Scrubba Dub Carlos and the Big Bad Enterovirus: Why Sneeze When You Can Sing?


I have covered all sorts of disease stories over the years, from prion plagues to West Nile virus, Lyme disease to SARS, and superbugs to food-borne maladies. Almost invariably the best defense against illness is a good offense:

• Make sure food is properly cooked or chilled

• Stop the abuse of antibiotics in food animal production

• Spritz on bug spray for walks in tick territory

• When in doubt, wash hands

Washing hands should be like voting in Chicago: something done early and often, especially when an outbreak such as Enterovirus D68 seemingly pops out of nowhere and starts spreading like wildfire. Nothing beats old fashioned soap and water for blocking the transmission of bacteria and viruses that flit from victim to victim through a combination of bodily fluids and physical contact. Indeed, one of my all time favorite public health initiatives is the Global Soap Project, a nonprofit that recycles partially used hotel soaps for delivery to dozens of poor communities in developing countries. 

"You might be surprised to learn that the leading causes of death for children in developing countries are hygiene-related illnesses, which claim more than 1.7 million lives each year. That’s nearly one-third of all child deaths. Handwashing with soap is the single most effective way to prevent those deaths. In fact, soap is more effective than vaccines, medications, or clean water initiatives alone. Research has shown that soap can reduce diarrheal disease by nearly one-half and rates of respiratory infection by about one-quarter. Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved each year if people had soap and understood how to properly wash their hands.

While this need for soap exists, hotels throw away millions of partially-used bars of soap. Hotels in the United States alone discard an estimated 2.6 million bars daily. The Global Soap Project is working at the intersection of both of these issues to reduce waste and save lives.

— Global Soap Project

There is a bit of technique involved in proper hand-washing, though, which is why my friend and colleague Stuart J. Murphy insisted that one of the stories in the Health & Safety strand of his I See I Learn series cover the fine points. Scrubba Dub, Carlos happens to be one of my favorites, not only because it has a catchy sing-along song and, of course, young Carlos is an adorable heartthrob in the making, but also because teachers really appreciate it. A healthy classroom is a happy classroom!

Each of the 16 I See I Learn books includes a special two-page section called A Closer Look that reviews the skills taught in the stories. We have created Closer Look posters that you can download for free!

Now, all together, let’s sing the Scrubba Dub song with Carlos!

— J. A. Ginsburg

Ebola, Bats and Déjà vu All Over Again…

imageThe other day my friend Adam, a fellow BusinessWeek alum, posted a question on Facebook about whether a bout of Ebola conferred immunity on survivors. In other words, if it didn’t kill them, did it make them stronger, more resistant? The short answer is yes, but just like cold and flu viruses, there are several strains and immunity to one does not readily translate to others. In fact, it turns out that Ebola’s deadly trick involves disabling a key component of a victim’s immune system. The survivors are the ones who somehow manage to hang on long enough to mount a workaround defense  that itself doesn’t prove fatal.

My big splash at the magazine was a special report (“Bioinvasion”) on emerging zoonotic diseases, which are illnesses that affect several species, humans among them. Not only are the majority of diseases zoonotic, but also almost all the headline plagues to emerge in the last few decades, including Ebola, are as well. The article received a lot of attention at the time, including receiving an award from the American Society for Microbiology, which led to an address book full of “-ologists” of every description. My favorites were—and are—veterinary epidemiologists who always seem to be at least a half step ahead of anyone in public health.

Tracey McNamara was head of pathology for the Bronx Zoo during the early days of the first West Nile outbreak. She boldly challenged the CDC’s initial diagnosis of another virus by making the link to dead crows (her necropsy freezer was full of birds that had perished on zoo grounds). "If you wait for the first human index case, you’re too late," she told me during an interview. Those words stuck with me, yet over and over and over again, divisions between public health, livestock health and wildlife health agencies make it difficult to get ahead of the curve.

The first human case in the West African Ebola epidemic was traced to a young child in Guinea where, it turns out, roasted bat and bat soup are menu staples. That is significant because migrating fruit bats turn out to be the key reservoir hosts: species that carry and can transmit the virus but aren’t devastated by it. Health officials suspected a link early on and put a ban on bat dining in March, yet in the chaos that has unfolded, food shortages could make that a challenge to enforce. In any case, it still doesn’t address why, after presumably centuries of bat cuisine, it is now such a dangerous choice. Earlier the investigation another all too plausible explanation was put forth: the exotic animal and bush meat trade literally smuggled the virus into West Africa. The answer might yet turn out to be a combination of both where a disease-carrying animal shipped into the area managed to infect some bats and it was off to the viral races.

Ebola is not the only bat-transmitted scourge to make headlines in recent years. Nipah, Marburg and Hendra viruses all have a bat connection as, of course, does rabies. Curiously, one the most promising Ebola vaccines is based on one for rabies and provides protection against both.

These are viruses that long been circulating in bats and to which humans have largely been blissfully oblivious. So what has changed? It is going to come down to habitat loss,climate change, increased trade and faster travel, none of which are easily addressed by public health efforts. There is no end in sight for the crisis in West Africa and a real threat to the rest of the world. When a deadly virus can travel first at the speed of a migrating bat and then by plane, train and automobile, no place and no one is truly safe.

Every few years, generally in the immediate aftermath of a new or particularly deadly zoonotic disease, the push is on for a “one health” approach to medicine that connects the dots between human and animal health. It never seems to last very long. The wildlife surveillance component is usually the first to fall from lack of funding, while monitoring livestock and poultry becomes mired in the politics of regulation. Public health infrastructures in places such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone that have been wracked by decades of war and poverty have never been high priority. By the time the World Health Organization is brought into the picture, the virus has a substantial head start.

Data science can help. Healthmap, a very clever and comprehensive data aggregator, pointed to the possibility of a hemorrhagic fever cluster over a week before the WHO declared an Ebola outbreak. Likewise, cell phone data can be used to map possible routes of spread, potentially in real time, though the balance between potential threat and privacy concerns have yet to be thrashed out. Still, almost all the data feeds are focused on human actions. Until there is a better handle on wildlife health, the response is still going to be about playing catch up.

There is real opportunity for citizen science to fill in some the blanks, providing field reports of sick and dead wildlife and ailing livestock and pets. It wouldn’t be that hard to set up. It could follow the template—or perhaps become part the database—of Project Noah, a brilliant, massive crowdsourced web-based wildlife field guide.

Beyond our narrow species-specific enlightened self interest, this is yet another wake up call on the importance of doing right by the environment. Deforestation, chemical contamination, carbon pollution—there is a perfect storm besetting our planet, threatening everything that calls it home.

— J. A. Ginsburg

Scaling Good: Project Frog’s Buildings and The Kitchen Community’s Learning Gardens


"…The typical parent, the typical taxpayer, the typical voter, when asked what constitutes a quality education will talk exclusively about the who and the what: the teachers and the curriculum. But we know the where is also part and parcel of a quality education. We believe that where our children learn matters. And when we send our kids to schools with crumbling walls, with leaky roofs, with mold all over the carpets, not only are we not creating an environment for a quality education, but we’re also creating conditions that get in the way…"

— The Center for Green Schools 

American public schools are in such disrepair, it will take more than a half trillion dollars to bring them up to date, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Green Schools, supported by the National Education Association, the 21st Century School Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Lung Association and the National PTA. 

