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National Geographic’s “Chasing Genius” Awards Honor Solutions To Hunger, Health, And The Environment

From biodegradable clothes to vision for the developing world, these are the projects NatGeo thinks are solving our most pressing global issues.

National Geographic’s “Chasing Genius” Awards Honor Solutions To Hunger, Health, And The Environment
“Why don’t we try to really inspire and ignite our community to think about their own potential.” [Photo: courtesy National Geographic]

If a pair of sneakers made from a new material wears out, you’ll be able to compost the shoes. The material–spun into a filament from algae and other natural organisms, and then knit together–will safely biodegrade. (It’s also edible, if not particularly delicious.)

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The project, called AlgiKnit, is one of the winning ideas in National Geographic‘s Chasing Genius competition, which crowdsourced solutions for three global issues: how we can ensure that we can feed 9 billion people by 2050, how we can improve global health, and how we can protect the environment.

[Photo: courtesy National Geographic]
For the media company, the competition was a way to activate its massive community–with 350 million followers on social media, it has the largest and most engaged non-celebrity brand in the world.

“Ideas can really come from anywhere and anyone,” says Claudia Malley, executive vice president of partner solutions at National Geographic. “I think as a society, we have slowly maybe closed that off  . . . we said, why don’t we try to really inspire and ignite our community to think about their own potential–the ideas that they have to try to solve some of the biggest issues.” More than 2,800 people submitted ideas.

Asta Skocir, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, won the “sustainable planet” category for her submission of AlgiKnit, which was created by a biomaterials research group in New York City. It won not simply because it can create clothing and footwear that avoids the landfill, but because it can be harvested from algae rather than made from fossil fuel-based polymers or resource-intensive cotton.

[Photo: courtesy National Geographic]
Kevin White, founder of the nonprofit Global Vision 2020, won the global health category for USee, a simple kit that helps provide eye care. For someone living in rural Africa, getting a prescription for the right glasses may not be possible–in some areas, only one optometrist exists for every 8 million people. The USee diagnostic device, which looks like a pair of glasses with attached dials, can be used to measure nearsightedness or farsightedness without any training, and then a pair of the correct lenses can be snapped into any frame.

Richard Trimble, a designer, won the global hunger category for a solar-powered device that processes pearl millet, a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. The grain is usually threshed by hand with a mortar and pestle, a task so time-consuming and arduous that it’s difficult to prepare enough for a single meal each day. The new solar-powered thresher increases production.

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[Photo: courtesy National Geographic]
A “people’s choice” award went to John Monnat, an architect and one member of a team that created Cheruvu, a startup that uses data science to help farmers in India increase yield. The group currently works with cotton farmers, using climate data and soil tests to help farmers make better agricultural decisions, and grow more with fewer inputs. Over the last decade, more than 100,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide because of crop failures.

Each of the winning ideas will be awarded $25,000, along with exposure through National Geographic. “In some ways, the exposure for the winners and the finalists–having them and their ideas spotlighted on a global stage, and allowing them to get the feedback and input from a larger community–is more valuable than the cash prize,” says Malley.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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