E-Waste to E-Lectricity

If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance – actually almost a certainty – that you, like me, have at some point participated in a massive global accumulation of e-waste. While our trashed electronics only account for a tiny percentage of our total waste, it represents an overwhelming percentage (nearly a third) of our toxic waste. Worldwide, only 12.5% of this poisonous byproduct of our digital lives is recycled and thus most of this garbage sits dangerously in dumps or is shipped to the developing world to become their garbage.

Paradoxically, there are nearly 400 million people in India (yes … nearly a quarter more than those who live in the United States altogether) living off the grid. These folks have no technology let alone any e-waste. And when I say off the grid, I mean not a glimmer of light once the sun goes down.

But what if we looked at these discarded items as something other than waste? What if we looked at them as assets? (more…)

Designing Good Neighborhoods One Commercial Space at a Time

Have you ever noticed a piece of prime real estate in your neighborhood that goes from restaurant concept to restaurant concept but never really makes it? Are you tired of being a passive spectator to the commercial development around you?

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could crowdsource the amenities that make your neighborhood … your neighborhood?

Welcome to HoodStarter, a startup that gives you, the mighty residents of your community, some say about what should go into that vacant commercial space around the corner. No more sitting by and wondering what might pop up next – HoodStarter gives you the megaphone for the voice you never knew you had.


A Spoonful of Good Design

My grandma Molly was an old school class act. Perhaps you know the type; she was a lady who dressed up for dinner and liked to set a proper table. But as she aged she suffered from tremors in her hands, and one of the things that changed was the ability to eat with nice silverware. She lost a bit of her independence and a bit of her dignity, and I remember how sad that made her. To be sure, for many of us picking up a spoon is among the easiest things we do in a day, but to someone whose hands face constant involuntary oscillations, digging into a simple bowl of soup isn’t that simple at all.

Because of those memories, it was hard not to think of Molly when I came upon this article via the Yahoo! News Digest app (which, by the way, has recently become one of my favorite hand-held news sources). It seems that some very smart, creative and caring folks have been putting time, money and effort into designing a utensil to help alleviate the difficulties tremors bring on.

Google is producing something called the Liftware Spoon, a utensil meant to assist those who suffer from uncontrollable shaking. Lift Labs, whose founder began to study motion stabilization in graduate school, originally designed the Liftware Spoon and this past September Google acquired the company and continues to fund the spoon’s development. (more…)

Civic Design Gratitude Roundup

Tis the season to be thankful and that, fortunately, never seems to be a problem for me. Despite the tsunami of bad news that pours out of our TVs, radios, tablets and phones, there are wonderful things happening in our world. The world of civic design is robust and rapidly growing, as we learn how to produce value creation by integrating common good values. Whether I write about an app that simultaneously aims to fight obesity and poverty or urban gardens on top of train stations, I always focus on something that has an impact that reaches far beyond the end user.

Why? Because like many of you I don’t want to just buy things … I want to by into things. And that “into” marketplace is something worth celebrating and supporting.

As we’re closing in on Thanksgiving, I’ve been spending some time reflecting on what I’m grateful for. There are so many designs out there that make a difference and really contribute to a better society. Here’s just a sample of what 2014 has brought us: (more…)

Powerful Steps Toward a Brighter Future

There’s nothing quite like design where the common good is imbedded in at the core. I love running into ideas where we are building our way into better habits and habitats, and one of my favorite ways of becoming aware of these nuggets of goodness is when my good friends pass them on to me.

That was the case when my pal and landscape architecture guru David Motzenbecker responded to my post about the algae-powered building I blogged about last month. He introduced me to an awesome product called Pavegen. Actually, he re-introduced it to me. I blogged about Pavegen back in June of 2013, but it has gotten even cooler now. So thanks for the update, David!

Pavegen is comprised of a team of British engineers that is harvesting energy from foot traffic by installing low-carbon energy tiles in public places. Parks, airports and walkways are just a couple spaces that they’ve placed their innovative systems in. Every time someone steps on a Pavegen tile, energy from the movement is harvested and emitted to other uses such as batteries or direct power applications.

If you watch the video below you’ll have a clear view of just how impactful Pavegen already is, plus you’ll hear an epic quip by Stephen Hawking where he says that harvesting new electricity from human activity is the ultimate renewable energy. To give you a little example of just how brilliant this concept is, here’s something Pavegen did in Rio de Janiero where they installed 200 tiles into a football field (yes my fellow American friends, you can use the word “soccer.”) Their largest installation to date, Pavegen’s system powered the field’s surrounding lights for up to 10 hours, just from the foot activity on the field. Genius! (more…)

Attention: No Deficit in Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Most likely you’ve heard of that growing condition. Perhaps you even know someone who has been diagnosed with A.D.H.D. How could I make such a claim? Because according to the Center for Disease Control’s latest numbers, something like 11 percent of the children in our country are labeled as such. 6.4 million kids. Wow. Where did that come from?

