Today we face many problems, from epidemics to climate change. Grand challenges call for grand ideas – new tech, clever science, and smart solutions. Discover the best of 2017...
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(Credit: Cyrus Kabiru)
Rubbish isn’t useless – it can be converted into something entirely new, such as:
Free health care: Indonesia allows people to trade valuable rubbish for access to doctors - a grand idea that simultaneously tackles poverty, health care roadblocks and pollution in poor countries.
Home heating: Italy ships 70,000 tonnes of trash to Austria a year where it’s burnt and converted to electricity.
New roads: One way to become a zero-plastic society? Follow India’s lead, and take the plastic rubbish and turn it into material that can be used to pave roads.
Microscopic dust: Thrown-out electronics are choking landfills worldwide – but smashing them into nano-bits to create new materials might be easier and better than recycling.
Train infrastructure: A railway car made from a mix of concrete and old tyres increases durability, is quieter, and re-uses 35 tonnes of waste for each kilometre of rail line.
(Image: Artist Cyrus Kabiru re-purposing e-waste found on the streets of Kenya as fashion)
(Credit: Isaac Lawrence/Getty Images)
AI, software, and machines that can be forces for good:
Cancer-sniffing robots: This year, Google and a Dutch university teamed up to use deep learning AI to detect cancer just as well as a human pathologist.
Famine-fighting AI: We can use smart machines that nip disease outbreak in plants in the bud: by identifying the disease in crops, like cassava, the world’s third-largest source of carbohydrates.
ShotSpotter: This software listens for the sound of gunfire and uses algorithms to pinpoint where it is coming from, before alerting the authorities.
Russia’s team of hacker hunters: In today’s world of cybersecurity threats, to stop a hacker you need to think like a hacker – and Russian startup Group-IB rounds up white-hat hackers and trains them to hunt down criminals enjoys a high success rate.
Video games as diplomacy: Video games have long gotten a bad rap for stoking violence in teens, but in today's increasingly globalised world, the US State Department is using games to teach kids and teens American culture and English.
Ocean robots that 'smell' pollution: We have robot vacuum cleaners – and Swiss startup Envirobot is applying the same technology to keep our waters clean.
(Image: A robot waits on stage before leading a discussion about the future of humanity at a conference in Hong Kong. Credit: Getty)
(Credit: Paul Wilkin)
The botanical world is inspiring new ways to preserve the environment and save lives.
Repelling pests: By mixing ordinary food crops with wild ones found in Earth’s remote corners, farmers are finding they can use less insecticide.
Treating illness: More than 28,000 plant species are currently available for medicine – but fewer than 13% of them are regularly cited as being used in studies in regulatory publications. China is one country taking advantage of that other 87% to save lives by incorporating more traditional Chinese medicine in their healthcare system by 2020.
Feeding the world: Ethiopia has an ancient fruit called the enset that’s known as the ‘banana on steroids’ due to its similar appearance. It feeds more people per square metre than most cereals, and is weather-resistant, which is why it’s also called ‘the tree against hunger’.
Stopping wildfire: Kew Gardens is looking into plant families with thick bark and quick re-sprout rates that could be used as natural fire breaks and reduce the amount of valuable resources that are burned.
(Image: Enset on a plantation in Southwest Ethiopia. Credit: Paul Wilkin)
100% digital governing
The tiny Baltic country of Estonia has dubbed itself “e-Estonia” – the first nation on the planet to move nearly all of its resident services online. e-Estonia is an open platform, one-stop-shop that lets people pay bills, fill prescriptions, file taxes, attend university, and start a business online – and more. No more waiting in endless queues or reporting lost IDs. If it works, your own country may soon follow suit – so long as it can be made safe, simple, and protected from hackers. (Image credit: Visit Estonia)
(Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
The energy of the future is green, clean… sometimes, bizarre.
Pollution-monitoring moss: The EU is turning to a cheap, clean, easy-to-install sensor for contaminated air: cloned moss.
Monster ships made from fibre: The global economy hinges on global trade – but current cargo ships are expensive and bad for the environment. That’s why the EU is making huge, futuristic, recyclable ships made from fibre instead of steel.
Pee power: In the developing world, it could be enough to charge a mobile phone or power indoor lighting, Bristol researchers say.
Skyscrapers that morph wind and sunlight into energy: One plan in New York aims to turn America’s biggest city into a “climate laboratory” to save money and energy.
Covering lakes with solar panels: Population booms deplete energy resources and also crowd tiny strips of land – so countries like Japan are plopping massive solar panels on top of lakes and rivers.
(Images: Solar panels on a Chinese lake. Credit: Getty)
(Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/Getty Images)
The future demands higher quality of life for all – regardless of where people live.
Robot mosquito killers: In Houston, Microsoft is rolling out high-tech death traps for Zika-carrying mosquitoes, that are run on machine learning and infrared sensors.
Wearable shelters: It can be clothing… a sleeping bag… even a blow-up tent, a boon to first-responders or refugees alike.
Muppets that teach kids hygiene: Sesame Street has used puppet characters to teach kids about autism, Aids… now, in Bangladesh and India, a new character teaches the world’s 2.5 billion without toilets the basics of using them.
Cheap, clean ‘insta-toilets’: For the 40% of the world population that doesn’t have access to clean toilets, this provides a permanent, odour-free, safe solution. It’s a port-a-loo that requires no energy or sewage.
Super-batteries: BBOXX, a London-based startup, has distributed 85,000 solar-powered batteries that charge mobile phones that keep families connected for dirt cheap in East Africa.
Universal basic income: Earlier this year, Finland launched a trial scheme where it paid €560 ($624) a month to a selection of unemployed people. If they get a job they will continue to receive the money, no strings attached.
Crowd-sourced spit: A new initiative out of London, called Swab and Send, encourages students and citizens to swab their saliva and send it to the lab to find ways to fight antibiotic resistance – already, they’ve received 1,000 samples; two of which were found to have resistant properties.
Altering bone marrow to prevent disease: Illnesses like leukaemia and lymphoma are hard to treat – but a new technique that alters blood cell development within bones could be a promising step in the right direction.
3D-printed cities: By 2035, 40% of the planet will be living in cities, requiring 4,000 housing units to be built per hour – 3D printing provides a quick solution to meet this urgent need.
(Image: Rio de Janeiro city cleaning workers wearing 'Out Zika' jumpsuits during a Carnival parade. Credit: Getty Images)