This article is part of #Future, a new UPROXX section that covers where the world is headed and how things have changed since 1989. Powered by Toyota.
Back to the Future Part II made some amazing predictions about life in 2015 — flying cars and holographic movies and robot-Reagan waiters — but the world they imagined was still a basically good and safe and decent place. Minus the roving hover board gangs, of course.
Other movies made in the same era as Back to the Future Part II imagined far darker future-scapes: post-apocalyptic wastelands, murderous robots, and a battle-diaper Sean Connery. Looking at the problems that faced the world in 1989 — conflict in the Middle East, unemployment, and truly unforgivable crimes against fashion — it’s easy to understand why so many would predict a future full of doom and despair.
But while the makers of Back to the Future II didn’t nail everything about the future (we’re still waiting on those hover boards), they were amazingly accurate on their most important prediction: the world in 2015 is a basically good and safe and decent place. Yes, we’re facing a multitude of problems — conflict in the Middle East, unemployment, our own unforgivable crimes against fashion — but we’re also coming up with amazing solutions on a moment-by-moment basis. As a result, it’s very reasonable to imagine our future will be much more Back to the Future II than Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Who knows if we’ll ever get flying cars (and even if we could have them, for reasons of gravity and physics and texting-while-driving, we probably shouldn’t), but when you read about the ideas coming down the pike it’s easy to feel confident that our future is safe. Especially with companies like Toyota, Fenugreen, Uncharted Play, and Click Medix who are creating innovations right now that will help fix the problems facing the world.
The Car That Runs on Garbage
Of all the amazing technological advances in Back to the Future II, few were more memorable (or more fantastical) than Mr. Fusion: the engine that was fueled by garbage. In the past few decades, Mr. Fusion has been stuck in the realms of science fiction — just like double neckties and the Cubs winning the World Series. In fact, a car that ran on trash has always seemed almost as impossible as Doc Brown’s flying DeLorean. Until now.
Unlike the Mr. Fusion you can’t stick an old banana peel in the new Toyota Mirai’s fuel tank (technically you could, but it would just lead to a challenging conversation with your mechanic), but just like Doc Brown’s DeLorean in Back to the Future Part II, this car can also be fueled by trash. Landfill waste produces a tremendous amount of methane.While this harmful greenhouse gas has traditionally been allowed to float into the atmosphere, it can be harnessed and used as a feedstock for pure hydrogen that can power fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai. Toyota is also converting a factory in Kentucky that will soon be able to manufacture 10,000 cars a year using power generated from landfill emissions. In other words, they’re not just making lemons out of lemonade, they’re turning lemonade into fuel.
The Mirai will get around 300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, and the clean-burning engine only produces water vapor as exhaust. Best of all, your engine won’t smell like an old banana peel.
The Paper That Helps End World Hunger
One of the most exciting advances in ending world hunger started with a toothbrush. Twelve-year old Kavita Shukla was visiting her grandmother in India when she accidentally broke one of the rules her parents had drilled into her head before she left for the trip: she drank water from the faucet while she was brushing her teeth.
Kavita was panicked — imagining her dream vacation becoming a nightmare of illness and hospital visits caused by India’s notoriously unsanitary drinking water. Luckily, her grandma had a plan. After mixing a tea full of herbs and spices in the kitchen, she gave Kavita the cure that had been in the family for generations. Kavita reluctantly drank the murky solution and amazingly, the medicine kept her from getting sick for the rest of her trip. Her grandma’s tea had killed all the germs and viruses in that water and also jumpstarted a lifelong curiosity. Kavita wanted to know: what made her grandma’s medicine work?
When Kavita returned to America, she began trying to understand the science behind her grandma’s herbal concoction — first as a middle school science fair project and continuing through high school. After years of hard work and dedication and becoming known as (in her words), “this weird kid meticulously rotting fruits and vegetables in my garage,” she invented something truly extraordinary: Fresh Paper. The paper was infused with the spices of her grandma’s elixir from so many years ago, and when placed in a container with fresh fruit and vegetables, the naturally anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties of the ingredients kept that produce fresh for two to four times longer.
Let’s consider what this means: food waste is a huge problem in the United States, and that’s with most people having ready access to refrigeration and supermarkets. So on its most basic level, Fresh Paper can keep your strawberries fuzz-free and save you money on spoilage. But while Fresh Paper is a convenient product for most everyone who is reading this article, for the 1.6 billion people in the world without access to refrigeration, the product is life changing.
