Big Ideas for 2012

For just a minute, or as long as it takes you to read this article, suspend your disbelief. Shift those mental gears. Disengage from the here-and-now reality of paying bills, taking the kids to soccer practice or tap-dancing class, or trying to build a better mousetrap so the world beats a path to your door. Now, get ready for some game-changing, life-altering innovations, ideas, trends and theories. The point is to air out your mind a bit. To think a little bigger, a little bolder. To kick-start your year!


Forget ordinary green buildings. “Living buildings” goes way beyond. Denis Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day, now presides over the Bullitt Foundation, which is constructing a six-story office building that sets out to be the most energy-efficient in the world. Due to open this fall in Seattle, the Bullitt Center is designed for off-the-grid independence—and to last 250 years.

Rather than constructing a building and figuring out how much energy it would require, the designers figured out how much energy could be created on site—about 240,000 kilowatt hours a year from solar, even in cloudy Seattle—and then determined what size building could be accommodated (45,000 square feet).

In addition to using solar power and rainwater that’s collected on the roof and purified for use throughout the building, the building processes its own sewage. But there’s more: Metaphorically, a living building also functions almost as if it had a cerebral cortex and a nervous system to react to changing conditions, Hayes explains. External shutters reflect light onto the ceilings, automatically adjusting as the earth rotates to maximize natural light inside. Windows open and close automatically—powered by motors controlled by a computer that monitors temperatures. (People can choose to override the settings, however.)

A stairway with glass on three sides yields beautiful park and skyline views, which designers hope will entice people to take the stairs, rather than the elevator (which is intentionally located less conveniently down the hall). “You get to your office a little more oxygenated and you’re not using electricity,” says Hayes, who will be taking the stairs when his foundation moves in. Even if you do take the regenerating elevator, you won’t use as much energy as traditional elevators; this one actually generates some electricity when it goes down.

The building also includes fewer potentially toxic materials and chemicals. The design team collaborated with manufacturers to create construction materials devoid of such things as PVC plastic, lead, mercury, cadmium and hormone-mimicking chemicals. In one case, Oregon-based Building Envelope Innovations reformulated a sealant called Wet-Flash, used to provide air- and water-tight installations of windows and doors, so it no longer contains commonly used hormone-mimicking chemicals called phthalates that can affect the human reproductive system. Now this product is readily available for anyone to buy.

The whole idea behind the Bullitt Center is to inspire other green commercial design by pioneering new construction methods and technology that could make it easier and more economical for others to build sustainably. “If we are successful, this will not just be the greenest commercial building in the world,” Hayes says. “It will be a crucial milestone in ushering in a new era of intelligent, sustainable urban design.”


Among many mind-blowing innovations in medicine that are coming or already are here:

—The iPill, a pill-sized, integrated device you swallow, which takes pictures of your gastrointestinal tract to help diagnose and treat as it moves through your system.

—A 3-D printer that uses living cells to create a transplantable kidney, now an early-stage experiment, explains surgeon Anthony Atala of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

—Cheap and fast genome sequencing, which opens up numerous possibilities for researchers and doctors. Researchers have been able to scour DNA for mutations such as those found in cancer tissues, thus opening up new treatments for cancer and avenues of research, and doctors could employ the technology to use your genome to make tricky diagnoses.


University of Washington scientist Robert Winglee and his team are working on a system that would remove space debris like those dead satellites that crash to Earth. But this is just a precursor to a much bigger idea that’s in the works: “We’re trying to get to Mars and back in 90 days,” he says. You have make the trip that fast, he says, or else planets move into the spacecraft’s path, making the next-quickest option 2.5 years, roundtrip. At that rate, chances of a successful mission are pretty low, he figures.

Winglee’s space-propulsion idea involves something called magnetized-beam plasma production. Under this concept, space-based stations would generate streams of magnetized ions, or plasma. The plasma pushes against a magnetic field generated by the spacecraft and propels it, like wind pushing against the sails on a boat, at speeds up to 1.8 mph. Another space station orbiting the destination generates a beam to slow down the spacecraft upon its arrival and to launch it on the return journey.

If you think all this sounds really far out, you’re right. Winglee says it would cost billions of dollars to place stations around the solar system. But should that happen, their power sources ought to let them generate plasma indefinitely. “This would facilitate a permanent human presence in space,” he says.

