Innovation for a better world … digital identities for every product, 3D printed homes in 24 hours, sustainable air conditioning in Asia, and solar fridges in Africa

May 6, 2020

Business can be a platform for good. Probably the best way to solve many of the world’s environmental and social challenges – many which are becoming all too obvious, in a world shaken-up by the current shocks – is to harness the power of business, its assets and infrastructure, brands and customer bases, innovators and imagination.

Fast Company’s “World Changing Ideas” awards explore the products and concepts, companies and policies, that are pursuing innovation for the good of society and the planet. The 2020 awards looks at everything from large companies’ sustainability initiatives to clever consumer products to ground-breaking government policies. Here are some of the winners:

A digital identity for every product

Niall Murphy, the Swiss-based co-founder of EVRYTHNG, is on a mission to give every physical object a digital identity. Once products are IoT tagged – food, clothes, phones, cars – then you can “activate, authenticate, amplify” them – enabling companies to better manage supply chains, customers to learn about products, buy or reorder them, and get additional services.

Norwegian seafood company Mowi, the world’s largest salmon and trout farmer, enables consumers to see the sustainability certification of the exact fish they’re buying, when it came out of the water, and how it arrived at the supermarket.

Murphy is working with 30 top brand companies – from Coca Cola to Ralph Lauren and Unilever – to give each product they produce a “digital twin”, a digital identity, manged by its Product Cloud. He is also collaborating with GS1, the world’s standards organization for bar codes, to develop a system that allows for a standardised, open format for tagging.

3D-printed houses in Latin America

In southern Mexico, 50 homeless families have just moved into a 3D-printed housing community, their homes each built in 24 hours, and at a cost of around $4000, by a massive 3D-printer made by Icon. The 15m long printer squirts out layers of Lavacrete, a customised mix of resilient, fluid-like cement, guided by the architect’s digital design, and also includes plumbing and electrical wiring.

Jason Ballard, CEO of Icon, says that the fast construction is ideal for disaster recovery, after earthquakes or hurricanes, but also to improve the standard of housing across the world.

Icon is partnering with New Story, a non-profit seeking affordable housing in emerging countries. In Mexico, they are building homes for some of the poorest residents in a rural area near the city of Nacajuca. The homes will be donated to families who are currently living in makeshift shacks that flood every time there’s heavy rain.

Sustainable air conditioning in Asia

Singapore’s humidity averages 84% all year round, so keeping living and work spaces cool is vital, but comes at huge expense, in particular to the environment.  That’s why Phononic, a global innovator of thermoelectric solutions, has developed a new cooling platform which seeks to replace traditional compressor-based, HVAC cooling systems. Tony Atti, CEO, says Singapore is the ideal test, with its sweltering heat, and high sustainability awareness.

Phononic, part funded by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, is the only company currently developing outdoor thermoelectric cooling, so essentially creating a new market.

It is testing its new bladeless fans, in busy outdoor locations: restaurants, parking garages, and waterparks.  The OACIS platform is an iteration of Phononic’s semiconductor technology originally developed for medical fridges, and allows it to pull heat and humidity out of a particular area and transfer it to another – known as the Peltier effect. The thermoelectric cooling system can be accurately controlled and doesn’t require toxic liquid refrigerants.

Solar pay-as-you-go fridges in Africa

More than 500 million people don’t have access to electricity in Africa. No electricity makes life more difficult in any number of ways, one is the lack of a refrigerator, which means people

cannot store perishable food or medicines. To address this need Youmma, a brand of the Brazilian company Nidec Global Appliances, has developed small fridge that’s efficient enough to run on a single solar panel, and a pay-as-you-go business model that makes it affordable to families on the most limited budgets in Kenya and Uganda.

“Having access to a refrigerator has ripple effects”, says André Morriesen of Youmma. “Food lasts longer and less is wasted, and medication that needs refrigeration, such as insulin, can be safely stored. But a fridge also starts bringing some gender equality. Women, who typically still handle food shopping and preparation, may spend hours walking back and forth to markets and additional hours cooking; with a refrigerator, it’s suddenly possible to buy more food at once and save leftovers. It saves huge amounts of time and money.”

Youmma partnered with M-Kopa (Swahili for borrow), a Kenyan solar energy company, to offer the fridges as part of a solar home system that includes two LED light bulbs, two strip lights, and two phone chargingcables. After customers sign up, a solar panel is installed on their roof and begins charging the solar fridge’s battery; the battery manages power consumption and can keep the fridge running for a day and a half without sunlight. The refrigerator itself, with a unique compressor, uses little energy. Customers pay a small amount via their mobile phones each day, and each credit keeps the fridge running until the system is fully paid off.