The humble heroes disrupting big industries

The Index Project

From fine artists to fishermen, meet the pioneers using clever design to tackle colossal problems.

Manu Prakash, From the collection of: The Index Project
Manu Prakash
"Scientific capability should be a fundamental right."
Manu Prakash relax, From the collection of: The Index Project

As the king of ‘frugal science’, Manu Prakash is renowned for taking some of the most advanced medical technology and reproducing it with basic materials. The seasoned bioengineer is driven by one very ambitious goal: to give everyone the tools to contribute to scientific discovery.

Foldscope prepare for use, From the collection of: The Index Project

His first iconic creation is the origami-inspired Foldscope that, like any other microscope, allows users to see tiny disease-causing life forms.

Foldscope drawing, From the collection of: The Index Project

Prakash's version, however, is made from a single sheet of paper and costs less than 50 cents.

School kids using Foldscope, From the collection of: The Index Project

"You'll never be able to do what's being done in a sophisticated lab built with millions of dollars, but, you can always start," says Prakash.

Many assembled Paperfuge units, From the collection of: The Index Project

His second solution is the Paperfuge. A 20-cent hand-powered centrifuge that can spin biological samples at thousands of revolutions per minute – another critical step for disease diagnosis.

Prakash's democratic designs not only de-specialise complex technologies, but aid the prompt diagnosis of life-threatening diseases, such as HIV, malaria, and African sleeping sickness.

Kids try out Foldscope, From the collection of: The Index Project

With the help of generous backers, both the Foldscope and Paperfuge have now been widely distributed globally. For his ingenuity, Prakash has since been recognised through various honours and awards from the likes of Harvard University, National Geographic, the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub, and many more.

Christien Meindertsma speech, From the collection of: The Index Project
Christien Meindertsma
Christien Meindertsma reveals the obscure processes and connections behind everyday life through her art.
PIG 05049, From the collection of: The Index Project

Long before the days of apps and blockchain, Christien Meindertsma used art to tell us the wonderful, and sometimes worrisome, stories behind our consumables. The designer is a true pioneer for product transparency, exposing the hidden processes behind the highly packaged world around us.

PIG 05049 spine, From the collection of: The Index Project

Meindertsma’s book PIG 05049 is the brilliant story of the lifecycle of a “product”. Three years in the making, PIG 05049 traces and charts graphically all the products made from a single commercial pig.

PIG 05049 bone fat, From the collection of: The Index Project

Her research traced the Dutch pig into a shocking total of 185 products, ranging from predictable foodstuffs to far less expected items, like ammunition, train brakes, washing powder and even cigarettes!

The Rotterdam-based designer and Professor John Heskett explain the design and the importance of understanding supply chains.

Christien Meindertsma chair, From the collection of: The Index Project

Following this success, Meindertsma embarked on a range of other award-winning projects, including exhibitions, visual diaries, clothing and even a series of biodegradable products. Among many others, her work has been exhibited in the renowned MoMA in New York, and The V&A in London.

Christien Meindertsma second book, From the collection of: The Index Project

Through Meindertsma’s eyes, we’re reminded that every product around us is precious with a great story behind it. She illustrates just how fundamental the world’s natural resources are, urging us to be a more conscientious society.

Alejandro Aravena portrait, From the collection of: The Index Project
Alejandro Aravena
“We won’t win any of the crucial battles in the near future unless we join forces with other actors of the society.”
Alejandro Aravena portrait, From the collection of: The Index Project

Alejandro Aravena is a true hero of human-centred design. Throughout the years, he has mastered the process of working collaboratively with his users to develop the best urban solutions possible.

Elemental Monterrey in context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Born in Santiago, Chile, Aravena founded ELEMENTAL - a social interest firm working in the fields of in­fras­truc­ture, trans­porta­tion, pub­lic space and hous­ing.

Elemental Monterrey in context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Monterrey was Aravena's first widely celebrated design. The social housing project, commissioned by the government of Nuevo León, Mexico, comprised of 70 homes built in a middle-class neighbourhood in Santa Catarina.

Elemental Monterrey in context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Developed in a highly collaborative process, Monterrey proposed an entirely new concept: building the “good” yet difficult half of the house. "The half that families won't be able to do individually," as Aravena phrases it.

Elemental Monterrey in context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Residents then have the opportunity to grow within the structure and construct the rest themselves, when time and resources permit, reflecting their needs and wishes.

Elemental Monterrey in context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Normally, social housing projects use about 30% of the budget to buy land and 70% to build the house. In this case, however, location was treated as a priority. And about 80% was used to buy the land to ensure residents were closer to employment opportunities, schools and other essential facilities.

"The more complex the problem, the more need for simplicity," says Aravena.

Post-tsunami Plan context, From the collection of: The Index Project

In 2010, Chile was hit by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in history. Subsequently, a huge tsunami ripped through the coastal city of Constitutión – destroying everything else that the earthquake hadn’t already.