Meantime, the space-debris removal program is on track, with a laboratory prototype to be built within the next five years, and a space demonstration possible within a similar time frame, Winglee says.

In other news: Private companies continue to work on making consumer space travel a reality. Virgin Galactic already has pre-booked more than 430 lay astronauts for short trips into space. Interested? Ticket price: $200,000.


Why buy when you can share, trade or rent? That’s the idea behind the trend of “collaborative consumption,” which Time magazine calls one of “The 10 Ideas That Will Change the World.” It’s led to web-based startups such as car-sharing, dwelling-rental site, ridesharing, book-sharing, clothes-swapping sites like and, and Skillshare, which helps people share and make money by teaching their skills to others.

The trend has implications for brick-and-mortar businesses, too; At, where membership doubled in the past year to more than 1 million users, people trade everything from DVDs to fashion items, and an iPhone app makes it possible for mall shoppers to scan a barcode to see if what they want is available at for trade. At, travelers can rent rooms, houses or even castles, and it’s growing: “It will surpass Hilton by sometime in 2012 in rooms,” says At least some of these startups have attracted venture capital; has garnered a reported $112 million in venture funds during its three-year existence.


Like physical strength or stamina, you can build your willpower muscle through regular practice, says motivational psychologist and author Heidi Grant Halvorson in an article in Harvard Business Review. Building willpower is one of nine things successful people do differently, says Halvorson, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Other ways successful people differ include being realistic optimists and focusing on what they will do (not what they won’t do), she says. To build willpower, she suggests picking a challenge you don’t want to do—100 sit-ups a day or standing up straight when you notice you’re slouching, for instance. Plan in advance how you’ll deal with the temptation to stop. “It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier, and that’s the whole point,” she writes. “As your strength grows, you can take on more challenges and step up your self-control workout.”


Pay for a transit ride, stop to buy food for dinner, enter your apartment or hotel room—all by tapping your smartphone or some other small device like a bracelet. Instead of fumbling for keys, cash, credit cards, loyalty cards, tickets and gift cards, all of that pertinent information can be stored on your phone or bracelet. That’s the promise of “near field communication” (NFC) technology, the short-range wireless data transfer technology that GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop says is going to be built into just about every mobile phone in a couple years. No need for a network connection. Newer phones don’t even need to be turned on to do a transaction; sort of like an employee badge today, it provides information without requiring a battery.

“In the past few thousand years, the way we pay has changed just three times—from coins, to paper money, to plastic cards. Now we’re on the brink of the next big shift,” declares, whose Google Wallet is an early example. This Android app aims to store virtual versions of your existing plastic cards on your phone—just tap your phone to pay.

A year ago, few people heard of NFC, but now new announcements seem to come every day, says David Brudnicki, CTO of Sequent Software, a leader in the technology. “We’re starting to see a tipping point in new applications.” He foresees high-volume, quick-service retailers jumping aboard, as they have done for “contactless” payments made possible by earlier technology. Contactless payments occur when key fobs or credit cards embedded with a chip and antenna are waved over a reader at checkout. Every McDonald’s has been contactless-enabled for years now; Home Depot is among some 200,000 merchants that accept contactless transactions.


Entrepreneurs who have ever pondered what they could do if only there were no wires required for electricity can take note: LaserMotive, a research and development firm, uses laser beams to transfer power over long distances and has set world records for laser-powered helicopter flights. It also won $900,000 in a NASA-sponsored Power Beaming competition. Think of it like a “wireless extension cord,” said co-founder and president Tom Nugent, demonstrating at the 2011 SPIE Defense, Sensing and Security Exhibition in Orlando. (His was perhaps the most popular booth in the exhibit hall, according to Photonics Online, “and why not, with a micro-helicopter held aloft solely by laser power…”) Technology now makes it possible for power to be wirelessly transmitted across long distances “in a way that is finally economical,” Nugent said in a promotional video. He hopes recent investment from Space Angels Network speeds development of his first commercial product.


Algae is already found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and foods (the brownies are supposedly delicious), and it’s under development for consumer use as fuel. The Navy has bought algae fuel for shipboard pilot programs and it’s even been tested in airplanes in blends with other fuels, says Jim Motavalli, author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry.

