Getting the Lead out with Micro Machines


I’ve paid close attention to water pollution over the years, and if you follow along with this blog you have likely read some posts about it. Even if you’re new to Naked Civics, you’re still probably well aware of the issue with news stories like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch bringing clean water causes to the forefront. And now more recently, and quite tragically in my mind, we are confronted with the events in Flint, Michigan.

Flint’s water crisis came into the spotlight two years ago after countless complaints came in from its citizens. After far too many denials, deferrals and pass the hot potato moves between local, state and federal agencies, it was finally determined that officials failed to run corrosion inhibitors through the intake pipes from the Flint River which, due to budget cuts, has become the city’s water source. This failure resulted in the mass consumption of metals like lead. This is pure poison: lead has been strongly linked to a wide variety of chronic health problems and degradation of mental faculties. While my and your daily life is probably blessed with water you can happily hydrate with worry-free, the residents of Flint have gone for a very long time with nothing but worry.

And yet, once again, we can look to the innovators and inventors to push into this problem with amazing energy. In this fascinating post in I learned of a solution that I think sounds mighty promising. (more…)

Constraining Your Way to Unrestrained Value

EmbraceSometimes the best way to kill an idea is to throw too much money at it too fast. I know that this may sound counterintuitive but I’ve seen it over and over. More often, great innovations come from places of constraint, and I’ve been taught that just about as many times. Starting with less forces creativity and important choice making. And sometimes those choices end up saving lives. In the following case, hundreds of thousands of them.

Attending a Stanford University Design class in 2008, a graduate student named Jane Chen was asked to create a medical device for neonatal hypothermia. But there was a catch: the design had to cost a mere one percent of the price of normally available incubators. It was there that Chen met her partners Razmig Hovaghimian, Linus Liang, Rand Naganand Murty and Rahul Panicker, all five of which make up the team behind Embrace – a cost-effective solution to baby temperature control.

Embrace is an infant warmer lined with a wax-like substance that can hold a 98.6-degree temperature for up to eight hours, as described by this post in Inc. Magazine. Unlike electric blankets and other more financially friendly substitutes for expensive incubators, Embrace doesn’t require electricity. You can bet that beyond the cheaper price, the fact that it is a stand-alone design makes it all the more relevant.

The concept is about as simple as the bags pizza delivery guys and gals carry our dinners in, but the benefits of the baby warmer are beyond comparable. You simply wrap the baby up like you are swaddling it with a blanket, and the material’s technology regulates the little body’s temperature. (more…)

A Keyboard that Gives Voices to the Voiceless

YougotThisrockstardisABILITYMy fair state of Minnesota is nothing if not a breeding ground for bright medical innovations and healthcare improvements. We are positively an epicenter for top-tier care organizations, device manufacturers, and treatment centers. Big news comes out of the area almost daily but today I want to introduce you to a small idea. Small, but oh so very beautiful.

Brought to you by Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, Emojability is an emoji keyboard that was designed for those with special needs. I’m guessing that you’re already familiar with emoji keyboards. They are the little smiley faces, hearts and animal symbols that are not only popping up in text messages, but on social media platforms as well. They are used to express either what words cannot, or what words are less fun at expressing. And they are, for the most part, universal in their understandability; spanning language and cultural barriers at the touch of a key.




Something cool happened this week. But it’s not the kind of thing I normally share because I was part of it. For those who have followed this blog over the past five years, you’ll know that I devote this space to writing about those who inspire me as they create a world that moves forward rather than hard to the political right and left. And today, I write about something I am involved in that will help move the world forward, together.

On Monday I stood among some folks that inspired me on that path moving forward. I was part of launching ManyOne, a scholarship that sends bi-partisan legislators from my home state of Minnesota into a leadership experience and into the growing community around it who call themselves Studio/E.

I am a co-founder of Studio/E and as such I need to fill you in on it. Studio/E is a community of leaders from just about every sector who join cohorts and learn how to explore, launch and navigate new ideas with an entrepreneurial mindset and effective practices that get people unstuck. Our membership reads like a bad bar joke: what do you get when you put a CEO, doctor, poet, rabbi, minister, artist, lawyer together? Yep, our folks come from just about every walk of life.

And when they do walk through the doors, they drop their labels and begin to learn their way forward in a rapidly changing world; a world that they all want to make better and more prosperous. Studio/E folks aren’t their titles, their education, their religion, their lifestyles or even their politics. It’s a place of first names and generous and generative thinking.

Over the past three years, I’ve been partnering with some very important people to me with the aim of ensuring that we have a steady presence of law makers – the very folks who live in one of the most labeled up environments we have. And too often it is stuck. Very stuck.

