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…)

First Response is Gaining Height

Imagine if you were to call 911 in response to someone having a heart attack and the ambulance arrived within one minute. You’d hardly have time to panic before a medic arrived! When it comes to heart failure or terrible accidents, one minute is already pushing it, and it is nearly impossible that an ambulance could arrive that quickly.

A very bright graduate of the Technical University of Delft IDE located in the Netherlands has a solution to this time crunch problem. The Ambulance Drone is the result of Alec Momont’s Master’s thesis project and it’s got some real potential.

It’s a lightweight drone (made with an ultra light carbon fiber frame and 3D-printed materials) that can arrive on-scene in approximately 60 seconds. To answer the skeptics’ suspicions right off the bat – this is assuming that eventually these drones will be stocked anywhere ambulances are. The drone flies around 62 miles per hour and doesn’t have to wait for lights to change or for clueless drivers to get out of its way. (more…)

A Sweet Way to Confront a Chewy Problem

Good dental hygiene is more important than flashing a set of pearly whites. Tooth decay can lead to pretty serious consequences such as oral cancer, eroded gums and even elevated risks of heart attack and stroke. And while getting an annual check up is common in the developed world (twice a year in my family thank you very much, and regards to my retired dentist father), that is hardly the case in poorer countries. There are plenty of locations where people can hardly afford those unhappy consequences, let alone the price of visiting a dentist in the first place.

And that unfortunate situation is just what one young American woman named Morgan Snyder found when she spent a year volunteering at an education charity in Bangalore, India. She couldn’t help but notice the issue because she heard so many children complaining of having toothaches. After further investigation, the teachers told her that many kids even missed classes because of dental problems, according to this New York Times post.

Most would leave the situation as is when they returned home, but fortunately for many Indian children, Morgan isn’t most people.

The article goes on to explain that when she returned to the University of Pennsylvania for her sophomore of college, Morgan spoke with her friends about the dental issues she noticed in India. She must have some cool friends because next thing you know they all put their heads together and created something pretty remarkable.

This team of five students – all under age 23 – created Sweet Bites, a chewing gum that is sweetened with a natural sugar called xylitol (which is scientifically proven to prevent and reverse tooth decay). Why gum? Well for one, the gum industry has nearly $500 million in sales annually in India. In others words, the distribution system is already solidly in place. And two – kids love gum, so why not embed some healthy habits into something that is already habitual?

Three grams of xylitol daily is what the team calculated will significantly improve dental health, so they pack each piece of gum with 1.06 grams of it. And for 1 rupee (1.6 cents USD), it hardly breaks the bank like tooth removal or cancer treatment down the line would.

Sweet Bites started out via an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign (which was fully funded) and now the team is aiming to provide 1.4 million Indian children with pieces of gum via school lunches within the next few years. That’s a big, attainable dream that will find its way into the lives for many, many kids.

This concept is so cool because it is making headway against some serious tooth problems down the road with a ridiculously simple solution that is readily available to millions of fingertips. Sweet Bites isn’t a silver bullet; proper dental care doesn’t come in stick form. But this design is preventing poor health while spreading the word that it’s important to floss, brush and visit a dentist on a regular basis.

 The thought of that makes you want to flash those pearly whites into a nice smile, doesn’t it?


Shelter That Isn’t Just Powerful, but is Actually Power-Producing

I love architecture. Always have. And the best architecture doesn’t merely erect structures to contain humans, but soars with humanity integrated into every space. These days sustainable humanity through sustainable stewardship of natural resources presents a central design challenge. If you find the questions that emerge from that exploration compelling, you’re probably going to love the answers that this beauty of a house has exposed. Located just outside of Larvik, Norway, this home actually produces more energy than it uses – double the amount plus enough to power an electric car, in fact.

How can a structure this aesthetically pleasing (see the images below – unbelievable!) be quite so energy efficient? With extreme intention. Just about every nook and cranny in the design contributes to the cause. The slanted roof is covered with photovoltaic panels (a fancy way of saying solar cells), and is strategically southeast-facing so as to absorb the optimal amount of sunlight throughout the year, according to this Design Boom post.

The huge windows allow for ample natural sunlight, nearly eliminating the need for electric lights during the daytime. The home collects fresh rainwater, has a form of exterior sun shading (so you don’t need to run the AC) and taps into excess heat produced from the radiators to heat the running water, just to list a few more spectacular components. Of course that sizable outdoor pool is heated by solar-generated heat surplus as well.

The plus home (so named because it produces more energy than it consumes) was designed by a design firm called Snøhetta in conjunction with the Research Centre on Zero Emission Buildings (ZEB), which aims to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions caused by buildings. And by the sounds of it, their efforts are quite successful. Thanks to the popularity of this gorgeous and environmentally kind home, between 700 and 800 similarly designed homes are being developed in Bergen, Norway, according to this Inhabitat article. And as you’d imagine, it would seem that these creative environmental approaches just might migrate out of that small geography quite soon.

The structure has been nominated for something called the Mies van der Rohe Award. For those of you who aren’t architectural aficionados, Mies was one the founders of modern architecture and was all about expressing modern human possibility. Perhaps you’ve heard his famous quote, “God is in the details.” Given the many details contained in this house’s design, it’s not surprising that it has garnered the crème de la crème of architectural awards.

Follow this link to see a cool diagram that highlights 15 components of the home and how they contribute to its eco-friendliness.

Given the enormous design intentions of a new generation of architects and rapid advances in technology, I don’t think it’s overly ambitious to consider a day in which all new buildings are designed to produce more energy than they consume. Snøhetta, by building one of the most (if not the most) eco-friendly homes in the world has produced something that is deeply beautiful. Not just for how it looks and not just for what it does, but also for what it means.

I’ve always taken the position that the world’s environmental challenges aren’t so much a problem to be fixed but rather an ongoing dilemma to be better managed. Designs like this give me confidence that progress against that dilemma is being constructed all around us.



Photo from


Photo from


Farm-to-Table, But Not Where You’d Expect

I love to read about, listen to and discuss healthcare. Being a resident of Minnesota, I am exposed to some of the most progressive and commendable healthcare initiatives taking place in our fair nation, and I’m proud to say I’ve gotten to see much of it develop. What really excites me is when I see activity that is intended to change the underlying design from one that is focused on sickness to one that further develops the “health” in healthcare. In other words: designs that promote, preserve and monetize keeping us away from sickness. It’s not often that you see these designs in hospitals, but when those worlds are melded it makes for a particularly noteworthy effort.

For example last December I blogged about a Detroit-area hospital’s progressive culinary initiative – an on-site greenhouse to provide patients with natural and nutritious foods. And this past August I wrote about a hospital’s upgraded rooms that resulted in a huge decrease in requests for medicines from the patients.

Well I’ve got another example of hospital ingenuity to file away in the healthcare folder: the Watertown Regional Medical Center in Wisconsin has an in-house restaurant with food so excellent that it attracts members of the community – not just those visiting the patients. Yes, the restaurant is part of the hospital’s “food service” offering, but the plates are of such a high quality that people travel to consume it. The hospital is situated near a farm that pumps them with produce, which yielded 60 crops this year! They even source local meat, purchasing two full cows annually. (more…)

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…)