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World Changing Ideas 2019: 17 winning solutions that could save the planet

We’re excited to announce the winners of the 2019 World Changing Ideas awards. World Changing Ideas, now in its third year, celebrates businesses, policies, and nonprofits that are poised help shift society to a more sustainable and more equitable future.

World Changing Ideas 2019: 17 winning solutions that could save the planet
[Illustration: Vincent Viriot]

We’re excited to announce the winners of the 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards. World Changing Ideas, now in its third year, celebrates businesses, policies, and nonprofits that are poised help shift society to a more sustainable and equitable future.

Below, you can read about the winners in 17 different categories, from a tool that brings remote assistance to people who are blind to a giant tower that stores energy using cranes and 35-ton bricks. There’s a promising technology to turn wood into fabric and a simple way to convert gasoline-powered trucks to run on electricity. And much more.

The winners were picked from a list of hundreds of finalists, which were chosen from a pool of nearly 2,000 total entries. Each category was judged by a jury of prominent social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, thinkers, and designers, plus a Fast Company editor. You can see the full list of finalists, honorable mentions, and judges here.

The breadth of the creative problem-solving and inspiring solutions from all the entries were inspiring, a true grab bag of innovations that could help transform the world. We can’t wait to see what they do next.


General Excellence

Aira, Aira

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[Photo: Aira]
Either through glasses equipped with a high-definition camera and a speaker, or a mobile phone application, Aira users can send a live stream of what’s happening around them to an “agent,” who will look at the footage and relay that information to them.  Anytime an Aira user–who the company calls “explorers”– places a call, an agent will pick up in 20 seconds or less and help them with whatever they need, whether it be reading a menu that’s not translated into Braille, or walking through an airport to find something to eat or buy before heading to their gate. 

For users, access to Aira can be transformative. Anirudh Koul, Aira’s head of AI and research, says the team has heard from people for whom the technology has enabled them to do everything from simply taking a walk in their neighborhood by themselves for the first time to hiking in the wilderness to running marathons.

Only around 53% of blind or low-vision students make it from freshman to sophomore year of college; data from the past year of 100 students using Aira shows that the technology brings that proportion up to 92%. Aira similarly helps ease access to the mainstream workplace for visually impaired people. Currently, around 70% of low-vision people are not employed full-time; Aira’s mission is to lower that figure down to 7%. 

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Advertising

[Photo: Reporters Without Borders Germany]
Uncensored Playlist, DDB Group Germany

In March 2018, people in five countries that limit press freedom were suddenly able to access the news in a different way: via streaming music services. Songs with lyrics explaining recent events that might have been censored from the news were available as part of a project called the Uncensored Playlist, which adapted stories by prominent journalists into song. Because it’s impossible to block individual songs on music streaming services, the information stayed online, even as the governments worked to hide it in other mediums.

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The playlist, which launched as part of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, adapted the work of journalists from China, Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam–all countries in the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. The agency worked with a musical director to write lyrics in English and the native languages based on the information in the articles and set them to music. They were then uploaded to Spotify, Apple Music, and Deezer, where they’re still available.

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AI and Data

[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Flood Concern, One Concern

FloodConcern creates map-based visualizations of where water surges may hit hardest, up to five days ahead of an impending storm. For cities, that includes not just time-lapse breakdowns of how the water will rise, how fast it could move, and what direction it will be flowing, but also what structures will get swamped or washed away, and how differing mitigation efforts–from levy building to dam releases–will impact each scenario.

So far, FloodConcern has been retroactively tested against events like Hurricane Harvey to show that it could have predicted what areas would be most impacted well ahead of the storm. The company, which was founded in Silicon Valley in 2015, started with one of that region’s pressing threats: earthquakes. It’s since earned contracts with cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cupertino, and is also used by private insurance companies.

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Apps

Aira, Aira

See General Excellence, above (or read more here)


Consumer Products

[Image: Planned Parenthood]

Roo, Planned Parenthood and Work & Co

To get teens answers to all their uncomfortable sex questions–even the ones they’re most embarrassed to ask–Planned Parenthood teamed up with digital agency Work & Co to develop Roo: an artificially intelligent chatbot that will answer questions on everything from relationships to sexually transmitted diseases. If you ask Roo about red bumps, it will respond that you may have an ingrown hair or a sexually transmitted disease and direct you to see your doctor. The bot will also ask if you want more information and if you say yes, it will direct you to series of articles like “STDs and Safe Sex,” “What Are STDs And How Are They Transmitted?” “UTIs,” “STD Testing Treatment, and Vaccines,” and “Vaginitis.” Roo also offers potential queries like What is the right time to have sex for the first time? or When should I come out? It even advises on how to ask your crush out.

