Is the World Ready for a Radical, Low-Cost Housing Boom?

The next housing boom will be far more radical than the last housing boom. Instead of moving middle-class families into McMansions they can’t possibly afford, this next housing boom will be radical because it will take low-income families from developing markets and move them into affordable, modular housing at a price point close to $2,000 per home. (Yes, that's the total cost of the house, not the monthly mortgage nut). Imagine every family in the world – even those making less than $2 per day – suddenly having potential access to sturdy, affordable housing. Oh, and did I mention that this housing will be powered by the sun? Eventually, these innovations from developing markets will find their way into developed markets, and that will lead to a radical re-think of what’s possible for the lowest strata of American society.


In other words, if you thought "affordable housing" was a code word for welfare, then think again.

Technology visionary Bill Gross, who created the legendary Internet incubator IdeaLab, is now the chairman of WorldHaus, which wants to house the world's poor. As he outlined in his presentation at the United Nations’ Social Innovation Conference last month in New York City, his audacious vision is to create an affordable housing boom in places like India – 200 new houses by the end of this year; 2,000 new houses by the end of 2013; 20,000 new houses in 2014; and 1,000,000 new houses by the end of the decade. Talk about the power of exponential thinking. In January 2012, WorldHaus created the first prototype home in Chennai, India and the plan is to roll them out to low-income areas across India before taking them to other emerging markets.

This idea of low-cost innovations making their way from emerging markets into developed markets is one that has already disrupted the laptop market and the automotive industries. Nicholas Negroponte, with his vision for One Laptop Per Child, gave us the idea that a world-class computer could be made available for under $100. The Tata Nano inspired us to think that a world-class automobile could be made for a fraction of the cost of Western autos. Now, how about a house for under $2,000? It’s classic Bottom of the Pyramid-type thinking, and it’s already yielding results in industries that matter deeply to the developed world, from healthcare to technology. 

The mission of WorldHaus is all the more fascinating, given that Bill Gross does not intend to compromise on home quality. This is not the case of replacing sticks and muds with better sticks and better mud, it's about coming up with something radically different. His own experiences in India, where he was leading a solar power initiative, humbled him. He saw that his workers were returning home to the equivalent of shanty towns and realized that nations like the U.S. could do better when it came to housing the world's poor. What Gross wanted was a no-compromise solution that would be safe, efficient and cheap – cheap enough that it would be perceived as within the budgetary constraints of the world’s Rising Billion. In other words, it had to be available at a cost of $10 per month. To get to that magic price point, there was a lot of thinking about materials, about shipping costs, and about how technology could come up with innovative new solutions - such as solar panels for the home's energy needs.

What remains to be seen is if and when these housing innovations will make their way into developed markets. IKEA, which popularized the idea of low-cost modular furniture has inspired its own version of a low-cost modular house (the Aktiv), now available for less than $100,000. We are also seeing the arrival of affordable "shipping container homes" made from recycled freight containers. Who knows? Maybe instead of plunking down a cool half-mill for a place in the suburbs during the next housing boom, we’ll be plunking down the equivalent of a month’s salary for a place that will last a lifetime. That truly is a radical idea.

image: The first WorldHaus community

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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