Points of Progress: Foldable solar cell breakthrough, and more

Points of Progress: Foldable solar cell breakthrough, and more

Why We Wrote This

This is more than feel-good news – it’s where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.


Places where the world saw progress, for the March 15, 2021 Monitor Weekly.


March 5, 2021

1. United States

A Denver program that dispatches health care workers instead of police to respond to low-level, nonviolent incidents has completed its first six months. The Support Team Assisted Response program, or STAR, sent a mental health professional and paramedic to 748 incidents, including trespassing and welfare checks, none of which resulted in police intervention or arrests. Operators flagged more than 2,500 calls as eligible for the alternative response, representing close to 3% of 911 calls, according to STAR’s recent progress report. The program offers a more compassionate approach to policing, advocates say, keeping nonviolent offenders – who are often in need of social services – out of the criminal justice system. Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen says it also frees up officers to focus on serious crimes. Coordinators plan to expand the program by adding more social workers and vans equipped with food and blankets, and introducing weekend shifts. (Denverite, STAR)

2. Zimbabwe

A dried fruit processing center in Gokwe, Zimbabwe, is bringing financial stability to more than 3,400 farmers and helping reduce food waste. In what was once a popular cotton-growing area, farmers have had to embrace fast-growing cash crops such as mangoes to contend with inflation and increasingly erratic weather. Established in November 2020 by the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe, Gokwe’s processing plant is designed to help farmers deal with surplus mango supply.

Tony Gentile/Reuters/File

More farmers in Zimbabwe are turning to mangoes as a quick crop. Having access to a processing plant helps turn the surplus into dried fruit for income.

While gluts are common at the end of each season, the plant has been especially useful during the pandemic, as heavy rains and lockdown have led to an abundant mango crop and few buyers. The plant is run as a social enterprise with support from the United Nations trade and development agency and the European Union. Over the next few years, general manager Vernon Mushoriwa aims to set up more community-based processing centers throughout Zimbabwe. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

3. Europe

With its first astronaut recruitment drive in more than a decade, the European Space Agency is aiming to bring more women and people with disabilities into outer space. The agency says diversity is one of the main goals of its latest recruitment effort, which will accept applications for about 18 months. Only two women have been to space on behalf of ESA, and no space agency has ever opened up applications to people with disabilities, agency officials said. 

Ivan Sekretarev/AP/File

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, pictured outside the Soyuz TMA-15M space capsule on June 11, 2015, is one of two women the European Space Agency has sent to space.

Under the organization’s new initiative, the Parastronaut Feasibility Project, the ESA has committed “to invest in defining the necessary adaptations of space hardware in an effort to enable these otherwise excellently qualified professionals to serve as crew members on a safe and useful space mission.” (ABC News, Space.com)

4. Saudi Arabia

Saudi women can now serve in the military, marking the latest extension of workforce rights. The government announced plans to open the armed forces to women in 2019, but only recently has the online portal accepted female applicants. Women can serve as soldiers, corporals, and sergeants in various branches of the conservative kingdom’s military. In addition to typical weight and height qualifications, there are extra requirements for female applicants. Women entering the armed services must have at minimum a high school education, and must not be married to a foreigner. Operating systems specialist Halah Al-Ynabawi told Arab News that although women in the military has been a controversial topic for decades, she is happy to see more fields opening up to women: “In my personal opinion, it is very important for women to be in the military, where they can have an active role in our conservative society.” (Arab News, Bloomberg)

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5. South Korea

An international team of researchers based in Busan, South Korea, has developed foldable solar cells, paving the way for new solar-powered technology including smart clothing and foldable smartphones. “Unlike merely flexible electronics, foldable devices are subject to much harsher deformations, with folding radii as small as 0.5 mm,” Professor Il Jeon of Pusan National University said, adding that typical ultrathin materials “can be made flexible but never fully foldable.” Researchers were able to overcome common challenges by using single-walled carbon nanotube films, which are highly transparent and mechanically resilient; embedding the conducting layer into polyimide substrate; and introducing molybdenum oxide to improve conductivity. The resulting prototype was 7 micrometers thick – thinner than a strand of hair – and could withstand more than 10,000 folds while maintaining a power conversion efficiency of 15.2%, which is the highest ever for this type of technology. (Renewables Now, Interesting EngineeringAdvanced Science)


A few startups are looking to improve the long-stagnant wheelchair industry, bringing new technology to millions of people who use mobility equipment. Injuries from falls or tipping over are a common experience for users, but because most insurers only cover basic medical equipment, the companies that dominate the wheelchair industry have been slow to update their product designs. In Forres, Scotland, Andrew Slorance, founder of Phoenix Instinct, is reimagining the manual wheelchair for the digital age. His prototype incorporates a leveling system that automatically stabilizes the chair by adjusting its center of gravity. In Nashville, Tennessee, brothers Barry and Jered Dean have designed a product called LUCI SmartFrame with collision avoidance and drop-off detection software, which clients can install on their electric wheelchairs to avoid bumping into objects. “I wish this technology was out … when I was a kid, because it would’ve prevented a lot of accidents,” says Janette Aragon. “It’s a huge change.” (The Washington Post)

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Mark Sappenfield

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