Dynamic sustainable inventions that make a world of difference

As you’ve seen repeatedly in Inventors Digest during the past couple years, we live in a world of smart home devices, smart irrigation, smart watches and more—technology that works with a smartphone to add convenience and safety to our lives. Often, this kind of innovation helps conserve and maximize natural resources, including electricity and water.

These latter benefits are part of a worldwide mission that continues to produce painstakingly brilliant eco-friendly alternatives. Sometimes this mission is in response to poverty, war and climate change. Sometimes it’s simply a desire to help protect our planet for generations to come by reducing our environmental footprint. Sometimes it’s a decidedly low-tech initiative.

Whether the terminology is green power, clean energy or sustainable inventions, the ultimate goal is the same. Such innovation is highlighted by the following projects.

Multi-use disaster shelter

A group of nomadic Arab tribes has long been on the move because of war, climate change and more. Abeer Seikaly has long been moved by this.

The Bedouin and their temporary tents are the inspiration behind the Jordanian/Canadian designer’s Weaving a Home (abeerseikaly.com). The multipurpose, lightweight, weatherproof tents propose a new kind of disaster shelter for refugees, with myriad features inspired by natural elements such as snakeskin and traditional cultural aspects such as weaving—providing the opportunity for displaced peoples to weave their lives back together.

“Nomadic tribes have long been on the move in order to ‘survive’—from harsh climates, mostly,” Seikaly says. “The idea of nomadism inspired me to think about shelter design but most important, the questions that prompted me to propose a solution were: ‘What does it mean to live in the 21st century? What is a home today? How can we improve well-being?’ Currently, we face a massive humanitarian crisis of displacement; communities of millions are on the move fleeing violence or natural disasters.”

Seikaly’s project has received worldwide recognition. 1womenmillion.com lists the tent’s many uses, which include a dual-layer structure that can shut out rain and winter’s cold while allowing cool air in and hot air out in the summer. The top of the tent collects rainwater and filters it down the sides so the tent does not flood. The structure can even be used as a shower, with water stored in pockets on the side and drawn upwards using a thermosiphoning system that provides basic sanitation. Solar energy drawn by the tent fabric is stored in a battery for use at night, providing renewable electricity.

Designboom.com explains how the intricate yet utilitarian design premise—which won Seikaly the 2013 Lexus Design Award—marries old-time practices with the latest technology: The structural fabric is “inspired by ancient traditions of weaving linear members into complex three-dimensional structures. The system is informed by the latest technological advances of fabric innovation, materials, and assembly to fabricate a new kind of technical weave that is easy to erect, dismantle, reuse and scale into various functions from basket to building skin to tent.”

Seikaly told Inventors Digest that a second prototype is in development.

“I have been working with a London-based engineering firm—Atelier One—for over three years now and they have been helping me with this. Hopefully, we should have something by next month, after which I will go through my second round of fundraising.

“The project is more than just a product, but one which explores dwelling concepts and experience through social architecture. It’s an ongoing research for sheltering solutions and an exploration on how communities can build shelter with their traditional and cultural specificities and mostly readily available materials.”

Self-sustaining plants

The coolness factor here literally lights up the room. Germany-based Nui Studio (nui-studio.com/en/) has developed a lamp called the Mygdal Plantlight that has a completely self-sustaining ecosystem, where plants can grow in windowless rooms and without watering thanks to its patent-pending SmartGrow technology.

The name is a tribute to glassmaker Peter Kuchinke from Mygdal in northern Denmark. Each pendant is unique: plants, a specifically designed LED and a mouth-blown glass shade form the mini-ecosystem.

According to Nui Studio, Mygdal is a result of analyzing light sources that surround our everyday life. Basically, it works like our atmosphere: If the LED is turned on, the plant is able to produce oxygen by photosynthesis. When it is switched off, the plants live by using the oxygen. The Mygdal light is hermetically sealed in order to keep the water inside the lamp and all growing aspects cyclic.

The plant light is hermetically sealed. Water inside the pendant cannot escape, evaporating and condensing in a closed cycle that always keeps the plant sufficiently wet. Using LightControl, the color, intensity, time and duration of lighting can be easily controlled by your smartphone or tablet. If you want to change to display another planting after a while, the pendant’s aluminum bottom with the plant can be opened easily.

Nui Studio’s philosophy is to rejuvenate traditional crafts and trades by fusing them with modern technologies, and cooperate with regional manufacturing companies to produce high-end, timeless pieces of furniture. Nui’s product series are always limited.

Emilia Lucht, the company’s founder and CEO, says its team members have both “the courage and curiosity to try something new and carry on traditions, a vigorous exchange and a lively co-operation.”

In describing Nui Studio’s approach, Lucht says: “We watch people during everyday activities. Starting out from these observations, we try to develop new products. Where can we make something better than it is done now? Our goal are products that are long-lived, of timeless design, and which stimulate new ideas concerning functionality and a mindful handling of materials and resources.”

Drink coffee, plant a tree

The creator of The World’s First Seed-Embedded Coffee Cup and the founder of sustainable packaging company Reduce. Reuse. Grow. Inc. (restorationpackaging.com), Alex Henige has savored the thrill of worldwide success. But that hasn’t stopped him from making refinements.

The coffee cup was Henige’s senior project as a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo landscape architecture student who minored in Packaging. The premise: After you throw away the cup—encased with seeds—into a specified bin, the company would ensure that the cups would be planted in three nature parks in California. The cup was launched through a successful Kickstarter campaign that went viral around the world and allowed for the initial launch of the cups in select test markets throughout California.

While studying how the products were utilized by consumers, Henige became aware of an issue: People would travel with the products throughout different cities, counties and states. “This introduced the main problem of spreading seeds that may be non-native in certain ecosystems, if and when consumers would discard their waste in natural landscape habitats not designed for the desired cup’s seed zone.

“The seed-embedded coffee cups are still being tested in select markets throughout California. However, we have launched a sustainable packaging line that is now being driven to market and distributed internationally under the name the Restoration Packaging Line™.”

Restoration Packaging is a 1-for-1 compostable and recyclable food service packaging line. With each product served, a plant is planted at a local restoration site within the community that the products are served. This ensures that native seeds are planted at local restoration sites that need restoration/reforestation while containing the risk of spreading invasive species.

Henige says the company‘s products are served throughout 600-plus shops and locations around North America, with 20-plus active restoration projects being funded and supported by the Restoration Packaging Line proceeds. The company, which serves customers ranging from small cafes and restaurants to larger chains and stadiums, has a few major global corporations that are piloting its products and 1-for-1 program.

Saving feet and materials

The Shoe That Grows comes in benefits of all sizes. Nampa, Idaho, native Kenton Lee came up with the idea to address the hundreds of millions of children—he says it’s more than 300 million—who don’t own shoes, and countless others who have shoes that don’t fit.

The sandal can grow five sizes and last five years, allowing children in impoverished countries to grow up without having to go barefoot and risk parasites and related bacterial infections.

“It was designed to be an incredible resource for kids and families challenged by poverty who cannot afford to purchase shoes every time kids’ feet grow,” Lee told Inventors Digest.

Because Lee wanted footwear that would be as durable as possible and he had no design expertise, he enlisted the services of shoe development company Proof of Concept in Portland, Oregon. There were no design shortcuts. (In fact, he said he didn’t even care that much what they looked like—although he is happy with the outcome.)

“The upper portion of the shoe is a high-quality synthetic leather. The bottom of the shoe is an extremely durable compressed rubber,” he says, much like the durable rubber on tires.

He’s also proud of the shoes’ sustainable aspect: “One of the guiding principles of The Shoe That Grows is that ‘less is more.’ One pair of shoes can have the impact of three, four or five pairs. If we can use innovative design to make products that can grow, expand, adjust and last for years, then we can limit waste and fewer things will be in the landfills.

“The Shoe That Grows is trying to use creative design to help products last longer and be better for the earth.”

Visitors to theshoethatgrows.org are encouraged to either distribute the shoes or donate to help the cause. You can buy pairs for your kids, but the site emphasizes packages that allow buyers to send shoes in bulk to the countries that need them the most.