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One of Google's Loon Project balloons. Photo by iLighter/Wikimedia Commons
Feb 28, 2019

The Next Wave of Improbable Innovation

World changing innovations are being made every day in unexpected places.

Innovation is fun. Innovation is money. Innovation is leadership. We all want more of it.

The past 20 years have been characterized by innovation that democratizes access to information, entertainment, products and services through platform companies such as Spotify, Amazon and Facebook, as well as technologies such as blockchain. While technological and business innovation continues, there is growing backlash against some of its unintended consequences, such as growth becoming dependent on monetizing consumer data. Thankfully though, there are leaders and investors in improbable places—a legacy rubber company or new materials start up Modern Meadow, for example—that are pushing innovation in new and different directions with the goal of using business’ superpower, innovation, to tackle global challenges and make money.

So what does the future hold? Picture this: A Goodyear tire that is made from solid recycled rubber, printed from a 3D printer, with embedded moss and AI in the hubcap. The solid rubber means it lasts longer. The embedded moss makes the tire stickier on the road in wet conditions, thus improving safety. It also sucks in carbon dioxide and emits oxygen, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The AI function enables the tire to be used in autonomous vehicles.

Or consider another vision of the future: Rather than laying costly resource- and labor-intensive cable, Google’s Project Loon provides internet access through balloons. The company is already bringing internet access to remote areas through the balloons, which are the size of a tennis court, filled with helium and powered by solar. Balloons could also one day be used to sit above the cloud layer and collect sun through photovoltaic panels all day long.

Right now, dresses are being made out of milk, stinging nettles, banana peels and kombucha bacteria. Leather is being grown in labs for apparel and upholstery. Consumer apparel can now be produced on demand in a 3D printer with bio-based input materials that are melted down and reused. (Currently, 60 percent of all textiles are incinerated or end up in a landfill within one year of purchase, making clothing one of the worst sectors in terms of environmental impact.)

Denizens of cities with bad air quality, such as Beijing, will soon be able to wear internal nasal respirators. Some companies are turning carbon emissions into ink, bricks and diamonds. Others are turning carbon emissions back into fuel.

Farming, which uses 60 percent of the world’s freshwater and is responsible for much of its deforestation and pollution, can now occur in vertical environments, where the only inputs needed are LED produced light and a small amount of water. Edible oils are being produced from algae farms.

About 40 percent of food is wasted. Smart meters in commercial kitchens now help people track what is wasted and make changes that reduce food waste and cost. Spent grains are 85 percent of a brewery’s byproduct, have lots of protein, and can be used in flour, energy bars and other products. Conversely, wasted bread, a common category of food waste, is being used to make beer. Instant coffee and tea may soon come in edible packages that melt in water.

Spent grain is also being used for energy, and the body heat of commuters and mall visitors is being used to power buildings. Rolls of plastics that can be printed on by homeowners become homemade, functional solar panels.

Many of these innovations are operational, some are still prototypes. But it seems clear that future innovation will be tied to solutions that help solve for societal challenges such as climate change, water shortage and waste proliferation. The businesses and leaders that succeed in the future are those that are able to recognize the myriad opportunities for innovation and translate radical ideas into functioning, real world applications. The health of human society and the planet itself in the years to come depends on it.

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