The Year in Ideas: 8 Best of 2008
8 things that shaped the year’s innovation footprint, or what Buckminster Fuller has to do with tap water and Michael Phelps.
By Maria Popova
This being an indiscriminate ideas blog, we’ve put together a selection of the year’s best ideas — big and small, spanning a multitude of categories, and held together by the sole common tangent of being truly, tangibly, future-changingly innovative. Here’s our shortlist for the 8 most compelling ideas of 2008.
Music recommendation services have been around for a while, driven by smart algorithms that seem to know your music taste better than your bff. But despite all the Pandoras and Last.fm’s of the world, the music industry and its business model are falling apart. And digital music leader iTunes may have a win-win solution for both consumers and the industry, thanks to the recently released Genius feature.
So why is Genius genius? It works remarkably well — its recommendations are immaculate and the playlists it builds can rival even the most meticulously compiled mixtape that your 8th-grade sweetheart spent 3 weeks crafting. More importantly, it fights the two deadliest threats to today’s music industry — the failure to monetize “fandom” (Last.fm may be great at helping you discover new favorite artists, but not so great at cashing the fandom check) and consumer’s music library overload. (Anyone with more than a few hundred songs in their iTunes, which is pretty much everyone, is slowly losing track of the tracks and forgetting some of those artists even existed.)
In a world where keeping up with our own music is becoming overwhelming and getting new stuff is anything from burdensome to illegal, Genius steps in as a welcome and well-crafted one-two-punch solution.
No one made more waves in Summer ’08 than wonderboy Michael Phelps. And when a record-breaking 8 Olympic gold medal streak is almost shadowed by another wave-maker, we know there’s something big going on.
Wave-maker in point: Speedo’s technologically supreme and ethically controversial LZR Racer Suit. It’s been called anything from “technological doping” to downright incapacitating for non-LZR-wearing swimmers.
But here’s the thing: 3 years of R&D produced technology that’s utterly groundbreaking and innovative and all those superlatives attached to true progress. So we find it ridiculous to put a “moral” label on it. It’s like saying that cars should’ve never upgraded to better tires because it would’ve been unfair to all the lagging manufacturers, or Firefox should’ve never revolutionized the web browser because it was unfair to Netscape and Internet Explorer.
Progress has to start somewhere, and the laggards better suck it up and learn to keep up.
YES WE CAN SONG
We’ve featured it again and again. And, yep, we’re doing it yet again. Because will.i.am‘s deeply moving, celebrity-powered remix of Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech managed to do something extraordinary, something never before seen in the stiff world of politics: Tap the very emotional chord that makes people so profoundly moved by and connected to music, and translating it to political motivation.
The resulting Song For Change became the most-watched election-related video on YouTube and we strongly believe it had a lot to do with getting the President Elect that much-needed, make-or-break youth vote.
It may be a scientific cliche that the best of discoveries happen by accident, but it’s exactly the case with buckypaper — a revolutionary material composed of tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair.
What makes buckypaper unique isn’t simply its ability to conduct both electricity and heat, but also the fact it’s 10 times lighter and 500 times stronger than steel.
You could say that buckypaper virtually came from outer space.
In 1985, British scientist Harry Kroto tried to simulate the conditions that exist in a stars, the source of all carbon in the universe, to see how they make the element of life. But halfway through the experiment, something unusual happened: A bizarre 60-atom carbon molecule shaped like a soccer ball popped up out of the blue. Kroto thought it looked like iconic architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, so he named the new molecule buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyballs” for short. (Besides the wacky name, the discovery also landed Kroto and colleagues the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.)
Fast-forward 20-odd years, and you’ve got a renewed interest in the chemical oddball, resulting in the development of a thin film that forms when the carbon tubes are filtered through a fine mesh and stick together in a liquid suspension — that’s buckypaper.
So we can sit back and wait for that super light, super fast, thunderstorm-proof buckypaper jet plane.
RICOH GREEN BILLBOARD
Consumerism is the reason why we’re in our climate pickle, no question there. It’s wasteful and gratuitous and driven by excess. And the marketing industry is pouring more fuel into its fire than anything else. So it’s refreshing to see bold, innovative efforts that significantly shrink the carbon footprint of capitalism’s necessary evil.
Case in point: Times Square’s first “green” billboard for office equipment supplier Ricoh. At $3 million, the board is powered solely by 16 wind turbines and 64 solar panels connected to a bank of batteries. Comapred to a traditional electric billboard, it’s estimated to save 18 tons of carbon over the course of a year — enough to light 6 large houses.
And with over 15,000 billboards in New York City alone, do the math. Ok, we’ll do it for you — roughly 270,000 tons of carbon spewed into the atmosphere each year just by NYC’s outdoor advertising, the equivalent of lighting a small 90-house village.
The board took about a year from inception to completion and entailed a whole lot of challenges. Eventually, they were able to find a small California-based company, PacWind, that makes very efficient turbine technology that actually works in very little wind.
The best part is how “real” company executives are about the new technology and its drawbacks. (Like, say, the fact that the billboard will go out on a cloudy day.)
An advertisement is not a mission-critical function… nobody will ever die because our eco-board is lit or is not. So we think that if it goes dark, it’s actually an even brighter light on the fact that we’re using alternative energy and that we’re not wasting carbon in order to advertise.
You said it, brother.
Granted, Android was unveiled in late 2007. But its fundamental “great ideaness” lies in its category-defying, industry-revolutionizing open model. And it officially became open-source only a couple of months ago, on October 21, 2008.
Today, the entire source code is available under an Apache license, which allows developers and vendors to add free extensions and toss them right back into the open source community. And open-source evangelists’ nitpicking aside, that’s something rare and precious in today’s telecom oligopoly and the stifling proprietariness of everything. (iPhone/AT&T lovenest, we’re looking at you.)
When BMW’s GINA concept car fist made the buzz rounds mid-year, many thought it was a hoax or a clever teaser for something a bit more… real. It turned out, however, to be a no-B.S., totally serious, perfectly real effort by the trend-setting German automaker.
The GINA Light Visionary Model is, simply put, a car made out of cloth. Instead of having a metal or plastic body, GINA is draped in a flexible material stretched over a movable wire mesh, making the car a structural chameleon — the driver can choose to change its shape on a whim.
Beyond the sheer cool factor, GINA is also considerably more environmentally reasonable than traditional cars. Not only does the light fabric take much less energy to produce than heavier, more rigid materials, but it also makes the total weight of the car much lower, resulting in significantly better fuel efficiency.
Plus, it’s fucking badass.
THE TAP PROJECT
You may recall how seriously we take the drinking water problem around here. Which is why the Tap Project is topping our ideas list this year — a small but incredibly smart, ambitious and inspired project that has the potential to make tremendous difference to the poor by asking ridiculously little of the wealthy.
Here’s how it works: During World Water Week in March this year,the Tap Project launched a nationwide effort, inviting restaurants and their patrons to simply donate $1 (or more) for the tap water they’d normally get for free. Every dollar raised buys a child in the third world 40 days worth of clean drinking water.
Pause to digest that. Exactly.
So simple. So potent. And so eye-opening, juxtaposing what we in the seat of privilege take for granted with the deadly lack thereof that kills — literally — millions.
The Tap Project is the brain child of creative icon David Droga and was developed in partnership with UNICEF. Over 2,350 restaurants participated in the 2008 push, raising more than $5 million — the equivalent of 1.7 million days of clean drinking water for children around the world.
With close to 1 million restaurants nationwide (it’s the second-largest industry outside of government), you can only imagine the project’s full breadth of potential as it continues to reach critical mass.
Now that’s an idea.
Published December 24, 2008