Social Innovation

What are the designs of the year?

Emma Batha
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Social Innovation?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Innovation is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


When American entrepreneur Mick Ebeling read about a Sudanese boy whose arms had been blown off in a bombing raid he travelled to the Nuba Mountains with a 3D printer and made the teenager a robotic prosthetic.

For the first time in two years Daniel Omar was able to feed himself.

But Ebeling, founder of Californian non-profit Not Impossible, did not want Project Daniel to be just about helping one boy.

Multiple protracted conflicts in Sudan have left an estimated 50,000 amputees, many of them children.

“If we could teach the locals to do it themselves the project could live long after we left – and it did,” Ebeling says in a video about the project.

His team left two 3D printers in a hospital in the mountainous southern region after training locals in the technique. Since then they say the lab has produced one arm a week. 3D printing makes products by layering material – plastic in this case – until a three-dimensional object is created.

The project to build the world’s first 3D prosthetic printing lab features in a new exhibition in London showcasing the year’s best designs.

One of my favourites comes from Vietnam, where an architect has created some stunning houses that double up as giant plantpots.

Vo Trong Nghia Architects wants to reintroduce the big tropical trees that once covered Vietnam into the city – albeit on the tops of houses.

Houses for Trees is an attempt to offset some of the effects of rapid urbanisation in cities like Ho Chi Minh City where just 0.25 percent of the area is covered in greenery. The architects say the gardens could help combat serious air pollution caused by the southern city’s heavy use of motorbikes and reduce the risk of flooding by acting as storm water basins.

Dual use buildings also feature in Waterbank Campus, a project in central Kenya where architects are developing a secondary school campus which harvests, stores and filters large volumes of rainwater providing clean drinking water for children as well as water to irrigate agricultural land.

Another project that caught my eye was a toilet which could prove a life saver in slums without running water or sewers. The unit has a built-in filtering system allowing it to recycle seven litres of water a day for flushing and washing hands. Urine and faeces are collected in self-sealing containers that can be removed and taken to a plant where the contents are converted into fertiliser.

The toilet, which has been trialed in Uganda and Kenya, aims to reduce the number of people – 1.8 million every year – who die from diarrhoea due to poor sanitation.

But perhaps the prize for sheer ambition should go to a teenage diving enthusiast Boyan Slat whose dream is to remove millions of tonnes of plastic waste from the sea.

Oceancleanup – billed as the largest cleanup in history – plans to use a network of long floating barriers that work with currents to push plastic towards a platform where it can be gathered and compressed ready for transport.

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Emma Batha is a journalist specialising in humanitarian crises and women’s rights.

Image: Robots are seen at the “Hannover Messe” industrial trade fair in Hanover. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How the right legal frameworks can catalyze a social enterprise surge

Isis Bous and Allison Laubach

June 4, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum