What a Great Idea! Ingenious innovations that are making the world a better place

From medical solutions to planet-saving ideas, big thinkers around the world are coming up with ways to make a positive impact. Here are a few of our favourites.

By Patricia Pearson Published Mar 13, 2024 15:42:31 IST
What a Great Idea! Ingenious innovations that are making the world a better place illustations by Kathleen Fu

A Wildfire Early Warning System

Every year, forest fires take a huge toll all over the world. In 2021, the United States alone spent more than US$4 billion fighting wildfires. Better ways to spot and douse the flames before they roar out of control are needed, and that is where Berlin-based start-up Dryad Networks has stepped in.

The company has developed a small solar-powered sensor that can be mounted on trees. This “electronic nose” can detect the hydrogen, carbon monoxide and other compounds that are released when a fire starts smouldering, alerting officials via wireless signal before smoke is even visible above the trees.

In a recent test run in Germany, the sensor picked up a (deliberately lit) fire within 14 minutes. It also provides exact GPS coordinates so firefighters can rush to the scene. Forest regions from California to the Italian island of Sardinia are now trying out these inexpensive sensors, and Dryad aims to deploy 120 million of them by 2030, potentially saving a projected four million hectares from burning.

A Brain Implant That Overcomes Paralysis

Stunning advances in neurotechnology are bringing real hope to people with spinal injuries. One man has been able to walk again simply by thinking about it, thanks to a digital brain-spine interface, created by Swiss researchers, that boosts neural signals damaged by the injury.

Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old from the Netherlands, has required a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in a cycling accident 12 years ago. But electronic implants in his brain now allow him to transmit his silent intentions to a receptor implanted in his spine. The implant then amplifies and sends signals to his legs and feet through his nerve cells.

“I feel like a toddler learning to walk again,” Oskam told BBC News. The mechanism is still in the experimental stage, but experts say the research is very encouraging.

Meet the Inventor: An AI-Powered Diagnostic Tool

When Stanford University student Ellen Xu, now 18, was a five-year-old in San Diego, California, she vividly recalls her parents rushing her little sister to the hospital. Three-year-old Kate had fallen acutely ill; she had a fever, reddened eyes, a rash and some swelling in her hands and tongue.

At first, the puzzled doctors thought she had influenza, but when her condition didn’t improve, the Xus returned to the emergency room, where a doctor by chance had prior experience with an acute inflammatory reaction in the blood vessels known as Kawasaki disease. Though rare, it’s the leading cause of acquired heart disease in babies and young children, and its cause and triggers remain somewhat mysterious.


The doctor knew how to treat it: He ordered a dose of intravenous immunoglobulin, and eventually Kate shook off the illness without suffering damage to her heart.

Xu remembers being curious about her sister’s dramatic condition and was amazed that the grown-ups couldn’t answer her questions about why it was so hard to detect. “In my mind, it was this mystery,” she says. “It was a puzzle I wanted to solve.”A decade later, wanting to enter a high school science fair, she had an idea: “What if we had a doctor in our pocket?” So she created just that: Using AI, Xu designed an algorithm that uses visual data to diagnose Kawasaki disease based on five physical symptoms.

The technology works the same way as apps that can identify birds and plants with photos you’ve taken on your cellphone. Worried parents can upload a photo that they have taken of their child, and the technology will scan the image for symptoms of Kawasaki disease, which often have a strong visual element, such as a rash or a swollen tongue.

Xu’s invention has been implemented as a web app on the Kawasaki Disease Foundation’s website. “The technology could also be developed for recognizing auto-immune and rheumatological diseases,” she says. “It means a lot to me. I want to use AI to help people live happier and healthier lives.”

Xu says that her sister Kate, now in her third year of high school with dreams of becoming an environmental engineer, is thriving.

4D-Printed Clothes and Other Mind-Bogglers

When it comes to what we wear, the stuff of fantasy is getting closer to reality, thanks to 4D printing. This new technology programs “smart” materials that, when printed in 3D, change shape and colour in response to external stimuli such as water, heat or light.

Picture a sponge or a memory-foam mattress that contracts and expands. These “smart” materials work similarly, but the programming makes it more intentional: 4D clothing can be triggered to lengthen, fold, flatten, bend or change colour. The US military, for instance, has been testing uniforms that take on a camouflage pattern, depending on the soldier’s surroundings.




In other applications, scientists have created wearable gripping aids for people with limited use of their fingers, cardiovascular stents that expand and contract with your heartbeat and soft-tissue implants designed to release microdoses of medication.Want to toss those baffling IKEA instructions out in favour of self-assembling furniture? 4D printing can also create a flat board that will curl up into a chair when you add heat.

The research, conducted by the MIT Self-Assembly Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is in its early days, but its potential impact on health and industry is boundless.

Elevated Urban Farming

Short on fresh produce this winter? No need to wait for those imports from South America. Just run down to the office for a head of lettuce.

No, seriously, in a growing number of downtowns, you can do just that: As more people opt to work from home, leaving office space vacant, some of the empty buildings—many of which are flooded with natural light—are being converted into indoor vertical farms.

