8 Highlights From The 2017 World Changing Ideas Awards

Bold, visionary projects are leading the way toward improving how we live, eat, and learn.

8 Highlights From The 2017 World Changing Ideas Awards

There are 192 finalists in the 2017 World Changing Ideas Awards, in categories from health to urban design to food. They run the gamut from internet-connected wells that collect water data to vegetable-based hamburgers that bleed like real meat. Here are eight more of our favorites.


Correcting Vision From The Cloud

Connected Eyes, Microsoft and L V Prasad Eye Institute

Illustration: Tianhua Mao

There are around 55 million visually impaired people in India, up to 80% of whom could be helped by everyday procedures like Lasik. Medical and surgical resources, however, are limited. In April 2015, nonprofit L V Prasad Eye Institute, in Hyderabad, India, teamed up with Microsoft India to create Connected Eyes, a cloud-based machine-learning research project that uses data from tens of thousands of eye patients to identify the likelihood of success for new surgery, plus a probable regression rate, so that doctors can deploy those resources most effectively. Last December, Connected Eyes linked up with institutions in Brazil, Australia, and the United States to create the Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare, which will build a universally available service that offers eye doctors immediate predictions for their patients. “This will be a global pool of knowledge that everyone can benefit from,” says Anil Bhansali, managing director of Microsoft India R&D. —Ben Schiller

Rethinking The Factory

South Side Soapbox, Method Products and Gotham Greens

The Chicago manufacturing facility for the eco-friendly cleaning-products company Method looks nothing like a traditional factory. Brightly colored, airy, and powered by solar panels and a 600 kW wind turbine, the South Side Soapbox opened in 2015 as the world’s first LEED Platinum–certified plant of its kind. “We want to show that a factory should be something that fuels innovation, not hampers it,” says Garry Embleton, Method’s VP of op­erations. Large enough to tackle the majority of the San Francisco–based company’s manufacturing, bottle production, warehousing, and distribution on-site, the Soapbox produces more than 30 million product units each year and has slashed the company’s carbon emissions by 200 metric tons. Tightening the supply chain and investing in renewable energy will, in the long run, grow Method’s bottom line, Embleton says, but the Soapbox also points to how the factories of the future will need to think beyond company interests: Through a partnership with urban-farming startup Gotham Greens, the Soapbox features a rooftop greenhouse that each year sells up to 1 million pounds of leafy greens such as bok choy and kale to Chicago-area residents. “For a factory to be truly sustainable,” Embleton says, “it has to benefit both the environment and its community.” —Eillie Anzilotti

Taking Back The Block

Avalon Village, Avalon Village

Shamayim “Shu” Harris is proving that even the most forgotten neighborhood can thrive again.Photo: Todd Diederich

“You look at this street, and it’s like a phoenix rising,” says Shamayim “Shu” Harris of Avalon Street in Michigan’s Highland Park, an impoverished city of 10,000 people in the Detroit metro area. She and fellow residents are installing a heating and cooling system in a run-down home that this summer will become the Homework House, equipped with a kitchen, reading area, and computer lab, where local kids will be able to gather after school to study. Down the block, shipping containers will become a women-run business hub, a greenhouse will generate fresh produce, solar panels will generate power, and a retention pond will collect rainwater for plumbing. All of this activity represents the initial phases of Avalon Village, a local effort to transform the neighborhood into a self-sustaining, off-the-grid community. Harris moved to the once-blighted block in 2008, after her 2-year-old son was killed in a hit-and-run near Avalon Street, planning to clean it up in his memory. But property values were low, so Harris decided to buy up the lots—through crowdfunding and seed grants—and turn them into local assets. She also intends to build a wellness center and affordable housing. “Things don’t have to stay the way they were,” Harris says. —EA

Illustration: Tianhua Mao

Respecting Marine Life

Edible six-pack rings, E6PR

To a fish or a seagull, plastic trash in the ocean looks like lunch (to often-deadly results), but a new six-pack ring actually is. Made from beer process waste from breweries or wheat by-products from agriculture, the edible six-pack ring also breaks down in seawater, unlike typical plastic. “The best solution would be no packaging at all, or 100% recyclable behavior from human beings,” says Marco Vega, cofounder of ad firm We Believers, which launched the concept in 2016 as part of a brand-building campaign for Florida-based craft brewer Saltwater Brewery. After massive demand from other breweries, the agency spun off a new company, called E6PR, to begin broader production; consumers will start seeing the rings on shelves this summer. Meanwhile, E6PR is working with a major beer company and factories in the U.S. and abroad to test whether the rings can be manufactured economically at enough scale to become the new industry standard. —Adele Peters