Post-tsunami Plan context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Given just 100 days to come up with a solution, Aravena and his team came up with the brilliant idea of a forest strategically planted in the area of high impact.

While the Post-tsunami Plan may not stop a devastation entirely, experts estimate that the forest would, surprisingly, weaken the impact by up to 70%. The wooded area would also absorb all the minor flooding from the rain the area receives several times a year.

Luis von Ahn portrait, From the collection of: The Index Project
Luis von Ahn
"I want to give everyone equal access to education, regardless if they have money or not.”
Luis von Ahn portrait, From the collection of: The Index Project

At just 29, Luis von Ahn first rose to notoriety when he sold his first company ‘reCAPTCHA’ to Google. Now, dubbed as one of the first pioneers behind crowdsourcing, he's working to solve some of society's biggest problems by developing collaborative systems for humans and computers.

Duolingo, From the collection of: The Index Project

While many of us don’t know the Guatemalan-American by name, most of us will know his iconic creation Duolingo, a language-learning platform he developed with fellow entrepreneur and friend Severin Hacker.

Duolingo in context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Launched in 2012, Duolingo has quickly developed into one of the most effective language learning and translation tools on the market. Currently, the platform has more than 300 million users.

Duolingo in use, From the collection of: The Index Project

The game-like modules cover almost every element in language education; teaching users to both write and speak accurately. Broken up into lessons, players cover everything from food and everyday phrases to correct pronunciation and even politics.

Duolingo in use, From the collection of: The Index Project

Players must also practice each module on a regular basis to keep the progress bars full, ensuring their knowledge stays refreshed. According to independent research, around 34 hours spent on the programme is equivalent to an 11-week university semester.

Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker, From the collection of: The Index Project

The success lies in the systematic testing technique, says von Ahn.

Duolingo in use, From the collection of: The Index Project

“If we want to know whether we should teach plurals before adjectives, for the next 50,000 users, we’ll teach half of them plurals before adjectives, half the other way around and then we measure which of these groups learns better”.

For von Ahn, the solution isn’t just about learning languages but about providing opportunity. “Now, children in developing countries are using the same technology as some of the richest people in the world," he says. "That’s what we think is true educational equality.”

Han Pham talking, From the collection of: The Index Project
Hân Pham
"Designers don’t always see it, but we have a responsibility to work for good, to do the right thing."
Han Pham context - city, From the collection of: The Index Project

“We used to make toys out of our own garbage,” says Danish Industrial designer Hân Pham, who spent her childhood in poverty-stricken Vietnam. “People say they feel sorry for me as a refugee, but I don’t see it like that at all - I see it as a strength.”

Yellowone Handsafe boy with needle, From the collection of: The Index Project

In the '80s, Pham's family fled Vietnam. They boarded a raft and, just like many today, risked their lives for a better future. Eventually, they were taken to a refugee camp in Singapore. But the hardship didn’t end there, especially when Pham contracted a serious infection from a dirty needle.

Yellowone Handsafe needle, From the collection of: The Index Project

Contaminated needles result in 260,000 HIV infections, 21 million Hepatitis B infections, and 2 million Hepatitis C infections worldwide every year. It took Pham weeks to recover. An experience that she’ll never forget, and one that inspired her first life-saving design.

Yellowone Handsafe being used in many cans, From the collection of: The Index Project

“If I can see potential in a using waste product, then I would like to use it,” explained Pham. Using an existing piece of 'trash', available everywhere, Pham then came up with the Yellowone Needle Cap.

The Cap is a simple yet clever design for the safe collection and storage of used needles. It can be mounted onto a beverage can, and store up to 150 used needles.

Yellowone Handsafe staff, From the collection of: The Index Project

Using her unique skill to take a complex problem and boil it down to a simple solution, Pham then moved to tackle hospital-related infections, which kill more people than AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined. Many of these infections are spread simply because staff aren’t washing their hands.

Yellowone Handsafe, From the collection of: The Index Project

The Yellowone Handsafe is a wearable, alcohol-based hand rub dispenser that provides healthcare staff with easy access to hand cleansing without having to abandon patients.

Both of Pham's life-saving designs are now in the process of being commercialised in Denmark and several other European countries.

Green Wave kelp, From the collection of: The Index Project
Bren Smith
"We’re hoping to weave new principles into the DNA of the industry, this is our chance to do food right, this is our chance to do agriculture right."
Bren Smith at sea, From the collection of: The Index Project

While Bren Smith’s story starts as a classic fisherman’s tale, it certainly doesn’t end as one. He earned his sea legs at just 14, and, before long, found himself hauling in the delicious ingredient that fills the buns of the world’s most iconic fish burger, the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish.