Companies like Agriplay in Calgary and Area 2 Farms in Washington, D.C., are solving two problems at once: renting underused real estate and supplying fresh local food without relying on global supply chains.


In addition, Agriplay deploys a soilless pre­cision-sprinkler technique that mists the plants from the roots, and sensor-equipped LED lights that send data to an AI-enabled system that adapts to specific growing conditions. The result is up to 90 percent less energy consumption than traditional vertical-farming operations.

With that kind of tech innovation, office buildings can be modified into vegetable-growing powerhouses. Chicago-­based Farm Zero is in the process of leasing over 279,000 square metres of office space, with plans to produce 27 million kilograms of vegetables annually, sheltered from agricultural stresses like drought and floods. Way to grow!


Rewilding Big Cities

A little green space goes a long way, and Madrid, Spain, one of Europe’s largest cities, is leading the way with urban rewilding.It took nearly a decade of construction to complete, but the city’s Madrid Río Project moved sections of the multi-lane M-30 freeway to underground tunnels, allowing people to picnic where cars once whizzed by. The desperately polluted Manzanares river has been cleaned up, to the point that otters are being seen there for the first time in years. The city has planted trees, widened waterways, and built meadows and beaches.

After the project’s completion in 2015, a study found big reductions in noise and air pollution; the researchers estimated a reduction of more than 30,000 metric tonnes of CO2. One woman who lives along the river, Carmen Muñoz, told a reporter for Politico that she “no longer wakes to the noise of honking cars, but rather to the sound of birds singing in the trees.”

The city isn’t done yet: Next, it plans to encircle itself with a forest by planting roughly 1.5 million trees, mostly saplings. “We will be constructing what is, in effect, a 75-kilometre-long metropolitan forest,” Madrid city councillor Mariano Fuentes said in an interview with Geographical magazine.

Meet the Inventor: Mushrooms for the Win

When recent science graduates David Brown and Natasha Jean met in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the two became friends with a shared love of fitness and healthy eating. As chemists, they were aware of how bad for our bodies the preservatives in supermarket foods can be. Calcium propionate, for instance, prevents bread from going moudly by killing bacteria and yeast. But it has also been linked to an elevated risk of diabetes and obesity.

After reading a study about the capacity of mushroom fibre to preserve foods’ shelf life by acting as an antimicrobial agent, the two friends were intrigued. With a goal of developing a chemical-free preservative, they bought mushroom stems from farmers who would otherwise throw them out.


Seven years later, in 2023, their company, Chinova Bioworks, has released mushroom-fibre extract that when added to foods, such as dairy products, increases shelf life with a taste that’s undetectable.

The company has even been testing the preservative with wineries in California and New Zealand. “It would replace the added sulfites that wine makers rely on right now for a long shelf life,” says Brown. Grapes naturally produce sulfite, so the extra is an overload that some people can’t tolerate.

It’s a win-win-win: for the climate (by reducing food-waste emissions), for our health and for the mushroom farmers who can sell their waste. “We’re trying to make an affordable product that companies will use,” says Brown. “We hope to make the food industry more sustainable.”

A Health Monitor for Earth

Conventional satellites orbiting the earth capture data within a limited range, which proves inadequate for advanced applications. Enter Bengaluru-based, space-data start-up Pixxel, founded by Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal. With its constellation of high-resolution hyperspectral satellites—it has three in orbit and six more planned for launch—which can cover parts of the globe that are invisible to typical satellites in orbit today. Using hyperspectral imaging, which is a remote-sensing technology where a spectrometer collects images at different wavelengths, Pixxel’s satellites can identify areas on a satellite map using distinct colours in real-time and detect a wide spectrum of patterns, all at increased speeds. These satellites can help map and monitor forest cover; measure deforestation and monitor phenomena such as invisible gas leaks, underground oil leaks, emissions, crop and soil health, and much more. The valuable satellite imagery thus generated can be mined for insights, and used for various purposes, including risk management, crop insurance and agricultural applications.

Paint That Cools

The northern hemisphere experienced the warmest summer on record last year. One man has a cool solution: Xiulin Ruan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana, has come up with a special formula that boosts the reflective power of white paint, reducing the temperature of the roof’s surface by up to 13 degrees C at midday.

Ruan’s paint—containing high concentrations of light-reflecting barium sulfate—could reduce air-conditioning needs by up to 40 per cent. While typical white paint will help keep things cool by reflecting 80 to 90 per cent of sunlight, this formulation reflects 98 per cent. Ruan expects the paint to be commercially available this year.

Ways to Break Free From Abuse

People who are trapped with an abusive partner now have potentially life-saving new ways to send an S.O.S. Police in South Korea have adopted a campaign called “Knock Knock,” which allows victims to discreetly report abuse by dialing 112 and tapping any number twice. This triggers the system to send a link to the phone via text. When the user clicks on it, police can pinpoint the victim’s location using the phone’s GPS and even watch a live stream of what’s happening through the phone’s camera.