Much of the world struggles to have fresh fruits and vegetables, both due to supply chain problems and lack of refrigeration. This scarcity of fresh produce only worsens the epidemic of hunger and malnutrition that is plaguing the world. But with Fresh Paper, produce can be kept fresher, longer — from the moment it is picked on the farm, all the way until it reaches the consumer. Because despite the 795 million people suffering from hunger, the sad truth is enough food is already being produced to feed everyone in the world. This tragic irony cannot be corrected until we figure out a way to get this food to the people who need it most. And while there are many factors that create the problem of world hunger, the “farm to fork” freshness that Kavita’s product provides may play a huge role in finding the solution.
By increasing worldwide access to fresh produce, Fresh Paper is helping to fix the future. Kavita told Uproxx:
I believe that Fresh Paper can really help fix the future by making a dent in global food waste. Even a few years ago when I first started working on Fresh Paper, I had no idea that food waste was such a massive global issue. I think it’s something that’s so prevalent, it’s such a big part of our everyday lives that we’ve almost started to just believe that this is how it will be. There are different statistics, some say we lose almost half of the world’s entire food supply to food waste…Even making a small dent in food waste can have tremendous implications for how many people we’re able to feed globally, for the livelihood of farmers, and also for the accessibility to fresh healthy food.
You can buy your own fresh paper here, or vote for them in the Small Business Big Game competition. Your vote only takes a few seconds (with no subscriptions or hidden costs) and will help Fresh Paper be seen by over 121 million people on a thirty-second commercial during the Super Bowl.
The Soccer Ball That Brings Light To The Darkness
Jessica O. Matthews was at her aunt’s wedding in Nigeria when the power went out. This was not an especially out-of-the-ordinary occurrence in the country then (and now) and dual-American and Nigerian citizen Jessica had experienced many similar power outages on trips to visit family in Nigeria. But once this routine problem was fixed with the routine solution of a noisy, polluting, and unhealthy diesel generator, Jessica was struck with an uncomfortable feeling she couldn’t shake:
I remember for some odd reason that the fumes really bothered me. It was something that I felt I just couldn’t stand at the moment…the loud noise, the noxious fumes. So I started to complain. And my older cousins who were in their twenties at the time, they basically said to me ‘don’t’ worry, you’ll get used to it.’ And I think this really bothered me for two very specific reasons. One: they essentially just told me to get used to dying. Which I refuse to stand for. But I think what was even more upsetting was that it was very clear that they had gotten used to dying, that there was no way they saw this problem [of reliable energy] being addressed and fixed. They didn’t see public intervention coming or private innovation, the way to solve this problem [for them] was to ignore it and get used to it.
This moment continued to trouble Jessica when she returned to the U.S., but she wasn’t presented with an opportunity to address the problem until she was a junior at Harvard University. There, during a course titled “Idea Translation,” she and her classmate Julia Silverman were given a semester-long project to solve a problem facing the world using art and science. And after some early struggles (and failing the midterm), Jessica and Julia presented their teacher with their finished project: a shake-to-charge flashlight stuck inside of a hamster ball. This may sound silly, and in many ways it is — but this crude device represented their dream for a new kind of soccer ball that harnessed power during play and could be used to provide safe electricity to people in need. From this humble beginning sprouted a completely unique and revolutionary way to think about energy creation.
The electricity so many of us take for granted is a precious resource in many developing countries. 1.3 billion people live without reliable access to electricity; approximately 18 percent of the world’s population. Without access to electricity, many of these people are forced to use kerosene lamps and diesel generators for power. Not only are both of these options expensive and polluting, but they are also extremely unhealthy for their users. The World Bank estimates that a single night of inhaling kerosene fumes is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Just like Jessica’s relatives at the wedding in Nigeria, most people had “gotten used” to paying for light and energy with their health.
Jessica took the concept of that shake-to-charge flashlight in the hamster ball and founded Uncharted Play in 2011 (together with classmate Julia Silverman). The company was formed to provide clean energy to developing nations with the simplest of solutions: play.
