Tuesday, November 29, 2016

GUEST BLOG POST(S): Ditching Gadgets May Boost Creativity — Trevor Stokes & Why Your Problem-Solving Skills May Sharpen with Age — Stephanie Bucklin

Credit: Family walk photo via Shutterstock
By Trevor Stokes
To boost your brain's creativity, take a hike, according to new research. But consider leaving the electronic gadgets at home.

Backpacking for four days in the wilderness without toting a laptop, iPhone or other high-tech device increased the creative problem-solving skills of people by 50 percent.

The study volunteers included 30 men and 26 women (whose average age was 28) who participated in Outward Bound, a group that runs leadership expeditions for young people and adults across Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington.

Before the hikers went on their merry way, 24 of them took a creative problem-solving test. Then, four days into the hike, the remaining 32 took the same test. The test, known as the Remote Associates Test, is commonly used to assess creativity by measuring how people associate different words. For example, the researchers asked the hikers to identify a word that is connected to beans, golf and envy. The goal of the test-takers was to come up with the word "green" on their own, with no time limitation. Before the hike began, participants answered an average of four out of 10 questions correctly. Those who took the test after four days of hiking correctly answered six of the 10 questions. While a difference of two correct responses may not seem like a lot, the 50 percent improvement is meaningful and statistically significant. "This is not a small effect. This is a bases-loaded home run in terms of its effect size," said study author David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah.

The beneficial effects of nature on the mind have been known anecdotally for generations, perhaps most famously noted by author Henry David Thoreau. He spent two years living a rustic life by Walden Pond and published "Walden," his back-to-nature account, in 1854. 

Previous research has shown that exposure to nature replenishes basic brain functions like attention span, but little has been known about higher-level thinking properties, such as those involved in solving complex problems. The current study is the first measure of nature's influence on creative problem-solving, Strayer said.

"Nature seems to be one of the most effective ways to put one's mind at ease and enhance creative thinking by setting aside worries," Strayer said.

Stimuli from trees, streams, birds and the wind are softer than the jarring sounds of car horns, cellphones and other accoutrements of modern life.  As result, people aren't as distracted. And that enhances creativity, Strayer said.

Benjamin Baird, a graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara who has researched the effects of distraction on creativity, agreed.

"It is good, strong, very interesting work and a very interesting finding, but it will require some important follow-up to realize its full potential," said Baird, who was not involved in the study. Nature, he noted, may not have had as large an influence as thought. "It may well be that some of the effects have to do with interacting with a group of people over a period of time," Baird said. Plus, the hikers took the test in very different environments, which could have influenced the test results.

"It would have been nice to have had another group that had returned from a hike perform the task in an identical environment in the laboratory to see whether there was still an effect," Baird said.

Future research from Strayer will include measuring specific brain activities and stress hormones during hikes to determine how interactions with nature might affect how the brain functions.

"There's some concern that being in a modern urban environment with horns and technology constantly depletes nature's restorative properties," Strayer said. His advice: If you're going to go on a hike, don't bring your iPhone or cellphone. "Instead, try to focus on being in the environment you're in."

The study appeared (Dec. 12, 2012) in the online journal PLOS ONE.

Pass it on: A walk in nature can help boost your ability to creatively solve problems.

Why Your Problem-Solving Skills May Sharpen with Age — Stephanie Bucklin
Why Your Problem-Solving Skills May Sharpen with Age
By Stephanie Bucklin
You may get better at creative problem solving as you age, new research suggests.

Researchers reviewed more than 100 studies on problem solving and aging that were conducted from 1960 to 2016, looking at both data on people's behavior and evidence from brain scans. The scientists found that, generally, older adults' ability to focus and avoid distraction was not as strong as that of young adults' — but that this in turn may help older adults to perform better on some creativity and problem-solving tasks.

The researchers were surprised at the strength of the findings that a lowered ability to focus and avoid distraction could improve people's performance on tasks that require creativity, said Lynn Hasher, a co-author of the paper and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. This is especially surprising, she said, because the ability to focus "has previously been seen as a basic requirement for success in learning," she told Live Science.