Meanwhile, a Polish high-school student is using the cover of online shopping to fight abuse. In 2021, Krystyna Paszko launched a fake online cosmetics shop and got the word out to her social media contacts that it’s actually a lifeline for victims. When someone visits the Chamomiles and Pansies Facebook page to buy a product, such as a cream, they are actually connected with a psychologist. If someone “places an order” using their address, it prompts a home visit from authorities, similar to what would happen if the victim had called the police for help. The initiative helped as many as 350 people in the first year.

Infection-Detecting Stitches

Dasia Taylor was just 17 when, in 2021, she put her inventive mind to solving a very common medical complication: infections after surgery. Globally, it happens in around one in 10 patients, according to the World Health Organization, and can be a real hazard in caesarian sections. Taylor, working with her chemistry teacher in Iowa City, Iowa, designed sutures that change colour when infections develop.

How does it work? Skin is naturally acidic, with a pH value of five or so. If infection develops, pH levels go up. Taylor discovered that some vegetables change colour depending on their acid content; beets, it turns out, go from bright red to dark purple at a pH of nine. So she dyed her suture threads with beet juice; the thread goes from red to purple when a wound is infected. That means a patient can be treated quickly with antibiotics, treating the infection before it becomes serious. After winning several awards, Taylor is currently seeking to patent her product.

A Trash-Catcher for Oceans

There are as many as 171 trillion pieces of plastic floating around in our oceans. What can be done to stop this outward flow of trash, most of which comes from rivers polluted by communities located alongside them?

German industrial designer Mauritz Schulz has designed ‘TrashBoom’, a kind of floating barrier, not unlike a swimming-lane marker, that stretches the width of a given river and acts as a net, blocking discarded bottles and bags before they can drift out to sea.

So far, the simple device is primarily in use in Indonesia and India—where it has stopped more than 9,00,000 kilograms of garbage from entering the ocean since April 2021. The instructions for making the inexpensive TrashBoom are available online, and other organizations are now applying this open-source technique. Sungai Watch in Bali, for example, is deploying booms, while a company called Pangea Movement, also based in Bali, has organized river clean-ups in 11 countries so far, and hopes to tackle 100 of the world’s most polluted rivers.

Meet the Inventor: Capturing the Clean Water of Fog

When industrial engineer Abel Cruz was a boy, his weekly chore was to scramble down a ravine in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes to fetch the family’s water from a spring. “It was downhill from the house, far away and steep,” he says. Cruz began dreaming up better ways to collect water, noticing that subtropical plants, for instance, capture rain and mist with their wide leaves. Eventually, he struck upon the idea of a fog net.

Each vertical net is 20 square metres of synthetic resin mesh, where micro-droplets of water condense and dribble down into collection tanks. One net can collect 200 to 400 litres per day. Locals can also fetch it in buckets for small-scale farming.


Working in Lima with support from the Creating Water Foundation, Cruz has installed more than 3,600 nets on hillsides around the city to capture fog drifting in from the Pacific Ocean. With a population of more than nine million, Lima frequently has serious water shortages due to its arid climate.

“The planet has less and less fresh water,” Cruz points out, because “the glaciers that are natural reservoirs are disappearing. So we must find a way to accumulate and save water for times of drought.”

An Addiction-Preventing Pill Dispenser

Opioid addiction is one of the greatest public-health crises of our times. It often starts with a prescription for medication to ease pain and it can escalate quickly.

As a student at New York University, Artin Perse watched his uncle get hooked on opioids as he recovered from injuries he suffered in a car accident. It inspired Perse to do something to help prevent addiction, so he designed a device that dispenses pills to match what your doctor prescribed.

In between electronically timed releases, the bottle cannot be opened. (It is meant for people in early stages of managing pain, rather than addicts.) Perse went on to found a company called Levl that uses the same design to help people with psychiatric medications. The dispenser is still in the trial phase, but Perse hopes to make it available within a year.

Meet the Inventor: Sustainable Household Waste Disposal

Fifty-two-year-old biochemist Dr C. N. Manoj from Kerala was shocked to find that households are the biggest bulk waste generators. “Compared to industries that manage waste in a controlled manner, per governmental rules, even a small family or a community of 100 people can generate tonnes of waste every day, which is disposed off without any control”, he told The Better India.


In a bid to develop a scientific and sustainable solution to waste disposal, the scientist quit his job, developed a natural composting inoculum called Composorb, and in 2021, set up Pelican Kenterra. Made from natural materials such as cocopeat, hay, dry leaves, etc., Composorb sandwiches waste between moisture-absorbing spongy matrices, taking care of the problem of leaching liquid and obnoxious gases which occurs during conventional aerobic composting process. The waste then disintegrates into uniform particles along with the matrix into healthy nutrient-rich organic planting media.

Manoj’s subscription-based waste-management solution has now been adopted by over 15,000 homes and commercial establishments in Kerala and Bengaluru, with the team handling over 10,000 kg of waste every day. The company has also partnered with the Kochi Metro, which is using the soil-less compost product to fill road medians for flowers and trees. 

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