You are here: Can technology save the world?

Below, we feature eight inspiring innovations – four that have the potential to transform lives and four that are doing so already.

Gravity lighting

Over 1.5 billion people do not have access to mains electricity, relying instead on combustible fuels for heat and light. The World Bank estimates that paraffin lamps can account for as much as 10–25% of people’s income in some developing countries. They produce around 244m tonnes of CO2 a year and expose an estimated 780 million women and children to harmful emissions equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes every day, not to mention the danger of accidental burns and structure fires. Developed by decitwatt.org, the GravityLight is charged by lifting a bag filled with 9kg of readily available material (e.g. earth, rocks or sand) suspended on a cord. When it descends, gears translate the weight into energy, creating 30 minutes of light whenever needed. It requires no batteries. Indeed, it can be used to charge them. Currently on trial, it is likely to cost less than $5 when mass produced.

Clearing landmines

According to the Landmine Relief Fund, it could take another century to clear the landmines that are scattered in over 70 countries around the world. Every year, thousands of people, mostly children, are killed and maimed by these devices, and large tracts of land cannot be used for housing or agriculture. Landmines continue to be used despite a global ban, most recently in Syria. Traditional methods, using humans, dogs and metal detectors, are still the most prevalent and effective ways to detect and clear mines, but they are also slow and inefficient. In Cambodia, 99 out of 100 detection alarms are false. Created by Red Lotus, the Pattern Enhancement Tool for Assisting Landmine Sensing, uses acoustic sensors paired with a smartphone to show the shape of objects buried in the ground. This x-ray-like device is helping to increase the safety and efficiency of de-mining.

Barcode protection

Around 35,000 plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species seeks to protect them through a system of permits and certificates. However, profound challenges remain. Wildlife trafficking increasingly involves crime syndicates and militias – the UN Security Council recently linked illicit ivory trading with the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army. Over the past five years, an upsurge in poaching has reduced the pachyderm population by as much as 11% in some African countries. The Consortium for the Barcode of Life has developed a barcoding system that can easily and accurately identify species by matching short DNA sequences to samples in a global database. Rapid, cost-effective and standardised, the system could also help mitigate the mislabelling of animal products in Europe and other parts of the world.

Ocean filter

Millions of tonnes of plastic are polluting the world’s oceans. Flowing through rivers and waterways, plastic accumulates in five areas of the world’s oceans called “gyres”. One such gyre, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to cover an area twice the size of the US. A threat to hundreds of thousands of animals, ocean plastic also damages vessels, clogs up beaches and transports pollutants that enter the food chain. Solutions to this problem normally focus on moving through the ocean to collect plastic – a costly and inefficient exercise that is also likely to require a vast amount of energy. The Ocean Cleanup Array, developed by Boyan Slat, is an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms. The booms act as giant funnels, filtering the debris which is then stored in containers for recycling. As no meshes are used, the risk of by-catch is very low, and the device itself could be powered by solar and wave energy.

Rolling water

Over 700 million people lack access to safe drinking water. For many of them, this means an arduous journey to collect water, a task normally performed by women, who must carry vessels weighing around 20kg on their heads. With an average journey length of 6km,

this is dangerous, time-consuming and backbreaking work. The Hippo Water Roller holds 90 litres of water inside a rolling wheel, which can be pushed or pulled with a handle. The effective weight is just 10kg. Designed to last six years in rural conditions, it is now used in 21 African countries, reducing women’s health risks and enabling them to spend more time on other activities. The technology has also encouraged more men to share the task of collecting water.

Mobile money

Across the developing world, many people lack access to financial services, severely impairing their ability to buy and sell goods and services. In South Africa alone, over 13 million economically active people are thought to have no bank account. Developed and pioneered in Kenya, M-Pesa is a mobile-phone-based money transfer and microfinancing service. It has a wide range of applications, from helping producers to sell their wares to paying bills and receiving loans and remittances. In 2012, some 17 million users were registered in Kenya, and the service has now been rolled out in other developing countries. In Afghanistan, the service was initially tested as a means to pay police salaries, where it significantly reduced fraud. Under the old cash-based model, 10% of the workforce were “ghost” police officers who did not in fact exist.

Democratising information

When conflict or crises erupt, verifiable information about acts of violence and danger zones can be hard to obtain and disseminate. This hinders effective responses and leaves people vulnerable, especially when information is controlled by a government unwilling or unable to protect them. Ushaidi (“testimony” in Swahili) provides free software for information collection and interactive mapping. It aims to democratise information, increase transparency and enable individuals to share their stories. Ushaidi’s first project was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya, following the country’s post-election crisis of 2007– 08. It built up a base of 45,000 users who helped to create a clearer picture of the situation. Since then, it has been used around the world, for election monitoring in Mexico, tracking petrochemical pollution in the US, recording bribes in Pakistan, cataloguing sexual violence in Syria, and reporting mining disasters in the Philippines.

Needle-free vaccinations

Globally, an estimated 40–70% of needles are reused – a source of infection, injuries and around 1.3 million deaths. The UN World Health Organisation believes that as many as 50% of injections are unsafe, resulting in over 23 million people contracting HIV, hepatitis and other diseases. Its most recent study put the cost of unsafe injections at $535m a year. This is in addition to the high cost of needle production and safe disposal. The PharmaJet Stratis Needle-free Injection System can deliver medications and vaccines through a highvelocity fluid jet that penetrates the skin. It prevents cross-contamination and needle-related injuries, cuts down on wasted vaccines, and has the potential to save billions in yearly needle costs.