Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philanthropy’

24 DECEMBER, 2008

The Year in Ideas: 8 Best of 2008

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8 things that shaped the year’s innovation footprint, or what Buckminster Fuller has to do with tap water and Michael Phelps.

This being an indiscriminate ideas blog, we’ve put together a selection of the year’s best ideas — big and small, spanning a multitude of categories, and held together by the sole common tangent of being truly, tangibly, future-changingly innovative. Here’s our shortlist for the 8 most compelling ideas of 2008.

iTUNES GENIUS

Music recommendation services have been around for a while, driven by smart algorithms that seem to know your music taste better than your bff. But despite all the Pandoras and Last.fm’s of the world, the music industry and its business model are falling apart. And digital music leader iTunes may have a win-win solution for both consumers and the industry, thanks to the recently released Genius feature.

genius

So why is Genius genius? It works remarkably well — its recommendations are immaculate and the playlists it builds can rival even the most meticulously compiled mixtape that your 8th-grade sweetheart spent 3 weeks crafting. More importantly, it fights the two deadliest threats to today’s music industry — the failure to monetize “fandom” (Last.fm may be great at helping you discover new favorite artists, but not so great at cashing the fandom check) and consumer’s music library overload. (Anyone with more than a few hundred songs in their iTunes, which is pretty much everyone, is slowly losing track of the tracks and forgetting some of those artists even existed.)

In a world where keeping up with our own music is becoming overwhelming and getting new stuff is anything from burdensome to illegal, Genius steps in as a welcome and well-crafted one-two-punch solution.

LZR RACER
LZR

No one made more waves in Summer ’08 than wonderboy Michael Phelps. And when a record-breaking 8 Olympic gold medal streak is almost shadowed by another wave-maker, we know there’s something big going on.

Wave-maker in point: Speedo’s technologically supreme and ethically controversial LZR Racer Suit. It’s been called anything from “technological doping” to downright incapacitating for non-LZR-wearing swimmers.

But here’s the thing: 3 years of R&D produced technology that’s utterly groundbreaking and innovative and all those superlatives attached to true progress. So we find it ridiculous to put a “moral” label on it. It’s like saying that cars should’ve never upgraded to better tires because it would’ve been unfair to all the lagging manufacturers, or Firefox should’ve never revolutionized the web browser because it was unfair to Netscape and Internet Explorer.

Progress has to start somewhere, and the laggards better suck it up and learn to keep up.

YES WE CAN SONG

We’ve featured it again and again. And, yep, we’re doing it yet again. Because will.i.am‘s deeply moving, celebrity-powered remix of Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech managed to do something extraordinary, something never before seen in the stiff world of politics: Tap the very emotional chord that makes people so profoundly moved by and connected to music, and translating it to political motivation.

The resulting Song For Change became the most-watched election-related video on YouTube and we strongly believe it had a lot to do with getting the President Elect that much-needed, make-or-break youth vote.

BUCKYPAPER

It may be a scientific cliche that the best of discoveries happen by accident, but it’s exactly the case with buckypaper — a revolutionary material composed of tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair.

What makes buckypaper unique isn’t simply its ability to conduct both electricity and heat, but also the fact it’s 10 times lighter and 500 times stronger than steel.

You could say that buckypaper virtually came from outer space.

In 1985, British scientist Harry Kroto tried to simulate the conditions that exist in a stars, the source of all carbon in the universe, to see how they make the element of life. But halfway through the experiment, something unusual happened: A bizarre 60-atom carbon molecule shaped like a soccer ball popped up out of the blue. Kroto thought it looked like iconic architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, so he named the new molecule buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyballs” for short. (Besides the wacky name, the discovery also landed Kroto and colleagues the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.)

Fast-forward 20-odd years, and you’ve got a renewed interest in the chemical oddball, resulting in the development of a thin film that forms when the carbon tubes are filtered through a fine mesh and stick together in a liquid suspension — that’s buckypaper.

So we can sit back and wait for that super light, super fast, thunderstorm-proof buckypaper jet plane.

RICOH GREEN BILLBOARD

ricoh Consumerism is the reason why we’re in our climate pickle, no question there. It’s wasteful and gratuitous and driven by excess. And the marketing industry is pouring more fuel into its fire than anything else. So it’s refreshing to see bold, innovative efforts that significantly shrink the carbon footprint of capitalism’s necessary evil.