The ability to focus does help people with some specific, goal-driven tasks, such as reading, the researchers said. For example, one study included in the review showed that, while reading, older adults were slowed down more than younger adults by the presence of certain words that were added to a passage in order to distract a reader. In addition, older adults had more trouble than younger adults in recalling key information they had read when distractors were present, according to that study, which was published in 2012 in the journal Experimental Aging Research.

However, the ability to focus does not help — and may actually hinder — people's performance on tasks that require broader attention, Hasher and her colleagues concluded. For example, in a 2016 study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, researchers gave participants a test in which they were shown pictures of faces with names superimposed over them. Although the study participants were instructed to ignore the names, the researchers tested the people on which names they remembered. 

Surprisingly, older participants were better at matching the faces to the names than the younger participants were, even though memory for faces and names tends to decline with age.

Another study, published in 2006 in the journal Psychology and Aging, similarlyfound that adults ages 60 to 75 had a better memory for "distractors" than young adults ages 18 to 30 did. In this study, participants looked at drawings with "distractor" words superimposed over them. Again, although the participants were instructed to ignore the words, the researchers tested them on whether they remembered the words. Results showed that the older participants outperformed their younger counterparts.

Together, these studies suggest that although young adults may be better at disregarding distracting information, they later have poorer recall of this information.

The researchers concluded in their review that older adults' "broader scope of attention" is better suited for tasks that require integrating larger amounts of information — such as solving problems in creative ways, or recognizing patterns over time — rather than tasks that require a narrower focus.

An area of the brain called the frontoparietal region is associated with focus, processing relevant information and disregarding distracting information, the researchers said. Evidence suggests that, as people age, this region's activity decreases, which may contribute to the reduced ability to focus and avoid distractions, the researchers said. However, this decrease in activity may allow older adults to draw on a broader range of knowledge to come up with creative solutions to problems.

For example, a 2005 study published in Brain found that participants with a single brain lesion in the front of the brain (as determined by a CT or MRI scan) were better at solving a creative math problem than participants who had no lesions in their brains. While 82 percent of those with the lesion could solve the problem, only 43 percent of participants with no lesion could do so.

The authors of the review noted that more research is needed to show whether a reduced ability to focus and weed out distractions affects everyday behavior. In addition, the boundary between older and younger adults is not concrete, and was not specifically defined in the review.

Of course, people's ability to focus doesn't depend only on their age. A positive mood, lack of sleep and consumption of alcohol can all contribute to a general lack of focus and increased distraction, so there may be more than one avenue to achieve better problem-solving, the researchers said.

Originally published (STORY 1) on Live Science and and (STORY 2)  on Yahoo News.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

GUEST BLOG POST: The Secret Of Immigrant Genius — Eric Weiner

Illustration: Skip Sterling
Having your world turned upside down sparks creative thinking

By Eric Weiner

Scan the roster of history’s intellectual and artistic giants, and you quickly notice something remarkable: Many were immigrants or refugees, from Victor Hugo, W.H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov to Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud. At the top of this pantheon sits the genius’s genius: Einstein. His “miracle year” of 1905, when he published no fewer than four groundbreaking scientific papers, occurred after he had emigrated from Germany to Switzerland.

Lost in today’s immigration debate is this unavoidable fact: An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., a nation defined by the creative zeal of the newcomer. Today, foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the U.S. population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

But why? What is it about the act of relocating to distant shores—voluntarily or not—that sparks creative genius?

When pressed to explain, we usually turn to a tidy narrative: Scruffy but determined immigrant, hungry for success, arrives on distant shores. Immigrant works hard. Immigrant is bolstered by a supportive family, as well as a wider network from the old country. Immigrant succeeds, buys flashy new threads.

It is an inspiring narrative—but it is also misleading. That fierce drive might explain why immigrants and refugees succeed in their chosen fields, but it fails to explain their exceptional creativity. It fails to explain their genius.