Put another way, fixing American public schools is a half trillion dollar-plus business opportunity with a long string a collateral “goods”: healthier children and teachers, better environments for learning, digital-age connectivity and cheaper operational costs. This is the low-hanging fruit of school reform. The classroom, as Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi famously put it, is the “third teacher.” Children learn from their surroundings, good or bad. Right now, hundreds of thousands of American children are learning that they are a low priority, which it both shameful and shortsighted. We are blighting our own future. 

The “go-to classroom” in the US is a noisy, stuffy, dimly lit, poorly insulated   prefab trailer, notes Ann Hand, CEO of Project Frog, a San Francisco-based construction company on a mission to build better schools. Prefabs are typically pushed into service decades beyond a projected five year lifespan. “They’re full of mold,” says Hand. “The number one cause of absenteeism in California? Asthma.” The most dedicated teachers, thoughtful curricula, committed parents and motivated children are no match for a literally toxic environment. You can’t learn if you can’t breathe. 

The good news is the dramatic and fast difference righting wrongs can make. “There are a lot of studies out there that say that with natural daylight, kids’ grades go up about 20%. That’s taking someone from a C to an A,” says Hand. Improve acoustics and air quality and academic success  almost becomes a given. 

Yet faced with anorexic budgets and long construction schedules, administrators and school boards often have little choice but to opt for quick and dirty band-aid repairs. Enter Frog with its “technologically advanced component buildings” designed to maneuver past these very hurdles. Components are delivered to construction sites in a series of cheerfully branded, IKEA-like flat-packs that can be assembled into a building—aka, a Frog—over summer break. Unlike a prefab classroom whose dimensions are determined by the size of truck (determined, in turn, by the width of a traffic lane), Frogs are free of any such restrictions. Instead, Hand explained at the recent KIN Global conference, Frog schools are designed around what’s best for learning. 

(KIN Global 2014 Change at Scale: Ann Hand)

Mixing human-centered designed to focus on students’ needs and integrative design for better building performance, Frog has figured out how to deliver a higher quality school faster and at a competitive price. Improved energy efficiency means a Frog costs less to run, too. 

"…We have urban planners and architects on our staff, but they sit next to people from product design, people from strong manufacturing backgrounds. We’re crashing all of those capabilities together and really creating an innovation engine that we just so happen to be asking…Is there a better way to build?" 

Clearly, the answer is a resounding yes, but it has been a years-long nail-biting journey full of cash-flow cliffhangers and near-miraculous team triumphs to get there. The first installment of Frog’s first large scale order—15 of 40 schools in California—was finished with only hours to spare before the morning bell of the first day of class last fall. Immediately, the company shifted gears to analyze dozens of lessons learned from a summer spent on the exhilarating edge of panic and possibility. Hand slowed down the sales pipeline to give Froggers—there are fewer than 60 employees—a chance to catch their collective breath. In addition to schools, Frog had been building healthcare clinics for Kaiser-Permanente and developing a “flex” design adaptable for almost any use. Sales had been on track to hit $100 million this year, but Hand cut the target in half, figuring time was more valuable than money in the near term to add resiliency to supply chains and smooth out the rough edges of production. If all goes well in the next couple of years, Hand sees IPO in Frog’s future. It turns out daylighting not only boosts grades, but bottom lines as well. 


For Kimbal Musk—of the irrepressibly enterprising family Musk (Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX)—the sweet spot is right outside the school building in the garden. For nearly a decade, Musk has been working to spread the good food word, first with a handful school garden near his Kitchen chain of “community bistro” restaurants in Colorado and now with hundreds of gardens in Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver.  

"… Scale does matter. It really does matter…When you do one school, you have a system. When you do a 100 schools, you have to have a totally different system…There’s no point in doing one school. You’ve got to do 100 schools, create the system that works for 100 schools and then you have a system you can scale."

Like Project Frog, Musk’s Learning Gardens are modular, flexible, affordable and designed to be an easy “yes” for school administrators. The components are basic but thoughtful: a series of sturdy above ground planting boxes set at the perfect height for young gardeners. They can be placed almost anywhere, from asphalt to rooftops, and are easy to maintain, pre-plumbed for irrigation. Set up takes just a couple days, with children, teachers and parents doing the actual planting. 

Musk wants kids to learn about science and nutrition but sees Learning Gardens as a kind of all purpose outdoor classroom: a part of the school, rather than a special project tucked away behind a fence. In fact, proper siting is essential. Gardens must located where kids naturally gather or Musk’s team won’t build them. “Scale is a combination of how many schools you can be in and how many kids you can reach when you’re in those schools,” he explains. “The critical thing about what we do is that it works in every single school yard in the world.”

(KIN Global 2014 Change at Scale: Kimbal Musk)


"Change at Scale," the theme of this year’s KIN Global, focused on the difference between a good idea and a transformative one. It turns out there is a pattern—something I first learned from energy pioneer Amory Lovins while writing a magazine story on distributed power generation. If a solution is modular, flexible, scalable, affordable and recyclable, bet on it. It almost doesn’t matter what subject—energy distribution, social networks, personal computers, IKEA furniture—the formula works. This is nature’s tried and true strategy: from particles and proteins to atoms and cells to everything that is and has ever been. In fact, the smaller the building block, the greater its potential. 

Hand and Musk have developed solutions that embody those characteristics, bringing an elegant clarity to problems that have confounded generations of school administrators, school boards and politicians. Rather than try to shore up a broken system, they have set their sights on outcomes (happier, healthier, more successful students), then took the list of seemingly insurmountable hurdles as marching orders. It turns out a healthy school environment is good news for the environment as a whole which, of course, is an A+ for everyone.  

— J. A. Ginsburg


Thumbs Up and High Fives: Evolution, Hands and 3D Printing


A couple of months ago, I spent a mindblowing weekend reimagining space suits as part of Team Sentio for a science hackathon at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Our goal was to turn things inside out: Instead of creating a protective cocoon that restricted movements and blunted senses, we set out to design a suit that would improve mobility, increase dexterity, and expand sensory awareness. We modeled synesthesia, assigning new functions for senses underused in space (e.g. hearing solar wind, feeling cosmic rays). We engineered empathy, connecting team member sensors so individual experiences could be shared. And we spent a lot of time thinking about the evolution of the human hand, both past and future.

"…Darwin was the first to speculate that toolmaking could have played role in developing the shape of the human hand, which is unique among primates and, indeed, unique among all species. It turns out he was right. Our destiny has literally always been in our hands. Yet while human hands are exquisitely adapted to life on Earth, new hands with new abilities will likely be required for life beyond our planet. For that, evolution will need a jumpstart…”

Science Hack Day Chicago 2014: Reinventing the Space Suit, Cosmic Biomicmicry and the Joy of Thinking Different

Engineers here on the home world, though, impatient with the ploddy process of natural selection, have beaten us to the punch. To evolve a thumb better suited to build BMW cars the old fashioned way would require tens of thousands of years, for example, so the ever-practical German car manufacturer turned to CAD and 3D printing to create a thumb worthy of Iron Man himself. They took a cue from invertebrate exoskeletons—which are so exquisitely custom fit, they are shed once outgrown—scanning each worker’s thumb to fabricate an orthotic perfectly tailored to the individual. A process called selective laser sintering was used to print out the exo-thumbs combining hard plastic and soft silicone.

