Retro Refuse in an 8-Bit Can

Some of you are old enough to remember when the original Tetris, the extremely satisfying tile stacking game, was released in the mid-eighties. And those of you who weren’t around for the first version might have run into it in a “retro-release” form. Well it’s back again and in a surprising and satisfying new medium. Just make sure you’re not looking for it on your game console.

TetraBIN is an augmented reality trash can that rewards folks for throwing stuff away instead of littering. Sensors in the bin ignite LED lights to create an interactive Tetris-like experience on the exterior of the trashcan. The block’s patterns are discerned by the shape and size of the trash you deposit in combination with your timing – a heavy-hitting move that gamifies the simple and mindless, but important, act of throwing trash away. If you watch the video below you’ll get to see the trashcan in action.

Interested in exploring how technology can be used to motivate behavior changes, folks from the University of Sydney’s Design Lab collaborated on this project with the hopes of improving urban livability. Alumni Steven Bai and Sam Johnson worked with the Design Lab’s Director of the computing program, Martin Tomitsch, to find a way to make cities more welcoming, and one important way to do that is to keep them clean. And that is something that citizens benefit by taking an active role in, whether they acknowledge it or not. (more…)

Coffee As Fuel for More than Just Humans

Yes the Brits love their tea, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like a mean cup of joe as well. Londoners are avid coffee drinkers and that means that, like the rest of us that imbibe in our morning “go juice,” they produce a fair amount of coffee waste: some 200,000 tons of waste coffee grounds annually. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

It seemed like a lot of waste to a man named Arthur Kay, too. While drawing up a blueprint for a coffee roaster, Kay decided there might be some potential in turning the roaster’s waste into energy, so says this Forbes piece.

So he created Bio-bean, a green energy company that collects coffee waste around London and recycles it into biofuel – more specifically, biomass pellets and biodiesel. These biofuel products are then sold to London-based businesses to help power buildings and transport products. Bio-bean itself uses its own fuels while trucking around town collecting coffee waste.

Bio-bean’s coffee-waste-turned-fuels are inexpensive, clean and 100% carbon-neutral (they have a net zero carbon footprint), not to mention locally-produced. The business is fairly young still, but it already processes around 30,000 of London’s 200,000 tons of waste coffee grounds annually. The Forbes piece puts that into layman’s terms: Bio-bean saves just over 53,000 barrels of oil each year, which is equivalent to driving a London bus around the world more than 7,000 times. (more…)

The Reflection in this Mirror is Not as it Appears

OK, it’s not like I spent the winter buried up to my eyebrows in snow like my friends in Boston, but being a Minnesotan means that I’m no stranger to that scene. And I know how much energy it takes to keep my house warm during the treacherous winter because I’m reminded of it every month when I get the energy bill. I am also familiar with sweltering summers, because living here in the middle of the North American continent means that our temperatures are as hot as the winters are cold. Cranking up the air conditioning has the same effect on my energy bill: it makes it grow exponentially. So imagine the amount of energy skyscrapers and other spacious buildings burn through as they keep their interiors within a comfortable temperature bandwidth.

Luckily, some folks whose job it is to know these numbers have come up with an interesting design. I had heard of the difference between your standard blacktop roof (it’s a heat sponge) and white roofs (big improvement), but scientists from Stanford have created a mirror that covers rooftops and reflects a whopping 97% of the visible light that falls down on it. I imagine that functionality alone could beat the white top and prevent buildings from heating up, but the technology within the mirror actually releases the heat at a particular wavelength of infrared light that zips right through the atmosphere and back out into space, as said in this article in the Guardian.


An Old, Iconic Structure Becomes Relevant Again

Eiffel Tower. These two words evoke a lot of sentiments for a lot of people, many of which are likely nostalgia for great times spent in Paris. What few people – if any – probably think about when they hear of this famous tower is environmentally friendly. And why should they? This 128-year-old structure wasn’t designed in the times where “global warming” and “greenhouse gasses” dominated our headlines

In partnership with the Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE), a renewable energy firm called Urban Green Energy (UGE) installed two wind turbines on the second level of the tower last month. The turbines are expected to produce enough energy to offset the annual consumption of all the commercial activity on the tower’s first floor, according to UGE’s website. And if you’ve ever been to this landmark, you know the hustle and bustle that takes place on floor one.