Dean Phillips of the Phillips Family Foundation and Sean Kershaw of the Citizens League run two remarkable (and remarkably effective) organizations, and along with my partner in crime at Studio/E, Tom Wiese, we have launched a mechanism to sustain their presence, grow this community of legislative leaders and bring them under a common banner that represents their common interest, their common way of learning and their common operating culture. I believe in the uncommonly good promise of their possibility. My legislative friends are called ManyOne, named after E Pluribus Unum: “out of many, one,” which spans the Seal of the United States.

It’s important for me to note that these wonderful folks have not abandoned their parties, philosophies or strongly-held views. This isn’t about ending disagreements and finding the middle. ManyOne is about something additional, something more simple and timeless.

ManyOne members, like those in the greater Studio/E family, believe that if your job is to learn faster rather than do what you currently do harder, then you better not hang out with folks who know what you know. Broader views rather than narrow vision wins the day. And that’s true in every sector.

I know, I know. The idea of taking democrats and republicans, helping them get to know one another personally, and then throwing them into a greater group of leaders where they all learn how to create new approaches to needs, opportunities and challenges sounds awfully dangerous. Dangerous enough for me to write about it here.

But again, Naked Civics is and always will be about people who inspire me. My heartfelt thanks go out to Dean, Sean, Tom, the hundreds of people in my Studio/E family, and especially my legislative ManyOne friends who have chosen a path of learning so we can move forward. Together.

The Two Most Powerful Words in Innovation


What if?

Countless great innovation stories start with this very powerful and yet very simple question. In the case I write about today the question was, “what if making scaffolding for engineered human tissue could be as easy as making other materials, like textiles?” Engineered human tissue has increasingly become an answer to many medical questions that until recently seemed impossible. It has been used to help burn victims, in surgeries of all kinds and even, according to this Smithsonian article, to create entire tracheas for patients with failing airways. Engineering human tissue is a very useful process.

But just because it’s useful doesn’t mean it’s easy or cheap. The process involves creating something called scaffolding, which is where scientists grow the tissue, and creating this can be a long and arduous process. This particular type of scaffolding is created through electrospinning, which is an intricate way of spinning threads of polymer together via the power of an electric force.

The dean of the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering, Elizabeth Loboa, and her team were the ones looking at human tissue engineering and asked, what if they could look at standard practices already in place for producing textiles and utilize them for producing scaffolding for engineered human tissue? This question opened up many new possibilities, and Loboa and her team then began to work with researchers at North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles to further explore this question. (more…)

Shining a Light on the Dark Side of Fishing

sea turtles

You’ve seen the pictures before: beautiful marine life like sea turtles and dolphins caught in fishing nets. At best, these animals are very distressed and sometimes it’s much, much worse. Of course this is a big problem that happens all over the globe.

Sea turtles, which are already on the threatened list, are very often the “bycatch” in small-scale fishermen’s nets. The bycatch is the unintended catch while netting for a different marine animal. And this is harming the sea turtle population dramatically.

The issue is that the nets used to catch fish don’t differentiate what they nab, and they gather up nearly everything in their path. I guess that there could be some way to design a net that could separate its catch but that sounds complex and very expensive. But what if we turned the challenge on its head? What if a net could be designed so certain marine life could navigate their own way out of danger?

A group of scientists from the University of Exeter thought about this problem in a very smart way. What about the behavior of sea turtles entices them to enter the nets? What would make sea turtles stay away without interfering with the intended catch? These fine folks have found that attaching green LED lights to fishing nets dramatically reduces the amount of sea turtles caught as bycatch. We’re talking 64% less, according to this Smithsonian article.


Knock on Wood, Football-Related Concussions May be on Their Way Out

american football uniform

Biomimetic design is something I have become increasingly interested in. It is the concept of looking to nature to solve complex problems. And it makes so much sense if you think about it. Nature has been designing solutions for billions of years, and humans have only been at it for mere thousands. And let’s be honest: every time you naturally push on a door when it takes a pull to open it, you’re looking at sub-optimal design. We’ve gotten better at the practice, but Nature just kicks butt. So it’s not hard to see why, given her extensive experience, looking to Mother Nature for design solutions would be a smart move.

And this is exactly the move neuroscientist Julian Bailes has made. You may recognize his name from the movie “Concussion,” in which Alec Baldwin portrays him. Bailes is famously concerned with the proven brain damage that football players undergo, and, according to him, helmets are not a solution. Helmets pad the head and protect the skull from breakage, but what they don’t protect is the brain.

