May 1, 2010
Next Gen 2010: The Runners-Up
This year’s competition asked for simple, but brilliant and elegant, design fixes—small gestures with big reach.
We can debate whether design loves a recession until we’re blue in the face, but one thing is certain: we’ve learned to pare down. So this year’s Next Generation competition was about keeping things simple. We asked designers to pitch us an uncomplicated, but brilliant and elegant, design fix—a small task that invited big ideas. Selected from 292 submissions covering 26 countries, the nine finalists shown here tackle everything from trash in the ocean to artificial limbs for women. They try to solve problems in New Orleans, Jakarta, and beyond. Sure, some are a touch fanciful. But with a president who has made the built environment an urgent national priority, good ideas have never been more valuable—and more realizable. That’s the simple truth.
They call it “the cutest rapid-prototyping machine ever.” It also happens to be the cheapest. The Cupcake CNC, by the Brooklyn tech collective MakerBot Industries, lets architects, designers, and DIY enthusiasts manufacture their own 3-D curios on a desktop printer vaguely reminiscent of a robot-armed teddy-bear picker—for less than $1,000. (Standard 3-D printers run around $10,000 and up.) The key: build it yourself. The Cupcake CNC comes as a kit that can be assembled with household tools in about four days. Then it’s ready to print models dreamed up in CAD or downloaded from www.thingiverse.com, a resource of free digital-design ideas that includes a Gothic cathedral and—upping the nerd quotient here—a trophy from Settlers of Catan. Objects print in ABS or PLA, a biodegradable plastic made of Nebraska corn. Soon, an extrude feature will make it possible to squeeze out almost any imaginable material: silicon, clay, frosting. “Everyone should be able to create things inexpensively and on their desktop,” says MakerBot’s Bre Pettis. “It lets ordinary people become innovators.” All-frosting cupcakes, here we come!
Seoul, South Korea
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that on average, more than 46,000 plastic scraps litter each square mile of ocean, threatening wildlife at every turn. AnDstudio, an architecture collective from Korea University, in Seoul, has conceptualized a trash-trapping buoy. Inspired by fishing weirs, the Marine Satellite has 36 “gills” with a slender conical shape that snares particles in the water without capturing fish. The plastic bits then fill up a 1.35-million-square-foot storage tank. When the satellite reaches capacity, passing cargo ships and oil tankers haul it back to shore; and once it’s emptied, it’s rereleased into the ocean. It’s a simple solution to a global problem. But as AnDstudio warns, the Marine Satellite is meaningless without a shift in human behavior. “The government can dispose of rubbish, but it’s individuals who discharge it,” says AnDstudio’s Hoju Chung. “The first step is to alert nations to what is happening in the ocean.”
Providence, Rhode Island
It’s the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to some, the Pacific Trash Vortex to others. Whatever you call it, the story’s lurid all the same: way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between California and Japan, currents and human detritus conspire against marine life, depositing some 1.9 million pieces of plastic into each square mile of water. Ocean Harvest, like its fellow Next Gen runner-up Marine Satellite, dispatches a series of trash-collecting buoys into the murky depths. The difference is that Ocean Harvest relies on filters to electrostatically attract plastic bits, some only one-thousandth the diameter of a strand of human hair. “These particles are incidentally the same size as microorganisms which benefit our planet’s atmosphere,” says Matthew Kihm, 21, a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design. “That makes for a tricky situation.” The filters emit an electrostatic field too weak to lure living creatures; only polymer pieces get sucked in. When the buoys fill to the brim, a GPS system alerts passing ships, which are paid to clean the filters.
Octa.Bot, a new universal building system from the Southern California Institute of Architecture professor Alexis Rochas, makes the traditional space frame look like a Rube Goldberg machine. Standard frames have fixed joints, which don’t allow for much design variation. Octa.Bot has lock-in-place swivel joints that free up connecting struts to take on nearly any shape at all. Instead of designing boring old bridges, architects can whip up complex pavilions, houses, and landscapes. What’s more, Rochas, 35, says, the system trims a structure’s mass by as much as 60 percent and slashes construction time in half, compared with conventional methods. “The Octa.Bot fitting greatly simplifies execution of complex assemblies by reducing the amount of geometrical information necessary,” he says. Three case studies of Octa.Bot were recently featured in an exhibit at SCI-Arc; a fourth will show this summer at the first Biennial of the Americas, in Denver. After that? “Octa.Bot,” Rochas says, “for everyone.”