Recent research points to an intriguing explanation. Several studies have shed light on the role of “schema violations” in intellectual development. A schema violation occurs when our world is turned upside-down, when temporal and spatial cues are off-kilter.

In a 2011 study led by the Dutch psychologist Simone Ritter and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked some subjects to make breakfast in the “wrong” order and others to perform the task in the conventional manner. Those in the first group—the ones engaged in a schema violation—consistently demonstrated more “cognitive flexibility,” a prerequisite for creative thinking.

This suggests that it isn’t the immigrant’s ambition that explains her creativity but her marginality. Many immigrants possess what the psychologist Nigel Barber calls “oblique perspective.” Uprooted from the familiar, they see the world at an angle, and this fresh perspective enables them to surpass the merely talented. To paraphrase the philosopher Schopenhauer: Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.

Freud is a classic case. As a little boy, he and his family joined a flood of immigrants from the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Vienna, a city where, by 1913, less than half the population was native-born. Freud tried to fit in. He wore lederhosen and played a local card game called tarock, but as a Jew and an immigrant, he was never fully accepted. He was an insider-outsider, residing far enough beyond the mainstream to see the world through fresh eyes yet close enough to propagate his ideas.

Marie Curie, born and raised in Poland, was frustrated by the lack of academic opportunities in her homeland. In 1891, at age 24, she immigrated to Paris. Life was difficult at first; she studied during the day and tutored in the evenings. Two years later, though, she earned a degree in physics, launching a stellar career that culminated with two Nobel prizes.

Exceptionally creative people such as Marie Curie possess many traits, but their ‘openness to experience’ is the most important. Photo:Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Exceptionally creative people such as Curie and Freud possess many traits, of course, but their “openness to experience” is the most important, says the cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania. That seems to hold for entire societies as well.

Consider a country like Japan, which has historically been among the world’s most closed societies. Examining the long stretch of time from 580 to 1939, Dean Simonton of the University of California, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, compared Japan’s “extra cultural influx” (from immigration, travel abroad, etc.) in different eras with its output in such fields as medicine, philosophy, painting and literature. Dr. Simonton found a consistent correlation: the greater Japan’s openness, the greater its achievements.

It isn’t necessarily new ideas from the outside that directly drive innovation, Dr. Simonton argues. It’s simply their presence as a goad. Some people start to see the arbitrary nature of many of their own cultural habits and open their minds to new possibilities. Once you recognize that there is another way of doing X or thinking about Y, all sorts of new channels open to you, he says. “The awareness of cultural variety helps set the mind free,” he concludes.

History bears this out. In ancient Athens, foreigners known as metics (today we’d call them resident aliens) contributed mightily to the city-state’s brilliance. Renaissance Florence recruited the best and brightest from the crumbling Byzantine Empire. Even when the “extra cultural influx” arrives uninvited, as it did in India during the British Raj, creativity sometimes results. The intermingling of cultures sparked the “Bengal Renaissance” of the late 19th century.

In a 2014 study published in the Creativity Research Journal, Dr. Ritter and her colleagues found that people did not need to participate directly in a schema violation in order to boost their own creative thinking. Merely watching an actor perform an “upside-down” task did the trick, provided that the participants identified with the actor. This suggests that even non-immigrants benefit from the otherness of the newcomer.

Not all cultural collisions end happily, of course, and not all immigrants become geniuses. The adversity that spurs some to greatness sends others into despair. But as we wrestle with our own immigration and refugee policies, we would be wise to view the welcome mat not as charity but, rather, as enlightened self-interest. Once creativity is in the air, we all breathe a more stimulating air.

—Mr. Weiner is the author of “The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.” 

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal

Saturday, November 12, 2016

GUEST BLOG POST(S): Your Craziest Ideas Are The Ones That Matter Most — Tanner Christensen

By Tanner Christensen 

What’s the craziest idea you’ve ever had?

What made the idea feel so crazy to you? Was the idea too before it’s time? Too ambitious? Was it something far out of reach or something others wouldn’t understand?

