The New Blueprint: how the power of design can change our lives

We’re launching a new series that will look at the role of design in shaping politics, business and the environment

The word “design” typically evokes images of hand-drawn sketches, color palettes, computer modeling or visually stunning products or space. But we want to explore the role of design beyond its conventional take. Good design can have the power to shape behavior, and even transform lives.

Today we launch a series, The New Blueprint, about how scientists and engineers use design to solve billion-dollar challenges in our lives. Will it enable companies to build a sustainable business? What happens when well intended efforts fall flat?

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Can Impossible Foods and its plant burgers take on the meat industry?

Impossible Foods is on the cusp of big things. But as the company lines up its first burger chain, it still needs to show it can convert the meat-loving masses

I sat down to have my first Impossible Burger, the plant-based meat substitute that has received a lot of press and nice reviews from high profile chefs and their customers. My burger, topped with caramelized onion, dill pickles, lettuce and a special sauce, was cooked medium rare. It looked like a conventional burger, complete with the pinkish ‘meat’ in the middle. It was hard to tell the difference when I bit into the burger and washed it down with a milkshake.

I was at Bareburger near New York University yesterday to hear executives from Impossible Foods announcing their first restaurant chain. It’s a big deal for the Silicon Valley company, which only launched its first product, the Impossible Burger, last year and focused its initial publicity blitz around teaming up with trendy restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Will 2017 be the year we get serious about sustainable food?

The next few years could be pivotal for sustainable food in the realms of organic farming, sustainable fishing and plant based meat alternatives

Americans love to eat. Each person devours, on average, 1,996 lbs – or nearly a ton – of food per year. The enormous effort to satisfy that big appetite creates significant environmental impacts, from fertilizers leaching into our water supplies and overfishing to massive die-offs of bees from pesticides and habitat loss.

Our eating habits come with tremendous social costs, too. More than 70% of the adults in the US and about a third of children are overweight. The medical cost of treating people who are grossly overweight, or obese, reached $147bn within the past decade.

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How Google is using big data to protect the environment

Google’s sustainability officer Kate Brandt outlines the company’s wide-range interest in sustainable fishing, green buildings and renewable energy

For many people, Google is simply the gateway to a vast archive of facts and memories. For those who pay closer attention to its business dealings, the company also invests billions to find new ways to use the power of computers: it’s developing robots, virtual reality gear and self-driving cars. Remember all the hubbub about Google Glass?

Google has been using the same approach in sustainability – spreading its wealth in a variety of projects to cut its waste and carbon footprint, initiatives which may one day generate profits. During the SXSW Eco conference this week, I caught up with Google’s sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, to find out more. Brandt joined the company in July last year after serving as the nation’s chief sustainability officer in the Obama administration.

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The scientists harvesting energy from humans to power our wearables

An MIT lab has produced a device the size of a stamp that harvests energy from bending movements. Commercialising it could be a breakthrough for wearables

Inside a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sangtae Kim has been tinkering with a paper-thin device the size of a stamp. Kim is interested in harvesting energy from humans (though not the kind that turns people into batteries in the movie, The Matrix). He wants to harness motions, such as walking and running, to power sensors and wearable gadgets.

“It provides a new way of harvesting human energy,” Kim says of his prototype device, which he described recently in an article co-authored with his adviser, Prof Ju Li and other researchers.

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California’s massive gas leak prompts new interest in detection technology

The ongoing methane leak from an underground reservoir run by SoCalGas has spurred a new search for innovative ways to detect large scale gas leaks

Big environmental disasters often highlight the role new technologies can play in prevention. That is proving to be the case with the ongoing methane leak at a vast underground storage field run by Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), which is facing regulatory mandates to improve air quality monitoring.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s board will consider a proposal this Saturday that will require SoCalGas to use better leak detection technology at the storage site called Aliso Canyon, which is made up of roughly 3,600 acres of former depleted oil fields. Aliso Canyon helps to serve 21.4 million people in central and southern California.

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From Tesla’s Powerwall to flow batteries: five facts about the energy storage revolution

From Tesla’s Powerwall to flow batteries, we look at existing and emerging technology that could be a critical part of the sustainable energy puzzle

Batteries – the workhorse technology that injects life into gadgets we can’t live without – are taking on a bigger role as they replace petrol tanks in cars and make their way into homes and businesses to store electricity from rooftop solar panels or the grid.

Related: Biodegradable batteries and induction charging cars: five tech trends to watch

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Surge in tech investment shows the days of cheap water are over

Water management technology is in demand as businesses and homes try to cope with drought and mandatory cuts in water use

US baseball team the Seattle Mariners has been putting its grounds on a water diet for the past three years. With roughly two million fans passing through its stadium and restrooms, as well as a grass field to maintain, this is no mean feat. But by using sensors and software to analyse water use in real time, the baseball team’s maintenance crew has found effective ways to conserve water.

“There was a month in the off season when we saw a large spike in water use that didn’t make sense,” says Joe Myhra, groundsman for the Mariners. “We were able to look at data and realised we had a leak in one of the fire hydrant lines. The leak wouldn’t [otherwise] have been visible until it was too late.”

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