Even in the most humble villages in the developing world, soccer is still played by children. Some of these children are so passionate about the game that they even make soccer balls from plastic bags and twine. And after upgrading their hamster ball and agitation flashlight for the SOCCKET, an ultra-durable soccer ball with an energy-generating pendulum and a battery inside, Jessica was able to not only give children a superior ball, but turn their playtime into life-changing energy creation as well. Just thirty minutes of play with the SOCCKET harnesses up to three hours of LED light. This energy can also be used to charge cell phones, power hot plates, or even run a water purifier. Three hours of light does not seem like much, but for the 1.3 billion people without access to reliable and safe energy, the SOCCKET can make all the difference in the world. And for these 1.3 billion people, Uncharted Play has created an energy solution that is more than “good enough.” According to co-founder Julia Silverman during her Tedx Talk in 2012:
Good enough is good enough. You only have to design for your user, you do not have to design for the highest end user. In our context, that meant designing for the resource poor child. That meant it didn’t have to be a perfect ball. And that meant that ‘enough’ was only an improvement upon nothing.
You can support Uncharted Play by buying a SOCCKET or a PULSE (an energy harnessing jump rope) here. For every SOCCKET or PULSE bought, Uncharted Play will donate one energy-generating play product to a child in need.
The Cell Phone App That Brings Medical Care to the World
When Ting Shih was a graduate student at MIT, she was given a seemingly impossible assignment in her Development Ventures class: create a business that would “impact over a billion people.” Ting decided to complete the assignment by taking on an even more impossible task: providing health care to the entire planet. And since Ting apparently felt like this assignment wasn’t difficult enough already, she planned to do it by using the cell phone in her pocket:
We knew that already in 2007 there were more people with [cell] phones than had electricity or other means of survival [in developing nations], and if we wanted to deliver health care than it had to be through their phones.
Due to reasons of cost, distance from medical centers, and available doctors, many people in developing countries do not have reliable access to health care. Just how bad is the problem exactly? According to a 2010 World Health Organization report, Chad had approximately half a doctor for every ten thousand citizens. One doctor cannot possibly care for 10,000 patients; a fraction of a doctor doesn’t stand a chance.
But access to medical care isn’t just a problem in the developing world. Despite improvements in health care coverage, 11.9 percent of people in the United States still do not have medical insurance. But though access to medical care has remained scarce in many countries, ownership of cell phones has skyrocketed worldwide. Today there are almost as many cell phone subscriptions as there are people on earth, and ownership continues climbing in even the most impoverished and remote corners of the earth. But while many app developers have used the massive spread of phone ownership to sell products that crush candy and dress Kardashians, Ting Shih started ClickMedix, a program for smart phones that connects people with limited access to medical care to qualified doctors around the world.
The process is simple: the patient visits a local caregiver (though doctors are rare in certain countries, there is usually access to nurses and other professionals with some medical knowledge), and after answering a list of basic questions about their condition and having pictures of the affected area taken, the information is then uploaded to the internet through the ClickMedix app. A trained doctor can then review the information and submit a diagnosis, a prescription, and a care plan for the patient within one to three days. To put this timeframe in perspective, the average wait time to see a dermatologist in the United States is four to six months.
In the beginning, ClickMedix primarily dealt with dermatological issues, but the program has extended to cover diabetes, cancer, and mental health problems. Even in countries that provide free health care to its citizens, ClickMedix helps the governments save money on medical costs so that they may treat even more patients. According to Ting:
Our work in diabetes can lower the cost [of treatment] by about 50 percent or more. And that’s from the reduction of hospital avoidance, and also reducing the number of different visits that have to be made by the patient, because you can access all the different doctors you need to see through the ClickMedix platform and our medical partners.
ClickMedix has helped over 200,000 people receive medical attention, and the numbers are increasing every day. But Ting isn’t satisfied; she won’t be satisfied until she reaches the “billion people” benchmark that was set in her class at MIT. It seems like an impossible goal, but Ting has never let that stop her before.
And with an ever-increasing elderly population, it is now more crucial than ever that we make our medical care systems more nimble and cost-effective. Ting believes ClickMedix can do exactly that, telling Uproxx:
I believe that ClickMedix will help fix the future, because we have a solution for what the future of health care will look like. We’re in a world where there are going to be more seniors and more chronic diseases…and really we’re looking at, how do we help patients that need ten or twenty doctors get better care while lowering our costs. If we don’t fix the future, in terms of health care needs, we are looking at huge bills just to help our senior population age.