One advantage to making algae fuel is that it can be made indoors in vats, so it doesn’t require vast acreage, as does corn for ethanol, for instance. The key to algae fuel becoming commercially viable is finding a stable and cost-effective mass production process, Motavalli says. Some researchers say that could happen in as little as five years. But limited use of algae fuel will happen sooner than that; Hawaiian Electric Co. has signed a deal to buy up to 150,000 gallons of locally made algae-based biofuel to burn in its Kahe Generating Station as part of the utility’s shift away from fossil fuels, with the first shipment due to arrive by 2014.

Made in the USA, algae could help solve such big problems as dependence on imported fossil fuel—replacing up to 17 percent of imported oil used for transportation, according to one study—as well as obesity. Solazyme, a company that makes microalgae food powder, claims it’s a heart-healthy superfood containing naturally occurring nutrients such as fatty acids, phospholipids, carotenoids and selenium—as well as zero trans fat. (Get its algae-brownie recipe at


The average American used to be more than 20 times richer than the average Chinese and soon will be 2.5 times richer, says Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson. And it’s estimated that by 2016, the United States will lose its place as the No. 1 economy to China. “It’s the biggest story of your lifetime, because it’s on your watch that this is happening. It’s our generation that is witnessing the end of Western predominance,” he says.

Because most of the world’s wealth was made after about the year 1800 and most of it is owned by Western cultures, Ferguson pondered: Why the West, and less so the rest? He determined that these half-dozen big ideas from Western culture promote wealth, stability and innovation. These “killer apps,” as he calls them, are:

1. Competition

2. The scientific revolution

3. Property rights

4. Modern medicine

5. The consumer society

6. The work ethic

Today, these apps are shareable—and Asia now has the best work ethic. “Any society can adopt these institutions. When they do, they achieve what the West achieved after 1500, only faster. This is the Great Reconvergence,” he said in his July TED Global talk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

So, is the West deleting its own “apps”? “I don’t think the decline of Western civilization is inevitable because I don’t think history operates in a life-cycle model,” he concludes. One thing is sure, he says: The Great Divergence between the West and Asia is over.


“We’re entering an era of wearable robotics,” says physician-scientist Daniel Kraft, executive director of the FutureMed program at Singularity University. Paraplegic wheelchair-bound people can now strap on exoskeletons such as eLegs from Berkeley Bionics and walk for hours. People who haven’t lost limbs—maybe they suffered a stroke or other paralysis, for instance—can wear augmented limbs. Disabilities can turn into super-abilities, Kraft says, as exemplified by MIT professor Hugo Herr, who lost his legs in a climbing accident, and actress-athlete Aimee Mullins, whose legs were amputated below the knee as a baby because she was born without fibulae in both legs. Today, both “can climb better, move faster, swim differently with their prosthetics than us normal-abled persons,” Kraft said at a TEDx talk in the Netherlands in June.


Time was when the downside to driving electric cars was the need to recharge, which limited their range. However, Chicago Premium Outlets mall and downtown Harrisonburg, Va., are among the latest to install charging stations to let electric car users power up while they shop, following the lead of some Meijer, Whole Foods and Best Buy stores, as well as some Cracker Barrel restaurants. More enterprising businesses may follow suit with this anticipated development: solid-state rechargeable lithium ion batteries for cheaper electric and hybrid cars. The MIT Technology Review’s latest list of 10 emerging technologies likely to change the world includes the next generation of energy storage—a solid-state battery. Take, for example, the lighter, cheaper battery under development by Ann Marie Sastry, a University of Michigan engineering prof whose company Sakti3 in Ann Arbor, Mich., attracted investment by General Motors. A prototype is in the works. “We see them on a potential five-year time horizon,” GM official Bill Wallace told Automotive News, “assuming certain significant shortcomings can be resolved.”


Imagine the implications of no checkout lines at your local supermarket (for one thing, you’d have to actually buy the tabloids rather than covertly scanning the headlines to get your dose of celebrity gossip). But seriously, technology makes it possible to eliminate the checkout line, the checkout clerk and all the rest. Aaron Roberts, founder of QThru, a service that views itself as shaping the way people shop and pay, explains how it works: As you shop, your tab starts to ring up automatically when you place items in your cart. When you’re ready to check out, you tap your smartphone. The cost of a QThru kiosk is less than $2,000, many times cheaper than those self-checkout kiosks more commonly seen at supermarkets. Still, the challenge to building out a system like this is making it work with any size retailer. And, of course, shoppers need to own smartphones—which doesn’t appear to be a challenge for very long.


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