The finished thumb guard flexes in a closed position. But because the structure is perfectly fitted to the wearer’s thumb the pieces lock into place when the digit is raised into a thumbs-up position.

The locked splint resists strain and spreads the load of pushing something like a stiff rubber plug into holes in the car’s chassis – something that was causing pain and strain for production-line workers.

— BMW 3D prints new thumbs for factory workers


It is one thing to augment a digit and quite another to take on a whole hand. When first introduced last spring, the Flexy-Hand prototype was immediately recognized for pushing the boundaries of prosthetics, which is saying something considering all the amazing stories of international collaborations over the last year designing 3D printed Robohands. Using a a new elastic filament called Filaflex, the Flexy-Hand is modeled to look more like a real hand, complete with fingernails. Its second iteration includes an attachment mechanism. The design has been uploaded to Thingiverse, so anyone can customize and improve it.

At a materials cost of less than $30, plus a little maker know-how, who couldn’t use an extra hand or two? In fact, Team Sentio discussed the possibly of adding extra hands, arms, legs and even a tail to our souped up spacesuits. Why should octopi have all the multi-limb fun?


While an autoworker kitted out with a BMW exo-thumb still has a muffled sense of touch, an artificial hand offers none, providing mechanical functionality but no sensory awareness. Yet hands are central to much of what we know about our environment. Through our fingertips we know whether a texture is smooth or rough, wet or dry, cold or hot and all the subtleties in between. We can feel the springiness of a computer keyboard and the connectedness of holding another’s hand.

The next big advance in prosthetics will bring touch into the equation. It is already beginning to happen with reports of experimental surgery connecting electrodes to nerves in an amuputee’s upper arm. But imagine if an artificial hand were made of material that felt more like a real hand, mimicking the plasticity of human tissue and laced with a network of sensors.

One such material candidate might be a new kind of hydrogel nicknamed “tough water,” a super-absorbent hybrid polymer scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have been investigating. Tough water is as unlikely as it sounds: a material made up mostly of water—just like us—that returns to its original shape after being stretched—just like rubber or silicone.

The water nature of the hydrogel might allow us to deliver drugs directly through it. So in the case of burn patients who wear compression bandages to reduce scarring, could we use this material for that?

What if we were able to use a material like this stuff, hydrogel, in a 3D printing system to actually print vessels, organs, ligaments and things along those lines? We could potentially actually print a meniscus to place in a damaged knee. You would actually print this shape and actually implant it and hopefully cells migrate into it and replace it. I think that would be the ultimate goal of a technology like this.

—Edward Doherty, Wyss Institute

Tough water is still a laboratory curiosity, but its potential is impressive.  Imagine Flexy-Hand (v. 57…)  printed with a tough water filament, fitted with thin carbon nanotube transistors wirelessly linked to a nervous system. It might not be the same as real hand, but then it might be better, able to sense things that we cannot and connect in ways we cannot yet fathom. Even Iron Man could use a few of those.

— J.A. Ginsburg


Legos, Makers, Molecules, Materials and the Very Big Business of Small Things


Oh my word…  I found this photo on Facebook this morning. The Lego shoes were worn to the White House MakerFaire by the director of an organization for children’s librarians whose enviable real name—no joke—is Starr LaTronica. 

One of the first stories I wrote about energy focused on distributed generation where I learned that not only was small, modular, flexible, scalable and inexpensive the right answer for energy grids, it was the right answer almost no matter what the question. It works equally well for food systems, urban planning, transportation schemes and social networks.. Yet for all the modular genius of Lego, before today I hadn’t considered its potential for shoes. Okay, the Legos are surface decoration, but then they start behaving like Legos with little characters taking up residence. The shoe as coral reef. 

As a rule of thumb, the smaller the module the more flexibility it offers. The ultimate module, of course, is a molecule. It turns out that carbon, a molecule that makes life as we know it possible and one that we’ve sliced and diced for decades, has, like Legos, managed to hide potential in plain sight in the form of its skinniest version, graphene. If you take a pencil, make a mark on a piece of paper, then take tape and lift off a layer of graphite, then tape the tape to another piece of tape to peel off another layer and repeat four or five times, you get graphene. 
…Just for starters, graphene is the thinnest, strongest, and stiffest material in the world; it conducts heat faster than any other known material; it can carry more electricity, faster and with less resistance, than any other material; it allows Klein tunneling, an exotic quantum effect in which electrons within the material can tunnel through barriers as if they were not there. All this means that the material has the potential to be an electronic powerhouse, possibly replacing silicon chips at the heart of all computation and communication. Its extreme thinness, transparency, strength, and electronic properties mean also that it may end up being the material of choice for touch interfaces of the future, not just the touch screens we are used to but perhaps bringing touch sensitivity to whole objects and even buildings. But its most intriguing claim to fame is that it is a two-dimensional material. This doesn’t mean it has no thickness, but rather that it cannot be made any thicker or thinner and be the same material. This is what Andre’s team showed: add an extra layer of carbon to graphene and it goes back to being graphite, take a layer away and the material does not exist at all…
— Mark Miodownik, Stuff Matters
A two dimensional material? Whoa… The discovery of graphene set off a hunt for what other magic could be found in the itty bitty and the discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Miodownik’s book came out this month. The following news story came out just the other day: Move over, silicon, there’s a new circuit in town. By creating a sort of yin/yang mash up of carbon nanotubes and something called IGZO thin films, researchers at USC were able to create a game-changing hybrid circuit.
The potential applications for this kind of integrated circuitry are numerous, including Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs), digital circuits, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, sensors, wearable electronics, and flash memory devices. Even heads-up displays on vehicle dashboards could soon be a reality.
The new technology also has major medical implications. Currently, memory used in computers and phones is made with silicon substrates, the surface on which memory chips are built. To obtain medical information from a patient such as heart rate or brainwave data, stiff electrode objects are placed on several fixed locations on the patient’s body. With this new hybridized circuit, however, electrodes could be placed all over the patient’s body with just a single large but flexible object…
"…The possibilities are endless, as digital circuits can be used in any electronics," Chen said. "One day we’ll be able to print these circuits as easily as newspapers."
Hours of fun! Now the race is on to print electronics. Closer to home, a team at Northwestern has come up with pretty nifty solution to make graphene ink: High-quality inkjet-printed graphene circuits: One step closer to foldable computers.
With so much is going on in the field, there are trade shows. The big one in the US is in Silicon Valley this fall: Printed Electronics USA 2014. Note the “co-located events” on Wearable Technology, 3D Printing, Graphene & 2D Materials and Energy Harvesting Storage. This is the kind of conference that needs to start happening more in Chicago as the city grows as a digital manufacturing research hub. This is cross-sector, cross-disciplinary, paradigm-shifting innovation. 
Despite visions of Jeff Bezos hawking Amazon clothes wired to ring up  sales for Kleenex the instant a sneeze is sensed, the possibilities are pretty wondrous (Really, who needs a snoopy phone when you can dress your customer for 24/7 consuming? Think of the data collection…).
Extra points for figuring out how to wire Ms. LaTronica’s shoes…

A two-fer good thing! Planning on purchasing a physical copy of Stuff Matters and want to support a fabulous new indie bookstore?  Check out Bookends and Beginnings in the old Bookman’s Alley space in Evanston—literally in an alley off Sherman Avenue (very Harry Potterish in terms of unexpected charm). This is a book store the way book stores used to—and really ought—to be. 