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Creativity

[Image: Bluecadet]

Outrider Bomb Blast, Blue Cadet and Outrider

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What would it look like if someone dropped a nuclear bomb on your hometown? It’s a chilling question, but the answer is: It all depends. You have to consider the type of bomb and whether it’s a surface hit or mid-air blast, all of which affect the spread of the initial fireball, heat blast, shockwave, and cloud of radiation.

All that can be a lot for people to wrap their head around without being numbed by existential dread. So in March 2018, anti-proliferation and climate change organization Outrider Foundation debuted a way to show them. The nonprofit, whose mission is to educate and empower people against global threats like nuclear war and climate change, teamed with experiential design agency Bluecadet to create Bomb Blast, a mobile-friendly data visualization that allows users to enter their location, choose from a list of known warheads, and specify blast type.

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Developing World Technology

[Photo: BanQu]

Banqu, Banqu

BanQu is a blockchain-based software as a service platform that creates a decentralized digital ledger of agricultural transactions in the developing world. The service delivers virtual tokens that can be redeemed for cash when needed, or applied to other networked transactions (like paying their energy bills). It also tracks and stores what volume of goods were delivered, the quality of those goods, and what price-per-pound that yield commanded. BanQu started in 2016 with the idea of providing people more dignity and opportunity through the creation of digital identities. It’s now active in 12 countries, and it’s expanding: In late 2018, AB InBev invited BanQu to join its 100+ Accelerator and scale its idea elsewhere. In April 2019, the company will start a new program with 1,000 barley farmers in India. It’s already active in Uganda, where it expects to reach 7,000 barley farmers by the end of the year.

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Education

[Photo: Meraki Foundation]
Meraki Margdarshaq Project, Meraki Foundation

The World Bank estimates roughly 250 million disadvantaged children never reach their full potential because they miss out on early learning. That in turn leads to a 20% loss in adult productivity, according to the organization. The Delhi-based Meraki Foundation has developed a method of working with impoverished and often overburdened parents in India to reverse neglect, attune them to a child’s developmental needs, give them the tools to address those needs, and build support systems, so they’re less stressed.

Meraki pairs each family with margdarshaqs, a word that loosely translates to “one who shows the way.” They often come from the communities they work in and were at one point recipients of one of Meraki’s programs. The guides work with parents to develop a specialized curriculum that parents can practice with their kids. Activities are specialized based on the age of the child, but also the parent’s literacy abilities. To start, games are as simple as playing catch with a ball or passing an object around a circle of people and changing direction when prompted.

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Energy

[Image: Energy Vault]

Energy Vault, Energy Vault

When a solar farm produces extra electricity during the day, Energy Vault’s giant cranes use that energy to lift and stack 35-metric-ton bricks, storing energy through the elevation gain. When the energy is later needed, software tells the system to lower the bricks, and that spins generators to send electricity back into the grid. The system can respond within a millisecond.

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India’s Tata Power is the company’s first announced customer, with a tower that will be constructed later this year. But Energy Vault is in talks with other customers about more than 1,200 potential towers. Each tower can be erected quickly; the cranes can be delivered within months and erected within weeks, without the huge investment of a battery factory. The bricks themselves can be made on-site from materials such as concrete construction debris–which would otherwise go to a landfill–or soil. At a coal plant that plans to close and reopen renewable energy on-site, the bricks could be made from coal ash that companies would otherwise have to spend money to clean up.

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Experimental

[Photo: Spinnova]

Spinnova, Spinnova

Spinnova, based in Jyväskylä, Finland, finished building a pilot factory in late 2018. Inside, patented machines grind up wood pulp and agricultural waste into tiny fibers that can be spun into wool and then made into fabric for clothing. The process has advantages over cotton, which requires large amounts of water to grow–often in water-stressed regions–and also uses large amounts of pesticides. The company has calculated that it uses more than 99% less water than cotton, largely because it’s using trees that don’t need irrigation as they grow. The process also doesn’t use harmful chemicals. Unlike some other materials that can be made from trees, such as viscose, it doesn’t use chemicals to break down tough fibers. The process is mechanical. The material also avoids the problems of synthetic fabrics like polyester that are typically made from fossil fuels and can contribute to plastic waste in the ocean when tiny fibers break off of clothing in washing machines and flow down drains into waterways.

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Food

[Photo: Apeel]

Apeel, Apeel Sciences

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Each year, roughly a third of the food that farms grow is wasted, wasting water, fertilizer, and energy along the way. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution in the world. For fruits and vegetables, Apeel founder James Rogers realized that a simple coating could extend the life of food. The coating itself is derived from food.