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the list of depressing global gender inequalities, add this: artificial-limb design. Despite tremendous advances in prosthetic technology over the past decade, female amputees are still consigned to bulky, unflattering appendages clearly designed for the Y chromosome. Aviya Serfaty, a 32-year-old graduate of the Holon Institute of Technology, in Tel Aviv, created a prosthetic leg exclusively for women. Outfeet’s carbon-fiber frame slashes 15 to 20 percent of the weight of typical prostheses to fit women’s lighter, smaller physiques, and it includes both a V-shaped calf that mimics the curve of a woman’s leg and a bendable foot that can slip into high heels. Three interchangeable skins—for day, sports, and evening wear—turn the limb into a “fashion accessory,” the designer says. “Like you and me, amputee women have the need to feel good about themselves, to feel confident with their body image, and to express their thoughts and desires in a sexy, modern way,” says Serfaty, who modeled the limb after a female Israeli Army veteran. “They should feel comfortable in every situation, whether walking to the market, jogging in the park, or out on an intimate date.”
It’s bad enough that the kampongs in Jakarta, Indonesia, lack basic amenities like water, electricity, and parks. It’s especially bad that these dense urban settlements have nowhere to build new infrastructure, short of razing homes. The Los Angeles firm GABPA conceived of low-tech infrastructure stations that pack rainwater storage tanks into 50-foot-tall treelike towers. At ground level, the stations feed filtered water into faucets. Aboveground, “treetop” platforms—each about the diameter of a parachute—act like sunshades and can also serve as rainwater collectors, paved playgrounds, or green roofs. Hovering over alleys, streets, courtyards, and public squares, the platforms form what GABPA calls a Canop’City—a city above the city. The symbolism isn’t lost on Alejo Paillard, the 36-year-old GABPA cofounder. “These objects should be signifiers of urban renewal,” he says, “a branding device helping to reestablish the importance of underprivileged urban areas.”
Katrina Cass, Helene Kenny, Alyssa Lees, Simon Spagnoletti, and Donna Zimmerman
The $1 Solar TeXter is precisely what you would think: a dirt-cheap handheld device that sends and receives short messages, making wireless communication accessible to everyone from city dwellers to rural farmers. It targets countries like Uganda, where texting is inexpensive compared with cell-phone technology, and where people regularly use Google short-message services for communicating with family, farming advice, and basic socializing. “We felt our device would be a natural complement,” says Donna Zimmer-man, a 28-year-old designer in Brooklyn. A touch bigger than a Post-it note, the Solar TeXter features an ultrasimple, five-button interface and a black-and-white LCD screen that displays letters when you’re ready to dash off a message, avoiding the complexities (and character limitations) of a key-board. Nine solar cells charge the gadget. Recycled parts keep costs down. “While most mobile devices are moving in the direction of providing everything to the user—text, voice, Internet, camera—we choose to focus on one feature and make it as simple, streamlined, and elegant as possible,” Zimmerman says. “Our fix is to design specifically for this market, with their needs in mind.”
SPROUTING GLASS SAND BAGS
“Everyone knows that New Orleans drinks a lot,” says Dru Lamb,
a 30-year-old interior designer. “This translates to a lot of glass waste.” Lamb’s idea is to turn Saturday night’s bons temps into barriers against storm surges (something else New Orleans knows a little about). Erosion weakens the region’s natural defenses against hurricanes, claiming an average of 34 square miles of Louisiana coastline a year. In 2005, it practically ushered Katrina into the Crescent City. By crushing recycled glass bottles into sand, then stuffing it into biodegradable sacks along with soil and seeds, Lamb creates new coastline in a bag. Stacked up in low-lying areas, the bags form a makeshift bulwark. Eventually, as the sacks biodegrade and the grass takes root in the ground, they morph into permanent land mounds. What’s more, Lamb says, Sprouting Glass Sand Bags are a chance to reimagine the city’s aesthetic. “Imagine snaking or spiraling jetties in the marsh creating intricate designs from overhead.” But can they replace other storm-fighting efforts? “There is no single answer for rebuilding the wetlands,” she says. “This would just be another option to try.”
SOLAR MASONRY UNIT
Providence, Rhode Island
In an age of high-performance glass skins and pollution-eating concrete, it was only a matter of time before someone put the fusty old brick to work. Alexander Keller’s Solar Masonry Units convert the sun’s energy to electricity that can power laptops, washing machines, and even electric cars. “We are surrounded by brick surfaces and other building envelopes that have vast potential to be energy collectors,” says the 23-year-old graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Solar Masonry Units allow our cities to be built directly from the material that is powering our everyday processes.” Dotted with 32 or 128 PV cells, depending on size, the unit packs an inverter and a battery into a recycled plastic shell. Bricks bind together via interlocking male and female parts—no mortar needed—and strategically placed outlets let people plug in, whether they’re watching TV in their apartments or catching some fresh air, laptop in hand. “Walls of the city should replace power plants,” Keller says. “They should be alive and charged.” They should, as he tells it, lay “the foundation for the future of sustainability.”