January 17, 2012
Most innovators aren’t inventors. We were reminded of that again last year during the swirl of coverage of Steve Jobs, who achieved his godlike status largely through his unique ability to distill, refine and, above all, execute the ideas of others. As the new year begins to pick up speed, it’s a good time to take a look at some young entrepreneurs whose innovative thinking, rather than pure invention, has them poised for big things in 2012.
Can’t stop the music: The recording industry has been in a death spiral for awhile now, dating back to when Napster fed the notion among a generation that freedom to download music without paying is an inalienable right laid out in the Constitution, or maybe it was the Magna Carta. Whatever. Bottom line is that CDs are going the way of the 8-track. But all may not be lost, thanks to a Swedish computer geek-turned-musician-turned-Internet-innovator. That would be Daniel Ek, who launched Spotify in Europe three years ago when he was 25.
Earlier this month Forbes magazine called him “the most important man in music.” That’s probably over the top, but Ek has devised a model that provides instant access to free music while pumping up struggling record labels through licensing fees. Spotify, which makes its money through advertising and user fees ($10 a month for mobile access to your playlists, $5 a month to avoid ads), didn’t roll out in the U.S. until last summer, but raised its profile dramatically a few months later when it hooked up with Facebook. Ek knows that building a personal brand is a subtext of the Facebook experience and a person’s taste in music is often a big part of that. So now, through Spotify, Facebook users see the songs their friends listen to and the playlists they compile, and with a single click, can give a listen. If Spotify goes mainstream in the U.S. this year, Forbes just may be right.
Return of the pin-ups: Often the shrewdest innovations are about carving out the right niche at the right time and so it appears to be with Pinterest, the hot social network of the moment. As someone who says he was a “maniacal” insect collector while growing up in Iowa, co-founder Ben Silbermann realized how passionate people can be about their hobbies or collections. And he and his partners, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra, also recognized that posting photos has become as popular a means of self-expression on social networks as clever status updates and funny video links. So they combined passions and photos in Pinterest, where members can “pin” up pictures–their own or ones found on the Web–of their hobbies or just quirky obsessions. They could be muscle cars or Amish quilts or Halloween costumes made of duct tape. Hey, it’s your show. Yes, a year from now Pinterest could be yet another Web sensation gone south. But some analysts are already saying it’s worth more than $150 million.
Power play: Wind and solar energy are clearly appealing alternatives to 50-year-old coal-powered plants pumping out pollutants. But clean energy sources still face a big hurdle: If the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, how do you keep the lights on? That’s the key to wind and solar becoming core components of the power grid and it’s why a lot of researchers are trying to find ways to cheaply and efficiently store energy that comes from renewable sources. Danielle Fong, chief scientist for an California company called LightSail Energy, is focusing on a process in which wind and solar power would be converted to compressed air. Then, when needed, it could be expanded to drive turbines that support the power grid. Fong’s only 24, but based on her credentials, you have to think that she has as good a shot as anyone at solving this one. At the age of 12 she was taking college-level physics sources; at 17, she was studying nuclear fusion at Princeton.
Copy that: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3-D printers. Imagine being able to download specs for a part you need, then printing it out in your home office. Or have your kids or grandkids use it to build toys they designed themselves. The reality, though, is that it’s likely to be years, maybe even a decade, before they’re as common as PCs in our homes. But if it does happen sooner rather than later, Bre Pettis and MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based outfit he heads as CEO, will have a lot to do with it. They’ve brought the cost of 3-D printers down to about $1,000 and just last week unveiled the MakerBot Duplicator, which prints objects in two colors. But for Pettis, it’s not just about building a business; he once was a teacher and one of his dreams is to bring 3-D printers into the classroom where they can really tap into kids’ creativity.
When cheese says cheese: If most of us had seen what Alexa Andrzejewski did a few years ago while visiting Japan and South Korea, we probably would have dismissed it as slightly bizarre dining behavior and gone back to our meal we couldn’t pronounce. But Andrzejewski, a one-time graphic designer, thought there was something to it. What she saw was people taking pictures of their meals with their cell phones. She first thought about doing a picture book of exotic meals. But she ultimately concluded that she may have found a way to differentiate a business from all of the restaurant mobile apps out there. Why not provide diner reviews of specific meals and build them around photos of the food so people could see what they’d be ordering.
