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Existing city infrastructure can be ‘reprogrammed’



To unlock the full potential of our cities and solve pressing problems, we must re-imagine the existing urban infrastructure, says Scott Burnham. 

Across the world, innovative solutions to urban needs are emerging from new uses for existing structures and systems. Officials are joining hands with engineers and corporate research and development teams to improve access to essential resources like water, energy and sunlight, and increase social and environmental wellbeing, by reimagining the potential of the resources they already have. They are reprogramming the city.

Take Lima. For those living on the edges of Peru’s capital, access to clean drinking water is a problem. Small wells supply most of the water, which one resident describes as “unpleasant and polluted”, and in the summer “there isn’t much available”.

Engineers at the local University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) decided to tackle the issue by making innovative use of two of the city’s more abundant resources: its humid air (which can reach 98% humidity), and the billboards that reach into it. They installed a humidity collector and water purifier into the top of one advertising structure in the village of Bujama, creating the UTEC Water Billboard. It can produce 96 litres of clean drinking water a day for local residents, which flows down a pipe to a tap at the base of the structure.

Resident Francisco Quilca says it has provided him and his neighbors with a new, pure water source, and wishes it could exist “on the door of every house, in every village.”

Funded through the college’s Ingenuity in Action initiative, the project aims to inspire children in the area to pursue engineering studies at the college, exploring alternative approaches to urban infrastructure. Nader Tubbeh, digital marketing co-ordinator at UTEC, hopes that, by perfecting such innovations, young engineers could “help undermine the water crisis currently affecting the world”.

Seven thousand miles away, the residents of Umea, a city 300 miles north of Stockholm in Sweden, spend six months each year with little access to another precious natural resource: sunlight. This can take its toll on the mental and physical health of the population. What the city does have, however, is plenty of busses and bus stops – popular winter destinations for people seeking shelter from the elements…

Local energy company, Umea Energi, saw an opportunity in the intersection of the need for sunlight and for shelter. It replaced the lights in the shells of 30 bus stops around the city with UV light therapy tubes powered by solar energy, transforming the bus stops into “therapy saloons… to give the people of Umea an extra energy boost when they needed it the most”, as the company said in a video about the project. While waiting for the bus, residents are invited to face the lights for a few minutes to soak up the equivalent of natural sunlight rays before continuing on their journey. After the installation of the light therapy bulbs, the use of public buses in Umea increased by 50%.

The motorways in and around Los Angeles may not seem like the most fertile ground for this kind of urban repurposing, but for artist Stephen Glassman, they have a unique potential. Glassman is the creator of Urban Air, a project that aims to replace the advertisements atop the structures that line and extend over some of America’s most polluted roadways with miniature bamboo forests to cool and clean the air. The project, explains Glassman, “recontextualises what we’ve seen to this point as a blight of advertising”. Instead, these sites become “an infrastructure for service and interconnectivity”.

Time is a great decider of what stays and what disappears from the urban landscape. As technology and social behaviour changes, so do the physical elements of the city. Changing media habits led to the disappearance of newspaper boxes. Phonebooths and emergency call sites have given way to the mobile phone – but these skeletal structures offer a space for innovation, bringing new social and economic value. With the rise of the Internet of Things – in which everyday objects are embedded with sensors and wifi-enabled – there’s no end to the potential of urban objects to network and exchange data.

In New York, a partnership between the city and two telecommunications companies, Cisco and City 24/7, has seen 250 phone boxes repurposed as information point touchscreens. The business model replaces advertising for coins: a person might tap on the screen to find the way to the nearest park, and also be alerted to a few offers from local shops and restaurants, which can be stored on their smartphone. The information points can also act as communication tools during emergencies. If this pilot is successful, all of the city’s 12,500 payphones could be replaced. In Vienna, Telekom Austria has found another use for hundreds of its disused phone booths – by converting them into electric car charging stations. Drivers have the option to pay from their phone via SMS.

Parking payment machines are next on the list of ‘endangered’ structures, ripe for reprogramming. These iron sentinels are rapidly being replaced by smartphone apps that allow GPS location-specific payments. Yet look inside any parking payment machine and you will find a networked wifi system, a computer, printer, GPS locator and a payment authorization system – all powered by a solar system and storage battery. That’s a tremendous amount of capability that could be used for more than just issuing us with bits of time on pieces of paper.

City Tickets, by designer Mayo Nissen, is one idea that seeks to expand the functionality of parking pay machines. Earlier this year, at the Boston Society of Architects BSA Space Gallery, Nissen demonstrated a prototype of a Boston parking payment machine, reprogrammed to connect to the city’s 311 incident reporting system, creating a street-level communication platform between residents and the city hall. Residents can now pay for their parking and print out a list of all the faults or incidents reported in the area – potholes, broken streetlights – as well as a report from the city authorities detailing how they are responding to each issue, making governance more transparent. A separate ticket, which allows residents to report incidents in the area or offer suggestions for improvements – perhaps benches for sitting on, or a weekly local market, can also be printed.

Back in New York, numerous scaffolding structures, aka ‘sidewalk sheds’, can be left standing for years – the result of a local law that requires regular inspection of building facades. The law states that the structures must be erected for the inspection, but it doesn’t clarify when they must come down. Brooklyn designers Bland Hoke and Howard Chambers saw an opportunity to rethink these structures, having been inspired by the way the city was rethinking its streets. “We recognised how New York City streetscapes were changing with the addition of chairs and tables, and how the city was turning streets into pedestrian plazas”, says Hoke, “so we took that concept and grafted it onto sidewalk sheds.”

The result was Softwalks, a kit of seats, benches, counter tops and planters that bolt onto existing scaffolding structures to transform them into spaces for social gatherings or personal relaxation. The various elements that make up Softwalks, says Hoke, “are very pragmatic additions to these otherwise mundane structures, but the impact they’ve had so far is pretty tremendous in terms of how people react to them. Everyone loves it, because you are transforming a eyesore into a community asset.”

This citizen-led transformation of scaffolding structures into platforms for public events, street trading or pop-up dining could be a model for more public engagement with existing urban structures. It could even encourage the authorities to add a new chapter to the New York City Street Design Manual to nurture these interactions.

At present, this fairly standard municipal catalogue offers few surprises in its detailing of the “policies and design guidelines…for the improvement of streets and sidewalks throughout the five boroughs”. Yet deep within the guide is a section titled Infrastructure: Do It Yourself Repairs, complete with Specifications for Residents Installing their Own Sidewalk, and guidelines for Sidewalk Maintenance and Repair by the public. The notion of DIY Infrastructure Repair begs the question: if residents are encouraged to install and repair their own sidewalks (within certain guidelines), what other pieces of urban infrastructure could be opened up by the city within a framework of repair and improvement?

Cities are celebrated as terrains of infinite possibility – a perspective mostly applied to their human potential, but also true of the structures, systems and services that underpin urban lives. But cities also face tough challenges: from population growth and congestion, to emissions targets and economic competition. As existing resources come under pressure, there will be rewards for innovators who can stretch their applications in new directions.

Scott Burnham has created and directed design and urban initiatives in major cities worldwide, including Boston’s Reprogramming the City exhibition. This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures published by Forum for the Future.

Further reading:

Our future cities will have to be smarter and more resilient

Green versus grey infrastructure

We need expert problem-solvers to build the cities of the future

Saving the Earth with sustainable cities: infographic analysis

Livin’ (Sustainably) in the City


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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