Monday, October 5, 2015

SXSW Eco 2015 - Day 1

SXSW Eco has kicked off again in the balmy city of Austin. Leaders and learners from renewable energy, eco politics, sustainable design and even the green fashion world have once again fallen upon the city's convention center to learn and network.

This year's beginning instantly divided the attendees. The keynote by Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources split those who believed that humanity must first concentrate on the problems at home before investing in space from those who believe that, to "get off rock" we have to start now.

Twitter between participants went back and forth from lavishing nerd-riddled love to the concept of space mining instead of striping our own planet to flat out declaring that an extraction introduction keynote had no place in the sustainability conference.

The rest of the day proved just as interesting.

One major highlight featured Janine Benyus a leader and charismatic speaker in the Biomimicry movement. The room was packed to the point where there were people turned away from actually attending her talk. She began her presentation with a quick jab at the introductory keynote, regarding concentrating on the problems of Earth "...way before asteroids."

Her talk was an overview of the biomimicry movement, a scientific exploration of learning valuable lessons in design and processes from those already in nature. A good example is creating swimming suits that mimic the skin pattern on sharks or creating a microscopic "net" to capture antibiotics in water modeled after naturally occurring cells. The entire room erupted with laughter at her jokes, "oohed" and "awed" at some of the discoveries and advances she highlighted and gave a standing ovation when she was finished.

Monday's sessions actually including at least one biomimicry themed panel or presentation each session, because the Biomimicry Institute not only was a key sponsor of SXSW Eco this year, but also had just finished the most latest round of their "Design by Nature" challenge. Most of the finalists where in attendance and featured in a session of the same name as the challenge. Each of the finalists that had a chance to go over their project was interesting and amazing in their own way.

One in particular, Team Penthouse Protozoa, is trying to solve, among other issues, the problem of Nitrogen and nutrient runoff for farmers. Traditionally farmers will irrigate their crops with pipes that lead excess water off their fields carrying with it the fertilizer that isn't absorbed by the earth. This eventually makes its way into the oceans and causes a horrific effect in the ocean known as "dead zones." To tackle this issue the team has taken lessons from a wide variety of sources in nature including human gut bacteria to create a semi-permeable tube which allows the water to be drained off but will leave the nutrients in the soil.

Another interesting panel highlighted cities resilience to climate change, especially drought and flooding through design. Hosted by the Natural Resource Defense Council the panel was educational on a number of factors including the fact that every time there is a major storm event in Chicago, 1 billion gallons of "poop" enter the local water ways. The conversation also covered whether it was economically feasible to try and stem the rising tide and one participant in particular seemed very interested in protecting Wall Street from being underwater.

While the entire day was filled with events including an overview of the continuing work on the hyperloop and the Department of Energy's future energy efforts (all that can be gleaned from checking out the hashtag #SXSWEco on twitter), the other major highlight was seeing the XPrize show off the winner of their latest prize, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health prize. This challenge was surrounding measuring pH levels in the ocean at various depths in order to keep tabs on ocean acidification. The team that won the grand prize had never done an ocean test on their product before the trails in Hawaii, namely because they are based out of Missoula, Montana.

As the conference moves along, the participants can continue to look forward to interesting panels and some rousing discussion on hot-button issues. Hopefully, the SXSW Eco will get a little extra room for the Biomimicry panels.

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