Instant concrete. Replacement penis surgery. Dogs that can smell cancer.

Andrew Stone outlines some remarkable innovations designed to make the world a better place.

Sniffing out sickness

When it comes to noses, dogs have an advantage. Rather than one nose, they effectively have two, which scientists are harnessing to detect compounds that escape medical investigation, including cancer.

The bar is set high: the researchers want to make sure the dogs are actually smelling cancer and not something else, such as old age.

The task for the dogs is to select from eight urine samples the one provided by a cancer patient. Included in the trial is a sample from a patient with symptoms of cancer but who doesn't actually have the disease.


Dogs have powerful noses, with 300 million sensors. Human noses come with just 5 million sensors. Further, dogs have a kind of second nose, called Jacobson's organ. This means trained dogs can sense faint odours from cancer cells known as volatile organic compounds.

The challenge science faces is to take this skill to market. The cancer dogs make great headlines. They just don't yet make a lot of money.

Bank on this

The Banks Peninsula port town of Lyttelton has had its share of trouble, especially since much of the charming hillside community was hammered in the September 2010 earthquake.

But its spirit recovered quickly, partly because the settlement had embraced a currency which trades in time rather than cold hard cash.

Started by Margaret Jefferies, who got the idea from a New York university, Lyttelton had a ready-made community skills inventory when the 6.3 quake brought down much of its unreinforced infrastructure. Houses, walls, pubs, shops and a lot of the port itself collapsed from the brutal intensity of the shake.

Within hours of the 4.35am disaster, the 400 or so members of the local time bank had cranked into action, employing the unit of currency - 60 minutes - that lies at the heart of the idea.

Instead of money, the medium of exchange is time. The social accounting mechanism values all hours equally. So an hour of collecting parcels for a disabled resident gets banked to be spent on an hour, say, of painting or car maintenance.

After the quake, community messages flowed through the time bank and helped residents get back on their wobbly feet with home visits, food, shelter and emotional support.


Before the quake, members of Lyttelton's time bank were trading around 400 hours a month. That figure more than doubled afterwards, as time bankers searched for crucial support.

The pay-it-forward idea best works when communities already have a time bank in place when hit by a natural disaster. But the Lyttelton experience suggests it's a sound investment.

Charge me

The wretched problem of a flat cellphone is not just a problem for the 'haves'.

According to the UN Commission for Refugees, the initial questions displaced people ask on arrival at a migrant camp is: "Where can I charge my phone?," and: "Is there wi-fi?'.

The sheer mass of migrants on the move has been the catalyst for some smart initiatives to keep refugees connected and calm.

Croatian firm MeshPoint has designed a rugged, all-weather wi-fi and 4G mobile device that can connect up to 150 people to the internet. The unit comes with a built-in battery for quick set-up in the most challenging conditions.

Telecoms giant Vodafone has created an "instant network mini". Small enough to fit in a rucksack, the 11kg unit broadcasts a 2G mobile network that offers up to 1km coverage. A solar panel keeps the six hour battery topped up.

Fittingly, the technology is developed through the company's charitable arm. Its designers say it can be up and running within 10 minutes.

The gear was deployed in Nepal during the catastrophic earthquake in April.

Because smartphones are battery hungry, Vodafone Foundation has created charging blocks that can be attached to temporary tables to make a top-up station.

Quake-hit Nepal was also helped by Swedish non-profit organisation Flowminder, which used anonymised data from mobile operators to track the movement of frightened Kathmandu residents via their mobile phones.

The analysis drew on signals from cellphone towers and tracked the movement of SIM cards.The information helped disaster planners and aid agencies understand people's behaviour and gave them a better idea where to channel resources.

Chief executive Linus Bengtsson says the technology could even help stem the spread of infectious diseases: "Assuming mobiles are being used by infected people, we can predict where people, and the disease, will go."

Dowsing the flames

Some countries are awash with money. Think Norway, flush with oil wealth. Others struggle to pay the bills. Say populous Brazil, where 15 million live in poverty.

Put the two together and it's possible that intractable problems can be solved.

For years Brazil destroyed its rainforests, turning swathes of the Amazon into farmland.

Oslo came to the table with money, offering petro-dollars for preservation. A deal was struck, and the South American giant is US$1 billion richer, the amount the two countries settled on if Brazil could put the brakes on forest clearance.

By educating farmers, enforcing protection laws and putting the squeeze on clear-felling communities, Brasilia saved 50,000 sq kms of forest - the equivalent to 14.3 million football fields in soccer-mad Brazil, and slashed carbon dioxide emissions.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the deal an "outstanding example" of international collaboration on sustainability.

Norway struck a similar deal with Indonesia, where out-of-control peat fires have cloaked parts of Southeast Asia with a deadly smog.

The dirty skies so far have stopped Jakarta getting its hands on Norwegian cash but the financial incentive means Indonesia will find it pays to stop fanning the fires.


Every minute, a child dies from waterborne disease. Most of the tragic deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where millions lack access to clean water.

Engineer and entrepreneur Askwar Hilonga might just have created the device to change those dreadful statistics.

His Nanofilter, a simple sand-based filter which uses nanotechnology to cleanse dirty water, can produce up to 60 litres of drinking water a day. The filter absorbs anything from copper and fluoride to bacteria, viruses and pesticides.

Last year it earned Hilonga the African innovation prize from the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering. At $190, it is within the reach of rural communities which pool their resources.

Already 10 small Tanzanian businesses operate "water stations" using Hilonga's design, selling drinking water for a fifth of the price of bottled water. Several schools have installed units and Hilonga's business has orders from other African countries.

Concrete canvas

Remember the hard cast which encased your broken teenage arm? The idea of a plaster-impregnated bandage lies behind a tough-as-boots material which two British engineers designed in their university days.