Solid: When Bits and Atoms Dance


"We are at one of those huge inflection points in the industry. It’s funny—for some time everybody was thinking it is was mobile or maybe it’s wearables, but actually it’s way way bigger than that…There is the whole thread of  the Maker movement—people just getting interested in the hardware, figuring out how to make stuff. And then at some point it tips over from something that people are doing in their spare time that’s cool, just for fun, and turns into ‘Whoa, that’s the next big thing.’" 

— Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media

Welcome to the latest industrial revolution: software meet hardware. It is a full out paradigm shift with big time global economic implications rooted in play, driven by informal self-organizing networks, inspired by art and powered by math. It is the poster child for STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art and math—made possible, at least in part, by kids more interested in bragging rights for clever hacks than in grades. They didn’t set out to change the world or rewrite textbooks. They just did. 

O’Reilly’s Solid Conference, Maker Faire’s new more serious sibling, brought a crowd of hardware bootstrappers, software developers and industry players to San Francisco last week to show off new tech and talk about what’s next. The possibilities more than a bit mind-blowing: Materials infused with information. Mashups with synthetic biology. Machines chatting with machines. And, yes, replicating the Star Trek replicator. 

Several dozen videos of keynotes, interviews and primers are available on Youtube. It is worth surfing through the entire playlist, but these are some I found of particular interest: 



"It is getting progressively easier to go from a drawing on a napkin to a product on a shelf,"notes Renee DiResta of O’Reilly’s AlphaTech Ventures:

  • By 2016, enterprise-quality 3D printers will be available for under $2,000 
  • Arduinos and other cheap ready-to-use electronics platforms have vastly reduced the costs of functional prototyping
  • Crowdfunding has made it easier to develop prototypes and demonstrate proof-of-concept, in turn making it easier for hardware startups to find VC funding
  • Manufacturing costs are coming down due to competition between offshoring, reshoring, near shoring and "botsourcing" 
  • Accelerator and incubator programs for hardware developers have started to sprout up

The shift from Do It Yourself to Do It With Others is another significant trend, demonstrated by the explosive growth in community hackerspaces over the last 10 years. According to DiResto, there are over 1,500 such spaces in over 100 countries, increasing at a rate of 200 per year. About a third are in the US. There is a correlation between the number of hackerspaces and digital manufacturing startups. California leads the pack with nearly 90, which helps reinforce the kind of critical mass of talent attractive to large companies such as GE that are interested developing their own internal digital manufacturing hubs.

Beyond hackerspaces, there has also been an upsurge in online groups and off-line meet ups for hardware entrepreneurs. This is certainly something I have seen here Chicago where grassroots networks have gained impressive momentum over the last couple of years. Catalyze, the city’s first hardware co-working space, opened in February and almost immediately had to double in size to accommodate all the pent up demand. 



Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s The Center for Bits and Atoms, is perhaps most widely known for his work developing Fab Labs: community workshops kitted out with open source software and off-the-shelf 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools designed as a ”technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, providing stimulus for local entrepreneurship.” In short, a kind of startup for starting startups. Gershenfeld has also worked on machines able to build parts that could be assembled to build a copy of the parent machine. Now he has taken the same idea to the micro level, biomimicking ribosomes, the protein-making proteins found every cell, by finding ways to digitize information within materials. 

"…From molecules up to mountains, the insight is we’re finding that by discreetly assembling reversibly joined materials, you can get to these wild regimes you can’t get to with any other kind of fabrication process because the information is in the materials, not in the computer…

…This is developing structures where there is no machine, where the material itself is shape-changing…

…The end result is the Star Trek replicator. The Star Trek replicator isn’t a 3D printer. That’s a piece of plastic or maybe metal. The Star Trek replicator is coding the construction of functional materials from micro-scale on up “ 



In his grand arcing overview of where things are headed, Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, makes three points especially worth noting: 

  • Shape complexity is now free, meaning that is possible for anyone with minimal skills to design almost anything on a computer and print it out.
  • Infinite computing is now so cheap, it is close to free, meaning that design can now be objectives-based with computers tasked with sorting through countless combinations to present designers with the best options from which to work. 
  • Synthetic biology offers tremendous opportunities for manufacturing

Where Gershenfeld speaks metaphorically of modeling ribosomes, Bass is interested in efforts to literally print DNA, use DNA’s properties of self-assembly to create nano-robots, and even print out bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria), expanding the Autodesk software suite into the medical field. 

"They were able to boot up a virus from a text file. They specified the DNA sequences, they made a bacteriophage, they injected it into e.coli and it attacked the e.coli… There was no breakthrough in science in doing this. Another team had done this before. What I found astounding about it is that  what it took in order to do that was a smart guy like Andrew, but 14 days and a mail order account to order DNA and a $1000. The age of synthetic biology for manufacturing things is right in front of us…

…I think the future is that many of the things that we make will actually be manufactured biologically.”



Ayeh Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits, an open source library of modular electronics, also sees big potential in small things. 

"Part of the problem with all the technology, particularly in hardware, sitting in the hands of experts and of companies is they’re going to guess what are the needs that you have and there has to be a certain critical mass of these needs for a product to warrant existence"

So she set out to make it easier for non-experts to play and prototype in hardware. 

"Some of society’s most transformative technologies have started in the hands of experts and then someone or something came along, democratized them and made them accessible to everyone and they really had a chance to transform society… 

…How do we democratize hardware? For me there are four principles:

  1. Lowering the barrier to understanding 
  2. Lowering the barrier to iterating 
  3. Making it universal 
  4. Raising the ceiling of complexity

There are dozens of modules in the littleBits library, color-coded for function and designed to pop together with magnets. Don’t let the candy colors fool you. This toy is capable of some serious play. The latest module is internet-enabled making it possible, for example, to hack together a version of the Nest thermostat, the company purchased by Google for $3.2 billion just a few months ago. It is absolutely gobsmacking how quickly a disruptive innovation can itself be disrupted. 

"Can we make the internet a building block? Can it become a building block that is empowering people to invent with the internet the way you would invent with light, with sound, with cardboard, with paper and really make it material?" 



