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Things are looking pretty bleak right now. But, the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. So BusinessWeek asked several futurists, including Futurist.com’s Glen Hiemstra, consultant David Zach, and author Howard Rheingold, to describe what they’d like to see arise from the current downturn. Notably, our experts didn’t think of innovation merely in terms of products or services. These ideas will change the way humans interact with the earth—and with each other.
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Till now, hydropower has mostly been generated at dams. Now, turbines around the world are being designed to harness the power of the ocean. Blue Energy Canada is close to commercializing a turbine that captures energy from ocean currents and already has purchase power agreements in India, Indonesia, and New Zealand. With a set of subway-size floating turbines, Pelamis Wave Power is converting wave power into electricity off the coast of Scotland.
Truly tiny implants that can test, diagnose, and even alert doctors to problems with their patients will replace costly routine visits. Researchers in the Netherlands say they’ve developed a pill that can be loaded with medicine and programmed to travel to a specific part of the body to unload it. A pen-size device is being developed at the University of Texas that can detect skin cancer without the need for a biopsy.
It has been around for a while, but 3D printing is becoming more affordable, which in itself will unleash a host of new inventions and applications, pushing beyond prototypes and models. Scientists have been experimenting using the technology to reconstruct human tissue.
Mobile applications can already identify what song is playing, point you to a nearby restaurant, or manage your social networking utilities, but that was just the start. The relatively low cost of entry and the speed at which an app hits or misses creates a environment ripe for breakthrough innovation. What’s next could be the first big business to arise from the downturn
The first round of biofuels caused a spike in global food prices. Now companies are developing the next generation from non-edible sources. Scientists at ADM (ADM) are creating cellulosic ethanol from corn stover and other companies are experimenting with switchgrass, woodchips, and miscanthus.
While Detroit struggles, would-be automakers are getting in on the action, with a host of electric vehicles now in various states of readiness to roll. Shai Agassi’s Better Place is proposing a network of stations where drivers of electric cars can exchange dying batteries for ones freshly charged. For its part, GM’s (GM) Chevy Volt is due in 2010.
As entertainment technologies converge, we’re better able to watch, listen, or read anything we want any time we want. The Netflix Player by Roku streams an ever-growing library of Netflix and Amazon content directly to the TV. Apple TV offers both shows and movies for purchase or rental. Open-source media software, Boxee, aims to run on all third-party streaming boxes and plans to release its own box, too. Soon, these systems won’t only be for the alpha geeks.
In Chicago, two separate teams recently made breakthroughs that dramatically shrink the size of electronics. One team’s new transistors allow for processors that will make silicon chips seem gigantic. The other came up with film material that can store the equivalent of 250 DVDs on the space of a quarter.
Huge advances are being made that could some day eradicate cancer, AIDS, brain tumors, prostate cancer, and other diseases. Nanotech medicine provides a more targeted delivery to cells than chemotherapy or other treatments, which means doctors can lower dosages to minimize side effects.
New toys will hark back to the 1980s, when science and math ruled the store shelves, but will have a futuristic twist. This Star Wars “Force Trainer” toy, which comes out in July 2009, measures a child’s brain waves. The child then concentrates to control the ball in the tube.
Researchers are coming up with ways to rechannel the body’s natural energies to power electrical devices. Scientists at the Energy Dept.’s Berkeley Lab announced breakthroughs in silicon nano-wire based converters that could let someone charge a cell phone with body heat or charge an iPod through walking.
Harnessing the power of the crowd has been a big trend in recent years: See Wikipedia. The concept will become more sophisticated, as movies, video games, advertising and translating services are now all being developed to capitalize on thousands of hours of freely given labor
Sure, many people are deeply embedded in the world of social networks, but much of the world’s population still couldn’t tell a forum from a wiki. This will change, and as social media applications become assumed, rather than newsworthy, corporations would be wise to ensure their employees are up to speed.
Although many blame financial innovation for getting us into the current mess, experts agree on the need for a far-reaching overhaul of the global financial system, from the individual level right up to the top of the tree.
In cities such as Chicago, technology enables commuters to track the (natural gas-powered) buses. Vehicle-sharing companies like Zipcar and iGo (IGOI) are gaining momentum, and bicycle sharing services are becoming popular. European cities have already had success in creating networks of eco-friendly cars, bikes, and trains for commuters to share, but other parts of the world are lagging. This will change.
Biotech drugs, which are made from living cells, provide some of the best efforts at curing diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and HIV. Recently, the Food & Drug Administration approved a drug made from bioengineered goats that treats patients with a rare blood clotting disorder. A report from the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America from late 2008 claimed there are 633 new drugs from bioengineered materials in the works.
PFNC, an El Paso company, is refurbishing leftover shipping containers into housing units for people living in dangerous or substandard conditions. The company says that each unit will include First World amenities for less than $10,000 (they should be available mid-2009.) They’re first going to folks in Juárez, Mexico, where chronic housing shortages have led to huge slums.
While parts of Asia and Europe enjoy speedy Internet, much of the rest of the world can often feel as if it’s still on dial-up. Efforts to build nationwide WiMax networks (high speed wireless) have fizzled. Without fast connections, services like Internet video, online banking, and business telecommunications are stymied. The ability to access the marketplace from anywhere will reduce costs, expand networks, and save time.
Millions of dollars are being poured into research to develop the next great battery technology. Longer charges on fewer cycles are needed to power electric cars, handheld devices, home appliances, and backup systems for when, say, the wind turbines stop turning.