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An Ad Agency That Wants to Change the World?

Saatchi & Saatchi offers awards for ground-breakingly innovative ideas that have the potential to make a positive difference, and even change the world.

An Ad Agency That Wants to Change the World?
Courtesy of Concrete Canvas Courtesy of Concrete Canvas

A straw that kills germs, an ink jet technology to re grow tissue and bone, hologram images of a cancer patient’s anatomy, and a cap that reads the brain waves of paralyzed people. These are just some of the finalists of this year’s World Changing Ideas Awards — an international competition held biennially by Saatchi & Saatchi.

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The awards, which began in 1998, offer a $100,000 prize ($50,000 cash and $50,000 in Saatchi & Saatchi consultancy fees) that is awarded to an innovative idea that has the potential to reach the largest number of people and make the biggest impact. This year’s winner is a device called LifeStraw, which aims to provide the developing world with clean drinking water.

Seems somewhat overly philanthropic for an ad agency? We thought so too. The catch, however, is that Saatchi & Saatchi doesn’t really consider itself to be a typical advertising agency. “We’re an ideas company,” says the agency’s Worldwide Creative Director, Bob Isherwood, firmly. “We rebranded ourselves in the advertising world in 1997 and took the word advertising out of our name entirely.”

A growing recognition that new media was heavily impacting existing channels for reaching the consumer propelled the “former” ad agency’s desire to dissociate itself from the traditional view of what the advertising world represents. Saatchi & Saatchi developed its own website during this period, aiming to populate it not just with content about itself and its work like an ad agency usually does, but also with information about developments, ideas, and innovation in the world of communications.

“The awards are in line with our own greatest ideal — to be a hothouse for world changing ideas,” says Isherwood. He underscores the importance of drawing attention to ideas that deserve it, and providing them with the fuel to potentially take off.

This year’s winner, LifeStraw, is a highly portable, personal water-purification tool made by Vestergaard Frandsen that claims to turn even the dirtiest water into safe drinking water. It contains a specially developed halogen-based resin that filters out almost 100% of bacteria and 99% of viruses that cause deadly diseases.

For the more than one billion people who lack access to safe drinking water, LifeStraw calls itself an innovation that could mean the difference between life and death, particularly for women, children and people with compromised immune systems.

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Although LifeStraw is currently in a stage of infancy, the company’s CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen is optimistic about its ability to have an impact. “We want to provide people with a life of health and dignity,” he says. “An immediate concern beyond the devastating health impact is that young girls can’t go to school because they have to spend the day fetching water.”

The company plans to use the prize money to spread the word about its cause. “The world knows about poverty and HIV, but there is no rock star campaigning against diarrhea. Water is a problem for millions of people — an everyday struggle for survival. People need to know how easy it is to empower a family with the ability to make home-made water,” says Frandsen.

Currently, distribution of the device is solely through aid organizations; the company believes that these are the best conduits to reach rural households, where its device can have the biggest impact.

This year’s list of ten finalists offers a spectrum of devices that range from ideas in the concept stage, to those that are finalized. These include:

  • Acuset, a $6 intravenous flow controller that aims to provide a cheap and precise alternative to the $2000 microprocessor controlled syringe pumps that are used in most developed countries. The device is touted as potentially being instrumental in saving millions of lives, as about 2.5 billion IV sets are used annually throughout the developing world, and when administering potent drugs even a 3mm shift can reportedly be fatal.
  • The Harvard Medical School’s Restoring Sight to the Blind project, a still nascent idea that has the potential to provide the blind with sight — although fuzzy and far from perfect. The idea is to overcome the problem of a diseased, damaged or no longer working retina. Retina-like signals from an external camera are sent directly to the thalamic lateral geniculate nucleus — the relay station through which images converted into neural impulses pass before moving on to the retinal cortex. This is done through an array of electrodes that turn electrical impulses into nerve impulses. The nerve impulses then continue on to the visual cortex, restoring sight to some extent.
  • Speaking Books, a project of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group that aims to surmount the barrier of illiteracy by producing… well, speaking books. Editions of each of the books are ‘read’ by local celebrities in Zulu, Sotho, Pedi, French, Swahili and English so that patients and care workers can know how to identify illnesses, where to go for treatment and how to take their medication – even if they are unable to read.
  • PerspectaRAD, which aims to uses special optics and software to project hologram-like floating images of the patient’s anatomy, and cancer site from standard CAT scans. It needs no special eyewear and could overcome the difficulty that arises when a procedure that is inherently three-dimensional has to be planned on a two-dimensional display.
  • The Wadsworth Brain-Computer Interface, which was recognized for its ability to enable totally paralyzed people to employ brain waves to convey their intentions. For example, if the user, who must wear an electrode cap, wants to change the TV channel, the BCI deciphers that intent from the brain waves and changes the channel for him.

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LifeStraw’s predecessor and the winner of Saatchi & Saatchi’s last award in 2006 was Concrete Canvas — emergency housing that can be put together in under 40 minutes. Described as a “building in a bag,” the Concrete Canvas shelter needs merely water and air for its construction.

“We used the Saatchi & Saatchi award money as seed funding,” explains the company’s design engineer Phil Greer. “It was very useful. They also worked with us to do some branding work and produce a promotional DVD.” Concrete Canvas has “progressed massively” since winning the award in 2006 according to Greer, having built a 54 square meter model of the shelter. The company now envisions several further uses of the concept material, such as rapid roads creation and use in the construction industry.

Concrete Canvas’s concept material is currently used by the British Army in Afghanistan to reinforce sandbags, and Greer estimates that the product will be commercially available, either through NGOs or other organizations, in about nine months.

Other notables in the past include Quicktionary – a device that looks like a big pen, the nib of which when run over a piece of foreign text scans the words and immediately comes up with a translation on a built-in screen. There’s also Wikipedia — the popular online encyclopedia that provides free content through articles written by volunteers, and Jot a Dot — a Braille keyboard, that unlike its traditional counterparts, is extremely light and easy to carry around.

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