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Nov 24, 2008

At San Jose’s 8th annual Tech Museum Awards, FLYP talks to five laureates who are building a network of innovations for the common good.

By Tara Kyle

In the heart of Silicon Valley, known for its fast-paced, big-bucks advances in information technology, a group of global innovators converged this month for a reason that has little to do with shopping rushes and bottom lines.
For the eighth year, the Tech Awards in San Jose, Calif. honored 25 nonprofit and for-profit entrepreneurs chosen from 650 nominees for their contributions to making the world at least a little better.
Not all of the projects—which range from the use of 19th-century biomass gasification technology to electrify villages in India to the invention of a non-reusable syringe—require the latest technology.
What they do necessitate is finding ways to twist old ideas into modern solutions. Past recipients include Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Foundation USA and Partners in Health, the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Mountains Beyond Mountains.
Among the 25 laureates, five special cash prizes were handed out: the Intel Environment Award, the Fogarty Institute for Innovation Health Award, the Accenture Economic Development Award 
and the 
Katherine M. Swanson Equality Award.
“I think the single most important thing that we can take away from here is the understanding that there are very many people here who want to help,” says Robin Bullock, director of Star Syringe.
Hany El Miniawy, who was cited for his work in creating site-specific, affordable, and eco-friendly housing in Algeria and Egypt, believes that the media needs to disseminate the projects’ ideas all over the world.
“There is a globalization economy,” he says. “But we need a globalization for humanity.”

A Thousand Scattered Lights

Decentralization may be the path out of darkness and poverty in India’s rural villages.

Watch FLYP’s video interview with Hari Sharan of DESI Power.

While the gleaming office towers of Mumbai highlight India’s status as a burgeoning global power, 350,000 Indian villages are without schools, basic health services, clean drinking water or the electric power to light a room or cook a meal.
In such places, “one is basically living the life that one has lived forever, without any modern amenities,” says Dr. Hari Sharan, co-chairman of DESI Power.
The central problem, in Sharan’s view, is that farm work can’t keep pace with India’s rapid population growth, but other jobs can’t be created without access to electricity.
DESI Power’s solution is to set up local biomass gasification plants, and then encourage residents to create micro-enterprises that serve the needs of those plants, such as making ice or charging batteries.
Although the core technology needed to operate this type of renewable energy is quite old—the Germans used it to power trucks during World War II—DESI Power spent ten years adapting the technology to make it more affordable, reliable and eco-friendly.
“The technology doesn’t stand still,” Sharan says. “It’s a question of mixing the old and new to adapt to the local situation.”
In 2006, DESI Power began to expand from four test villages to 100. Sharan aims to show that it’s “not a one-off solution. It’s a solution that can be replicated on a large scale, in which there is a return on investment, there is a social impact and there are environmental advantages to the whole plan.”

One Shot Deal
Meet the British medical technology company behind the non-reusable syringe.

Watch FLYP’s video interview with Robin Bullock of Star Syringe.

Of the 16 billion injections delivered every year in the developing world, up to 50 percent are unsafe, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. Rates in individual countries are sometimes much higher: major studies put the figures at up to 73 percent in Pakistan and 65 percent in India, according to the director of Star Syringe, Robin Bullock.
“It’s due to greed by the health care worker, it’s due to ignorance by both the health care worker and the recipient, and it’s due to economies where a reused syringe has some value,” Bullock comments.
The consequences of the packaging and returning of syringes to the market are dire. Experts believe this contributes to 22 million new cases of hepatitis B, a million new cases of hepatitis C and a quarter-million new cases of HIV every year.
But over the last four years, one billion syringes have been manufactured and sold that could drastically reduce those numbers.
Inventor Marc Koska placed a fine ring inside the syringe barrel, and a disk on the plunger that locks into the ring when an injection is given. Because the device cannot be unlocked, the syringe cannot
be refilled.
It’s a seemingly simplistic solution to a very serious problem, but as Bullock notes, “the simple things that are invented often come around once in a blue moon.”