Of the three words in the Solid conference’s tagline—”Software / Hardware. Everywhere”—it may be the last that is the most game-changing. Software and hardware, bits and atoms, have been circling each other for some time. The technology for RFID tags has been around for over 40 years (re the “internet of cows,” see time code 5:59 in Andra Keay’s talk, "Are Robots the New Black?"). The first human “wearable” was arguably a sensor-soaked, satellite-connected smartphone, capable of tracking our every move

Smart—or at least sensor-enhanced—things are everywhere and  spreading fast. By most estimates, the Internet of Things (IoT) club will include at least 50 billion members by 2020. Machines are routinely chatting with other machines (M2M), leaving us largely out of the day-to-day conversation altogether. 

Everywhere also refers to manufacturing. The tools to design and prototype products have become so cheap and accessible that given the talent, anyone can do it, no large company required. Autodesk has actually made its powerful cloud-based 360 software suite free for startups that haven’t made any money yet.

The economics of production are shifting as well. China’s cost-cutting rise to global dominance has come at a steep cost: an environment so trashed that a 2007 World Bank report estimated air and water pollution shaved off nearly 6% of GDP.  The situation has only gotten worse. An estimated one out of every five rivers are now too polluted to be of any use. Climate change has also taken a toll, contributing to a chronic water crisis in a country with 20% of the world’s population and only 7% of its surface freshwater. Predictions of rising sea levels will impact global shipping and ports scramble to adapt.

Fuel costs are another concern, increasingly tipping the scale toward nearshoring (hello Mexico!) and reshoring (made—again—in the USA!). It is a sign of things to come that China’s mega-manufacturer Foxconn is now looking to expand operations in America, in part to simplify supply chain logistics. Notably, Foxconn is also investing heavily in robotics as a way to stabilize or lower labor costs, another trend driving a more globally distributed manufacturing model. 



Despite an evening playing field, some parts of the US are more equal than others when it comes to the new industrial revolution. Having an established tech sector and vibrant Maker culture are definite pluses, which tilt the scales toward the coasts—a reality evident in Solid’s speaker roster. 

But there is a third coast emerging as a player—Chicago—and I hope the team at O’Reilly considers staging the next Solid conference here.

Last February, UI Labs, a public / private / academic consortium made up of nearly 600 organizations, was awarded a $70 million grant from the Department of Defense (DoD) to create a digital lab for manufacturing. Another $250 million has been pledged from private source.

Why the DoD? Manufacturing becomes a national security issue when 40,000 parts contracts fail to attract any bids as happened in 2012. Pentagon bureaucracy no doubt played a role in the lack of manufacturer enthusiasm, but US factories were also not up to task, out of date, unable to ramp up quickly for comparatively small runs. 

UI Labs will open its doors this fall in the city’s Goose Island industrial district and serve as a kind of national lab for manufacturing with an applied research mission. Already it has served to energize and focus the region’s considerable assets which include an estimated 14,000 factories, a deep bench in product design, engineering, architecture and biotech and a range of universities: UIC, IIT, Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, the School of the Art Institute, the University of Chicago.

At the fringe, though in its way no less important, is a strong and growing community of hardware bootstrappers along with grassroots efforts such as DesignHouse, a nonprofit startup that brings together teams of designers to develop product ideas to match the fabrication capabilities of small to mid-size manufacturers. 



We were born to make things. In fact, we evolved to make things better.  Toolmaking literally shaped our hands, something Darwin was the first to suspect. It shaped our brains, too. In a sense, it is the 10,000 hour rule writ over millennia, with accelerating change the only constant. It took hundreds of thousands of years to go from crude flints to well-crafted stone tools, but almost everything my kitchen was invented in just the last hundred years. In the last 10 years, smartphones and touchscreen tablets have changed how we learn, collaborate and communicate, providing platforms for tools and products we never knew we needed…until we had them. 

Software/Hardware Everywhere? I can’t wait to see what’s next. 

—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy / Amy Larkin /  Google Talk / video

• When China became the world’s workshop, it inherited the world’s air pollution, too  / Heather Smith / Grist

Science Hack Day Chicago 2014: Reinventing the Space Suit, Cosmic Biomicmicry and the Joy of Thinking Different


Science Hack Day (SHD) at the Adler Planetarium is a hoot. Two years ago, I was thoroughly charmed at demo day watching teams—who had spent the night at the museum—present a series of delightfully and often literally “out there” ideas. “Galaxy Karaoke” and “Quantum Foam” anyone? How about an app to calculate that pesky space-time jet lag for those really long flights? It’s an Einstein-inspired must-have. Or how about a brain wave-operated video game?

I couldn’t make it last year, but when an email announcement wafted into my inbox this year, I cleared the calendar. This time I wanted to be part of a team and was no longer intimidated by the sad fact that I am not a very good coder (sorry Starter League—more my fault than yours). Instead, I could offer words. What startup couldn’t use a few good words? 

Since 2010, there have been dozens of Science Hack Days held all over the world. This time for extra fun, the Chicago SHD was run concurrently with the International Space Apps Challenge.

Some teams came ready-made, knowing exactly what they wanted to build, though most people were like me: clueless but willing. Remarkably, not only did groups gel around projects by early afternoon, but the work quickly become so riveting, it took coaxing to get us all to take a break on Sunday morning to go see a free planetarium show. It turns out that if you want to think outside the box, it really helps to see beyond the planet. A quick jaunt through the solar system, through the Milky Way, past billions of galaxies to the edge of the known universe clears out all manner of cognitive cobweb. “Shoot for the stars” is just good advice. 

I joined Team Sentio, working on a Space Apps project for the Space Wearables: Fashion Designer to Astronauts challenge. Cosmic style absolutely counts, but we took things a bit deeper, reimagining the space suit in terms both of form and of function. 

There were four of us: Kent, a proud member of The Mars Society and veteran of Mars Desert Reseach Station who has thought deeply about what it would take to live and work far from our lovely ”pale blue dot” planet. Alex, an extraordinarily creative thinker whose annual visits to the Burning Man Festival have reinforced his rather boundary-stretching ideas about perception. Julieta, whose impressive official title—Associate Director, Space Visualization Laboratory, Adler Planetarium—only scratches the surface of a deep interest in senses and sense-making. For my part, I tried to keep up with on-the-fly research, pulling up articles and papers on everything from lateral lines in fish to the impact of toolmaking on the evolution of the human hand. We also had a team mascot: six year-old Maia—by far the cutest one in the picture above. 


The modern space suit can make even the fittest astronaut look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It is a cocoon designed for disaster, keeping out radiation, regulating body temperature, supplying oxygen, facilitating what is delicately referred to as “astronaut hygiene” and protecting against the occasional ping of a stray micrometeorite. All of this, of course, is essential, but it hobbles an astronaut from the main mission: exploration.

We wouldn’t think of sending lovely Maia out to explore her neighborhood sealed in a bulky helmet and gloves, yet this is exactly what we have done to astronauts trying to explore the cosmic neighborhood. Our senses tell us everything from whether the sky is cloudy or clear, humid or dry, hot or cold, raining or snowing, day or night. But put on a space suit and suddenly the steady flood of information we take for granted is either muffled or gone. It is hard to walk, turn one’s head, kneel down to take a closer look or even pick things up. Even sight, the one sense that as Julieta points out allows us access to the heavens from earth, is restricted to a much reduced narrow field of view. 