Royal College of Art students Peter Brewin and Will Crawford created a fabric that hardens which sprayed with water, turning rolls of material into layers of waterproof and fire-resistant concrete.

Conceived as a durable shell for shelters in disaster zones, the product has caught the eye of the construction sector, where it is used to line ditches and cover pipelines.
A little bit goes a long way: one 1.5 tonne roll is equivalent to two truckloads of conventional mixed concrete.

Structures made with Concrete Canvas can be formed in as little as an hour. The shelters come in 25 and 50 sq m packs. A fan inflates the plastic-lined structures, until water is applied and the shell sets. Within 24 hours, the larger-sized inflatable shelter, complete with access doors, is ready to use.

The company expects orders from relining and refurbishing cracked concrete structures. The disaster idea has been a tougher ask, with political obstacles to semi-permanent structures sprouting in regions where authorities are reluctant to concede that their disaster zone is anything more than temporary.

But in a world awash with refugees, the hard shell could yet offer shelter from the storm of despair.

Woolly chairs

Here's a twist on the sheep's back: a woolly chair. UK-based Solidwool has designed seats made with a composite material using wool as the aesthetic and bio-resins as the binder.

The curved base is not soft and springy like a fleece but looks beautiful and is tough and durable.

Creators Hannah Floyd and husband Justin live in Buckfastleigh, a market town beside Dartmore National Park in southwest England.

The village once supported a woollen mill industry and produced carpets from Herdwick sheep, a sturdy bred with a coarse grey fleece found in upland areas of the UK.
But demand for the wool fell and the manufacturing industry declined.

The Floyds stepped into this market gap, harnessing modern industrial processes with the sustainable supply of a natural product - the wool clip from a Herdwick flock. The couple say that in effect they have found a high-value use for a "waste material."

Their initial range includes the Hembury Chair, which features grey fibres encased in molded bio-resin, a material the Floyds say comes from pulp and biofuel waste. The material is claimed to be a whole lot greener than conventional resins, which typically are products of the petrochemical industry and full of toxic ingredients.

Besides the stylish chair - which can be landed in New Zealand for around $1100 - the company has used its material in kitchen knife handles and designer spectacle frames. Just the look on a high country sheep run.

Stigma surgery

They are the hidden wounds of war - genital damage suffered by soldiers ripped open by homemade bombs and left without their manhood. Besides the horrific injury, the toll extends to stigma and shame.

Starting later this year, surgeons in the United States hope to repair these damaged men and bury their embarrassment by perfecting penis transplants - a first for the US.

Using an organ from a deceased donor, a team from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore will connect the nerves and blood vessels to the recipient. Surgery could take up to 12 hours and cost as much as $500,000.

For the transplant to work, the uretha - the tube which transports urine - some nerves and important blood vessels need to be intact in the recipient.

Doctors hope that a successful operation could mean the restoration of sexual function after several months once the recipient's nerves grow into the transplant.

The list of possible patients is large: a trauma registry kept by the US Defence Department record 1,367 young men in military service who suffered genital wounds in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2013.

Candidates for the operation will undergo psychological screening and accept a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs.

Transplants will be limited to the penis, not the testes of wounded veterans. This means men who have lost testicles may still have penis transplants, but they will not be able to father children.

Specialists say it is impossible to underestimate the role the sexual organs play in the minds of wounded soldiers, who on waking from combat surgery first will ask whether they still have their genitals.

Silent bike

Electric cars are rolling off assembly lines. The next wave could see more electric motor-bikes take to the streets.

Not small things, but machines capable of speeds to ruffle more than feathers. The bikes have been around a few years now, handicapped by a lack of charging stations, limited range and slow recharge times. These shortcomings are changing.

New battery technology means high-performance electric street machines are more than capable of footing it with their petrol-powered rivals. The electric bikes win out in the emissions game and, for those who live in quiet valleys, where Harley riders shatter the weekend peace, ebikes are disturbingly quiet.

Riders of the gruntiest electric machines compare their high-speed steeds to riding in a spaceship. Electric bikes have lower maintenance needs, though still suffer in the distance stakes, causing some owners 'range anxiety.'

Prices tend to be higher than conventional alternatives, but that could change with the signal that the German giant BMW is touting a high-performance bike, the eRR. That little 'e' stands for 'experimental', which hints that there is more to come. BMW's motorcycle division sells an electric scooter - the C Evolution - but the road bike would be another step.

Where the industrial heavyweight holds useful cards is in its global sales network, which already promotes the i3 town car and the sporty i8. The two-wheeled revolution is coming down the autobahn.

Plastic fantastic

Tucked away in Guatemala, a group called Pura Vida is making huts and school rooms from plastic bottles filled with more plastic.

The objects, called 'eco-blocks', fill the framework of new buildings the way concrete blocks would be laid. For a small developing nation with limited resources and first world waste problems, the blocks deliver on a number of fronts.

They eliminate plastic bottles from rubbish piles, and capture wrappings and bags which otherwise end up in landfill. Converting bottles into blocks requires willing hands, and using them for construction instead of factory-supplied blocks cuts down on precious energy and costly resources. In the earthquake-prone country, the bottled walls have proved resilient to tremors.

Taking dirty rubbish out of the village has health benefits too. Pura Vida estimates the average indigenous family spends about $150 a year when struck by illness caused by the handling of rubbish. Removing plastic bottles from the waste stream makes the village a whole lot clearer.

In New York, architect Mitchell Joachim, a co-founder of design firm Terreform one, is reaching for the sky with rubbish. He has produced plans for skyscrapers made of blocks of trash, including a 53-story tower made with the waste New Yorkers produce in 24 hours.