Session Four: The Invisible Made Visible
Aviva Presser Aiden & Hugo Van Vuuren
2009 Poptech Fellows Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo Van Vuuren are the creators of Lebone, a dirt-powered battery. The battery, which was created for the base of the pyramid population, uses microbial fuel cells to generate energy. The batteries can currently power an LED light, and the goal is to soon be able to also power radios and cell phones.
The pilot program launched in Tanzania and they are looking at doing another round of testing in Africa. Rather than curse the darkness and light a candle, the founders of Lebone want to instead power an LED.
Eben Bayer, a 2009 Poptech Fellow, is the CEO of Ecovative Design, which seeks to address the issue of how to reduce the usage of styrofoam (or as Beyer calls it, “toxic white stuff”). Styrofoam takes up more landfill space than other other waste product and its by-product, styrene, is seeping into our environment through landfills and polluted waterways.
New materials need to be created that have less environmental impact and take less energy to produce. Bayer’s vision is to use the naturally-occuring mycelium (from the roots of mushrooms) and replace styrofoam with 100% compostable material. With this material, 10 times less CO2 is emitted in the atmosphere.
Bayer invites everyone to send pictures of unnecessary use of styrofoam to firstname.lastname@example.org in an effort to raise awareness about this issue.
The third Fellow to present in this series, Jason Aramburu, is the founder of re:char, which is developing solutions to fight climate change. Current efforts all have their limitations, says Aramburu. Aramburu was working on “clean coal”, when he realized that that term was really an oxymoron. This lead him to create a substance called Biochar, a substance that is a by-product of agriculture (husks, stems, etc.): basically charcoal made from natural waste products.
Biochar also acts as a great soil amendment and helps reduce the amount of CO2 in the air. He invites interested parties to contact him to help scale this potentially global solution.
Laura Kurgan heads up the Spatial Information Design Lab, which is they call a Think and Action Tank. Kurgan states that there are no neutral maps and no neutral data. She introduced the PopTech audience to their project “Architecture and Justice” and explained how they are looking at a city’s infrastructure. This, she says, includes prisons, which are generally not discussed when talking about cities.
The Architecture and Justice project views data in a geographical context; in this case mapping where inmates say they last lived before they were incarcerated against maps of where crime is committed within a city. The maps reveal that crime is more widespread than the “prison geographies”. The maps also display the cost of incarcaration, which is significant.
They’ve also used data points and mapping to track population migration. To illustrate, Kurgan played a video of a giant globe that scrolls across a curved screen, leaving a swath of data in its path and sending representative pixels flying across the screen to re-convene like a flock of tiny, well-informed birds.
Other areas of interest for the Design Lab are tracking remittances (money from people who have moved to other countries that’s sent back home) and forced migration.
Whether we like it or not, we’ve all been translated into data. How we chose to interpret data and what we do with it are the important question.
Assaf Biderman, who runs the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, opened with reminding us that people used to think virtual connectivity was going to reduce urban density. This proved not to be true: the Internet did not introduce the death of the city. Cities are instead a concentrated focal point of looking at new ways to be sustainable.
The SENSEable City Laboratory partners with cities around the world to develop test case implementations. Biderman showed a few examples of their work in action. In Rome, they tracked cell phone activity during a soccer game. This creates an emotional map of what’s happening in a city. They also mapped bus routes and overlaid it, providing two real-time data sets. By examining patterns in this data, different types of land use can be planned.
The New York Talk Exchange project studied communications traffic with the city of New York and the rest of the world. The data already exists to track the use of land lines in and out. Data in cities is ubiquitous.
Finally, the Trash|Track project, done in partnership with Waste Management, looks at the “removal-chain”. Supply chain has become increasingly efficient (and well-documented), but waste managment is not. Wanting to track the reverse of a supply chain, the invited members of the Seattle community to tag their garbage and the researchers than tracked its movement. Different materials are being used to tags different types of trash (foam vs. rubber). They created a “wedding wish list” of trash to create a truly representative picture of average household waste. Everything from teddy bears to tires was tagged. Currently have ~2,000 objects tagged and expect to tag another 1,000. The early results are now on display as a show at the Seattle Public Library.
An awareness of where your garbage actually ends up could have great impact on changing behavior. With this type of data, there’s also the possibility of improving infrastructure (and other services like cell phone usage and bus routes).
Chris Jordan is a photographer whose work documents consumerism and its aftermath. When he heard about the “giant garbage patch”, a section of the ocean twice the size of Texas that is filled with tiny bits of plastic, he was compelled to try and document it. In this area, there are six times the amount of plastic than there are plankton. Jordan wanted to do a piece on this ecological wasteland so that people would have an emotional connection to it, make it real.
First, Jordan used actual trash from the giant garbage patch to create a massive-scale recreation of a portrait of the ocean. The making of this piece used 2.4 million pieces of oceanic plastic retrieved from the ocean. The plastic in the ocean is destroying habitat and killing wildlifein one of the most remote regions of the world.
Jordan’s work on this project introduced him to the Midway Atoll, an extremely remote island. Yet somehow, birds on the island are ingesting plastic and it’s killing them in droves. This, says Jordan, is major. This is basically like telling us that the world has cancer. For two weeks, Jordan went to the Midway Atoll to document this oceanic plastic pollution and, for the first time ever, he shared these photos. An emotional Jordan asked the audience not to applaud, as he said what he was showing was not worth applauding. Instead, he asked us to take with us whatever would compel us to clap and use it to do something about the unimaginable, overwhelming, but very real problem of plastics in the ocean.
Lorrie Vogel works for Nike’s Considered team. As General Manager, she’s leading Nike’s research in sustainable product design. We are moving to a new economy, a “green economy”, which has no roadmap. So how does a big company like Nike do it?
Nike’s first area of focus was reducing their footprint and the amount of waste. They’ve reduced their waste 50% in the past ten years. They’ve also focused on energy use and removing toxics from their products. Reducing your footprint, says Vogel, will never get you to a “green economy”. That needs to be done at the product level: they were at first inspired to try and create a shoe that you could plant in the ground and it would biodegrade. Their second thought was to try and make a product that would last forever. But from a human nature standpoint, that wouldn’t work and the products would ultimately end up in a landfill.
The answer seems to be creating a closed loop product, one that would keep the materials in play. Vogel describes this as “designing for disassembly”. The two main materials they currently use are polyester and cotton, neither of which is sustainable due to their environmental impact. Vogel’s team is working on creating better materials, even with the challenges presented by cost, accessibility and a broken recycling pipeline. Vogel believes we need a sort of materials DNA so that tagged materials can be easily identified. Recycling must happen in a world of diminishing sources and ever-increasing population.
As the video she showed us demonstrating the closed loop paradigm stated, “a shoe can’t change the world, but an ethos can.”
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