Potato plastic, robot cleaners and edible bugs

New ideas: The competition is open to university students and recent engineering graduates.

Does change mainly come from inventions? The shortlist for the James Dyson Award has been announced, celebrating clever inventions from around the world. Many have a strong environmental focus.

Plastic straws and cutlery made from potato starch, which takes just two months to biodegrade. A robot which can clean polluted lakes seven times faster than humans. A 3D-printed ant nest designed to help create a reliable, sustainable new food source.

These are some of the 20 inventions on the shortlist for the James Dyson international design award. The winner will be announced in November.

By 2050, the United Nations predicts the global population will have risen to nine billion people, with seven out of 10 living in cities — all while the world is trying to reduce its impact on the planet. Many of the inventions on this year’s shortlist are responding to these global challenges.

The UK winners, who have made the final 20, created an urban wind turbine designed to generate renewable energy in cities. Traditional wind turbines need “horizontal wind” — strong currents from a single direction — to work properly. In cities, the wind is “multi-directional” thanks to large buildings.

The O-Wind Turbine, designed by Nicolas Orellana and Yaseen Noorani from Lancaster University, gives city dwellers a chance “to generate their own energy and contribute to the environment.”

Other inventions include a home earthquake warning system, safe kitchenware for blind people, and a skin prick test to diagnose allergies.

“Young engineers are restless in the face of global issues,” said Dyson’s vice-president of design and new technology, Peter Gammack. “They see technology as a catalyst for creating a better future. They demonstrate how simple, ingenious concepts have the power to revolutionise the way people live.”

Indeed, the world has been transformed time and again by simple inventions. It started with the wheel in 3500 BC, which has transported us ever since — although at the time was mostly used for pottery. In 1439, the printing press allowed knowledge to spread quickly between ordinary people for the first time. Vaccines have saved countless lives since 1796.

Are inventors the biggest drivers of change?

Eureka!

Yes, say some. Where would we be without cars, antibiotics, planes, electricity or the internet? Inventors take the progress made in science and apply it to the real world, solving problems and saving lives. As the planet faces ever bigger challenges, we will need more young, talented inventors to start searching for simple solutions.

It is the grand ideas that have truly transformed our lives, argue others; ideas like religion, the scientific method, feminism or human rights (which are approaching their 70th anniversary in December). These not only affect how we live our lives, but how we think about the world around us — and whether we are free to do so.

You Decide

  1. Should everyone invent at least one thing in their lifetime?
  2. What is the most important invention in history?

Activities

  1. Take a look at the list of finalists for the James Dyson Award (found under Become An Expert). As a class, take it in turns to give a short presentation on each invention. When you are finished, vote for which you think should win.
  2. It is time to design your own invention! Think of a problem in your local community, or in the world at large, and begin sketching out ideas for a simple solution. If you are particularly proud of your idea, try working on a prototype.

Some People Say...

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Thomas Edison

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The overall winner of the James Dyson Award will be announced on November 15. They will receive a £30,000 prize, plus £5,000 for their university. National winners are selected from the 27 countries which entered, and 20 are then chosen as finalists for the international prize. The overall winner will be chosen by James Dyson.
What do we not know?
Who is going to win! Previous winners often have a strong environmental or medical focus. They include a folding, recyclable bicycle helmet; a sustainable fishing net which uses lights and holes to help younger members of a species escape; and an inflatable incubator which is designed to save the lives of premature babies in refugee camps.

Word Watch

Biodegrade
Turn into compost. For contrast, it can take ordinary plastic anywhere between 10 and 1,000 years to decompose.
Sustainable
Last week, a United Nations report found that beef consumption in Western countries needs to fall by 90% to avoid catastrophic climate change. Some have suggested that insects — which take up far less farmland — could be an alternative source of protein.
James Dyson
The CEO of Dyson, a company that is most famous for inventing bagless vacuum cleaners and the Airblade hand dryer.
Wheel
Invented in Mesopotamia to create pottery. Wheels were first added to chariots around 300 years later, revolutionising transport forever.
Printing press
Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany. Previously, most books were handwritten, and therefore rare and expensive to produce.
Vaccines
The first vaccine was invented by Edward Jenner for smallpox.
Scientific method
This emerged in the 17th century. It involves testing theories with experiments, observing the results, analysing the data and, if necessary, adjusting the theory based on the conclusions.