Case in point: Times Square’s first “green” billboard for office equipment supplier Ricoh. At $3 million, the board is powered solely by 16 wind turbines and 64 solar panels connected to a bank of batteries. Comapred to a traditional electric billboard, it’s estimated to save 18 tons of carbon over the course of a year — enough to light 6 large houses.

And with over 15,000 billboards in New York City alone, do the math. Ok, we’ll do it for you — roughly 270,000 tons of carbon spewed into the atmosphere each year just by NYC’s outdoor advertising, the equivalent of lighting a small 90-house village.

Times Square's first

The board took about a year from inception to completion and entailed a whole lot of challenges. Eventually, they were able to find a small California-based company, PacWind, that makes very efficient turbine technology that actually works in very little wind.

The best part is how “real” company executives are about the new technology and its drawbacks. (Like, say, the fact that the billboard will go out on a cloudy day.)

An advertisement is not a mission-critical function… nobody will ever die because our eco-board is lit or is not. So we think that if it goes dark, it’s actually an even brighter light on the fact that we’re using alternative energy and that we’re not wasting carbon in order to advertise.

You said it, brother.

GOOGLE ANDROID

Android alternative logo Granted, Android was unveiled in late 2007. But its fundamental “great ideaness” lies in its category-defying, industry-revolutionizing open model. And it officially became open-source only a couple of months ago, on October 21, 2008.

Today, the entire source code is available under an Apache license, which allows developers and vendors to add free extensions and toss them right back into the open source community. And open-source evangelists’ nitpicking aside, that’s something rare and precious in today’s telecom oligopoly and the stifling proprietariness of everything. (iPhone/AT&T lovenest, we’re looking at you.)

GINA

GINA When BMW’s GINA concept car fist made the buzz rounds mid-year, many thought it was a hoax or a clever teaser for something a bit more… real. It turned out, however, to be a no-B.S., totally serious, perfectly real effort by the trend-setting German automaker.

The GINA Light Visionary Model is, simply put, a car made out of cloth. Instead of having a metal or plastic body, GINA is draped in a flexible material stretched over a movable wire mesh, making the car a structural chameleon — the driver can choose to change its shape on a whim.

Beyond the sheer cool factor, GINA is also considerably more environmentally reasonable than traditional cars. Not only does the light fabric take much less energy to produce than heavier, more rigid materials, but it also makes the total weight of the car much lower, resulting in significantly better fuel efficiency.

Plus, it’s fucking badass.

THE TAP PROJECT

Tap Project logoYou may recall how seriously we take the drinking water problem around here. Which is why the Tap Project is topping our ideas list this year — a small but incredibly smart, ambitious and inspired project that has the potential to make tremendous difference to the poor by asking ridiculously little of the wealthy.

Here’s how it works: During World Water Week in March this year,the Tap Project launched a nationwide effort, inviting restaurants and their patrons to simply donate $1 (or more) for the tap water they’d normally get for free. Every dollar raised buys a child in the third world 40 days worth of clean drinking water.

Pause to digest that. Exactly.

So simple. So potent. And so eye-opening, juxtaposing what we in the seat of privilege take for granted with the deadly lack thereof that kills — literally — millions.

The Tap Project is the brain child of creative icon David Droga and was developed in partnership with UNICEF. Over 2,350 restaurants participated in the 2008 push, raising more than $5 million — the equivalent of 1.7 million days of clean drinking water for children around the world.

With close to 1 million restaurants nationwide (it’s the second-largest industry outside of government), you can only imagine the project’s full breadth of potential as it continues to reach critical mass.

Now that’s an idea.

08 DECEMBER, 2008

Giving Design

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Why design will save the world and a potent remedy for your quarterlife crisis.

Yves Behar Design is at its best when it truly gives something back to the world. Which is why we love industrial design icon Yves Behar. And while his credits include a long list of brilliant products, today we’re focusing on one: the XO laptop of One Laptop Per Child fame — a (near) $100 laptop for children’s education in the developing world.

And while business strategy has certainly been one of the propelling forces behind the project’s success, OLPC would be nothing without the computer’s brilliant design, which makes all of the device’s technological and cultural feats possible.