The Digital Arctic
Adventure-prone educators are helping sun-drenched students in India and Australia witness the front lines of climate change.

Watch FLYP’s video interview with Aaron Doering of Go North!

As the scientific community comes to a consensus on the problem of climate change, the potential impacts are on the minds of science and social studies teachers around the world. However, most kids and teens live in places far from the Arctic regions experiencing the first wave of effects on people, plants and animals.
The Go North! Adventure Learning Series, pioneered by Dr. Aaron Doering at the University of Minnesota, uses Web 2.0 technologies to take students on virtual expeditions to some of these hotspots.
Traveling via traditional dog sleds, Doering’s team heads to a different Northern destination each year to study environmental topics such as deforestation, oil exploration and trans-boundary pollution. Over 3 million students from over 2,900 schools around the world have used the site.
Through online “collaboration zones,” Go North! asks students from Australia to New England to rise at odd hours to share live chats and post on interactive maps. Kids growing up in the icy, isolated places Go North! visits are also gaining from the experience. They are in some cases creating the first blogs ever published from their regions, sharing what life is like in a whaling community.
“What we’ve seen so far is that students are truly motivated by this approach, because it’s a narrative, it’s a story unfolding,” Doering says. “The heart of this is not only the adventure, not only the curriculum, but the collaboration between students, teachers and experts.”

Reclaiming Home
One architect is empowering impoverished North Africans to create healthier places to live.

Watch FLYP’s interview with Hany El Miniawy of ADAPT.

Throughout the developing world, the lack of decent housing has long been one of the most profound challenges to development. Makeshift houses are often made of adobe, metal, cloth or cardboard, and lack potable water, sewage facilities and other modern necessities.
The global economic crisis only makes the problem worse.
Enter Hany El Miniawy’s organization, called Appropriate Development, Architecture & Planning Technologies (ADAPT).
El Miniawy’s group travels to impoverished communities to develop site-specific building materials that can be made by local residents. And they are cost-effective: bricks that combine certain kinds of soil with locally produced waste products such as rice straw and cement dust can reduce housing construction costs by 30 percent.
Since its inception, ADAPT has worked to help create new homes for more than 210,000 people.
El Miniawy, a former Egyptian national water-ski champion who has worked in France, Germany and Algeria, believes that science is key to development.
“People have their own heritage and knowledge, but it’s missing the science. And that’s what we can all do: bring it back to them for a better life,” he says.

Harnessing “Cheetah Power”

Clearing invasive thorn bushes from Namibia’s savannahs is creating energy and saving lives.

Watch FLYP’s interview with Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

In Namibia, efforts to save endangered cheetahs are having a side benefit, in the form of an environmentally sustainable energy enterprise.
The rapid spread of thorn bushes dries out the land, kills crops and endangers wildlife as natural habitats disappear, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an international NGO. One result is that cheetahs are now in danger of extinction within our lifetime. Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of CCF, has personally adopted more than 40 orphan cheetahs on her farm, but she wanted to do more to restore the country’s grassland savannah.
In 2001, CCF got a grant to set up the project that today produces Bushblok, a biomass product derived from the excess bush on farmland. Bushblok is sold in local and international markets as a cheap, environmentally sustainable alternative to firewood and coal.
The bush is manually harvested and made into bricks without added chemicals or binders. Most of the bricks are sold in neighboring areas, but they are also exported to Europe and South Africa.
CCF recently discovered that the chips that go into the logs can be used as a source for electricity, and their goal for the next year is to set up a biomass electricity plant to run the production of Bushblock.
“My name for the whole project is ‘Cheetah Power,’” she says. “We think the cheetah can lead everyone into the light in a variety of different ways: it could produce electricity, help in education, training and the economy throughout our entire region. We’re just trying to lead the way to make it a better world.”

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