Guests of this year’s Falling Walls Conference, last Saturday in Berlin, were given a test tube with a piece of dry plant during the lecture in which Jill Farrant of Cape Town University presented these so called resurrection plants as a real hope for the fight against hunger in the world. Other than most plants the resurrection plants can tolerate almost complete water loss from vegetative tissues. The South African researcher is determined to find the secrets behind these self-protecting properties in order to improve the resistance of crop in the African continent, where the impacts of climate change have devastating effects on agriculture and food security – and to solve one of the world’s biggest problem: hunger.
The Falling Walls Conference was first held in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and has since developed into a highly acclaimed annual platform for top international research – where top scientists present solutions to urgent problems in the world. This year, the event brought about 750 international guests to a revamped water pumping station near Berlin’s River Spree. The concept: invite the world’s most brilliant minds to discuss the “next walls to fall” in science, technology and society in talks of just 15 minutes a pop. Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty talked human rights, while Nanobiosym’s Anita Goel presented Gene RADAR, a mobile tool that can test for any disease with a genetic fingerprint “at a price a hundred times cheaper than anything else on the market today”.
Benjamin Barber from City University of New York managed to get the audience to think of cities instead of nation states. Barber proposed a new global model of governance, in which cities are the key players. According to Barber, nation states will not govern globally. Cities can. They already are. Half of the human race lives in cities and the influence of places like Mumbai, Nairobi, Sao Paulo or Manila has long transcended regional and national borders. Barber thinks that we cannot solve social problems like diseases, economic crisis or climate change on a national level. His studies show that cities have the capacity to deal with internal and external issues and could easily replace our system of nation states in the future.
Daniel Nocera conquered the guests’ attention by mentioning a simple number: “I calculated that we will need 16 Terawatt more energy to meet the demand by 2050.” With the poor in mind, Nocera has made it his mission to develop an artificial leave which, when placed in a glass of tap water and exposed to sunlight, is able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Both gases can then be collected, stored as fuel in private households and later be fed to fuel cells to generate electricity.

Further speakers at the conference included the Nobel Laureates Jules Hoffmann and Dan Shechtman, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Robert Kirshner from Harvard University, Onora O’Neill from Cambridge University, Sophia Vinagradov from the University of California and many more. In the first session, two of the world’s most successful artists, Ai Weiwei (via video link) and Olafur Eliasson unveiled their new collaboration Moon, a vast, glowing digital chalkboard. “Creativity defies boundaries”, their website reads – unhappily emphasized when access to it became blocked in mainland China within 24 hours of launch. More than 8000 viewers watched this years conference via livestream. and a recording of the conference can be found online at www.falling-walls.com/livestream. (mb)