Let’s hear it for bright ideas Inventiveness seems to be hardwired into our DNA and there’s no stopping the flood of bright ideas. From controlling computers with our brains to creating a smartphone bracket using an upcycled bulldog clip, you can read all about it in this month’s Popular Mechanics. On the bigger stage, during a recent trip to the Far East I read about Saudi Arabia’s plans for life after oil, involving a gleaming R6,5 trillion city of the future powered by solar and run by robots. Less ambitious but no less fascinating, Singapore is preparing for d... show Moreriving tests, within the next half-dozen years, that will use smart cameras and sensors instead of human testers. It’s the kind of thinking that Popular Mechanics celebrates every year at this time with the Breakthrough Awards (page 24). This year, though, the focus is different: instead of celebrating the superstars of innovation, the Elon Musks and the Palmer Luckeys, we’re celebrating the thinking and achievements of a new young breed of innovators. Innovation can be used to many ends, of course, not just to push the boundaries. It can be used to improve existing ideas and to repurpose others. And if you want some prime examples of repurposing, you have only to look at Do It Your Way at the back of the magazine each month. It’s an approach that underlies a project I visited on my Far East trip, in Japan’s big port city Yokohama. There, a wind turbine powers a hydrogen-producing plant that’s seen as the flagbearer for a hoped-for hydrogen economy. Besides the pleasing idea of the wind being used to produce an energy source whose waste product is water, there’s one other thing I found particularly fascinating about this installation. As the wind doesn’t blow non-stop, electricity storage is necessary and the innovative solution that’s been adopted is to use recycled battery packs from Toyota hybrid cars. Though the Japanese example shows our restless drive to find ways of powering our future, sometimes our innovative instincts need to be put to work to find ways of reinventing our past. Which brings me to “First, make sure it floats” (page 38). As you’d expect, vigorous debate is an occupational hazard for the Popular Mechanics team. But Android vs iOS and diesel vs petrol rank as trivial alongside the really big question: is the traditional Botswanan canoe a makoro, makorro or mokoro? (One thing that’s more or less certain: the plural is mekoro). Eventually we settled on a makoro as a compromise. Where innovation enters the picture is that this year’s challenge from the Concrete Society of Southern Africa – yes, this organisation really exists – to local students was to find a modern yet sustainable alternative to traditional makoro-building methods. Wooden construction has been outlawed because there simply isn’t enough timber around. Modern synthetic materials might be convenient, but could pose a health risk if used without taking precautions. As our enterprising students showed, there’s more than one concrete way to skin a cat or build a makorro/makoro/mokoro. Almost all of them float, too. anthony@ramsaymedia.co.za show less