Keeping Tabs On Your Little One

Owlet Smart Sock, Owlet Baby Care and R/GA

The Owlet Smart Sock measures infants’ heart rate and blood oxygen levels and alerts parents in the next room should any of these vitals ever enter dangerous territory. More than 80,000 units have been sold since the product’s debut in 2015. This spring, the Lehi, Utah–based company is releasing an updated version that offers historical readings and trend analysis. In time, they plan to use collected data to predict when problems might occur, not just when they already have. For example, certain heart-rate profiles may indicate that a baby has a fever, even before she’s sweating. Retailing at around $300, the Owlet system represents how high-end hospital-grade equipment—in this case, a pulse oximetry machine—can be miniaturized, consumerized, and made relatively affordable. Insurance reimbursement or philanthropic programs might soon make it more so. “Our vision is for every parent to have access to this,” says cofounder Kurt Workman. —BS

Maximizing Space—And Resources

Heijmans One, Heijmans

Illustration: Tianhua Mao

The prefab 420-square-foot Heijmans One house is designed to be installed in a day on a vacant lot, and then moved when that lot is developed, providing quick new urban housing for the growing number of people who live alone and struggle to find affordable places to live. Heijmans has sold 58 of the solar panel–equipped homes so far in the Netherlands, primarily to investors and housing associations, and is waiting for regulations to catch up with demand. Most municipalities are “still not ready for temporary rental houses,” says Heijmans’s commercial manager, Kees Strooper. —AP


Steadying The Wind

Wind-hydropower hybrid project, GE Renewable Energy and Max Bögl Wind AG

Wind is an abundant and increasingly cheap source of energy, but it’s intermittent. Depending on how the breeze is blowing, turbines can generate too little power, or even too much, raising headaches for grid operators and casting doubt on wind energy’s large-scale viability. High in the hilly Swabian-Franconian Forest, in southern Germany, GE and Max Bögl Wind developed an elegant solution: Their wind-hydro energy-storage project will combine giant turbines (each is 584 feet high), several reservoirs, a hydroelectric station, and a mountainside into a giant battery. At moments of high electricity demand, water is released from the reservoirs on the mountain, which generates power below. When there is less demand, wind-powered pumps carry the water to the top again. “We’re making wind almost like a base-load resource,” says Ulrich Suedhoff, director of business development for GE Renewable Energy in Europe, meaning that it’s essentially on all the time. “We can balance the grid so there’s power when it’s needed.” The wind portion of the project will connect with the grid in southern Germany by the end of this year, and the hydropump storage by 2018. Suedhoff says that GE is scoping out sites for up to 100 more wind-hydro projects around the world. —BS

Learn Fresh founder Khalil Fuller is harnessing kids’ love of basketball.Photo: Christopher Wurzbach

Helping Students Shoot And Score

NBA Math Hoops, Learn Fresh Education Co.

When eighth graders play the NBA Math Hoops game, they get to assume the role of basketball coaches, using real players’ actual statistics to make decisions about whether a player should take a two-point shot or a corner three. As the kids soon disco­ver, they’re applying math skills they might otherwise have considered boring. “We have a vision for every student to fall in love with every subject through things they already care about,” says Khalil Fuller, CEO of Learn Fresh, the nonprofit that first created a physical edition of the game and is now launching an app version. Fuller, who watched friends drop out of high school after they fell behind in math, was inspired to develop the game after a college instructor introduced the idea. He has since formed a licensing deal with the NBA to use stats from real players to make the game extra authentic. “The students idolize these players,” Fuller says. “It’s kind of like your idol is coming to teach you math.” Right now, 20,000 students in 35 cities play the game; the new app will target millions. And for the kids who aren’t interested in basketball? Fuller is already working with an NFL team. —AP