The second level of the tower is approximately 400 feet above ground level, which is an optimal height for energy production. Because it’s so high in the sky, the turbines aren’t all that visible from below. But even if they were, they look kind of cool. If you view the video below you’ll get an idea of how little they disrupt the beauty of the tower. It really is an elegant design.


Spreading Hygiene to Combat the Spread of Disease

The alarm goes off and you wake up in a hotel room and it’s time to get ready for an important meeting. Before you jump in the shower, you grab that teeny bottle of shampoo and fumble with the wrapping on that small bar of soap. But whereas you might plow through that bottle of shampoo, chances are you leave behind nearly that entire bar of soap.

If you’re like me and millions of others who find themselves on the road for business or pleasure every year, you might have looked at that little sudsy rectangle in your hand and thought, “what a waste.” And that’s why a nice satisfying smile emerged on my face when I learned about a wonderful outfit that is turning this would-be garbage into something really valuable for some needy people around the planet.

The Global Soap Project takes the bars of soap that everyone discards in hotels after one day of use (if that) and recycles them into millions of new bars. The new bars of soap are distributed through health programs to the communities in the world that lack this really simple amenity. Hundreds of hotels around the U.S. are participating in this new initiative, including almost 40 in my home state of Minnesota.

Malawi_Recipients-271x210Before you shout, “Are you kidding? Used soap … yuck!” you should look at the process, as you’ll see that the Global Soap Project is serious about producing a very clean product and an equally clean process. If you take a gander at their FAQ page you’ll see some requests for eco-friendliness. One question asks what type of container one should use to collect the used soap. The answer is that they want hotels to collect and ship soap in their original boxes so as to keep as small a footprint as possible. Like I said, serious!

In partnership with organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, Global Soap Project identifies those who either don’t have access to soap or don’t have a clear understanding of why good hand washing is important. And good hand washing is of an immense importance.

Global Soap’s website says that the leading cause of death for kids in developing countries is from hygiene-related illnesses, claiming 1.7 million lives worldwide each year. Research shows that washing your hands with soap (and doing a good job of it) is the most effective way to prevent those deaths. So effective, the website continues, that it works better than vaccines, medications and clean water initiatives.

I know that this sounds like a big number and a big claim. But it’s believable. I’ve been on the board of a major hospital system for a number of years and I’ve seen the impact of effective hand washing and the precipitous drop in the spread of infections as a result. Your mom was right: wash your hands!

And now, because of the Global Soap Project, that sage advice can be practiced for free in many places on this planet. All this from a simple little product that we think so little of that we usually toss it into a hotel waste basket.

So the next time you’re on the road, take a minute and ask the folks at your hotel whether they participate in this important program. And if they don’t, perhaps you can link them to a cleansing idea that makes sense in two ways: reducing waste and alleviating some human suffering.

Know Carlsberg, Cardboard and a Combo that You’ll Drink To

You’d probably recognize it if you saw it: the shamrock green bottle with a bright red crown adorning the green oval label. It’s a beer called Carlsberg and its well-known image is about to get a very big face-lift. Actually, reconstructive surgery is more accurate.

The Danish brewer, The Carlsberg Group, has been around for just under 170 years and produces some 500 different beers. With the company’s great power comes great responsibility, so it’s a darn good thing that it cares about things like responsible drinking, community engagement and now … sustainable packaging. This last one is of particular interest to me.

The Carlsberg Group’s website acknowledges how big of an impact packaging has on the environment. It says that 45% of total CO2 emissions come from packaging, and when they’re producing more than 36 billion bottles of beer a year (that’s how many they sold in 2013), they are leaving a behemoth footprint on our environment.

This awareness was enough to make Carlsberg re-think their age-old bottle design. They’ve teamed up with few Danish companies to create the Green Fiber Bottle, a product they are hoping to bring to market within the next few years. One of said companies is called ecoXpac, a producer of 100% biodegradable molded fiber packaging.

You might be picking up on what I’m saying here: Carlsberg is working on releasing a cardboard-like beer bottle made of molded fiber. It’s a durable material sourced from sustainable wood-fiber that can withstand beverages and is compliant with all food and beverage regulations. The bottle will be 100% biodegradable (even the cap) and can be recycled like any other recyclables. And when the recycling-averse refuse to sort it from their garbage, the bottle will naturally decompose anyway. (more…)

The Patient as Co-Author

Experiencing good health year-round usually doesn’t occur when you’re a passive spectator to the medical profession. It’s far better to step up to the role of co-designer and co-producer of your health and wellbeing in concert with your doctor and everyone else that you fit your lifestyle around, whether that is the local grocer or your morning walking partner. But while it’s relatively easy to make sense of the grocery aisle, most of us are walking in the dark when it comes to understanding a partnership with our doctors.

