PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Green buildings, Xbox swarms, and 3-D cell images

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • Tom Darden (PopTech 2010), executive director of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, was tasked to oversee building 150 affordable, green, high-design homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This week Fast Co.Exist announced the exciting news that Make It Right has completed its first Frank Gehry-designed home.
  • 2011 PopTech Science Fellow Iain Couzin was featured on CNN earlier this week for his research using the Xbox to study locust swarmsThrough his work on swarm behavior, Couzin attempts to understand how people, animals and even diseases manage to accomplish things in groups that would not be possible as individuals.
  • Computational neuroscientist and 2010 PopTech Science Fellow H. Sebastian Seung conducts pioneering research on the wiring of the brain and what it reveals about genetics, personality, and memory. This week Boston.com covered Seung and the launch of EyeWire, an online game that invites volunteer “scientists” to build 3-D maps of the cell networks that are crucial for vision. 

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Damien

Silja Ómarsdóttir on starting from scratch with Iceland's constitution

What better example of a country's democratic resiliency in the face of financial collapse than the move to toss its constitution and bring on a handful of citizens to rewrite it from scratch? University of Iceland political science professor Silja Ómarsdóttir was one of 25 people asked to revise Iceland’s most important document after the country’s financial meltdown in 2008.

In her PopTech Iceland talk, she explains how the citizens of Iceland reacted to the bank collapse (politely and when no action was taken, loudly) and the eventual response from the government, which included updating the country’s constitution. Ómarsdóttir details the constitution creation process and what it meant to overhaul the document, with considerable public input, in four months. She concluded her talk when she said wryly, “The next time I write a constitution, I would have a little bit of a break in between. By the time we finished, we were so saturated with our own ideas, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

The growing woes of coral reefs

In 2003 Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei quietly dispatched a centuries-old myth, when he said publicly that despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to see the Great Wall of China from space. The ancient world’s longest construction, awesome though it is, is the same dusty color as the hills it’s made from, only nine meters wide, and time-weathered. Optometrists have argued that to see the Wall from space with the naked eye, even at low orbits, you would need 20/3 vision, 7.7 times better than ordinary human sight.

The largest construction on the planet is not man-made, and it has no such problems being seen from space. Working in large numbers, and hardly ever taking a break, coral polyps built the Great Barrier Reef in its current form in about 8,000 years. Vast and beautiful, from space it dominates the view of the Pacific east of the Australian coast.

Recently, Roger Bradbury, a respected Australian ecologist, has written an op-ed in the New York Times that the Great Barrier Reef, and all the world’s coral reefs for that matter, are not just threatened, which we all knew, but doomed to destruction, within our lifetimes. He argues that because of rising levels of ocean acidity, overfishing, and water pollution, there is no hope. The only responsible thing is to allocate funds to plan for the aftermath of the reefs’ death and disappearance - not to save them. “It will be a disaster for the hundreds of millions of people in poor, tropical countries like Indonesia and the Philippines who depend on coral reefs for food”, he says. Reefs are home to one quarter of the world’s entire marine life, and perhaps as many as 9 million species.

We checked in with Ann Marie Healy, who has spent time researching the coral reefs of Palau for the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back to hear her opinion on the topic. She said:

After seeing the work of the most effective marine scientists and environmentalists, it feels clear that the survival of the reefs is still possible but only with very deep engagement from the people who live on them and use them every day. That means engagement not only at the top of the food chain—national governments and international organizations—but also from people who rely on reefs for their livelihood and cultural identity. Environmental change is inextricably linked with changing behavior and social norms.

Reactions to the piece from oceanologists, ecologists, and other scientists have been collected by Dot Earth. While there is disagreement about the inevitability of disaster, and whether or not this will all be over in the next few decades, the general consensus is that the outlook is grim. Human industry, as represented by such monumental achievements as the Great Wall, may prove, in the Anthropocene, the mightier force after all.

Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Joy Reidenberg: Neck-deep in whales

Joy Reidenberg, celebrated whale anatomist, often finds herself neck-deep inside a whale that's washed ashore, studying its innards to learn how it's evolved in the outside world. In the second talk we're highlighting from PopTech Iceland 2012, “Why Whales are Weird,” energetic, articulate anatomist Joy Reidenberg presents an unbelievable array of fact about the beloved mammal (Whales have a vestigial pelvis! They migrate the distance of half the planet)! They have mustaches!). She took us through the story of evolution using whales as a model, explaining that evolution is the process to mediate resilience and thus, survival.

Watch now: First stage talk from PopTech Iceland released—Tim Harford!

What does it take to rewrite a country’s constitution in four months? What can the triggers of oil rig disasters tell us about financial crises? Why do whales have moustaches? Here’s your chance to find out! We’re excited to announce that today, we’ll begin to debut talks from presenters who took the PopTech stage in Iceland last month. Our inaugural releases, over the course of this week, include presentations from a constitutionalist author, an undercover economist, and a celebrated whale anatomist.

First up, a talk from Tim Harford, the U.K.’s foremost undercover economist, author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, columnist for the Financial Times, and a powerful storyteller about complex economic systems.

Enjoyed this talk and craving more? Don’t miss out on the opportunity to join us this fall at PopTech Camden. Satisfy your intellectual curiosity and register today.

Tomorrow, learn fascinating trivia about the world’s largest mammal. Stay tuned!

