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Resource Fix: Cooling without air conditioners

When it comes to keeping buildings cool in warm climates when the sun is shining, the standard solution has been mechanical air conditioners. In fact, the development of artificial cooling for buildings has enabled people to live and work in more extreme climates. Today, the amount of energy used for cooling is climbing steadily. Rather than making air conditioners more efficient to reduce energy consumption, what if there was a different way to cool a building?

Engineers at Stanford have developed a cooling panel that could cool buildings and even cars when the sun is shining. The panel incorporates nanostructured materials to reflect sunlight and effectively radiate heat back into space. It’s a simple structure with no moving parts and does not require power to operate.

The new device is capable of achieving a net cooling power in excess of 100 watts per square meter. By comparison, today’s standard 10-percent-efficient solar panels generate the about the same amount of power. That means Fan’s radiative cooling panels could theoretically be substituted on rooftops where existing solar panels feed electricity to air conditioning systems needed to cool the building. To put it a different way, a typical one-story, single-family house with just 10 percent of its roof covered by radiative cooling panels could offset 35 percent its entire air conditioning needs during the hottest hours of the summer.

When these innovators approached the issue of cooling, they set aside the notion of air conditioning as we’ve come to think of it and found a different way to deliver a benefit people need with fewer resources. Their solution will look nothing like air conditioners on the market today. What other products are ripe for a similar transformation?

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Designing Wealth: The Missing Piece in the Sustainability Puzzle

This article was orignally published at GOOD.is. It is impossible to build a sustainable or resilient society without expanding wealth. Things like renewable energy and materials, recycling and other methods of resource recovery, or collaborative consumption are essential ingredients for sustainability, but they are not nearly enough. Without a concurrent, dramatic expansion of wealth, there will be continued recession, economic hardship, and political destabilization, which are certainly not the ingredients of a sustainable society.

Most of us advocate environmentally sustainable strategies because we know they are essential. But how many of us ask ourselves what it will actually take to create enough wealth to include eight billion people in a robust and sustainable economy? The scale of the problem just seems too large. But it’s one we urgently need to focus on. How do we generate much more wealth for more people with a fixed resource base and environmental constraints?

During the last 150 years, we successfully expanded wealth to billions of people. Today, more people have access to food, shelter, and education than our ancestors could have imagined. But this expansion has been resource intensive and, ultimately, unsustainable. Businesses and the economy as a whole are already feeling the pinch of resource demand exceeding supply. The resource base simply isn’t available to meet the needs of a growing population, at least not if we continue to think of wealth and resources in the same way. 

The primary solutions typically offered have to do with recycling, recirculating, and reusing resources, using renewable resources, and becoming more efficient at using resources. The reality is that no matter how good we get at recycling and waste management, and no matter how efficient we become, the more resources we use, the more we lose as waste and pollution. Each time we recirculate resources, we lose some of them. Becoming more efficient doesn’t fundamentally change the relationship between resources and wealth creation. Wealth expansion has to accelerate at a rate much faster than increases in the rate of recycling or gains in efficiency. In other words, we must do much, much more with much, much less.

Here’s the gigantic missing piece of the sustainability puzzle: wealth production isn’t really dependent on how much more resource mass we mine, but on how much more wealth we can mine from the available resource mass. Wealth is security, freedom, options, and opportunity. Wealth is weightless and invisible.

Today, most of the products we make and depend on every day are actually mostly waste. Think about toothpaste for a moment. Why do people need it? The ultimate benefit of toothpaste is oral hygiene, or healthy teeth. What if you could eliminate the fillers, packaging, and all of the other resources associated with manufacturing, delivering, retailing, and storing toothpaste? There are scientists working today on a semi-permanent biofilm that will prevent tooth decay. Others are working on an enzyme that keeps teeth healthy. There are countless products that are material whose benefits could be delivered in an entirely different, weightless or nearly weightless way—vaccinations with dissolving needles, packaging that’s integrated into products, bacteria-safe surfaces without chemicals.

How can we get the most wealth with the least amount of resources, even without many of the physical products we associate with wealth? Through smart, intentional design focused on reducing resource mass and delivering more value.

We need to design for naked value—for the benefits that people seek, stripped of as many of the resources used to make and deliver products and services as possible. When we recycle resources, we need to reinvest them to produce much more wealth. When we redesign products and services, we need to design to harvest more benefits—more oral hygiene, more health, more safety—from each ton of resources used. This is how we will succeed in producing much more wealth with a fraction of the resources per capita currently needed.

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Resource Fix: Keyless entry with added benefits

Keycards, passcodes, scanners, and fingerprint readers are just a few of the security technologies that have replaced keyed entry to buildings. A new product called ShareKey takes keyless security to a new level. With integration via smart phone apps, “ShareKey sends electronic keys directly to the user’s mobile phone, in the form of a QR code attached to an e-mail or MMS.” This means that users can send permissions allowing people to enter their homes (or offices, etc.) at certain times. For example, ShareKey users could allow building superintendents to enter their apartments for a timed window on a specific day to, say, make a repair. Users could provide an extra “set of keys” to house guests for the duration of their stay. In both cases, permissions would be revoked whenever the owner chooses.

Keyless entry offers a reduced-mass solution, but ShareKey takes the technology even further with smart conveniences. The company's strategy shows that to stay competitive, businesses must find ways to not only reduce resource use, but to deliver additional benefits to customers as well.

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