A growing number of innovations – all too often unnoticed – could have considerable benefits for billions of people across the globe. However, the list of transformative innovations below, are not those that will transform societies as a whole. Rather they have been selected because each in its own ways is focused more on the benefits it offers individuals, groups of individuals and communities. In their totality, these twelve should also have impact on preventing, preparing for and responding to future crises.
If used sensibly, these sorts of innovations should begin to have positive impacts in various ways around the world in 2019 and beyond.
App turns phones into seismic sensors.
An app is revolutionising earthquake detection. Called MyShake, it turns anyone’s smartphone into a seismology tool, detecting small as well as large earthquakes. Qingkai Kong from the University of California, Berkeley, is the app’s co-creator, and hopes that MyShake will take off in places that cannot afford expensive, dense networks of earthquake sensors, e.g., Nepal.
Frugal innovation in Africa.
An innovative lab in Lomé, Togo, has created the first “Made in Africa” 3D printer using e-waste. Woelab, a community tech hub, made the machine using little more than scrap metals, including old printers, computers and scanners. Having been shown a 3D printer intended for Woelab, the tech hub’s young innovators decided to build their own. ‘We wanted to see how we could build a new one but with our own resources.’ The initiative was triggered in 2013, and now there are at least 20 similar hubs across Africa, including Sudan, where 3D printers are creating prosthetic limbs.
AI to find forced labour camps.
Through machine learning, satellite imagery will be able to automatically recognise brick kilns, which provide work for approximately 5 million people across South Asia – 70% of whom are thought to be working under duress. According to University of Nottingham’s Kevin Bales, the project leader, this innovation will help to automatically recognise somewhere in the region of 50,000 kiln sites, many of which are forced labour sites. ‘A lot of slavery is visible from space,’ says Bales.
Recharge your phone with your breath.
Water droplets might seem an unlikely source of energy, but thin layers of graphite spread across a mobile phone can capture static electricity, which in turn can create an electric charge able to power that phone. And, one’s breath can provide adequate water droplets to trigger the process.
Ref: Advanced Materials, DOI:10.1002/adma.201805705
A lab-on-a-chip for farmers.
The BASF subsidiary company trinamiX GmbH has developed a prototype point-and-click device – Hertzstuck – that will enable farmers to make better decisions about critical issues such as the right time to harvest or the quality of the products, e.g., fertilisers, seeds, that they are using. According to Ingmar Bruder, trinamiX’s Managing Director, ’There’s a real need for determining whether the herbicides [farmers] buy are the real deal or inferior counterfeits….European companies lose a billion euros a year to fake herbicides, and the farmers can have their crops ruined because of it.’
Transformers’ Summit to provide solutions for Earth’s cities.
Some 3.5 billion people live in cities – half of humanity – and the number is growing by tens of thousands every day. Yet, the reality is that cities face huge social and environmental challenges, and the Islamic Development Bank’s Transformers Summit (10 December 2018) is intended to put science, innovation and technology in the forefront of efforts to address the challenges laid out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11.
Nanofibre cloth captures drinking water from the air for drought-affected communities.
So-called electrospun polymers, when expanded around fragments of graphite, serve as the basis for large surface areas that can not only capture water, but can also filter out dirt and bacteria. Such water harvesters could yield up to 180 litres of water per square meter every day, as compared with, for example, a commercial system in Morocco that only produces around 30 litres per square meter.
Fuel from an artificial leaf.
The notion of an artificial leaf makes so much sense. Natural leaves harness energy from the sun to turn carbon dioxide into the carbohydrates that power a plant’s cellular activities. Scientists have been working to devise a process similar to photosynthesis in order to generate a fuel that could be stored for later use. This could solve a major challenge of solar and wind power—providing a way to stow the energy when the sun is not shining and the air is still.
Machine-learning software scans satellite images to find hidden poverty.
Conducting economic surveys in poor or conflict-prone countries can be expensive and dangerous. However, daytime and night time satellite imagery based on image analysis software enabled computers ‘to learn’ which daytime features (roads, urban areas, agricultural lands) and night-lights brightness identified different types and levels of poverty. Governmental and non-governmental organisations can use the tool to determine whom to target in a cash-transfer programme, for example, or to evaluate how well a certain antipoverty policy works.
Ref: Scientific American vol. 315, issue 6, December 2016, ’Poverty-Predicting Software’
CRISPR will provide improved wheat yields and greater pest resistance.
Wheat is a major source of nutrition worldwide, and with rapidly growing human populations and changing environments, there is a strong demand for improved yields. Genome-editing using a technique called CRISPR may soon result in a new era of wheat cultivation, introducing traits to improve yields, provide greater pest resistance and develop hardier varieties. Of particular interest will be how decoding the genes might contribute to understanding, and perhaps even mitigating, various immune diseases and allergies associated with eating bread.
Ref: Angela Juhasz et al., ‘Genome mapping of seed -borne allergens,’ Science Advances 4(8), August 2018
Bacteria becomes a land-mine hunter.
Seeking ways to avoid all the hazards associated with identifying land mines, scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have created a form of bacteria that can identify vapour given off by a land-mine’s explosive materials. Once the bacteria are disseminated, the scientists will use a laser-scanning system to map out all the mine’s identified by the bacteria. The scanning system will be light enough so that it can be mounted on a drone.
Printed human body parts for transplants.
Using 3D technology, multiple print heads squirt out different cell types, along with polymers which will bind together and grow into living, functional tissue. Researchers in various medical institutions and the private sector are tinkering with kidney and liver tissue, skin, bones and cartilage, as well as the networks of blood vessels needed to keep body parts alive. They have implanted printed ears, bones and muscles into animals, and these have effectively integrated with their hosts. Kidneys for humans in six years’ time – longer for 3D printed hearts….