Image-wise: Chalk, extremely close-up

Chalk under a microscope looks pretty beautiful. Who knew? Robert Krulwich recently spent a lot of time thinking about chalk on his NPR blog, Krulwich Wonders. He breaks it down:

Chalk is composed of extremely small white globules. They look, up close, like snowballs made from brittle paper plates. Those plates, it turns out, are part of ancient skeletons that once belonged to roundish little critters that lived and floated in the sea, captured a little sunshine and carbon, then died and sank to the bottom.

Image: PLOS Biology via Wikipedia

via Explorer

PopTech Editions II: Sameer Kalwani on Sarvajal's clean water micro-infrastructure

Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting a piece from  2011 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Sameer Kalwani who developed the technology platforms for Sarvajal.

From telecommunications to transportation, India has made rapid advances in its infrastructure. At Sarvajal, we hope to be on the forefront of India’s next technological evolution – basic services infrastructure — as we strive to meet our mission of providing high-quality drinking water to every denizen. Previous water distribution models relied on large-scale production and would often take years to implement, not to mention costly transportation system and high maintenance expenditures. On top of that, poor infrastructure would lead to severe product losses. For example, in New Delhi, up to 40% of the treated, clean water is lost through pilferage and cracked pipes. But Sarvajal has worked to alleviate some of these issues; a new decentralization of the filtration process allows us to distribute water for a fraction of the previous cost and get to every nook and cranny of a population.

Our micro-franchise solutions get high-quality, low-cost solutions to those who are marginalized by the lack of better infrastructure support that’s typically in urban slums and rural villages. Bottled water and other private solutions are usually available in these areas, but are often quite costly, keeping a necessary resource out of reach for the poor. Our micro-franchise solution in the town of Churu, in Rajasthan, brought the price of private drinking water down to less than one cent per liter. Now more people can afford clean water who didn't have access to it before. Over the course of the past year that Laxmangarh, Rajasthan has been an active franchise, we've seen the number of customers more than double, so people are actually adopting the solution and getting their friends to use it as well.

In many small rural villages there are no solutions for their contaminated water. For example, in Mundawar, villagers knew they had an issue with their water system, but without public or private sector attention they had no alternatives. With Sarvajal in their village, they have a solution, and it has encouraged more people to drink clean water. For example, a 43-year old woman named Laxmi had been bedridden for five years and was asked by her doctors to drink clean water, but she had no financial means to do so. In an effort to permeate previously unreached villages, Sarvajal partnered with a local entrepreneur in Mundawar to provide a solution to the villagers’ water-based health problems. A year after Sarvajal entered Mundawar, Laxmi and others can use and afford clean water, providing them with improved health both short- and long- term.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: Sarvajal

This week in PopTech: Possible cures, potential failures and definite cuteness

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: ntr23

Peter Durand paints a picture of PopTech Iceland 2012

Graphic facilitator extraordinaire and long-time PopTech friend Peter Durand came to Iceland to do what he does best whenever PopTech hosts a conference: he sketched and sketched...and sketched some more. The outcome, portraits of each speaker and performer who took the stage, paints a captivating, colorful picture of the two-day event in Reykjavik. Have a look at our slideshow of his work:

Who needs refrigeration when we have silkworms?

Supporting innovation in healthcare is a key part of PopTech's agenda. We highlight the work of amazing people in our community like Raj Panjabi, and his efforts to build scalable health solutions for war-stricken countries, Matthew Berg and Josh Nesbit’s work to revolutionize health services through mobile technology, architect Michael Murphy’s buildings that heal, and Hayat Sindi’s use of tools micro-fabricated in paper to make diagnostic care available to people living far from medical infrastructures. Every so often, a piece of innovation comes along that broadsides everyone, knocks our socks off, and--hopefully--changes the game forever.
Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering have discovered a way to maintain the potency of vaccines and other drugs that otherwise require refrigeration for months and possibly years at temperatures above 110 degrees F, by stabilizing them in a silk protein made from silkworm cocoons.

"Silk protein has a unique structure and chemistry that makes it strong, resistant to moisture, stable at extreme temperatures, and biocompatible, all of which make it very useful for stabilizing antibiotics, vaccines and other drugs,” says David Kaplan, leader of the team.

The trick happens at the molecular level. Silk protein fibroin is composed of interlocked crystalline sheets with numerous tiny hydrophobic pockets. The pockets trap and immobilize bioactive molecules, protecting them from the decompositional effect of water and preventing them from unraveling. It’s like enveloping a fragile material in what’s being called “nanoscale Bubble Wrap”.

It is currently necessary to keep bioactive drugs refrigerated all the way from manufacture to use, wherever that may be on the globe. Health experts estimate that nearly half of all global vaccines are lost due to breakdowns in the "cold chain”. The potential for off-infrastructure healthcare, including in war and disaster zones where electricity is unavailable, is enormous.
But here’s perhaps the most remarkable thing. The team believe it will be possible to construct shapes and forms out of the pharmaceutical-infused silk, such as microneedles, microvesicles and films, that allow the non-refrigerated drugs to be stored and administered in a single device. Watching this design story unfold will be fascinating, and no doubt biotech visionaries like artist Daisy Ginsberg will be grabbing themselves a front row seat.

via Tufts University

Image: thanatic