If you’re like most people, you left the idea behind somewhere, didn’t you? You abandoned it once you realized just how crazy it seemed. We all abandon ideas that seem too crazy. But how often do you reflect on what makes these types of ideas crazy to begin with? More often than not, when faced with an idea we feel is too radical or too distant, we abandon it. Of course once the idea is gone, there’s no way to prove or disprove the craziness of it.

Without pursuing these ideas, we must face the possibility that our expectations and reservations about them may very well be unfounded. Wrong, even. What we believe to be crazy, out of reach, or impossible, may feel so only because we haven’t tried to make them anything but out of reach, impossible, and crazy.

Here’s the thing: most crazy ideas are rarely as unrealistic or unachievable as we make them out to be.

Some ideas, the ones that come mostly from imagination with little foundation in reality, are obviously too wild to become a reality (you can’t invent a machine to instantly zap you across outer space because the technology and knowledge to do so simply isn’t up to the task, yet). But other ideas, the ones we dream up in the middle of the night, or after a long conversation with a close friend, or when we feel defeated after a long day of school or work, those ideas are typically within our reach, despite our inclination of them being too crazy.

All it takes to shift a crazy idea into being a good one is a bit of energy, ambition, and continued curiosity. We must explore the map of our ideas if we’re to understand where they might take us.

I’m talking about those times when we find ourselves asking “What if?” Or when we stumble on an idea by accident only to say “This could never work.” We owe it to ourselves to get answers, to pursue the what-ifs, and to see if our ideas could work. If not for a definitive answer, then at-least for the energy of living a life well lived, well explored. When we pursue our ideas we discover things about ourselves and life we otherwise may never have stumbled on.

Selling your art in an online store, opening a real storefront in your favorite city, selling everything and traveling the world, whatever your crazy idea is: odds are it’s not as crazy as you might think. It only feels crazy because you’ve never pushed through it. A yellow watermelon seems like a crazy idea until you try it and realize it tastes like a normal watermelon, it’s just colored yellow. Supporting yourself through your creations or ideas can seem crazy, but what if it works? Would you take the risk and benefit from fulfilling the idea or gaining new knowledge around it?

We can’t expect to know whether or not an idea is absurd without first exploring it, because we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

When confronted with the crazy idea of using a hot air balloon to race around the globe, which no one had ever done before, Virgin founder Richard Branson used his personal mantra of “Screw it, let’s do it” and ended up setting a world record. (Branson’s life seems to be a series of acting on crazy ideas instead of running away from them, as he explains in his short biography of the apt title Screw It, Let’s Do It.)

Elon Musk, when faced with the crazy idea of creating a commercial company that would launch rockets into space, didn’t let anything stand in his way. The company he founded as a result of his pursuit, SpaceX, is one of the leading space companies in the world. To get here, Musk had to be willing to pursue the crazy. As explained in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance: “Musk has his version of the truth, and it’s not always the version of the truth that the rest of the world shares.”

Of course your crazy ideas don’t have to be as ambitious as breaking records or changing the future of the world. Even the small, crazy ideas can be immensely valuable if pursued.

The problem with many of our fears around “crazy” ideas is that the fears often come from only what we know, never what we don’t know. To live a more creative life we must not abandon our craziest ideas, but instead lunge forward with them tightly in our grasp. As Steve Jobs once famously said:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Here’s to the crazy ones.

Imagine Someone Else With Your Ideas In Order To See Them Through — Tanner Christensen

By Tanner Christensen

Your challenge is this: the next time you find yourself faced with an idea — wondering “what if?” — go ahead and imagine what might happen if someone else approached you with the same idea, in its final form. Imagine them showing you exactly what you were going to do. How might you react? Would you be jealous? Frustrated with yourself? Is the feeling of seeing someone else build your idea enough to motivate you to carry the idea forward yourself?

