Greenlined Design

Ten Innovations of the Last Century that Better our Planet

By Elizabeth Thompson

Photo Illustration by Joe Zeff Design, Inc.

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty,” said noted designer and futurist Buckminster Fuller, whose inventions and ideas took into account natural resource use long before sustainable development became a part of our lexicon. “I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

For Fuller, who passed away in 1983, it was his way of saying form should follow function. In the twenty-first century, function also needs to consider planetary impact. So compiling this set of top eco-design innovations required a reconsideration of the rules that might in the past have applied to so-called groundbreaking design. Conventionally defined, eco-objects are confined to products for the home, and materials and aesthetics are emphasized. What is rarely acknowledged is that we need to lighten our ecological footprint by producing and consuming fewer objects. That’s why our list—which includes electronics, transportation, food, and energy—rewards design that enables us to do more with less.

Each of these ten items rep­resents ideas and innovations that have the potential to radically alter our lives, if they haven’t done so already. Spanning the twentieth century, give or take a decade, this list covers inventions and new uses of resources that play a significant role in inspiring more earth-friendly practices. In choosing each object, we considered the materials used in creating it, its purpose, and the potential impact of the object’s wide-scale adoption.

What about beauty, you ask? It’s not in the eye of the beholder—it’s in the object’s ability to persuade humankind to act differently.

Personal Computer
People worldwide can now access reams of information online without traveling to centralized repositories, like universities and libraries. We can also telecommute and conduct meetings via Web-conference, eliminating more nonessential travel. And in the long-term, computers reduce paper usage. While there are serious issues regarding existing e-waste and the materials currently being used to make computers, innovations to evolve this world-altering machine’s life-cycle are well underway. 

Bamboo Bicycle
Though the bicycle is hard to beat as a low-carbon, local transportation system, the Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Bamboo Bike Project (in collaboration with Craig Calfee at Calfee Design) has pushed the evolution in bike design: According to their research, bamboo bike parts are cheaper than others; production isn’t factory-friendly, thus helping to support local small-scale manufacturers; and there’s no need to import the fast-growing trees to much of the developing world, as they are already flourishing across the globe. Besides the obvious environmental benefits, those of economics and health give bamboo bicycles added green momentum.  

Urban Wind Turbines
AeroVironment’s rooftop wind turbine, which the company launched in the test market in late 2007, is designed specifically for cities, where the devices would rotate at much lower wind speeds than conventional wind towers and could be anchored safely atop buildings. They come in a range of models, don’t require a support tower, are easy to install, and offer reduced noise and vibration. AeroVironment is one of several companies exploring new ways to use buildings not only for living and working but also to produce energy. Together, these rooftop turbine manufacturers might someday add to urban skylines in the way that water tanks have made their mark on New York City’s. 

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Issue 25

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