This CBS News post eloquently describes the effect that high-impact has on the brain as slosh, or when the brain slams very hard against the skull, which happens in every game of football you’ve ever seen. This is not, as you can imagine, good for your grey matter. So Bailes and his team at NorthShore Neurological Institute decided to do something about it.

Hmm … what in nature is constantly banging its head against hard objects?

You’ve probably already guessed it: a woodpecker. It does make a lot of sense to look to that magical bird that bangs its beak against trees more than 80 million times in its lifetime, doesn’t it? Bailes created a collar that protects the brain the same way a woodpecker protects its own. The woodpecker is able to slam its head so much against trees because of a very peculiar biological trait it has: it wraps its tongue around its jugular vein to, as this CBS News post says, reduce the flow of blood out of the brain. (more…)

Pulling Solutions out of Thin Air



As the lack of freshwater is a looming threat for our swelling globe, new progressive designs are finding ways to pull solutions out of thin air … literally. I am all about designs that work toward a common good outcome, so I find these new ways to obtain freshwater to be utterly fascinating.

First, there was the billboard in Lima, Peru that removes moisture from the air and dispenses almost 100 liters of fresh drinking water per day. I like this design and I like even more where the billboard concept has come today.

Keen on this design, which I came across in 2013, I’ve kept my eyes peeled for other designs that utilize this same concept, and I have two more to share with you. The first is a device that pulls moisture from the air as you ride your bicycle. Fontus is essentially a water bottle that self-fills. Located where your water bottle would normally be stored on a bike, Fontus is powered by solar cells and picks up the moisture as it cruises through the air while you cycle.

According to this explanation, part of the inspiration for this device was the following projected statistic: In 2030, 47 percent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress. I think that’s a fine enough impetus to design a product that taps into something there is already plenty of – air moisture – and turn it into something we are on the fast-track to lacking – freshwater. The designers took to bicycles because they are the most widespread form of transportation in the world. Take a look at the Fontus website to learn more about this great design. (more…)

A Thread of an Idea Woven into a Safety Net

Little indian baby girl

Each year the globe loses about 1.5 million children to diseases that could be prevented by proper vaccinations. The lack of vaccinations can happen for a number of reasons, but it won’t surprise you that across the globe much of this is due to a lack of medical infrastructure and communications. And the lack of awareness isn’t just in the hands of parents, because often times it’s the medical providers that are in the dark as well. While many try to tackle challenges like this with big expensive and expansive efforts, here’s an example of a fairly low-tech approach that promises high impact because it is utilizing something already in practice.

In India, it is commonplace to put a black thread around a baby’s neck. Tradition holds that a simple black thread will keep babies protected from the “evil eye,” a superstitious misfortune that can be cast upon adults and children alike by the glare of an ill-intended person.

Tapping into this tradition, undergraduate students at the University of Yale created a pendant that stores vaccination history and data. The pendants are equipped with computer chips that have a comprehensive list of the baby’s vaccination history plus the mother’s health records, and they are safely connected to children’s necks with, you guessed it – black thread. Healthcare workers just touch the pendant to a tablet to pull up a child’s medical records, helping them to make snap decisions and provide proper intervention should something be wrong with the child. And importantly, The Ministry of Health can also access the records. (more…)

Making Food Waste and Food Insecurity Add up to Something Better


One of the United States’ most bewildering dilemmas right now is the disparity between food insecurity and food waste. 50 million Americans, nearly eight million of them children, are deemed food insecure by the USDA. And at the same time, according to this CNBC post, some 40 percent of the food grown in the United States is thrown away – just tossed into the landfills because it isn’t “sellable.” But note that does not say non-consumable. I am no mathematician, but I know that doesn’t add up.

And so does former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch. After leaving the rapidly growing grocery chain, Rauch opted to spend some time tackling social issues, among them food waste, food insecurity and the big O word: Obesity. Oftentimes food insecurity and obesity are interrelated because, as is widely known, healthy and nourishing foods are far pricier than something off of the Dollar Menu at your fast food restaurant of choice. It is unfair but it is true.

This is a problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem that Doug Rauch has decided to spend his experience, time and efforts on. In 2015 he founded Daily Table, a not-for-profit retailer that sells fresh produce and other healthy grocery items for mere fractions of the price you’d find at your average chain grocery store … even the ones that purport to offer discount shopping. Daily Table can offer food at lower prices because growers, supermarkets and suppliers donate their excess food to them – food that is either deformed and therefore unsellable, or quickly nearing the “best used by” date, which is a whole other topic of concern. (more…)