Finding the motivation to see our creative ideas come to fruition can often be daunting, particularly when the idea is something we’ve never tried before. But if we can change our perspective and imagine a world where someone else took the risk, and what might happen when they do, that can be just enough to get us moving on the idea. Enough to take a small risk, or plan out next steps, anything to push the idea toward reality.

Imagining the idea as belonging to someone else also frees us up to envision how they might create it differently. Maybe they have more resources available than we do, in which case we can get a signal for what things we might need in order to really push the idea through. Or maybe the person we envision moving the idea forward does something more bold than we’d be comfortable with. Seeing the idea come to fruition — and whether or not it’s successful in our eyes — might be enough to help motivate us to see it through, and it also helps us better understand the potential of our idea.

Now think of that solution this other person showed you. What do you think of it?

If you find it interesting, but otherwise useless, that’s a good sign the idea needs more thought and attention to make it useful.

If it’s something you would cherish or enjoy and really feel connected to, that’s a good sign the idea is worthwhile.

If the idea is something that you, even alone, would honestly be interested in—even if it came from another person—at least then you know that pursuing the idea can do something for yourself. That alone can be fulfilling, but it’s also likely that it will be appealing to others too.

If you struggle to imagine anyone else coming up with your idea, an easy way to see what it might be like is to ask a friend to present the idea to you. Ask them to present it as though they had come up with the idea in the first place and followed it through, to make it a reality. Not only will doing so help you envision what the idea might feel like in reality, it can also help spur a new understanding of the idea itself, as your friend is likely to add their own twists and perspectives to it when they present it to you.

More often than not, we believe that ideas are ours, unique to us, and that imagining them coming from anyone else can feel like a betrayal. That isn’t true, and sounds silly when we think of it that way, but the notion of our unique ideas coming from anyone else can be just enough to block us from moving them through the idea stage to the execution one.

As a result: we sit by idly daydreaming about what could be, what we might be able to accomplish, or whether or not our ideas are worthwhile. But imagining someone else coming up with and executing on your idea first can help overcome that initial stage of stickiness.

Originally published (ARTICLE 1) and (ARTICLE 2) in Creative Something 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

NEWS POST: Scientists Develop New Type Of HIV Test On A USB Stick

UK scientists have developed a USB test (pictured) which can detect levels of HIV in a drop of blood. The disposable technology could help patients to monitor their own treatment and produces an accurate result in just 30 minutes
Scientists in Britain have developed a type of HIV test using a USB stick that can give a fast and highly accurate reading of how much virus is in a patient's blood.

The device, created by scientists at Imperial College London and the privately-held U.S. firm DNA Electronics, uses a drop of blood to detect HIV, then creates an electrical signal that can be read by a computer, laptop or handheld device.

The researchers say the technology, although still in the early stages, could allow patients to regularly monitor their virus levels in a similar way to diabetes patients checking their blood sugar levels.

It could be particularly useful in remote settings to help HIV patients manage their treatment more effectively, since current tests to detect virus levels take at least three days and involve sending a blood sample to a laboratory.

"Monitoring viral load is crucial to the success of HIV treatment. At the moment, testing often requires costly and complex equipment that can take a couple of days to produce a result," said Graham Cooke, who co-led the research from the Imperial's department of medicine.

"We have taken the job done by this equipment, which is the size of a large photocopier, and shrunk it down to a USB chip."

The test, which uses a mobile phone chip, requires a drop of blood to be placed onto a spot on the USB stick. Any HIV in the sample triggers an acidity change, which the chip transforms into an electrical signal. This is sent to the USB stick, which shows the result on a computer or electronic device.

The diagnostic test generates an electrical signal which can be read by a laptop or handheld device, so could potentially be used by people in remote areas
Published in the journal Scientific Reports, results showed the stick test was 95 percent accurate over 991 blood samples, and the average time to produce a reading was 20.8 minutes.

Some 36 million people worldwide are infected with the human deficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and the majority of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Current AIDS drugs, called anti-retrovirals, reduce virus levels in a patients blood to near zero.

