Case Studies

Forward Thinking

By Marta Bright, Bobbie Hartman, Kate Pavao, and Alison Weiss

May 2011

The Solar Olympics

Contestants in the Solar Decathlon are challenged to design and build houses that are powered exclusively by the sun. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the contest brings together 20 teams from engineering and architecture schools around the world. The students spend almost two years designing, building, analyzing, and testing their solar-powered houses to ensure that they can provide all the comfort of modern conveniences. The teams are judged in 10 contests to determine which house best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

“It’s the education of a lifetime,” says Richard King, director of the Solar Decathlon. “Students want to find a way to live sustainably. Over the years, they have been very inspired by this challenge and get passionate about it.”

Since the first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002, 72 solar houses have been built. The 2011 competition will be held on September 23 through October 2, 2011, in Washington DC. To learn more about renewable energy in action, go to

Read My Face: Drink This

In Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station there are vending machines that use facial recognition cameras to scan customers and link their faces to a database of demographic facial characteristics. By identifying a person’s age and gender, the machine then makes a personalized drink recommendation.

The appeal of facial recognition technology is that while it is very accurate, it’s not as intrusive as other biometric methods such as DNA testing. Japan is also embracing digital billboards that use facial recognition technology for tailored advertising, as well as pilot projects that employ walk-through facial scanning instead of passwords or fingerprints for access.

From Here to Eternity in Cyberspace

When you die, will your blog live on? As we live more aspects of our lives online, there’s a growing concern about just what happens to all those tweets, e-mails, photos, and accounts—not to mention social network pages—that we’ve created during our lifetimes.

“It’s a hard subject for people to get their heads around,” says Evan Carroll, interaction design expert and coauthor, with interaction designer John Romano, of the Website and the book Your Digital Afterlife (New Riders Press, 2010). The book is a how-to primer for securing digital assets for your loved ones and, perhaps, posterity. Internet service providers like Facebook, Yahoo!, and Twitter have widely different regulations governing access to the accounts of deceased members.

Carroll and Romano suggest making an inventory of your online assets and giving it to someone, along with passwords and instructions for what you’d like done with them. “It takes just 15 minutes, and it will save your loved ones untold hours of agony, wrestling through passwords and service agreements. A list and a conversation can help people secure the things that are important to them,” recommends Romano.

Digital estate planning also includes which blog posts, photos, or online musings are worth passing on. To learn more, go to

High-Tech Pet Detectives

Pet recovery experts Annalisa Berns and Landa Coldiron use skills and tools that go far beyond posting missing-pet fliers on telephone poles. Their methods include crime scene investigation techniques, legwork, signage, low-tech capture nets, and the skills of highly trained scent dogs.

Berns and Coldiron also employ an array of high-tech tools—including satellite mapping, night vision goggles, wildlife cameras, and snake cameras—turning pet recovery into a hard science that produces results. These gadgets provide images of the animal activity in any given area, helping determine where to place feeding stations and humane traps. GPS collars and handheld tracking devices are used to monitor their search dogs and locate them quickly in the event that they’ve become injured or separated—or have found the missing pet.

Fortunately many pets are reunited with their owners, often within the first 72 hours. In the sad event that pets aren’t recovered, forensic science can help provide closure. If a search dog picks up the scent of blood or fur, the remains can be tested to determine a DNA match.

“Pets help us all sustain a sense of well being, so our number one goal is to help people get their pets back quickly,” says Berns. Coldiron adds, “When you’re dealing with animals and their sometimes erratic behavior, your best line of defense is to get a plan in place quickly.” For more information, visit

Second Chances

New and innovative design products are conserving precious resources like water and breathing new life into everyday items that would otherwise find their way into landfill. From high artistry to a highly intelligent approach to conservation, these are some of the more-interesting offerings Profit editors have found:

Israeli artist Amir Zinaburg has taken industrial design to new heights with furniture made from crushed steel cans.

Eco-chic purse maker UrthBags has found a way to pay homage to the often-forgotten and frequently trashed paper telephone directory.

Automobile tires are notorious breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and they pose a high risk of contaminating surface water. The rubber meets the road warrior in a whole new way with these belts made from recycled radials that have done hard time on the highway.

For those who are committed to the age of digital music but still have a fondness for vinyl, the spirit of the turntable remains alive in these bowls made from old records.

Portable meets potable with this device from Element Four that draws moisture from the air and converts it into safe drinking water at a rate of up to 18.9 liters per day.

Photography by Shutterstock