With rising sea levels swallowing entire coastal cities, impending epidemics that are expected to bring about the next global health crisis, and ongoing droughts promising famine in under resourced areas of the world — the 21st century can sometimes seem like a scary place.
Big problems call for big ideas, and lucky for us, there are teams of researchers, scientists and architects all around the world who are each working on answering the world’s most troubling questions.
From powering homes with sewage to overcoming healthcare roadblocks in poor countries with trash, here are 13 wildly creative solutions for world hunger, unsafe water, diseases, and climate change.
1) Robotic mosquito death traps to take out Zika
Microsoft’s newest robot is so smart that it can learn how to identify one insect species from another with infrared sensors before trapping it — which could change the game for scientists fighting Zika, dengue, and other mosquito-borne viruses.
2) Crowdsourcing spit to make better antibiotics
Students and citizens in the United Kingdom are now being encouraged to swab their saliva and send it to a lab that is entirely dedicated to finding ways to fight antibiotic resistance. The initiative, called Swab and Send, is crowd-funded and has already received 1,000 samples — two of which have been found to have resistant properties.
3) Exchanging trash for free doctor visits
In Indonesia, a country where more than 10% live below the poverty line, a pile of valuable trash can give someone access to a free treatment at a local clinic. Garbage Clinical Insurance encourages low-income households to recycle their trash and use the revenues to finance its health microinsurance system, which offers its member basic healthcare services in three clinics across the country. The initiative has about 600 members who, on average, each collect about six pounds of recyclables every month.
4) Floating Cities
A floating New York City — imagine that. For coastal cities confronting rising sea levels, architect Vincent Callebaut has introduced the Lily Pad Project, conceptual islands which could theoretically accommodate 50,00 people and sit on top of the ocean’s surface. They cities would rely on thermal, wind, solar and tidal energy. Callebaut hopes to make the idea a reality by the year 2100.
5) Wind-powered trains
As of January of this year, all Dutch trains have run on 100% wind power. The northern European country had aimed to accomplish this goal by the end of 2018, but got there an entire year early.
A total of 2,200 wind turbines across the country generate enough power to sustain the trains, which consume about 1.2 billion kWH of electricity a year, leaving enough energy to power another 2.4 million homes.
6) Pollution-eating algae
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This initiative started in 2014 when a small algae farm was suspended over a small stretch of highway in Geneva, Switzerland. Cloud Collective, a co-operation of architects, creatives and designers, observed that the algae began to thrive on the abundance of carbon dioxide released from cars driving along the highway, and would literally eat the pollution. A series of pumps and filters regulate the system, and over time, the algae turns into a number of usable products, lik biodiesel, green electricity, medication, cosmetic products, and even food.
7) Poop-powered homes
Turns out the grease in all of the leftover “number two” that congeals in sewer pipes is actually pretty valuable. Lawrence Pratt, a chemistry professor at New York City’s Medgar Evers College, wants to turn that grease into fuel. Through a process called “pyrolysis” that melts the grease and distills its vapors, the substance will take on a molecular makeup similar to gasoline that can power a truck or home-heating unit.
8) Edible...wait for it...drones
You read that right. The British company behind the concept, Windhorse Aerospace, calls itself “the future of aid delivery.” Researchers are working on creating a drone with a wingspan of nine feet that can drop itself in the world’s most impoverished areas, delivering food supplies. In addition to carrying supplies, the drone itself could be built of “foodstuff” like honeycomb, compressed vegetables, or even salami, according to an interview in the Financial Times.
9) A social network to increase crop yield
Now, when farmers in Kenya, Uganda or Puru have a question about their crops, they can send a text on their phone using the mobile app, WeFarm, and receive an answer within minutes in their own language.
The new peer-to-peer service helps inform farmers about factors beyond their control, like climate change, changing markets, failing seeds, and infectious crop diseases. As of February of this year, more than 120,000 farmers have connected to the service and more than 280,000 questions have been answered.
10) A giant, frozen vault that preserves seeds for crisis situations
In 2008, a group of researchers created the Global Seed Vault in a group of islands north of Norway to serve as a safe haven for the world’s variety of edible plant seeds. The Global Crop Diversity Trust keeps these “backup” seeds frozen until they can be reclaimed. Until the conflict in Syria, no seed had ever come back out of the icebox. The seeds were returned to a gene bank near the war-torn city of Aleppo in Syria.
11) A muppet that changes the way we talk about poop
Meet Raya, Sesame Street’s newest puppet, who teaches kids in Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria how to practice proper hygiene, like using the toilet. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, launched the character back in 2014 as part of their Cleaner, Healthier, Happier campaign. The same year, she made an appearance on the Global Citizen Festival stage in New York City.
Roughly, 2.5 billion people around the world today do not have access to a safe toilet. Clean, cheap portable toilets provide a permanent, odor-free, and safe solution that require no energy and can be key to improving public health and economic stability.
13) Straws that make potable drinking water
A chemical-free straw, dubbed the “LifeStraw,” is a “personal mobile water purification tool” that removes 99.99% of waterborne bacteria through a super-fine filtration process. One LifeStraw requires no electrical power, batteries, or replacement parts, and costs just $5 to manufacture. Most importantly, it gives someone safe drinking water for up to one year.