This captivating article in the NYT’s, A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D., points to something outside of our brain chemistry. Or better put, it places our brains in the context of our daily environments and in a deeply profound way. The article’s author Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, offers some interesting approaches to handling A.D.H.D.

Friedman surmises that the so-called negative effects of A.D.H.D. are completely related to the environment in which one operates. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that those with A.D.H.D. are hard-wired to seek novelty, hence the small attention spans. In today’s society, especially in the classroom, a short attention span is problematic and we often label that as a problem that can be medicated into submission. But the NYT article looks back to ancient history, to a time when we were hunters and gatherers, and notes that A.D.H.D.-like traits are what helped keep our kind alive and thriving. In other words, the novelty-seeking behavioral trait was an evolutionary advantage. Apparently there weren’t many straight-backed chairs and black boards out in the African savannah 100,000 years ago. (more…)

Stepping Away From the Blackboard and Sitting in a Desk Facing It

Great design not only comes from addressing an important need, but in responding to it with deep empathy and understanding from the point of view of a user. It’s true: walk in the shoes of your customer and try and assume where their head is at and you will have a much better chance of producing something that is truly valued, truly appreciated and truly lasting. That’s design thinking 101.

Perhaps that’s why it’s particularly painful to watch bad design, especially when the need that is being addressed is so important. Enter our traditional education designs of schools, classrooms, curricula and teaching. The whole tool set has huge impact but it is not a hot bed of empathetic design; at least if you agree that the “user” in this case is a student. From elementary school all the way up to post-doctorates, students spend hours upon hours sitting in their seats hurriedly scribbling notes so as not to forget what the teacher is saying, all in the quest of repeating it back on the next test. That’s but one typical example of a series of activities that students experience, and the data shows that the design just isn’t cutting it. Deep and lasting learning isn’t resulting from that activity nearly enough. Learning is the need, isn’t it?

Veteran high school teacher Alexis Wiggins decided to shadow two high schoolers for two days (one day per student), to learn a little bit about what her students’ days were like. She learned some lessons and wrote about them in a post that was read by hundreds of thousands of people. The Washington Post picked it up and it exploded on social media.

She starts off her post saying, “I have made a terrible mistake.” (more…)

Education That May Not Set You free, But Just Might Keep You Free

An education can really set you free. Well that’s the line anyway. But read on and you’ll see an interesting, uplifting and a wise application of that adage. Because in this case, while an education may not set you free it most definitely can help keep you free.

What I’m referring to is education for prisoners and in this particular case a degree from Bard College. Max Kenner was a student at Bard College when he came up with the idea of bringing education to prisoners. Not knowing anyone incarcerated but possessing the desire to provide education to those behind bars, Kenner conceived of the Bard Prison Initiative.

The BPI is a program that enables men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. Admission into the Bard program is competitive and rigorous, but the competition overlooks things like an applicant’s criminal record or his or her release date and focuses instead on providing education for those who have a thirst for it. The program offers over 60 courses per semester that span from literature and art to math and science. (more…)

A Building Where Life Exists Inside and Out

You may never have heard of the international design and engineering firm called Arup, but I bet there are very few who can’t recall examples of their stunning work. The iconic Sydney Opera House is one of their many remarkable projects, along with Beijing’s Bird’s Nest and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

New on their impressive resume is a building in Hamburg, Germany that is the first-ever algae-powered and self-sustaining building in the world. Arup led the design for what’s called the BIQ, or the Bio Intelligent Quotient building, which literally has a façade made up of living, breathing, moving algae.

The building looks, as Mark Hay of GOOD notes, like “a bubbling green lava lamp stretched over an entire building. But those moving bubbles serve a function: they help to feed and order the living algae.” The algae both insulate and shade the building, keeping costs and energy consumption down for the 15 apartments within it. The building utilizes pressurized air to pump the algae with carbon dioxide, which keeps the algae moving and prevents them from settling on the glass of the building. The sun-exposed algae also soak up the rays to create biomass – a great, renewable energy source.  (more…)

Kids These Days: Biking Their Way to Better Brains

You’ve heard it once and you’ll hear it a hundred times more: Sitting is the new smoking. The typical adult spends approximately eight hours per day sitting at work, retreats home to sit down for dinner, then on to sitting on the coach to watch TV, or sitting on the side of their kids’ beds while reading them bedtime stories. This sedentary lifestyle has become known as the new killer. Yep, you’d be better off moving all day long while puffing through a pack of cigarettes.

The body was created to move and increasing amounts of research are revealing just how terrible it is to remain stagnant throughout the day. And there is a growing body of evidence that shows that if you aren’t moving your body your brain won’t move either; cognitive performance shrinks just like your waist will expand. Thus the rise of the standing desk and the bike pedals you can put underneath your desk to keep your lower extremities active. (more…)