their peers, to have these outlets for their work?
Shahidul Alam: Firstly, it was a question of addressing this very distorted perception people have of what I call the “majority world” countries. Our poverty is a reality, but that is not the only identity that we have. Secondly, I wanted to challenge a very unidirectional form of storytelling that has -- to a large extent -- been propagated by the West. The richness and diversity of human life gets lost in a very agenda-led information distribution system. So that was the beginning.
We also wanted to celebrate our own culture. It’s not that I am against white, Western photographers producing work in Bangladesh -- I think our ideas need to be challenged just as much. It’s the monopoly of dissemination that I was against. So we wanted to create a space for diversity -- for both Western work and our own work. That’s where the Chobi Mela festival came in -- to facilitate that cultural infusion.
Science Fellow Adrien Treuille, a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon, is using gaming to advance scientific research. Through online video games, he’s harnessing the power of human logic and creativity to solve some of the most complex computational problems in biomedicine: protein folding and RNA synthesis.
Tens of thousands of people play his games, FoldIt and EteRNA - proof that heady scientific problems can be crowdsourced and that video games don’t have to be mindless fun. “We’ve crowdsourced the whole scientific method from hypothesis to experiment to results,” Treuille (pronounced “Troy”) told the audience yesterday at PopTech.
FoldIt, which can be downloaded from the Internet, launched in 2008. The challenge? Proteins are the key to life at the cellular level. But understanding how a string of amino acids, the fundamental units of a protein, fold into its final, three-dimensional structure, is an incredibly difficult problem that, until now, has taken significant time, money and computational power. FoldIt players compete to figure out which of the numerous possible protein structures possible in nature is actually the best one.
This afternoon, Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, the first member of PopTech's sophomore class of Science and Public Leadership Fellows to present at this year's conference, talked about her efforts to make robotic systems more touchy feely. "If the sense of touch is so useful to humans, why are there so few human-computer interfaces that exploit it?" she asked the crowd, citing the numerous tricky manual feats we regularly complete, such as assembling a coffee table from IKEA.
At her laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Kuchenbecker is working to incorporate the sense of touch, known as haptics, into human-computer interfaces. "We seek to engineer new haptic technologies that take advantage of the richness of the sense of touch...to help people do things they haven't done before," she explained.
Kuchenbecker's work stands to transform the way surgeons operate, play computer games, drive a car -- and even the way we shop online. Here are a few examples she talked about:
- A tablet computer that actually lets you feel the objects on the screen. Think a swatch of carpeting or a fur collar.
- Robot-assisted surgical tools that allow surgeons to feel as they cut, probe or suture, improving the quality of care.
- A robot agile enough to manipulate almost any object it encounters, from a bunch of bananas to the chicken drumsticks you may bring home from the grocery store.
Kuchenbecker and her graduate students have also worked to give robots the ability to communicate via touch -- one of the most important ways that humans interact. Their chosen gestures? Not a kiss or a hug or a handshake. The next time you meet a robot, try greeting it with a high five or a fist bump.
Images: Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio, and Kris Krug for PopTech
In the not-so-distant future, lacing up your running shoes and going for a jog will not only burn a little energy but produce some too. Mechanical engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have come up with a way to harness the energy produced every time our feet strike the ground and convert it to electric power. Their eventual goal is to refine the technology so that it will fit into the sole of a shoe, rendering our footwear an on-the-go power-generating device.
Human power is nothing new but it’s experiencing a renaissance as engineers and the mechanically inclined search for the ultimate form of renewable energy. And what could be a more renewable source than the nearly seven billion of us, who writer Bruce Grierson has called “highly efficient, nonpolluting short-stroke engines”? Previous attempts to make energy-harvesting shoes, according to an article about the discovery in Technology Review magazine, have failed to generate enough power to make them useful.
The breakthrough, by mechanical engineer Tom Krupenkin and his team, relies on the fact that the sole of a shoe compresses a little bit with each step we take, and this mechanical energy, which is usually lost as heat, can be converted into power. What’s been missing is a suitable mechanical-to-electric energy converter. So the team has created a new kind of device that uses microscopic liquid droplets sandwiched between nanometer-sized thin films.
The next challenge is to scale up the technology to produce enough power to run mobile devices, yet keep it small enough to fit inside a shoe. The researchers have founded a company, InStep NanoPower, to develop a prototype, but it could be years before they hit the streets and redefine what it means to power walk.
In Europe, cycling is a way of life, but wearing a bicycle helmet is not. Two Swedish industrial designers, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, are aiming to change this, not by designing a better bike helmet but by literally turning the problem on its head. Their idea? An airbag that deploys to protect your head in the case of a fall. But instead of a helmet, it’s stored inside a stylish collar that’s worn around your neck, preserving your vanity as well as your noggin.