Understanding that patient engagement is critical to patient health, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) of Boston created an innovative program called OpenNotes. Supported by the good folks at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – the powerplayer in health philanthropy – OpenNotes enables patients to view their health care providers’ notes after visits via a free online portal called PatientSite. When patients have access to the notes, not only can they better understand their own condition, but importantly, they can share that information with people who may help with their care. Nice.

Access to patients’ own medical records has reached more than five million Americans, and by the sounds of it this number will only continue to escalate. A study took a look at 20,000 patients in three areas of the country and found that patients with access to their doctors’ notes had better treatment plan recall and reported better adherence to their medication routines. (more…)

How Do You Instill Food Literacy in Children? Roll in a Mobile Kitchen.

The past few years have seen some great new designs aimed at schools. Outdoor classrooms are on the rise, which are designed for kids to interact with Mother Nature and increase substantive learning supported by active movement. And by the way, the kids are getting some of their pent up energy out of their systems too. Schoolyard gardens are becoming popular, too, and they are a great way to show kids that the food they eat doesn’t just come from the refrigerator, but rather from growing. And, again, the lessons don’t stop there because there are great experiences in perseverance; delayed gratification and constant tending that emerge as well.

Nice. But could we delve even further into action learning?

How about some hands-on cooking education … something that until now hasn’t been easy to squeeze into schools? Getting kids to interact with and cook their food is one of the best ways to deepen their understanding and appreciation around what we consume. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Are you into baking? If so, you’re also adept at some pretty important aspects of math. And of course, there’s plenty to learn about accurately reading a recipe. Consider that when you peel a potato you could also learn about the Potato Famine and Irish immigration into the United States. Or take an ice cube and turn it into boiling water and you will have experienced the three stages of matter: solid, liquid and gas. There’s important literacy to be gained when playing around in a kitchen. (more…)

Words Designed to be Read, Not Written

Great design focuses on what is truly needed, not on existing solutions. Especially when the solution is some 10,000 years old, like writing.

We write to convey, distribute and preserve thoughts, and until now our focus has been stuck on the page. Back in the day … way, way back in the day, the solution was a chisel and a slab of stone. The process was not only slow, but the materials were extremely expensive. Fast forward many centuries to the time of penning down thoughts onto sheepskin, and there was still that same constraint: the delivery mechanism, i.e. the surface upon which you wrote, was expensive. If you look at the process from that vantage point, it’s easy to see how we came upon the design of the paragraph. Yes, just like the one you’re reading. A paragraph is a design that is intended to squeeze as many words onto a space as possible. And that makes perfect sense when space is precious.

But I’m guessing you’re not reading this piece on a slab of stone, a scroll of sheepskin or even on piece of paper. Most likely you’re digesting my words digitally; exactly how I’m producing them. And that space is pretty darn free. We can write, cut, paste and copy with unprecedented speed and ease, and yet that old standby – the paragraph – remains. It is a design built for writing, but not necessarily for reading. (more…)

The (Re)Purposeful Backpack

As I sit down to write this blog post on my laptop it’s too easy to overlook and take for granted the many advantages I have: I’m typing on a small, quick machine that is connected to the world wide web with access to endless amounts of information. It’s plugged into my wall and thus can pretty much last forever. My cellphone is nearby and, though it’s evening, my home is nicely – and safely – lit. I’m incredibly fortunate to have these “basics” and there’s a high likelihood that you are as well, as you read this on one type of device or another via our shared Internet of connectivity.

Of course, not everyone is so lucky as we are. Forget the Internet; many families in rural areas of the world have no option but to light their homes in the evenings with kerosene lamps, wood fires or candles. Often times many of those same families have kids that walk far into town each morning in order to get to school.

A company called Repurpose Schoolbags capitalized on those two issues – long walks to school and lack of lighting in the evenings – by creating a simple backpack to give out to schoolchildren. The backpack is made out of old plastic bags and is equipped with a little solar panel on the top. After a long walk to school, the panel is charged enough to provide light for up to 12 hours! And for kids in remote villages in West Africa, for example, that’s quite the tool. They can illuminate the home for their families and they can shine a light on their school work, illuminating their futures as well. (more…)