But in some cases the drugs stop working - sometimes because virus has developed resistance to them - and the first sign of that would be a rise in a patient's so-called "viral load".

Virus levels can't be detected by routine HIV tests, which can only show whether or not a person has the virus.

Originally published in Daily Mail UK and in Reuters 

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

NEWS POSTS: Turning Sun Into Water In Parched Rural Morocco & Vast Moroccan Solar Power Plant Is Hard Act For Africa To Follow

In the Moroccan farming village of Tafoughalt solar panels have been installed to pump water from the ground, as rains dry up ©Fadel Senna (AFP)
In the arid mountains of eastern Morocco, people know the value of water all too well.

"Every drop is like gold. It should almost be measured by the carat," said local activist Najib Bachiri.

Eight hundred kilometres away in bustling Marrakesh, negotiators are this week thrashing out the details of a landmark global agreement designed to stave off disastrous climate change.

But in Tafoughalt, a little village deep in the mountains of Morocco's Berkane province, that impact is being felt already. Rising temperatures are among the factors making the rains increasingly unpredictable.

As a consequence, life for the residents of Tafoughalt -- who largely survive on subsistence farming -- is becoming harder than ever.

"Here, the farmers work on small plots that are barely enough to feed their families," says Bachiri, head of campaign group Homme et Environnement ("Man and Environment").
The group is working to reverse an exodus from the mountains as people seek easier lives elsewhere.

Bachiri says local problems feed into each other; isolation makes life difficult, which encourages people to quit the countryside. Abandoned fields lead to land erosion, which in turn also spurs on the exodus.

And in the background, there is the constant shortage of water.

An agricultural crisis in rural Morocco has seen many people leave the region, while those that remain have embraced modern technology ©Fadel Senna (AFP)
- Smuggling crackdown -
"For their fields, in the absence of electricity farmers rely either on rainwater or on pumping groundwater with diesel-powered generators," says Bachiri.

Until recently, fuel for the generators was at least available cheaply thanks to rampant smuggling from across the nearby Algerian border.

But Algerian authorities have cracked down on the illicit trade since 2013, leading to a tripling in prices -- from 10 (US$11) for a 30-litre (eight-gallon) can to 30.

And to make matters even worse for the fuel-reliant farmers, the Moroccan government has called a halt to diesel subsidies.

"Small-scale farmers here have not been able keep up, which has aggravated the agricultural crisis in these isolated villages and encouraged people to leave," says Bachiri.

But a simple solution is making a big difference: using the sun from above to draw up what's underground.

- Cheaper and cleaner -
With the help of local funds and international donors, Bachiri's group has installed two solar water pumps in the mountains of Tafoughalt.

Two rows of black solar panels, two metres (2.2 yards) across and 10 metres long, are connected to a generator which feeds a pump extracting water from underground.

The equipment is durable and low-maintenance. The sunlight is unlimited in supply, but carries none of diesel's downsides in terms of pollution and ill-health.

"Solar energy is so much better," says 60-year-old local farmer Mahta Allal.

"The pumping is weaker in winter or when it's cloudy. But it's good for us when the sun is there -- it can double the pumping and irrigation."

Siddiq, who has guarded the local well for 17 years and as such is in charge of the community's water-sharing arrangements, said the new system was far more convenient.

"Before, you had to go and collect fuel from very far away," he said. "It was very tiring -- and then there was the noise, the fumes, mechanical problems. Today it's much better with the clean solar energy."

The price of an hour's irrigation has gone down by 75 percent, from 50 dirhams (US$5) to 12.5 dirhams.

"It encourages agriculture," says Siddiq. "Even if you don't have a lot of land, at least you'll be guaranteed a harvest to eat."

Solar energy alone won't be enough to solve Tafoughalt's perennial water shortage. "That's why we've installed tanks to collect river water, and we're also working on installing technology to make the use of water more efficient," said Bachiri.

But he said 450 farmers were already using the two solar pumps to water 100 hectares (250 acres) of crops.

"Some farmers are coming back to the village to work the soil again -- it's a good sign," he said.

