NEWS Oakland “Ecoblock” Honored as a Scientific American World Changing Idea for 2017

Spe­cial Report

Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can (Decem­ber 2017), 317, 28–39

Pub­lished online: 14 Novem­ber 2017 | doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1217-28

Top 10 Emerg­ing Tech­nolo­gies of 2017

For more on this project, see our real​.berke​ley​.edu twit­ter feed:


Mari­ette DiChristina and Bernard S. Meyerson

In Brief

  • When it comes to pre­vent­ing and treat­ing dis­ease, bet­ter biopsy tech­niques, genomic vac­cines and a mas­sive global project to map every human cell are a boon to pub­lic health and per­son­al­ized medicine.
  • Sus­tain­ably pro­vid­ing the resource needs of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion is becom­ing more pos­si­ble thanks to advances in solar-​​powered water har­vest­ing and arti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis that pro­duces renew­able fuel. Real-​​time feed­back is mak­ing pre­ci­sion farm­ing an effi­cient way to feed more people.
  • Green tech is becom­ing more acces­si­ble to the masses. Entire blocks of homes can be trans­formed into zero-​​emissions com­mu­ni­ties. New approaches in hydrogen-​​fuel cells could mean cheaper gasoline-​​free cars.
  • Improve­ments in visual AI and quan­tum com­put­ing are lead­ing to a future when machines inter­pret data and solve com­plex prob­lems bet­ter than humans.

What if drink­ing water could be drawn from desert air eas­ily, with­out requir­ing enor­mous amounts of elec­tric­ity from a grid? What if a doc­tor could do a biopsy for a sus­pected can­cer with­out a blade of any sort? What if we didn’t have to wait too long for the result? Tech­nolo­gies that make these visions a real­ity are expected to become increas­ingly com­mon­place in the next few years. This spe­cial report, com­piled and pro­duced in a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can and the World Eco­nomic Forum’s Expert Net­work, high­lights 10 such emerg­ing technologies.

To choose the entrants in this year’s emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies report, we con­vened a steer­ing group of world-​​renowned tech­nol­ogy experts. The com­mit­tee made rec­om­men­da­tions and elicited sug­ges­tions from mem­bers of the Forum’s Expert Net­work and Global Future Coun­cils, Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can’s board of advis­ers and oth­ers who are tuned in to bur­geon­ing research and devel­op­ment in acad­e­mia, busi­ness and gov­ern­ment. Then the group whit­tled down the choices by focus­ing on tech­nolo­gies that were not yet wide­spread but were attract­ing increased fund­ing or show­ing other signs of being ready to move to the next level. The tech­nolo­gies also had to offer sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits to soci­eties and economies and to have the power to alter estab­lished ways of doing things. —Mari­ette DiChristina and Bernard S. Meyerson

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9 Energy: Sus­tain­able Communities

Instead of “green­ing” indi­vid­ual houses, entire blocks of homes are retro­fit into a sin­gle effi­cient unit

By Daniel M. Kammen

In the past decade the con­struc­tion and retro­fitting of indi­vid­ual homes to reduce energy and water use has grown explo­sively. Yet apply­ing green con­struc­tion to mul­ti­ple build­ings at once may be an even bet­ter idea. Shar­ing resources and infra­struc­ture could reduce waste, and retro­fitting impov­er­ished or moderate-​​income neigh­bor­hoods could also bring cost sav­ings and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to peo­ple who would typ­i­cally lack such oppor­tu­ni­ties. Work­ing at the neigh­bor­hood level does add com­plex­ity to plan­ning, but these neigh­bor­hood efforts offer rewards that even green single-​​family homes can­not offer.

One such exam­ple is the Oak­land EcoBlock project, which I lead at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, with my col­league Har­ri­son Fraker, a pro­fes­sor of archi­tec­ture and urban design. It is a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary endeavor involv­ing urban design­ers, engi­neers, social sci­en­tists and pol­icy experts from city, state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments, acad­e­mia, pri­vate indus­try, non­prof­its and grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions.  For more on our projects, click here. Or look at the RAEL group twit­ter feed: @dan_kammen

The pro­gram, which has been planned in great detail but has not yet begun con­struc­tion, will retro­fit 30 to 40 con­tigu­ous old homes in a lower– to middle-​​income neigh­bor­hood near California’s famous Golden Gate Bridge. It aims to apply exist­ing tech­nol­ogy to dra­mat­i­cally reduce fossil-​​fuel and water con­sump­tion and green­house gas emis­sions. We expect to rapidly recoup the money spent on infra­struc­ture with sav­ings from oper­at­ing expenses while ensur­ing res­i­dents’ long-​​term com­fort and security.

To bring in renew­able power, we will install solar pan­els on build­ings through­out the area and send the energy to a smart micro­grid. Excess solar energy will be stored via fly­wheels housed in a com­mu­nal build­ing. The res­i­dents will also share elec­tric cars, which will have access to more than two dozen local charg­ing sta­tions. These mea­sures should reduce annual elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion by more than half and bring car­bon emis­sions to zero—a valu­able feat, con­sid­er­ing that more than a quar­ter of U.S. green­house gas emis­sions emanate from residences.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2017CREDIT: Eric Petersen

The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency esti­mates that as much as 50 per­cent of California’s home water con­sump­tion goes to lawns and gar­dens. We will treat and reuse waste­water from toi­lets as well as gray water sent down drains and released by wash­ing machines. The recy­cled fluid will go toward gar­den­ing and irri­ga­tion. We will col­lect rain­wa­ter and deliver it to toi­lets and wash­ers and install effi­cient fix­tures and taps. Treated solid wastes, mean­while, will be incor­po­rated into com­post. Our esti­mates sug­gest that the EcoBlock’s system-​​level redesign will cut demand for potable water by up to 70 percent.

The Oak­land EcoBlock project will pro­vide local con­struc­tion jobs and help revi­tal­ize a com­mu­nity. If it is as suc­cess­ful as we pre­dict, it could serve as a model of sus­tain­abil­ity that can be repli­cated else­where in the U.S. and beyond. To date, we have received inquiries from Europe, North Africa and Asia, con­firm­ing wide­spread inter­est in tar­get­ing and redesign­ing whole com­mu­ni­ties, not just indi­vid­ual homes.

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