PopTech Blog

Could these 10 unconventional materials help save the planet?

The chair we sit on, the bowl we eat from, the shoes we wear – everything we touch is made from materials that, more often than not, have a negative impact on our planet. But innovation abounds when it comes to creating new forms of sustainable materials.

The winner of this year’s Material of the Year awards, given out by Material ConneXion, was presented to a form of concrete that emits 90% less carbon dioxide during production, a massive innovation, potentially, considering that scientists believe concrete production accounts for 5% of our carbon footprint.

Check out the list of noteworthy runners up on Fast Company’s Co.Design blog including biodegradable packaging paper, a non-toxic particle board substitute, and high-performing, recyclable plastics.

Image: Fast Company’s Co.Design

Launched from space: 200 paper planes!

On January 17, a few guys in Germany launched into space a weather balloon outfitted with a tracking device, a camera – and 200 paper planes. When the balloon reached a high enough altitude, it exploded (best part of the video!), releasing the planes, each of which had been affixed with a memory card with pre-loaded messages from the project’s website. The crew is gauging where the planes traveled by tracking people who log onto their site, Project Space Planes, with one of the found plane’s memory cards in hand. Reminiscent of Colin’s Rich’s camera balloon and Riley Crane’s Red Balloon Challenge, we’re curious to see what they find.

Rose Goslinga helps Kenyan farmers mitigate risk with microinsurance

Kilimo Salama, Kenya’s largest microinsurance program and Swahili for “safe farming”, was developed for farmers to mitigate the risks of weather’s unpredictability, enabling them to take chances to safely grow their businesses. Farmers obtain Kilimo Salama insurance two ways: via retail or microfinance institutions. When purchased over-the-counter at the same place when they buy seed or fertilizer, a stockist scans a code with all relevant product information via a phone’s camera; then s/he selects the weather station closest to the farmer’s fields, which determines the payout should insurance be collected. The stockist enters the farmer’s mobile number and sends the registration to a Kilimo Salama server. A text message sent to the farmer provides him with his policy number and insurance confirmation. The other way farmers access microinsurance is through more compulsory means – microfinance institutions include it in the loans provided to farmers so that if there’s a drought, the farmers won’t have trouble paying back their loans.

PopTech spoke with Rose Goslinga, a 2010 Social Innovation Fellow and the Syngenta Foundation’s coordinator for Kilimo Salama, to hear more about how she learned from early mistakes, how Kilimo Salama is impacting the livelihoods of newly insured farmers and where the program needs to go in order to become truly viable.

PopTech: Kilimo Salama’s third season begins this March and the program has grown significantly to 12,000 participating farmers since it launched with 200 farmers in 2009. You must be doing something right.
Rose Goslinga: Actually, there are a lot of things we tried that didn’t work out, which we’re continuing to learn from. For instance, in our first pilot, we put together a packet for farmers where they could buy eight kilograms of seeds, herbicide and fertilizer and then they’d get insurance for free. One of my [insurance] sellers told me, “Rose, farmers who go for things that are free are not serious farmers so you’re never going to attract the right farmers if you’re going to give something that’s free. People are going to think this is a joke."

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Materials copying nature

Implanting electrodes in the brain can help treat neurological problems, but the hard plastic used to make them lessened the positive effects of the treatment. In 2008, scientists at Case Western Reserve University looked to sea cucumber skin for a solution.

In addition to sea cucumbers, worms and sharks, Discovery News’ “Top Ten Materials that Emulate Nature” shouts out 2009 PopTech Fellow Eben Bayer’s fungi-focused products (slide 3) as well as 2004 PopTech speaker Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry Institute’s work to create sustainable technologies (slide 1).

The sky, documented over twenty four hours

After wondering for some time whether it was possible to image the sky from one morning to the next where I live in Athens Greece, I decided to give it a try. After hours of planning and preparation, and a full day of shooting, the image above is the result of this labor of love. It took me about 12 hours to pull together and process a single image that included over 500 star trails, 35 shots of the Sun and 25 landscape pictures.

For a full account of Chris Kotsiopoulos’ preparations to take this twenty four hour view of the sky, check out his description on Earth Science Picture of the Day.

Image: Chris Kotsiopoulos

Working women: Stats from the Women's Economic Opportunity Index

Our friends at The Economist recently presented findings from their Intelligence Unit’s pilot Women’s Economic Opportunity Index, which looked at “laws, regulations, practices, actions, and attitudes that allow women to participate in the workforce under conditions roughly equal to those of men” by examining a cross section of 113 countries around the world.

Four factors were taken into consideration when determining each country’s ranking: labor policy and practice; access to finance; education and training; and legal and social status. The country with the greatest progress to advance economic opportunities for women was Sweden; the worst was Sudan. The United States came in 15th, a ranking which was determined mostly by its lack of mandatory maternity leave rights for women.

For more results, check out this animated video.

Big ideas, big results: Nominations open for 2011 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows

Know an innovator working to solve a major global challenge?

Now’s your chance to help speed up his or her progress by submitting a nomination for the 2011 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program.

We’re looking for 10 to 20 world-changers who are ready to accelerate their path to greater social impact. Fellows attend a five-day, all-expense paid training program followed by the annual PopTech conference, which includes an opportunity to present on stage in front of an audience of thought leaders. They gain the tools, insights, visibility and social network they need to help grow their efforts to new heights.

Check out the call for nominations as well as the 2008, 2009 and 2010 classes to see if the fit looks right, and then fill out a nomination – or a self-nomination – at poptech.org/nominate.

Nominations will be open through March 31. Generous support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation help make this program possible – and so do you, by nominating someone with a big idea and the right stuff to take it to scale.

Crisis mapping Egypt

From the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information to the L.A. Times, crisis mapping is being used to track and facilitate the ongoing protests in Egypt. To see a collection of protest maps from the past week, check out Patrick Meier’s list here.

Image: L.A. Times crisis map via iRevolution

This week in PopTech: Violence interruptions, strange stirrings and gap year options

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.

  • According to Roger Ebert, The Interrupters, a documentary that reveals the amazing work of our friends at CeaseFire, is “Oscar calibre”. CeaseFire is a national and international public health strategy based in Chicago that has been scientifically proven to reduce shootings and killings using behavior change and disease control methods. The Interrupters had its World Premiere at Sundance 2011.
  • Global Citizen Year was cited as an example of how a gap year between high school and college doesn’t need to break the bank by offering scholarships to help defray the cost. “What we’ve seen so far is our kids after this year are hungry for college,” explained CEO Abby Falik. “They have a skill set that will help them be much more self-directed.”

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

Image: Stephen Wolfram

The search for ten balloons: Riley Crane crowdsources his way to discovery

The DARPA Network Challenge: “Be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States.” Although Riley Crane found out about the contest only four days before it started, four days, eight hours, and 52 minutes later he and his fellow MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, had won it. A postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Media Lab, Crane devised a system that allowed his team to harness the power of individual social networks by crowdsourcing the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge.

“It was a great network and winning the challenge was fun, but the real question is: what can we use it for?” Crane said. “If we want to see new things happen that are going to blow our minds, we need to start to really rethinking the way we communicate. If we do, the world will become really responsive to large-scale change.”