That was the genesis of Foodspotting, a mobile app that shows you pictures of meals that are near where you are at the moment. Or as Andrzejewki puts it, it’s like gazing at the windows of a bakery, except you’re staring at your phone. Now the company is looking for ways to build its business by partnering with apps that let diners know about deals and working with restaurants that want to promote their specials. It also plans to release a new version of its app, one that suggests nearby meals based on your preferences.
Thanks for sharing: The latest estimates are that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Already, 21 mega-cities have populations of 10 to 20 million. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re going to need some pretty innovative thinking about urban life over the next decade if we’re going to keep cities liveable. One person who’s been giving this a lot of thought is Alex Steffen. He’s the author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century, which was updated last year. He’s also been called a futurist and he is, but in a practical way. Steffen’s very big, for instance, on the growth of a culture within cities where people share instead of own, whether it’s cars, sports equipment or power drills. He also knows that it’s going to take a lot more than putting plants and trees on rooftops to make cities sustainable and keep them from, as he puts it, “stealing the future.”
Good reads: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention other bloggers worth watching this year because of their insightful takes on all things innovative, starting with Dominic Basulto, who works at Electric Artists in New York, but whose writing appears regularly at at Ideas@Innovation at WashingtonPost.com and at BigThink.com. Another deserving a visit is David Dobbs’ “Neuron Culture“ blog for Wired.com. And to stay on top of the latest tech, stop by when you can at the “Bits” blog on the New York Times website.
Video Bonus: Salman Khan has made a big splash with his Khan Academy, built around low-tech, conversational educational videos. Check out his TED Talk from last year on using video to reinvent education.
November 2, 2011
Imagine, if you will, a giant helium balloon, the size of a stadium, floating high above the Earth, and dangling from it is a hose 12 miles long that sprays aerosols into the stratosphere—all with the intent of slowing global warming.
When you’re in the planet-saving business, you need to think big. But big and crazy?
Now massive geoengineering projects—once derided as high-risk lunacy by climate scientists and the height of scientific arrogance by many others—are being taken more seriously these days. According to a survey published last week, about three out of four respondents in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada said they think more research should be done on “solar radiation management,” which would cover things like the sky-hose contraption described above.
And earlier last month a Washington research group, the Bipartisan Policy Center, released a report suggesting the time has come for the federal government to begin looking at ways to manipulate the Earth’s climate—if only as a backup plan. First choice would be to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, but that’s a policy as dead as Prohibition in Washington at the moment.
Here’s how Jane Long, a scientist and co-chair of the panel behind the report, put it in an interview with Yale Environment 360: “People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh, whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table.”
That’s all well and good, but geoengineering is still pretty much a can of worms with a few snakes mixed in. That big sky-hose project? It’s called Stratospheric Particle Injection Climate Engineering, or SPICE for short, and the British government committed $2.5 million to researching it. There was supposed to be a test run in October with a much smaller model—the hose was slightly more than half a mile long. But it was put on hold for at least six months after 60 organizations from around the world signed a petition arguing more discussion was needed before even testing could begin.
The problem is that geoengineering stirs up a lot of questions beyond “Will this work?” Can you really manipulate nature without ugly ripple effects, such as inadvertent droughts or monsoons? Who decides by how much and where the climate should be cooled—in other words, who controls the thermostat? And what’s to prevent a country from going rogue, even using geoengineering as a weapon?
Jane Long and other scientists acknowledge all that. She says she hopes it never has to be used. But without research and testing, what happens if the worst predictions of climate change come to pass? In her mind, the last thing geoengineering should be is an act of desperation.
Here are some geoengineering ideas out there:
- Make like a volcano: Researchers have taken as inspiration the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. The sulfur dioxide cloud it generated dropped global temperatures almost a full degree Fahrenheit the following year. That’s the theory behind the giant sky hose—it would pump sulfuric acid aerosol particles into the stratosphere with the goal of reflecting the sun’s radiation. What worries scientists most is the collateral damage that could come with it.
- Cloud cover: Then there’s the Silver Lining Project, which would involve developing a fleet of boats designed to pump sea water into the atmosphere, with the intent of creating sun-reflecting clouds. Bill Gates has kicked in money for this idea, but there are questions again about how much it could be controlled.
