Welcome to Centered.tech

Hello! Welcome to Centered.tech, a new newsletter from the Energy News Network about technology and its potential to help solve the world’s most important challenges.

I’m Katie Pyzyk, a journalist based in Chicago. Much of my work has focused on technology, sustainability, and equity, and those elements will be the pillars of my coverage here, especially where they intersect.

Weekday afternoons, I’ll share stories and insights from my city and others across the Midwest about innovative businesses and entrepreneurs with missions that go beyond just making a quick buck from the latest viral product or service.

I’ll spotlight sustainability-minded entrepreneurs like Joanne Rodriguez, who is working on a fungus-based innovation to leach toxins out of construction and demolition waste. I’ll also introduce you to people advancing equity like Andre Johnson, who is launching a platform called LiveEquipd to help people with disabilities easily find quality supportive equipment. And you’ll hear about efforts like The Mom Project, which is using digital recruiting and skills development to get women back into the workplace after having a child.

I recognize we are starting this conversation during a time of stress, uncertainty, and rapid change. While the coronavirus pandemic has left much of the economy at a standstill, it also creates an opportunity to glimpse how innovation is helping the world progress to the other side of this crisis.

Thanks for joining the Centered.tech conversation and feel free to reach out with questions, feedback, and story tips to katie@centered.tech, or on Twitter @centereddottech.



Row, Row, Row Your Bot

The Chicago River once served as an industrial dumping ground, but public, private and nonprofit groups have made concerted efforts over the past couple decades to clean it up. One section of the river along the traditionally industrial Goose Island is getting extra treatment as the area transforms into a tech-forward commercial zone. The Wild Mile Chicago project launched there nearly three years ago for water and land restoration and to create a mile-long floating eco-park.

I recently talked to Nick Wesley, co-founder of nonprofit Urban Rivers, whose organization has been an integral part of the Wild Mile. He told me about another project his team is working on to clean up the river in conjunction with the Wild Mile: Trash Robot, which the project team affectionately calls “Trashie.” Wesley brought up an interesting point about tech equity when he mentioned that the trash-corralling robot is designed so anyone, anywhere can remotely control it from their computer or mobile device, at no cost.

Users navigate the robot by watching a live video feed from a camera on the floating platform and position Trash Robot over pieces of garbage in the river, which are drawn into a hopper. Urban Rivers recently added geofencing, video feed improvements, and a more robust and buoyant platform for the robot to sit on, following observations from trials over the last year and a new round of funding that ended in January.

Wesley noted that barriers such as location, finances and time constraints prevent many people from taking part in traditional river clean-ups. But Trash Robot users have an environmental impact by picking up river debris for just a few minutes, from anywhere, and for free, which “breaks down the barriers and anyone can participate,” he said.

Wesley explained that Trash Robot is not – and might never be – truly complete; it evolves as the team learns lessons from its use. The intention is to keep a keen eye toward accessibility for all users as future versions are designed.

Another goal is for other entrepreneurs across the world to be inspired by and build on the Trash Robot technology. “This telepresence of robots and being able to control them in real time in nature, that idea is just getting started, and there are a lot of other ways this could develop,” he said. That opens the door for releasing trash robots in underserved neighborhoods, which increases visibility and the probability of citizen participation.

Help me tell more stories like this about how people are using technology to try to make the world a better place. I want to hear about the innovators and entrepreneurs in your backyard who are applying their tech passion to sustainability and equity. Please send tips and feedback to me at katie@centered.tech, and thanks for reading!

Other stories we’re watching:

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