Greenwave context - fish, From the collection of: The Index Project

But, like many before him, Smith inevitably saw the devastating impact of overfishing and climate change and realised how unsustainable traditional fishing is. He was determined to find a sustainable way forward.

Smith developed a 3D ocean farming system that is currently the world’s most sustainable form of food production. While providing a source of sustainable, nutritious food, it’s designed to restore ocean ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and create jobs.

Greenwave context - oysters, From the collection of: The Index Project

The secret of Smith’s model lies in the choice of plants and animals which, when grown together, thrive and benefit the entire ecosystem. Each of the species serve an essential purpose, such as oysters to balance nitrogen levels, and seaweed to soak up carbon dioxide.

Greenwave context - ocean, From the collection of: The Index Project

Having named his system GreenWave, Smith’s dream is to take his farming model global. The entire design is shared on an open-source basis and the company even gives new farmers a leg-up with the initial set-up and first sales. Right now, GreenWave has requests to start farms in 20 countries.

For Smith, it’s not just about securing the longevity of our oceans, but about ensuring everyone can play a role in sustainable development. “We can make sure that farms are actually part of the solution to the climate crisis,” he says.

Daan Roosegaarde work, From the collection of: The Index Project
Daan Roosegaarde
"Good design, good luxury is not about a Louis Vuitton bag or a Ferrari, it's about clean air, clean water, clean energy."
Smart Highway, From the collection of: The Index Project

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is world-renowned for taking on real-world problems, like flooding and pollution, in the most imaginative of ways.

Smart Highway glow, From the collection of: The Index Project

His award-winning solutions bring age-old structures, like roads and windmills, into the 21st century.

“We have smart cars, so why can’t we have smart roads?” Roosegaarde asked. Shortly after, he developed a remarkable way to make roads ‘speak’.

Smart Highway temperature, From the collection of: The Index Project

Inspired by glowing nature, like jellyfish and fireflies, Roosegaard's Smart Highway features smart paints and lighting. The solar-charging paints react to changes in their environment and light up at night for better visibility.

Produced in collaboration with Heijmans Infrastructure, Smart Highway’s Glowing Lines were launched in the Dutch town of Oss.

The Smog Free Project, From the collection of: The Index Project

Tackling the formidable urban problem of air pollution, Roosegaarde designed the Smog Free Tower, which improves air quality by sucking up pollution from public areas. The magnificent structures, currently on tour in China and Poland, clean 30,000 m3 per hour using no more electricity than a domestic boiler.

The Smog Free Project end product, From the collection of: The Index Project

The collected smog particles are then compressed into beautiful rings – a tangible souvenir for supporters.

Unsurprisingly, the Towers have received worldwide recognition and will soon be seen across the world.

Joshua Browder presenting, From the collection of: The Index Project
Joshua Browder
“Anything is possible. With the Internet, success is a few lines of code away!”
DoNotPay context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Often times, those who become entangled in the justice system can't afford representation. Legal issues, such as wrongful termination, housing eviction or even parking tickets, left unaddressed can cause the type of economic shock that can easily push the vulnerable into poverty.

Joshua Browder portrait, From the collection of: The Index Project

At the age of 18, Londoner Joshua Browder began to drive and, like many other city-dwellers, incurred numerous parking tickets where the rules were considered vague at best.

DoNotPay context, From the collection of: The Index Project

Frustrated, Browder conducted some research and quickly discovered that these tickets weren’t just wrongfully issued but were disproportionately targeting the elderly and disabled.

Joshua Browder presenting, From the collection of: The Index Project

Fortunately, Browder also noticed that these unfair tickets, dolled-out with ease, could just as easily be appealed. All that was needed was the right legal tool.

DoNotPay in use, From the collection of: The Index Project

DoNotPay is the world’s first robot ‘lawyer’ that helps users navigate the complex legal system. All users have to do is create a profile and start a conversation with the chat bot. It will then ask questions, provide helpful advice and, if necessary, file an appeal on your behalf.

DoNotPay in use, From the collection of: The Index Project

The chatbot has already overturned more than 375,000 parking fines and according to Browder, has saved UK and New York motorists more than $9 million.

DoNotPay, From the collection of: The Index Project


The automated legal tool is also helping users save on airline tickets. The service monitors the price of tickets for flights that its users have purchased, and then automatically looks for legal loopholes to get users partial refunds when the prices drop.

Refugees United context, From the collection of: The Index Project

However, DoNotPay isn’t just about saving money but is now branching out to help our most vulnerable. It’s bots have been used to help refugees with legal advice and asylum applications in the US, UK and Canada.

Credits: Story

Prakash Labs & Stanford University, Christien Meindertsma, Elemental, TEDx, Duolingo, Hân Pham, Greenwave & Ron Gautreau, Studio Roosegaarde, DoNotPay and INDEX: Design to Improve Life®

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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