Netexplo 2013: science and not fiction
Skin goes high tech
Imagine you could place an ultra-thin strip of electronics-filled silicon onto your partner’s forehead and know his or her real emotions?
That’s how Nanshan Lu, Netexplo Forum 2013′s Grand Prize winner, concluded her presentation with a wink on February 14th – Valentine’s day.
Netexplo is a global observatory on digital society founded in 2008 to identify outsanding innovations in Internet and digital technologies. The annual forum was held at Unesco in Paris February 14-15, 2013.
Ms. Lu, from China, studied in the US and now teaches and leads a research team at the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering. I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination and presentations on electrical engineering or some such leave me scratching my head. Ms. Lu’s presentation on her electronic tattoos was clear, compelling, accessible – and fascinating.
These patches’ uses are as limitless as your imagination. Of course, their principal objective is to be a non-invasive medical monitoring solution.
But they are also on the verge of being able to, for example:
- Control electronic devices by recognizing muscles movements, (such as, when applied to the throat, the muscles used to give directions to electronic games – left, right, up, down)
- Contract muscles to restore mobility or strength to patients
- Detect the level of hydration in athletes (a project that is being jointly developed with Reebok)
Tattoos that offer greater freedom and mobility, enhancing the quality of life and autonomy of patients as well as removing cumbersome interfaces we use daily – the possible applications are endless. As with other game-changing innovations, issues of ethics, privacy, and “doing no evil”, as the folks at Google would say, abound.
For once, a French laureate
The 2013 edition was the first time a French entry was selected as one of the winners. Zero Gâchis is a Web-based service (and soon to be smartphone app) that helps reduce food waste and save consumers money by listing products that are approaching their expiration date at supermarkets nearby.
While this service clearly responds to a double need in these tough economic times, it’s hardly ground-breaking compared to the electronic tattoos above. Its innovation is in assembling existing information (supermarket data, bar codes) and making it available publicly.
Nice, but I wasn’t dancing on the edge of my seat (sorry, guys).
[Rant] Cultural barriers to supporting real innovation
Remember Viha Concepts, the renewable energy start up in Toulouse whose panels inserted in sidewalks collect the energy pedestrians generate while walking? The founders couldn’t get it off the ground. At every administrative level, and even from institutions whose purpose is to provide seed money to innovative projects, they ran into roadblocks and refusals.
They moved to the US and signed an agreement with the University of New York at Stonybook in four hours….
As I chatted with some participants at Netexplo, the frustration with this culture of “no” came up again and again. If “it” does not already exist, if it hasn’t already proven its financial viability, an innovation will probably be left on the sidelines. And leave the country to be developped elsewhere.
Intellectual capital loss
Risk aversion and fiercely preserving what exists – even if in this process, loss is all the more likely – are the two French cultural traits that prevent this country from making necessary structural changes and encouraging real innovation.
Those who can, do. And leave to do so. The numbers are growing. In my own little world, several (French) family members have gone off to California. I’m working with a French entrepreneur, helping him set up a company in Florida. A former management consulting colleague is packing for Montreal. And so on.
And these are the types of people who create jobs, value and tomorrows.
[end of rant]
Curiosity and imagination
I’d like to thank Guillaume Pernoud at Netexplo for letting me attend. Events such as this are pure nourishment for the mind, encourage imagination, and boost creativity.
It is often easy to be influenced by the culture, language, and mind set of the country in which one lives. Each of us, whether we are independent professionals or just intellectually curious, must keep our headlights on what is going on beyond defined borders and promote that broadened awareness.
What has gotten your intellectual or creative juices going lately? What has gotten you to dream the impossible?