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Techno Success: The evolution of innovation comes through failure.

WE LIVE in a Technology-reliant era. The technological innovations being teased at industry events or raved about online seem to hold out the promise of miraculous new solutions to today's most pressing problems. As it pertains to the challenges that we face from the impacts of climate change and the need to transition to a low-carbon future, many environmentalists are just as excited about "unboxing" the latest new gadgets as the rest of the planet. However, sagacious individuals will (and should) caution all of us not to become too reliant on technology to solve the really hard problems. Better to reduce electricity usage, for example, than hope that some new solution will miraculously mitigate the need for the conservation.

In the past few years, we've seen a number of new innovations bubble to the surface that, at face value, might be part of the solution to the complex web of new realities and problems. Some might be truly revolutionary; others, not so much.

We've compiled some updates on recent innovations, and how they stack up against our climate needs, whether intended for the environment or not. We've followed as they've migrated from idea to beta-testing and, for some, into the market as new products. No single technological innovation is the great panacea to mitigating climate change's impacts. Together, and in conjunction with policy changes and consumer behaviours, they might become pieces to an unfolding puzzle.

And while we should laud the creators behinds these innovations, we should keep in mind that many "failures" are simply first-steps that will lead to refinements, improvements and next-stage developments that could become the next electric car or desalination solution.

Solar roadways

Replacing every asphalt road with super strong, self-cleaning solar panels sounds like an ambitious plan, and it is. Solar Roadways Inc is putting this in motion in Idaho with $2.2 million of crowdfunding as well as grants from various US government agencies. Aside from generating electricity, the solar roadways will also be able to charge electric vehicles--and act as a light source.

The initial pilot project in 2016 cost was $60,000 and covered an area of nearly 14 square metres. The founders of the company, Scott and Julie Brusaw, dream of replacing over 46,000 square kilometres of road in the US to generate much more more electricity than the country currently uses. However, at current cost of production, this plan could cost trillions of dollars.

Also in 2016, a French company built a kilometre-long solar roadway for 5 million[euro]. To replace one kilometre out of every 10 kilometres of road, France would need to shell out approximately 10 billion [euro]. The prohibitive cost of the project isn't the only criticism levelled at solar roadways. Because the technology is so untested, the extent and difficulty of damages and repairs is not well understood. On days with no sun, the panels could even need to draw power from the grid. When so many asphalt roads are poorly maintained, it is hard to conceive of a future when this novelty road will be seen on more than private driveways.

Big data and algorithms

The collection and analysis of large quantities of data, otherwise known as "big data", is beginning to impact every part of life. Correctly utilized, this data can aid environmental sustainability in many ways, from the individual to the global level.

On an individual scale, as people's lives become increasingly connected to the internet, data on their activities and habits are collected and analyzed. Through smart-homes technology, information about appliance usage, indoor and outdoor temperatures and basic home details such as age, size and occupancy are being analyzed to improve energy efficiency and conservation.

On the global scale, data can help mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change or assess ecological vulnerability. For example, cell phone use enables tracking of people's movements and behaviours after environmental disasters. Due to the increasing prevalence of cell phones in lower-income areas, data can now be gathered to help analyze factors that affect vulnerability such as population, economic status, infrastructure and environmental conditions, which would otherwise be expensive to collect.

Moreover, data collection can now act as early-warning systems for climate emergencies, allowing for faster and more precise respond times and measures. As well, climate change adaptation efforts, such as planning and coping with climate variability for agriculture, can also be monitored and tracked with location-specific information.


Approximately five trillion pieces of plastic garbage are currently estimated to be floating in the world's oceans, constituting a major environmental challenge that is worsening every year. Large pieces of plastic trap and kill marine life, while microplastics have potential toxic effects when ingested. Enter the "Seabin"--a submerged garbage bin that automatically collects garbage in marinas. Peter Ceglinski and Andrew Turton, two Australian surfers, designed the bin, and raised $267,000 in an Indiegogo campaign to fund production.

The bin is powered by an electric pump, and collects approximately one kilogram of garbage per day per bin. While it is designed for marinas, there are plans to modify the Seabin to work in more marine environments and weather conditions. A solar-powered model is currently under development so the bin can function on open water.

3D printers

Although the basic concept behind 3D printing has been around for decades, it has really begun to take off in recent years with the arrival of affordable home-scale 3D printers. Proponents of 3D printers enthuse about the technology's potential to disrupt the traditional model of large-scale manufacturing by putting the power to make any plastic, metallic, and perhaps soon, even electronic, gizmos into the hands of average consumers. This might be beneficial for the environment in the future through reductions in energy and material intensity as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Ideally, products produced by 3D printers at home or locally won't be subject to the same kind of planned obsolescence mass-produced products are, thereby reducing waste and the need for replacements, and significantly disrupting existing supply chains.

