When innovators develop new ways to tackle global inequality and crisis, even the world’s biggest problems can become slightly more manageable.
These “a-ha” moments happen every day, whether it’s a low-tech invention, like recyclable shoes that pose fewer health risks to factory workers, or high-tech gadgets, like massive elevated buses that glide over traffic and cut down on pollution.
Even over the course of one month, various innovations bring attention to tough global issues, and build roads toward action.
Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are 11 innovations that made important strides in May, catching our attention for their dedication to social good.
1. Toys helping people with disabilities connect with loved ones
Adaptoys is an initiative adapting popular toys, like remote-control cars and pitching machines, to allow people with physical disabilities to play with their families. Using voice activation systems, motion sensors and sip-and-puff assistive technology, Adaptoys allow users with paralysis to control machines for a more active role in gameplay.
The effort, announced in May by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, ad agency 360i and tech company AXIOS NYC, seeks to encourage major toy manufacturers to keep disability in mind when creating new products, while also making classic products more inclusive.
2. Recyclable shoes made without chemical-rich glue
The glue that holds together many of the world’s shoes is effectively poisoning factory workers around the globe. Without proper ventilation, the chemical-rich glue (linked to cancer and other health problems) pervades factory floors.
To improve conditions, Dutch designer Roderick Pieters created a new type of shoe, dubbed LOPERs, that forgoes glue in favor of a sturdy stitch. The shoe is also inexpensive and environmentally friendly — wearers can easily swap out a sole when it’s worn out instead of replacing an entire shoe.
Hoping to inspire a broader shift in the shoe manufacturing industry, Pieters funded a first round of production of the shoe last month via Kickstarter.
3. Biodegradable six-pack rings that actually feed sea life
The plastic rings that hold your beer cans together have long been criticized as an environmental hazard, especially for aquatic life.
But one brewery is tackling this issue head-on, making a biodegradable, edible version of the classic rings created from natural brewing byproducts. The project — the brainchild of ad agency We Believers — was brought to life by South Florida-based Saltwater Brewery, which uses wheat and barley left over from the brewing process to make the product.
The six-pack rings received mass media attention in May, though the product is still in prototype phases with a release projected for end of summer or early fall.
4. A machine that dries clothes with vibrations instead of heat
Americans spend $9 billion per year drying clothes, making dryers one of the least efficient appliances in homes around the U.S.
However, a new product is changing the fiscal and environmental impact of dryers by using sound waves to dry clothes, rather than blasting them with heat.
With the new technology, a load of laundry takes around 20 minutes (a typical heat-based dryer takes about 40-50 minutes per cycle). The process also minimizes lint, an often overlooked cause of pollution.
5. The $1 cup that nourishes infants who can’t nurse
When infants in developing nations are incapable of nursing, they’re often in danger of severe malnutrition or even death. But a $1 innovation called the NIFTY cup could save the lives high-risk infants around the globe.
Developed over the last five years, the NIFTY cup features a spout that makes it easy to drink for premature infants and those born with related health issues, such as cleft palates.
The cup, designed through a collaboration between global health organization PATH, the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, was announced at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen in early May. It will soon be distributed throughout Africa.
6. An elevated bus that drives over cars — and cuts down on pollution
To maximize road space, cut down on traffic jams and decrease pollution, China’s top engineers created the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB), unveiling the attention-grabbing tech at the 19th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo in May.
The bus is electric-powered and elevated, operating on rails so it can drive over cars on standard roads. Each vehicle can carry about 1,200 passengers, and it’s cheaper and faster to build than existing systems.
With some design barriers still in the way, the innovation is a long way from hitting the streets. But successful development could make it a game-changer for the environment — and your morning commute.
7. Touch-screen helplines that can fight child trafficking in India
With telephone booths disappearing around India as smartphone technology takes over, a toll-free helpline called Childline realized children in crisis no longer had a way to reach them.
To replace the helpline’s reliance on old tech, Childline created touch-screen kiosks in collaboration with major mobile providers in the country. The kiosks mimic a free-standing ATM, through which children can enter the nature of their problems and call for assistance. The machines also capture the child’s biometrics and takes a photo, which Childline and authorities can later use for verification.
Over the next six months, the kiosks will be installed around India’s train stations, because most child trafficking takes place by train.
8. The wearable that can track and curb problem drinking
San Francisco-based breathalyzer company BACtrack was awarded $200,000 in government funding for its innovation that tracks blood alcohol content in real time. The invention, called Skyn, accurately displays a user’s blood alcohol content 45 minutes after drinking by tracking ethanol molecules escaping through skin.
An accompanying mobile app keeps tabs on stats, letting users review their drinking history with accuracy and transparency. The first iteration of the device will be available at the end of the year for $99.
9. A new service for parents to monitor kids’ online safety
Launched at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016, a new service called Bark is changing how parents keep their kids safe online. Straying from existing parental control models, Bark looks to respect the privacy of children while also alerting parents to potential harassment, predators in online spaces, sexting and mental health concerns.
The web-based application requires parents to manually add their child’s social media accounts to browse their commonly visited sites. Once connected, parents can receive real-time alerts of concerning activity they can then flag as issues or non-issues.
The service is available for $9 per month, or $99 per year.
10. An innovation to help the Deaf community sense unexpected danger
A team of Sri Lankan university students and engineers won the IMechE Asia Pacific Design Competition with their innovation, the i-belt. This lightweight, fanny pack-like belt is made of a system of mini vibrators and microphones that alert a deaf or hard of hearing user of potential danger or emergency situations.
The belt can alert a user of a nearby alarm, if someone is at the door, or if someone is calling after them by picking up harsh sounds via microphone and translating them into felt vibrations.
Though it’s still in development phases, members of the Deaf community are hopeful the device could help increase safety.
11. The simple app ensuring fast and accurate E. coli testing
Testing water for E. coli is far from a real-time process, with most tech taking days to accurately read it. But new technology developed by York University has cut down testing time from a few days to just a couple of hours — all while staying relatively inexpensive at $3 per test.
The test is simple, turning collected water red when E. coli bacteria — which can cause mild to severe health impacts — is present. The team also developed an app that will immediately broadcast test results, so community health leaders and individuals can be aware of the status of their water supply immediately.
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