(For more on the project, watch founder Nicholas Negroponte’s incredibly inspirational TED talk.)

About the size of a small textbook, the rugged learning tool has built-in WiFi that enables the XO to communicate with nearby peers. The unique screen, which rotates 360 degrees, is readable even under direct sunlight — for children who go to school outdoors. It’s extremely energy-efficient and resists high temperatures and high humidity.

The brilliant design extends to even the minutest of details, like the logo — the “X” and “O” on the back of the screen each come in 20 color options, making for 400 possible combinations so that each kid in a large classroom gets a distinctive XO laptop — both a way for kids to connect with their laptop better and a clever tactic for avoiding mix-ups.

Yves Behar reveals the inspiration, the technology, and the meticulous thought behind the design process:

Some say the notion that design will save the world is a stretch. But the XO laptop is a testament to the fact that design will certainly play a strong part. Because we believe that the real epidemic drowning the third world is ignorance and the lack of access to information — deadly yet preventable diseases like malaria and AIDS can be halted through simple education about their mechanisms; poverty and armed conflict over resources can both be ameliorated by educating citizens about simple business models that enable them to lead self-sufficient, self-reliant lives.

And it has to start with children’s education, laying the foundations for a more economically sustainable society of tomorrow.

So why are we bringing this up now, when OLPC has been around for quite a while?

Let’s face it, the holidays are pretty much upon us — a time for giving, a time for getting. And we’re all about efficiency here, so we like the idea of a two-birds-one-stone approach to the whole giving/getting thing. Especially if it means “giving” in the true, altruistic, make-yourself-feel-like-a-better-person kind of way. Case in point: OLPC’s Give 1 Get 1 program.

Initially a two-week experiment in raising donations, G1G1 launched in November 2007 under the premise that anyone donating $399 to OLPC would not only get a laptop sent on their behalf to a child in the developing world, but would also get one of their very own. G1G1 was so wildly successful that it got extended beyond the two weeks into the entire holiday season and well into the spring of this year.

OLPC logo This year, G1G1 is back for seconds. So if you’re a fan of world-changing design and are feeling altruisic this holiday season, or you’re looking for a perfect gift for your kid relative, or you’re simply undergoing a severe quarterlife crisis and need to feel like you’re giving back to the world, consider G1G1.

01 DECEMBER, 2008

World AIDS Day 2008: Join the Fight

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What 20 years, 112 million bloggers and a simple pledge have in common.

We’re doing something a little different today. Because today is the 20th anniversary of World Aids Day, a powerful opportunity to reflect on the deadly pandemic that started eating away at the world over 27 years ago — and the one time when it’s particularly not okay to roll our eyes at the overexposed and underaddressed problem.

World AIDS Day 20th Anniversary No need to drum on about the stats, because we all know how frightening they are, but just consider that by the time you finish reading this, 71 new people will be infected with AIDS, adding to the 33 million worldwide living with the disease.

So what can you do? Generally, “awareness” is a comfortable, failure-free way of pretending to be involved in a cause without really being responsible for its tangible success. (Seriously, has “awareness” cured, say, breast cancer?) But AIDS is extraordinary because in this particular case, awareness is action — in a disease where the only cure is prevention, the more people get tested and know how to “be careful,” the less people get infected.

So learn a thing or two about how not to get infected. And, seriously, get tested — the first step to chipping away at the colossal problem is refusing to think of it as an abstraction, and that begins with personal initiative — if you live in the States, find a testing center near you or just text your zip code to “KNOWIT” (566948) and they’ll text back with a nearby center. And if you live elsewhere in the world, enlist Google and a few friends in finding out about local testing options or check out UNAIDS, the United Nations program against HIV/AIDS.

You can also take the World AIDS Campaign leadership pledge and even follow AIDS.gov on Twitter.

If you’re a designer, allot some pro-bono time to doing a compelling piece that raises awareness, moves people and inspires action — talk about using your power for good Bloggers Unite

And if you’re one of the world’s 112 million bloggers, grab the World Aids Day badge and participate in BloggersUnite, an ambitious initiative to leverage the traction of the blogosphere in reaching more people with the simple yet powerful awareness message.

So go ahead, do your part. Because the more the word spreads, the less the disease does. Think about it.