However, critics point out that currently, 3D printing consumes more energy than traditional manufacturing; the materials used in 3D printing are difficult to recycle; and the method may also produce toxic chemicals. Currently, there are several companies producing ecofriendly 3D printing filaments made from organic or recycled materials, and the hope is that the technology can be made more sustainable as it becomes more widespread. 3D printing also has the added benefit of being an exciting educational tool, helping kids learn to design, manufacture and construct their own toys or household items, as well as problem solving skills.

Indoor and urban farming

What better way is there to learn about the relationship between humans and food than to grow an indoor farm in your high school? This is exactly what the Boston Latin School and others have done, combining ecology, agriculture, high tech monitoring systems, experiential learning and used freight containers. Through these indoor farms, students get hands-on with growing food, controlling environmental conditions and managing nutrients, leading to a much more in-depth understanding of how food is grown.

Aside from being a clever small-scale educational tool, in-door farms have been touted by proponents as a sustainable alternative to more conventional agriculture. Growing food on a large scale in cities--say, on skyscrapers or abandoned warehouses --would reduce the land required to grow crops, water consumption, as well as pollution caused by transporting food. However, what these vertical farms do need is massive amounts of electricity to power lights needed by the plants, dramatically increasing its cost.

While vertical farming is not likely to become our main source of produce by any measure, rooftop farms, like the Lufa farms in Montreal, do complement traditional farming. These farms are basically big greenhouses built on roofs of other buildings. Aside from having the benefits of urban farming listed above, rooftop farms reduce urban heat by absorbing sunlight.


Virtual reality is slowly nudging its way into mainstream acceptance despite the relatively high price tag and the inevitable dorkiness of groping in the air wearing a giant pair of VR goggles. While a high-quality VR experience still requires a hefty investment in hardware, several less expensive options have surfaced, which take advantage of the processing power and mobility of smart phones.

With VR applications, students can take field trips to distant locations, explore virtual environments such as inside cells or outer space, and can have powerful and engaging learning experiences. For example, VR films can allow students to take a dive into the ocean to witness the effects of ocean acidification on a myriad of organisms. Such immersive experiences have been shown to have a much deeper impact than simply learning facts about the environment. Soon, coupled with drones and live feed technologies, VR could enable students to "be" in other locations in real time, perhaps looking down on the savannahs or swimming with sharks. This can be a powerful driver of environmental appreciation and action.

Apps for environmental education

It is common nowadays to hear teachers lament about the constant distractions offered by smart phones. However, the ubiquity of these high-powered devices can bring many potential advantages for environmental education. Some apps offer in-depth information about environmental issues that can act as a reference book for concerned citizens, while others provide step-by-step instructions on how best to conserve energy and reduce waste, and track how well you do every week. Many nature apps help users identify animal and plant species by recording sound or taking a picture.

One promising type of app called "augmented reality" has users point their phone cameras at certain objects such as landmarks, plants or animals, and offer up information on screen. Coupled with geolocation tools like the GPS and GIS, these apps can facilitate enriching outdoor activities such as nature tours or treasure hunts and other location-based games that retain the excitement of using students' favourite technology. The downside of any technology-based education is that it promotes a dependence on technology, and doesn't address fundamental causes of environmental issues, such as consumerism.

Drones and live feeds

The increasing deployment of aerial drones equipped with cameras and ubiquitous access to highspeed internet has led to interesting opportunities for citizen engagement with ecological sciences. A simple web-camera connected to the internet is all it takes to broadcast the daily activities of a nest of ospreys to thousands of viewers. Wildlife videos have exploded on YouTube in recent years as content creators search everywhere for interesting footage.

Drones allow people to see a much wider slice of nature from the comfort of their own homes. From inspecting nests high up in trees to following humpback whales as they hunt, nimble and fast drones are especially well-suited for catching nature's drama that would otherwise be missed. Other drones are used to collect airborne microbes to monitor the spreading of diseases, or possibly to fire tranquilizers at animals so scientists can attach ID tags or collect samples. In areas where poaching is prevalent, drones may act as spotters or scare off poachers.

The increasing number of drones, however, may disrupt natural behaviours of wild animals, leading some experts to worry about this technology.

John Xu loves thinking about science and the future. After obtaining his Master's in climate change education he began teaching senior secondary science and technology.

Thanks to, North America's first virtual reality arcade, for pointing us to World of Diving.

The UN hosts an annual sustainable innovation forum bringing business, science and technology together--check it out!

Caption: Immersive experiences through Virtual Reality have a deeper impact than simply learning facts. Pictured above is a screen grab from the World of Diving VR game, which brings you as close to a detailed underwater experience as you can get without getting wet. [c] 2018 Vertigo Games, World of Diving

Caption: The Seabin appartus appears small, but it can snag a mighty 3/4 tonnes of ocean debris per year. The catch bag (being constructed at far left) captures microplastics as small as 2 mm and can hold up to 20 kg of debris before needing to be emptied.

Caption: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets a tour of Lufa Farms' third and largest rooftop greenhouse. At 63,000 square feet, the Anjou, Quebec, farm is the most technologically advanced of the three. Lufa Farms provide over 70 varieties of greens, herbs and veggies to 10,000 customers. Photo from
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Author:Xu, John
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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