From fine artists to fishermen, meet the pioneers using clever design to tackle colossal problems.
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.
His first iconic creation is the origami-inspired Foldscope that, like any other microscope, allows users to see tiny disease-causing life forms.
Prakash's version, however, is made from a single sheet of paper and costs less than 50 cents.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Aravena founded ELEMENTAL - a social interest firm working in the fields of infrastructure, transportation, public space and housing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The success lies in the systematic testing technique, says von Ahn.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is world-renowned for taking on real-world problems, like flooding and pollution, in the most imaginative of ways.
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’.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Frustrated, Browder conducted some research and quickly discovered that these tickets weren’t just wrongfully issued but were disproportionately targeting the elderly and disabled.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Prakash Labs & Stanford University, Christien Meindertsma, Elemental, TEDx, Duolingo, Hân Pham, Greenwave & Ron Gautreau, Studio Roosegaarde, DoNotPay and INDEX: Design to Improve Life®