Falling Walls Conference 2015 session 1 at a glance

Falling Walls 2015 kicked off with a look at bioinspired design, as Jackie Ying described her wide-ranging efforts to improve upon conventional materials using natural molecules. Silica – the most abundant component in sand – is a promising substance for electrode construction, given its high theoretical electrical capacity and low cost. One of Ying’s favorite molecules is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a compound isolated from green tea that could help deliver drugs to tumor sites. “Typically we make use of carrier materials to deliver a drug,” she explains; “polymers degrade and release the drug.” Ying prefers a more targeted, specific approach, using molecular cages of EGCG to slip antibiotics into offending tissue without disrupting broader biological function.

Moving from the nanoscale to the galactic scale, the European Space Agency’s Andrea Accomazzo described his passion for exploring comets, erratic chunks of rock and ice that are hurtling through space. “By exploring comets,” he explains, “we understand how our planet formed, how our solar system formed.” After a 12-year transit, the Rosetta Mission made headlines last year upon arrival at the 5-kilometer wide “67P” comet. Intercept at the comet and the subsequent landing of its Philae probe “was a masterpiece of spaceflight,” as Accomazzo describes it. As for the results of the mission – the ostensible purpose of the remarkable engineering enterprise – “we’re still exploring the data…it produced some fantastic science.”

 

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Saskia Sassen of Columbia University reflected upon the transformational power of human civilization. Many of these global changes have been negative – the draining of the Aral Sea, the de-icing of Greenland – but “can we make a different valence that is equally consequential?” Sassen asks. Viewing the issue through the lens of foreign investment in urban settings, she questioned the driving force and ordering mechanism of global society. “I think it’s finance,” an industry that “sells something it does not have,” and possesses a potent “danger and brilliance.” What this institution means for global citizenry remains an open question – debt, foreclosures, and disempowerment have had lasting effects, but Sassen hopes the power and global reach of human systems can instead “aggregate with a positive effect.”

Siezing upon these complex global problems, Dirk Helbing of ETH Zurich proposed a new mobilization of big data to build a digital democracy. Personal data is used today largely to examine bulk trends and monetization possibilites, while also polarizing groups of people. Using similar data in a deterministic way for positive change, however, might not be as straightforward as one might hope. “The idea that more data means more knowledge means more power means more success is not quite right,” Helbing explains. “Society is not a machine, it cannot be controlled and steered.” Rather, he prefers to build change from the ground up, using digital tools that enable people to make better decisions and re-shape personal interactions through the influence of data. “Nervousnet” is Helbing’s prototype to measure the real-time impacts of our decisions, using the 10-20 sensors availabe in most smartphones to collect information on an opt-in basis only. “We want to make things visible that could not be seen beforehand, like trust or social capital…things that matter for our society.”

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