The team wondered whether there might be a way to redesign the space suit so instead of limiting perception, it increases it. We came up with Sentio, a spacesuit that not only reinstates senses rendered useless in space, but then goes a step beyond, augmenting and extending them for applications that haven’t been needed here on Earth.

There are two parts to the design: physical and sensor-based. We started by rethinking the glove, which meant reexamining the hand: 

The hand is where the mind meets the world. We humans use our hands to build fires and sew quilts, to steer airplanes, to write, dig, remove tumors, pull a rabbit out of a hat. The human brain, with its open-ended creativity, may be the thing that makes our species unique. But without hands, all the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do list…

—Carl Zimmer, National Geographic

Darwin was the first to speculate that toolmaking could have played role in developing the shape of the human hand, which is unique among primates and, indeed, unique among all species. It turns out he was right.  Our destiny has literally always been in our hands. Yet while human hands are exquisitely adapted to life on Earth, new hands with new abilities will likely be required for life beyond our planet. For that, evolution will need a jumpstart. 

The Sentio suit glove has two parts: a control panel for the hand itself and a series of snap-on extensions for whatever task needs to be done. Why try to grasp a drill when you can be the drill? For that matter, why stop at hands? Boots can be redesigned for climbing and a prehensile tail added for better balance and grasping. We have an ark-full of nature’s designs all around us for inspiration. (Bio)mimicry is simply the highest form of flattery. 

Organisms capable of changing form turns out to be more the rule than the exception. Many species, from butterflies to frogs, undergo radical transformation from one stage of life to another to adapt to different environments and needs. Although a caterpillar may be well-suited for nibbling milkweed plants, if a Monarch has any hope of flying to Mexico for the winter, it can only do so as a butterfly. Likewise, humans flying to other worlds would be well-served to add shape-shifting to the tool kit.  

The Sentio suit is also fitted out with sensors. A sensor on the outside of the glove, for example, could be coupled to  pressure-triggering mechanism on the inside, turning the glove into a kind of second skin. Likewise, a sensor placed on a drill bit module could be coupled with a sensor in the glove control panel, providing an astronaut with a physical, real-time intuitive sense of the drill bit’s temperature.

An astronaut also could be sensorially attached to a series of little rovers (Kent dubbed them “goslings”), instantly increasing an astronaut’s “footprint” beyond the suit. 

Senses could also be remapped in a sort of synthesia by design. For example,  a sensor measuring cosmic rays could be programmed to tighten a wrist band when conditions were dangerous, thus giving physical sensation to an otherwise invisible experience. Solar wind might be turned into sound. This is data visualization blown out for all the senses, turning abstractions into formats that can be more readily and quickly interpreted. Once you start skipping down this path, the possibilities are endless.

Senses could even be shared and empathy engineered. For example, if an astronaut were to get hurt, a sensory signal could be sent out to others on the team who would instantly feel whether the injury involved an arm or a leg, even if their injured colleague couldn’t speak. 

The Sentio suit is also designed to take better advantage of sight, the one sense that functions in space pretty much as it does on Earth. The surface of the suit is "bedazzled" with a colorful array LEDs that can be programmed communicate identity, state of health, type of work, news of a discovery, danger or just about anything else. This is another example of a taking a cue from nature’s playbook. Bioluminescence is a fairly common form of communication, used by everything from fireflies and creatures of the deep to fungi and algae. 

Perhaps aliens, at least the science fiction kind we know about, look alien for a reason. Why should the forces of evolution—change over time for the survival of the fittest—stop at the stratosphere? 


Ours, of course, was just one of many ideas floating around the room and after 30 hours of deep thinking and imaginative hacking, it was time to present. Among my favorites: 

  • A scheme to trick out a dual control kite with Arduino servos to  gently steer a very small satellite-connected sensor system from its transport ship to the surface of Mars. This team did a lot of kite-flying on the beach and nearly blew us all away with an ad hoc indoor wind tunnel. The system will tested in May using a weather balloon designed to release its payload at 100,000 feet altitude, which just happens to roughly approximate Martian conditions. 
  • Planet Lab: A website-in-development designed to help students—and their teachers—learn science. Only one out of every five high school students in the US demonstrates proficiency in science. There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, including out-of-date textbooks. School districts typically use the same books for the better part of decade, but science moves at an astronomically faster clip. The site connects kids and teachers to leading science organizations and researchers and includes a database of classroom-ready and beyond-the-classroom projects. 
  • The Wii / Quadcopter / Oculus mashup: Basic research rocks. For no other reason than to demonstrate that they could do it, this team wired a quadcopter drone to a Wii balance board and the drone’s camera to an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The “pilot” can see a drone’s eye view through the headset while operating the drone by shifting weight on the balance board. Quadcopter Quidditch anyone?


A week ago I had no idea I would be interested in any of this. A week ago, I would not have thought that four strangers could come together and engage in such a far-ranging, creative and compelling discussion for hours on end. Or that our brainstorming would cascade into so many different concepts with applications far beyond the range of our mission. Imagine empathically wired teams of emergency first responders or LED baseball caps colorfully registering fan support and disapproval. The rooftops around Wrigley will never be the same.  

Rather than the usual narrow hackathon focus on “pain points” (no Grubhubs for the Moon or Sittercities for Mars here), the teams thought big, played with tech and to quote Ariel Waldman, “instigator” of Science Hack Day, learned ”to manipulate science as just another material.” This is what thinking different is all about and it is pretty wonderful. Just take the first star on the left, then straight on ‘til dawn. Magic every time. 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• Ariel Waldman on Science Hack Day, San Francisco (video)

• Science Hack Day: Basic Brilliance / TrackerNews Dot to Dot / J.A. Ginsburg

• Science Hack Day 2014 / Sentio Space Hack by Kent Nebergall / Video by Julieta Aguilera

Can Robots Be Created with a Sixth Sense? 

• Lateral Line Helps Fish Determine Sound Direction

• Hexagonal plate skin gives robots sense of touch

• Scientific papers related to Hex-O-Skin

• World Cup 2014: Paraplegics Will Walk Independently in Mind-Controlled Robotic Suits 

• Think Different / Apple ad (video)

The Motors of August Cicadas

(reprinted from “Germtales” 8/16/06)

I am being serenaded by cicadas and it is glorious. They are the sound of summer, the neon hum to the flicker dance of lightning bugs on warm humid nights. Cicadas are everywhere and nowhere. How can something that loud and large be so hard to spot?

Their suits from a past life pile up, empty shells abandoned near trees, sometimes in mid-climb. Each is perfect in every exquisite detail, with a slit along the back where its owner wriggled out to take on a new identity complete with wings, its long subterranean childhood forgotten in the rush to meet the future. 

Dinosaurs listened to cicadas. And before them, lizards, amphibians and other insects as far back a quarter of a billion years ago during the Permian period when even Pangaea wasn’t quite Pangaea yet. Cicadas have survived global extinctions, ice ages and the asphalt tombs of urban sprawl. Summer after summer they deftly navigate a gauntlet of hungry predators in a daring dash to the treetops for a few brief weeks of uncorked noisy revelry, a blow-out party years in preparation.