NEWS POST: Vast Moroccan Solar Power Plant Is Hard Act For Africa To Follow

Unlike Morocco, some nations in Africa find it hard to attract investors to green projects
A thermosolar power plant is pictured at Noor II near the city of Ouarzazate, Morocco, November 4, 2016. Picture taken November 4, 2016. Reuters/Youssef Boudlal
* Morocco's Noor solar plant will be among world's biggest
* Many African nations focus more on off-grid solar panels

On the edge of the Sahara desert, Morocco is building one of the world's biggest solar power plants in a project largely funded by the European Union.

It is a hard success for other African nations to match as they seek to implement a new global deal to combat climate change.

The huge 160-megawatt first phase of the Noor plant near the town of Ouarzazate contrasts with efforts by some other nations focused on tiny roof-top solar panels to bring power to remote rural homes.

At Noor, curved mirrors totalling 1.5 million square metres (16 million square feet) - the size of about 200 soccer pitches - capture the sun's heat in the reddish desert.

Morocco is showcasing Noor before talks among almost 200 nations in Marrakesh about implementing a global deal to combat climate change that entered into force on Nov. 4 - a day when the Saharan sky was unusually overcast with spots of rain.

"We hope we can be an inspiration," Mustapha Bakkoury, head of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), told Reuters. Many African nations are pushing to boost economic growth to end poverty, while seeking greener energies.

The gleaming concentrated solar power plant is not economically competitive with cheaper fossil fuels, but is a step to develop new technologies as prices for solar power fall sharply.

"Unfortunately for many, it's thought that renewables are to have a light bulb or light a school ... This is to get away from the caricature of renewables," Bakkoury said.

Morocco aims to get 52 percent of its electricity from clean energy such as wind and solar by 2030, up from 28 percent now.

Once completed, Noor will cost €2.2 billion (US$2.45 billion) and generate 580MW, enough power for a city of almost 2 million people. Morocco aims to expand at other desert regions to 2 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2020 at a cost of US$9 billion.

On the sprawling site, south of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, workers clear ground with diggers, build concrete pillars or clean off Saharan dust that dims sunshine. In Arabic, Noor means light.

By contrast in East Africa, M-KOPA Solar has installed 400,000 tiny rooftop solar panel systems costing US$200 each on homes in the past five years to provide power for light bulbs and a radio. That completely by-passes the grid.

M-KOPA Chief Executive Jesse Moore, whose company focuses most on Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, said rooftop solar systems were a breakthrough for Africa, where half the 1.2 billion people lack electricity.

He noted that Tesla founder Elon Musk was trying to sell solar systems to U.S. homes.

"Elon Musk is trying to get people to leap off the grid in California. Over here on the other side of the planet this is happening already," he told Reuters.

Unlike Morocco, some nations in Africa find it hard to attract investors to green projects, part of global efforts to limit climate change and more floods, heat waves and droughts that are a big threat to Africa.

"Morocco is particularly suited for a large-scale project. It may not be suitable for all other countries," Roman Escolano, vice president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), told Reuters.

The European Union including the EIB has funded about 60 percent of Noor. Masen issued Morocco's first green bond, of €106 million, on Friday to help finance Noor.

Apart from sunshine, Morocco has had relative political stability in recent years and a predictable legal and banking system, helping it attract investors.

Even so, Morocco has had a week of street protests after the death of a fishmonger, crushed to death in a garbage truck in a confrontation with police, in one of the biggest and longest challenges to authority since the 2011 Arab Spring.

Unusually for a desert, Morocco has water from the Atlas mountains to help clean off dust. And in some countries, power lines from remote parts of the Sahara could be vulnerable to attacks - Noor's pylons have red spikes to discourage intruders.

At Noor, the sun's rays bounce off the mirrors, heat a fluid that in turn heats a vast tank of molten salt that can drive a turbine to generate electricity even after dark.

Originally published (STORY 1) in AFP/Daily Mail UK and (STORY 2) in Thomson Reuters Foundation