Avocados, which are particularly likely to end up in the trash because they ripen so quickly, were the company’s first target. So far, Rogers says, the product has reduced retail waste by more than 50%, while groceries are simultaneously selling more avocados and having fewer customer returns. Soon, Apeel-coated limes and asparagus will also be in stores, followed by other produce.

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Health and Wellness

[Photo: Butterfly Network]

Butterfly iQ, Butterfly iQ

Diagnostic imaging technology is very expensive, hard to transport, and requires a reliable source of power. For small, under-resourced villages in the developing world, getting access to lifesaving diagnostic tools like MRI, PET scans, or ultrasound is difficult. Butterfly iQ, Rothberg’s company, has found an innovative way to shrink down the technology so it can be used with a mobile phone–making it a lot easier to bring these resources to remote patients.

Generally, ultrasound machines use quartz crystals to emanate sound waves into the body. Butterfly IQ instead uses thousands of metal bits fitted onto a chip the size of a postage stamp. It comes with a mobile app that interprets ultrasound images using artificial intelligence. (The Food and Drug Administration has approved Butterfly iQ for 13 indications and uses.)

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Social Justice

[Photo: Upsolve]
Upsolve, Upsolve

Since it launched in 2018, Upsolve, a nonprofit that makes a Turbo Tax-like web app of the same name that helps people file for bankruptcy, has helped more than 500 people erase their debts, more than any other nonprofit; other nonprofits have a slower process where caseworkers can only help one person at a time. By using software that automatically fills in forms, a process that would normally take an attorney hours shrinks to five minutes of review. Eventually, using machine learning, the entire process could be automated. That makes it possible, Pavuluri says, to begin to scale up to reach the millions of Americans who could benefit from bankruptcy but don’t see it as a viable option now.

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Spaces, Places, and Cities

[Image: Ryse]

Ryse Commons, Ryse

In Richmond, California, youth organization Ryse has welcomed over 3,700 kids who have participated in everything from youth organizing programs, where they learn to engage with other young people to call for change, to tutoring and college prep classes, to learning photography and screen printing. There’s a particular focus on justice, and kids engage in policy studies on criminal justice and how to build a more restorative system.

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At Ryse Commons, a new campus that will be built around needs of local youth, there will be the same organizing and education, but the expanded space will allow many new programs. Kids will be able to grow food in a garden and learn about healthy cooking in a teaching kitchen; a pop-up shop space will enable youth to display and sell what they make in their creative classes; a meditation garden will help people truly unwind. The Commons will also create more space for onsite mental health services and counseling.

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Students

[Photo: Max Julian Fischer]
IncluseMax Julian Fischer, Florian Beck, and Christian Dittrich

Of the 15 million people who are hearing-impaired in Germany, just 3 million use a device. Incluse, developed by design student Max Julian Fischer over the course of last year with input from hearing aid companies and technicians from German companies like Siemens, looks more like an earring or a sleek Bluetooth attachment than a hearing aid: It’s a small cylinder, plated copper, gold, or silver, that hangs from the earlobe like a clip-on earring. A small, undetectable plastic tube extends into the ear to transmit sounds to the wearer. Fischer aims for the device to be able to connect to devices like smartphones and voice assistants, as the latest hearing devices do.

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Transportation

[Photo: Motiv]
EPIC Chassis, Motiv

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While most trucks and vans are custom-built to the needs of clients, says Jim Castelaz, CEO of Motiv, they generally all start with the same base frame, or chassis. Motiv created an all-electric chassis, built to the same configurations of a standard chassis. The Electric Powered Intelligent Chassis (or EPIC) is built to match the two most popular Ford chassis–the E-450 van base, and the F-59 and F-53 commercial truck supports–and with that, Castelaz says, he believes around 80% of commercial vehicles on the roads could switch to Motiv’s electric chassis. Motiv doesn’t disclose the cost of the EPIC, but estimates that switching to the electric chassis pays for itself in around two to three years, as fuel costs can drop by around 85%.

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World Changing Company of the Year

IBM

The World Changing Company of the Year award goes to the company who submits multiple projects, and IBM’s work addressed a range of issues with innovative solutions. From disaster relief to food supply to artificial intelligence, the company is applying its technological know-how in surprising ways. Its Call For Code contest has resulted in an ingenious solution to reconnecting areas affected by disasters, by air-dropping small rubber balls that create a Wi-Fi network and help aid workers better manage their resources. Its Food Trust program is helping add transparency to the agricultural supply chain. And Project Debater, an AI that is teaching itself to be able to have real arguments with people, is a (compelling but sometimes horrifying) window into the future of computer-human interactions.

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About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly FastCoExist.com. Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at] fastcompany.com

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