Scientists know quite a lot about cicadas, from the meanings of their songs  to their diva-worthy requirements: a soil temperature of at least 64°F to emerge and an air temperature of at least 70°F to sing. They have documented the tragic/comic cicadian ardor for lawn mowers and leaf blowers and analyzed the male’s tymbals (abdominal ridges) used to compose love songs. Though wings are for mostly for flying, females also use them for signaling. “Over here, honey!”

Still, despite so much research, cicadas have managed to keep more than a few secrets.

For starters, each fertilized female lays hundreds of eggs in tree branches, which means the first order of business for newly hatched larvae is literally to take a flying leap into the unknown. It is the fastest way down and they have no time to lose. They must dig into the ground and start feeding on tree roots before the weather turns frosty. Just like Carl Sagan’s stars, there are billions upon billions of larvae, yet I don’t think I have ever seen a single one in mid-leap. Maybe they leap in the dark. Or maybe they disappear in the glint of the sun. Or maybe, just maybe, they magically turn themselves invisible. They are, after all, in the genus Cicada Magicada

Even more of a mystery, though, is why a few species in North America emerge only once every 13 or 17 years. The most popular theory explaining this unique prime number preference involves predator defense. Most predator species—birds, bats, squirrels, raccoon, skunks, possums—have reproductive cycles of one or two years. A cicada emergence on this scale is a luck-of-the-draw surprise feast and when it is over, bulked up predator populations quickly crash back to more manageable levels. There are always far more cicadas than predators. 

But why 13 and 17 years specifically? Why not 5 or 7 or 19? Most of the hundreds upon hundreds of other cicada species in the world, including species native to the very same areas of North America, manage to survive just fine on a two-year cycle. Also, spending too much time underground is not without risk. A forest might be ripped up to make way for a highway or parking lot, its root-dependent nymphs lost as collateral damage. Trees can also die of disease (since 2002, the Emerald Ash borer, for example, has killed tens of millions of trees). Fire, farming, urban sprawl—each takes a toll.

These, however, are comparatively recent hazards to which our cicadian heroes have had little time to adapt. To what, then, could a 13 or 17-year cycle be adapted? Is it possible that these broods are a kind of time shadow, vestiges of a changing climate at the end of the Pleistocene? As North America warmed up and glaciers melted, cicada populations expanded into new areas, but it was a long process spanning millennia. A population—or brood—of cicadas might have found itself stuck underground for an extra season or two or more waiting for the soil to heat up to that critical 64°F degrees. Perhaps they continued to feed on roots while biding their time. What if a cold spell lasted for several years and the cicadas that survived emerged with their internal clocks reset? Would the new cycle continue since there would be no environmental pressure for it to change? 

The mystery goes even deeper: How exactly do insects with a brain the size of a speck count at all? It turns out they take their cue from trees. In a very clever experiment, a team of researchers at the UC-Davis tricked orchard trees into two foliage cycles per season. The 17-year cicada nymphs sucking on roots emerged at the 17th cycle, even though only 8 ½ years had passed (abstract).

That still doesn’t quite explain how cicadas count to a specific number, which is thought to be hard-wired into their biology. In fact, 13 and 17-year cicadas could be counting by fours altogether, with a one year add-on: 

(3 x 4 ) + 1 = 13 and (4 x 4) + 1 = 17.

On a molecular level, it turns out there is not much difference between 13 and 17-year cicadas. If a 17-year cicada emerges early, it is often by four years (though sometimes by one), which means that it is possible that the 13-year broods developed as a sub-population of early-emerging 17 year cicadas. No one really knows. 


Next year, Brood XIII—which ironically happens to be a 17-year brood—will emerge here in Chicago, as well as parts of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Perhaps a few popped out early because it has been a pretty thunderous season. The motors of August cicadas, so loud, so summer, so right now, but also a sound of the deep past, of patience and of time itself. This is just the warm up band for the chorus to come. 

I can’t wait.

— J.A. Ginsburg  / @Trackernews

* Brood XIII won’t bee seen again until 2024. If you can’t wait that long, here is a schedule of all the North American 17 and 13-year broods. 

** video credit: Amazing Cicada life cycle - Sir David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth - BBC wildlife

Mulling Snow, Climate, Pain Points, Bootstrapping and Chicago’s Advantage


It turns out the snow pack they are so desperate for in California’s Sierra Nevada has instead landed, flake by elegant flake, right here in Chicago this year. It has been yet another shovel-in-hand weekend, with yet another 3 to 6 inches expected on Tuesday. Still, despite the misery and inconvenience, all this freak weather could play to Chicago’s competitive advantage in tech—and most everything else, too. 

Rarely does climate change figure into discussions about tech ecosystems. It should. Everything about tech, from developer talent to data storage to financing, can shift to greener pastures pretty quickly.  A special report on tech startups in the Economist magazine noted 

"…This digital feeding frenzy has given rise to a global movement. Most big cities, from Berlin and London to Singapore and Amman, now have a sizeable startup colony (ecosystem). Between them they are home to hundreds of startup schools (accelerators) and thousands of co-working spaces where cafeinated folk in their 20s and 30s toil hunched over their laptops. All these ecosystems are highly interconnected, which explains why internet entrepreneurs are a global crowd. Like medieval journeymen, they travel from city to city, laptop, not hammer, in hand. A few of them spend a semester with "Unreasonable at Sea", an accelerator on a boat which cruises the world while its passengers code. Anyone who writes code can become an entrepreneur anywhere in the world, says Simon Levene, a venture capitalist in London…” (emphasis added)
California’s extreme drought could, according to experts, turn into a decades or even centuries-long megadrought. Meanwhile, rising sea levels on the East Coast mean even average storms can trigger billion-dollar disasters (see Sandy). This is not good news for anybody, but the most severe costs will be felt locally. Both New York and San Francisco are already dealing with an anti-tech blowback driven by spiraling housing costs ("These 2 cities are now exclusively for rich people", "Tech’s growing problem in San Francisco") The impacts of climate change will make an already bad situation worse. 

There is hardly a spot on the planet that isn’t off-kilter weatherwise. Italy and France are dog-paddling through record floods (seriously not the moment to go Florence.)Australia is sweating through a record summer. The World Economic Forum now ranks extreme weather number 6 on its list of Global Risks, singling out Asia as being particularly vulnerable:

"…Japan’s Tokyo, Manila in the Philippines and China’s Pearl River Delta region—one of the most densely urbanized areas in the world—top Swiss Re’s list of cities most at-risk in terms of population. Only one non-Asian city, Los Angeles, made the top 10.
The insurer named the Pearl River Delta—which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Macau and Guangzhou—as number one when looking at the number of people potentially affected by storm, storm surges and river floods…”

If you are looking for a “pain point,” climate change is the big one, affecting everything from supply chains to blood banks.

As high as Chicago’s snow piles and deep as its pot holes may be, our city may find itself in a better position than most to find opportunity in this rather bleak global weather forecast. Some of the same factors that made Chicago interesting to settlers two centuries ago are still in play today: Lake Michigan, a central location and nearby some of the best farmland in the world. Add to that a deep bench in manufacturing, engineering, architecture and design and a uniquely compelling picture emerges. Today, when it seems as if every city uses the same economic development playbook (accelerators! incubators! investors! universities!), competitive advantage requires a bigger picture perspective. 


