Signals: "Octobot" ... Norway's Warming Fossils... Top Futurist Think Tanks... and more

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Volume 1,
Number 8
February 16, 2015

Octobot: Octopus-Inspired Robot Could Accelerate Ocean Exploration

Darting through water like a child’s deflating balloon flies through the air, a new octopus-inspired robot promises to accelerate ocean research and development.

Most underwater vehicles are streamlined to reduce drag, but the octobot developed at University of Southampton draws inspiration from cephalopods, which expand their bodies with water that they then quickly expel in order to propel themselves.

Scaling up the size of the prototype robots could enable oceanographers to equip them with instrumentation or other payloads.

Source: University of Southampton

Reference: Gabriel Weymouth (University of Southampton), Vignesh Subramaniam (Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology), and Michael Triantafyllou (MIT), “Ultra-fast escape maneuver of an octopus-inspired robot,” Bioinspiration and Biomimetics (Vol. 10, No. 1), published February 2, 2015. doi:10.1088/1748-3190/10/1/016016

Signals: biomimicry, engineering, oceanography, robotics

Why Global Warming Has Archaeologists Scrambling

Ancient arrowheads, wooden shafts, and even shoes are starting to turn up in a once-frozen landscape, but archaeologists in Norway are not necessarily rejoicing. As ancient snow patches begin to melt—the ice and snow that protected such artefacts for millennia—there may be little time to sort and preserve these pieces of the past.

Today’s Norway is too hot in the summer and dry in the winter for permanent snow patches and glaciers to form, and those that are there now have survived in small dots tucked away from the sun’s heat and the wind’s power. As the climate changes, however, these small, ancient snow patches are disappearing at an alarming rate, according to scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Geologists are using georadar to measure the thickness of glaciers and snow patches, as well as GPS technologies to track movement (glaciers are moving masses of ice and snow, while the snow patches are stationary).

The researchers have found that some of Norway’s oldest snow patches—5,000 years—are actually glaciers and are now thinning. This makes them more vulnerable to the elements and more likely to disappear, leaving whatever they once protected also exposed and vulnerable.

The loss of the snow patches will also have an effect on wildlife such as reindeer, the scientists warn.

Details: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Signals: archaeology, climate change, ecosystems, geology

Growing Pains for Solar Power: Report from Timothy C. Mack

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative in the Hawaiian Islands would seem to be the poster child for the increasing market penetration of solar power. KIUC has quintupled utility-scale solar capacity over the past year, but the path to the cutting edge has not been an easy one.

As MIT Technology Review contributing editor Peter Fairley recently reported, KIUC’s growth problems are related to power fluctuations and the need for back-up generators powered by diesel or gasoline, as well as to the failure of the utility’s lead-acid battery banks. KIUC is trying again with lithium-ion batteries, which are now rated for four to six times as many cycles and can absorb any excess solar power generation that might occur, Fairley reports.

The lesson here is that foresight tools will always have a useful role in accurate technology assessment and adoption analysis, especially concerning the systemic impacts of new technology applications in new settings and configurations.

Timothy C. Mack is the managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. This report was adapted from the Foresight SIGNALS Blog. Image: Courtesy of Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

Futurists and Foresight in the News: Ranking the Think Tanks

Future-oriented think tanks dominated what has become like the Academy Awards for public policy analysis. When the 2014 edition of the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report was released in January by University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, U.S.-based Brookings Institution took home the prize as the top think tank in the world, followed by the U.K.’s Chatham House.

Prepared by program director James McGann, the report highlights challenges and trends facing think tanks worldwide, including decreased funding from private and public donors, along with donors’ focus on short-term issues, and growing competition from advocacy groups for the attention of both policy makers and the public.

Though most think tanks have an implicit mission to improve the future, some groups, like the RAND Corporation and The Millennium Project, have been pioneers in developing and applying foresight techniques in their analysis of issues critical to the future. Among the future-oriented think tanks honored in the 2014 report are:

  • RAND Corporation: #7 in Top Think Tanks Worldwide and #6 in U.S.; #1 in Best Transdisciplinary Research Program; #2 in Defense and National Security; #2 in Education Policy; #2 in Domestic Health Policy; #3 in Social Policy; #4 in Global Health Policy; #4 in Science and Technology; #5 in Energy and Resource Policy; #6 in International Economic Policy; #6 in Most Significant Impact on Public Policy; #7 in Domestic Economic Policy; #9 in Foreign Policy and International Affairs; #19 in International Development; #30 in Environment
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: #10 in Top Think Tanks Worldwide and #5 in the U.S.; #2 in Transdisciplinary Research Program; #4 in International Development; #8 in Foreign Policy and International Affairs; #14 in Most Significant Impact on Public Policy; #27 in Defense and National Security; #5 in Think Tanks to Watch
  • Pew Research Center: #7 in Top Think Tanks in the United States, also earning high rankings for use of media (#1), use of the Internet (#3), and advocacy campaign (#7).
  • World Resources Institute: #15 in Top Think Tanks in the United States; #1 in Environment; #2 in Energy and Resource Policy; #9 in Transdisciplinary Research Program
  • Resources for the Future: #34 in Top Think Tanks in the United States; #9 in Energy and Resource Policy; #11 in Environment; #18 Best New Idea or Paradigm
  • Hudson Institute: #31 in Top Think Tanks in the United States; #41 in Foreign Policy and International Affairs; #58 in International Development; #65 in Defense and National Security
  • Worldwatch Institute: #35 in Top Think Tanks in the United States; #3 in Environment
  • Information Technology & Innovation Foundation: #49 in Top Think Tanks in the United States; #2 in Science and Technology
  • Canada 2020: #30 in Top Think Tanks in Canada and Mexico and #59 in Think Tanks to Watch
  • Institucion Futuro (Spain): #137 in Top Think Tanks Worldwide and #72 in Western Europe
  • The Millennium Project: #6 in Best New Idea or Paradigm. The report did not specify a particular new idea or paradigm, but The Millennium Project has recently developed the Global Futures Intelligence System (GFIS), which certainly merits note.

The Best New Idea or Paradigm by a Think Tank was one of several special achievement categories added in 2013 (along with best conference, best collaboration, best use of social networks, and others), giving the peer nominators and reviewers more opportunities to highlight outstanding work by the world’s cadre of professional thinkers.

Source: Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program

Signals: institutions, public policy, think tanks