The design duo just got a huge boost from INDEX, a Denmark-based not-for-profit that hands out the world’s largest cash design award. Their “invisible bicycle helmet,” known as Hovding, took first place in the INDEX award’s “Play” category. The INDEX jury wrote, “The team behind Hövding defined the problem, not as a design of a helmet, but as a solution to a problem”—that being the injury or death of 30,000 cyclists in traffic accidents each year, just in Sweden.
The Hovding has been six years in the making. It evolved from a master’s thesis into an engineering feat. Basically, it relies on a system of sensors – accelerometers and gyros -- that track the motion of the cyclist and trigger the airbag in the event of an accident. In order to distinguish between normal and abnormal cycling movements, the Horving’s designers spent years gathering movement data from cyclists, stunt riders and crash-test dummies.
At $500 a piece, the Hovding is unlikely to transform the streets of Sweden when it hits the market this fall. But for a helmet-averse public, that might be beside the point. What it represents, according to the INDEX jury, “is a paradigm shift in the area of bike safety [that] hinges on the professional competency of designers, not the adaptive capability of the users....” That gets my nod of approval.
The age-old practice of gleaning has taken an urban twist in Toronto, where Not Far From the Tree, a local not-for-profit, harvests fruit from backyards across the city. The gleaners are volunteers, armed with cargo bikes, ladders, pruners, baskets and a sweet tooth, eager to divert a fraction of the estimated 1.5 million pounds of fruit that this “urban orchard” produces per year. They’re not collecting the unwanted leftovers; rather, they’re collaborating with the trees owners to ensure that their backyard abundance of fruit doesn’t go to waste. Last year, their best harvest yet, Not Far From the Tree’s pickers reaped 20,000 pounds of fruit: Apples, pears, plums, cherries and mulberries were just a few of the season’s edibles that didn’t return to the earth on their watch. One of the organization’s unique features is the way it divides up the spoils: one-third goes to the homeowners, one-third to the pickers and one-third to local food banks, shelters and community kitchens.
Like the best ideas, Not Far From the Tree’s model has been embraced in other cities, from Auckland, New Zealand to Argyll, Scotland to Atlanta, Georgia. And there are plenty of other like-minded organizations around the U.S. Backyard Harvest of Moscow, Idaho has registered more than 500 residential fruit trees, berry patches and grapevines in its area, and through various gleaning, gathering and growing programs has distributed more than 100,000 pounds of food to families in need. In addition, City Fruit of Seattle and Village Harvest of San Francisco, are focused on gleaning edibles from public spaces rather than residential lots.
Fallen Fruit, based in Los Angeles and more of a collective of artists than gleaners, pioneered a mapping project for public fruit. In black and white and boasting the slogan “learn your fruits,” these maps not only connect people to free food in public spaces but also to nature in the city. Another Fallen Fruit project is “Neighborhood Infusions,” in which spirits are infused with fruit picked from a certain street or area in an effort to capture its essence—literally and figuratively.
Whether the goal of these 21st century urban gleaners is sustainable living, self-sufficiency in uncertain times, reconnecting with nature or something else entirely, it all sounds like delicious summertime fun, doesn’t it?
Image: Fallen Fruit fruit map
A new web app called Mapnificent can help lessen the pain of commuting by letting users visualize how far they can get by public transit, in a given city, in a certain period of time. Developed by a young German programmer, Stefan Wehrmeyer, it uses publicly available data to turn Google Maps into an even more powerful trip-planning tool. It won’t tell you how to get to A or B, but it will tell you whether that house you have your eye on means a 30-minute trip to the office or an hour-long one. Just pick a city, enter an address and slide the commuting-time rule. It also lets you plan a meet-up point. Say you’re meeting a friend from the west end of town and you’re in the east end. Mapnificent lets you determine the coffee shops or parks, for example, that are an easy 15-minute trip for you both.
The program is currently in beta and maps a few dozen major cities in Canada, the U.S., and abroad. Sure, it’s a handy data visualization tool. But Mapnificent is also a powerful example of what happens when data are made public. As The Economist points out:
The easier it is to get information about public transportation, the more people will use it. That's better for the environment, keeps cars off the streets, and encourages denser, more pedestrian-friendly development—and shorter commutes. Huzzah!
via The Economist
The ways we access information may be evolving, but books still have a powerful hold on us, as much for their ability to bring people together as for the knowledge they hold. The following projects offer a snapshot of the creative ways that libraries and citizens are adapting to our on-the-go culture and using books to enrich our communities.
Madrid-based Bibliometro, a spin-off of the city’s library system, makes books available to commuters through stands located in about a dozen metro stations throughout the city. Passengers can borrow and return titles as they travel about, from station to station. According to Paredes Pedrosa architects, which designed the sleek lending pavilions, the goal of Bibliometro is to “not only traffic culture across the subway of Madrid but also to make readable the journeys of millions of passengers a day.” The project was launched in 2005 and seems to have been inspired by a similar program that started in Santiago, Chile, 15 years ago.
Stockholm launched its first subway library in 2009, where travellers can also surf the Web and download audiobooks to mobile devices. One of them, at Högdalen station, even has a children’s room and a café.