Adrian Holovaty’s presentation on bootstrapping at the recent CEC Startup Showcase has sparked considerable discussion on the Built in Chicago blog—and beyond—about the city’s place in the tech universe and how best to measure success. (“Is Chicago’s tech community in search of a new identity?”) Is bootstrap culture our strength? Is it diversity as Matt Moog suggests? Should it be measured in VC investment dollars? 

Almost everything now is either a tech-driven or tech-enabled business, so what really counts is the blend. Positioning the tech sector as an economic savior is disingenuous. The real money in tech is as a value-add. Bits meet atoms. Google is in the thermostat business, while Tesla cheerfully disrupts the auto industry. 
Chicago’s budding bootstrap community, which includes hardware as well as software developers (with considerable overlap between the two) could serve as a much needed catalyst, strengthening the connections between the city’s manufacturing, engineering, design, architecture and tech sectors. In fact, a new co-working space set to open later this month called Catalyze Chicago in the West Loop will prototype a new kind of co-working space for product developers. Its list of advisors is impressive, including software and hardware heavyweights and a few Kickstarter veterans (As Catalyze grows, it would be wonderful to see some women industrial designers and product developers added to the mix.)
The more opportunity for these different worlds to connect, the more potential there is for productive and profitable collaborations. Ironically, the segregation of tech-haves and have-nots causing so much unease on the coasts is also a creative buzzkill. When the best and brightest are shuttled back and forth within the cushy confines of corporate buses and provided company-catered meals morning, noon and night, they end up silo’ed with an ever-narrowing vision of the world. Bootstrappers have to reach out and collaborate. It is their resilient edge. 
I would love to see a sector-bridging public lecture series in Chicago:  ”AIA night at 1871” “Urban Ag Night at 1871” “Kickstarter Night at 1871”  ”Theatre Tech at 1871.” There so much potential yet to be tapped.
Now, we just need someone to invent a self-healing pot hole-impervious asphalt and we’ll really be in business. 
(reprinted from the Built in Chicago blog) 

Glass, Tech and Civilization: The Material that Makes Just About Everything Better

imageI stared at the small glass bottle in the exhibit case for quite a while. Somehow it had survived millennia. Taken out of the case at the Museo del Vetro—the Museum of Glass—on the Italian island of Murano, its specialness would have been obscured by an utterly unremarkable appearance. Spectacular glasswork is part of the Venetian sparkle, its seductive shimmer. Such a small plain bottle. Who made it? What did it hold? How had it managed to navigate the centuries intact? 

It was late winter and the tourist rush was still off in the distance, so I had the Museum mostly to myself. Murano, too, for that matter. I strolled narrow streets festooned with colorful laundry hung to dry overhead, nibbled on the most delicious cookies from a local bakery, listened to seabirds and felt  the warmth the fast-approaching spring. It was easy to slip back in time—maybe not millennia, but certainly a few centuries into the past—to a time when even the plainest of glass jars was still something to treasure. In a pre-plastic world, glass provided secure, transparent storage. In Italy, of course, form and function are incomplete without beauty. The little bottle was a light translucent lavender. 

Last fall, I made a glass bowl of my own at a workshop given by Chicago’s Ignite Glass Studio (a particularly popular offering through the Chicago Ideas Week festival). Glass, it turns out, is neither a liquid or a solid, but an amorphous solid, which means it has properties of both. The basic recipe is simple—silica (sand), soda ash and lime—but it can be chemically manipulated in the most remarkable ways, adding color, thermal properties and resilience (the newest version of Corning’s Gorilla glass for smartphones and tablets can be bent without breaking). Glass can be molded in a kiln, “floated” on tin sheets to make windows, rolled, spun and even 3D printed

Blowing glass, though, has an almost alchemical magic to it. The glassblower literally breathes life into the form by providing a bubble of air and must keep the form alive by constantly spinning a heavy metal rod. What starts as an unpromising molten blob attached at one end slowly transforms into something delicate, translucent, ethereal. It takes brute strength and a delicate touch, neither of which I possess, but my master teacher deftly filled in the gaps. 

The video below is a demonstration from the Corning Glass Museum. Watch  all the way through and you’ll be joining in with the videographer exclaiming early and often, “Wow!”

My little bowl was nowhere near as elaborate, but still fills me with wonder. It turns out it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half-filled or half-empty. The point is there is a glass. 


No one material has been at the center of more disruptive innovation than glass. Edison’s lightbulb, the archetypal symbol of innovation, required a glassblower to blow the bulb. 

Centuries earlier, Galileo, who ground his own lenses, pointed his telescope toward the heavens, boldly looked where no one had looked so clearly before, and profoundly altered our view of the cosmos and our place in it. The Space Age had begun. Similarly, microscopes made the invisible visible, leading to new theories of disease and a much deeper understanding of how bodily systems worked. These tools of superhuman sight led to insights that changed the world.

Eyeglasses, which date back as far as 13th century, did not bestow  superhuman powers, but vastly improved countless lives by bringing the day-to-day into focus. Eight centuries later, a project to make affordable glasses in Africa just won a prestigious award from the Siemens Foundation for empowering technologies. A single eyeglass machine carted from village to village by a trained operator can churn out thousands of pairs at a cost of less than one dollar per to manufacture That’s not just life-changing, but potentially society-changing.

Back to the 19th century, Edison’s lightbulb almost literally lit the way for a revolution in electronics that would define much of the 20th century. Vacuum tubes, which made radio, television and sound recording possible, also required glassblowers in their development. Even today, many university and corporate labs have a glassblowing studios on premises to fabricate equipment and components. 

The story of Steve Jobs’ discovery of a failed glass product developed by Corning in the early 1950s is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend. In a mind-boggling six weeks, the company manufactured enough of its super-tough Gorilla glass to launch Apple’s first iPhone, ushering in the era of the touchscreen. Tablets and smart phones are just the beginning. Thin bendable glass is the next gadget frontier: 

"…it also means an entire galaxy of new types of gadgets that haven’t even been conceived of yet. Imagine an in-car display that ripples and wraps itself across your dashboard, or some sort of super-charged Magic Eightball that is simply a sphere with a 360-degree display. These gadgets are still a ways off, but the likes of Corning, Apple, Samsung, and LG are skating to where the puck is going. In 20 years, you won’t be able to believe that the world of gadgets was once so boxy.

—John Brownlee / Fast Company Design


Modern cities glisten with glass. Buildings soar ever taller, reflecting the sun, the weather, each other. But there is much more to a building’s glass surface than an elegant shimmer. Glass can let in light, add color and provide thermal insulation. Now, with integrated solar panels, a building’s skin can also generate electricity.  

Imagine:  a city full of elegant buildings that double as power plants. Let’s raise a glass to that. From ancient perfume bottles and stargazing telescopes to the lights of Broadway and a clean energy future, glass just seems to have a way of bringing out the best civilization has to offer. 


• For the Files: Glass, Tech and Civilization bibliography