- Space mirrors: Another concept based on reflecting the sun’s rays away from Earth would involve creating a massive “sun shade” of mirrors. But not only would the cost be enormous, some scientists say the rocket launches needed to get the components into space could create so much black soot pollution that it could actually raise the planet’s temperature.
- Suck it up: An alternative approach is to forget about the sun and focus instead on getting rid of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This could involve building machines that suck it out of the atmosphere. There’s actually potential for a business here (Gates has invested in this one, too), but the cost is still way too high. And there’s the matter of what do you do with all that carbon you capture?
- Under the sea: A more “natural” version of carbon removal would involve dumping iron filings into the ocean, which would accelerate the growth of phytoplankton, which, in turn, would ingest more CO2. But it’s not clear how this would affect marine life or if it would even work on the scale needed to make a difference.
Video bonus: What about trees with plastic leaves that suck up carbon? EnergyNOW! goes there.
August 29, 2011
The week started with an earthquake, which led to the surreal scene of thousands of people standing on sidewalks in downtown Washington, realizing collectively that no one could get through on their cell phones and we’d have to talk to each other about our shared 15 seconds of shake, rattle and roll.
It ended with recurring reports of how it was going to rain cats and dogs and flying monkeys and how the power would probably go out, resulting in long lines of people buying enough batteries to light Vegas.
Usually, I love raging nature. It’s the great leveler, rendering us awed, thrown off our routines and scrambling like ants lugging rolls of toilet paper. Except, that in the past few years, these extreme events have come with such frequency that all sense of wonder is fading—not to mention that they’ve been tremendously destructive and costly. Hurricane Irene is the 10th billion-dollar natural disaster we’ve had in the U.S. alone this year, and it’s not even September.
You’re starting to hear this described as the “new normal.” While no climate scientist would blame a single storm on global warming, most will say that climate change increases the likelihood that weather will turn ugly—torrential rains, more intense heat waves, longer droughts and relentless snowstorms.
It looks as if Mother Nature will be going large on us more often in future. Surely, our old friend Technology can help us out, right?
Irene has been our first apps hurricane, the initial chance to see if smart phones can allow you to avoid watching local reporters trying to stay upright as they tell you it’s windy. There are plenty of storm apps out there already. The Weather Channel, naturally, has one (free). So does Accuweather (free). So do the National Hurricane Center (Hurricane Express, 99 cents) and NOAA (NOAA Radar U.S., free). Most come with cheerfully colored maps (which actually are much easier to read on iPads than phones,) satellite images, alerts and forecasts—in short, everything you’d get from the windblown reporter except the slapstick.
The Department of Health and Human Services is getting in on the app action, too, offering a $10,000 prize to the developer who designs the best Facebook mobile app to help people create support networks to get them through natural disasters.
Ready or not
That’s all good, but there must be someone thinking bigger, someone who has figured out a way to move hurricanes. Enter Bill Gates.
A few years ago, he and a group of scientists applied for a patent for technology to slow or weaken hurricanes. Simply put, a fleet of barges would be towed into the path of a developing storm and each would then pump warm surface water to the bottom and, at the same time, pull cold water from the deep up to the surface. In theory, it would work because warmer water strengthens hurricanes. But reality is always the tricky part. According to some scientists, it would have to be done on such a massive scale to be effective, that it likely wouldn’t make economic sense. Plus, wind is just too shifty. Imagine trying to get this big fleet into position in enough time to suck the life out of a storm.
We may, for the time being, have to be content with dealing with nature instead of trying to control it. Like the team of scientists at the University of Texas using IBM’s Deep Thunder computer model to do high-speed-simulations of flooding. It will allow them to predict water flow in an entire river system—every stream, every tributary—instead of just the main rivers. And that would help local officials evacuate the people at greatest risk of fast-rising water.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Missouri are taking on the flip side of extreme weather. They’ve built drought simulators—100-foot long mobile greenhouses on tracks—that are moved over crops when it rains and moved away when it’s sunny. No matter how this might seem, the goal is not to kill plants. It’s to see how different crops in different soil react to droughts of different lengths and intensity.
These days, it’s all about being prepared.
Bonus: Watch this video collection of TV reporters getting blown away, compliments of The Daily Beast .
Is it time we got more serious about manipulating nature? Or should we just keep focusing on being ready for its biggest punches?