Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You, me, technology, pattern breaks and unleashing the power of the market: Think Copenhagen Wheel

World Streets rarely gives in to "technical fix" solutions to our dual challenges of wrecking the planet and our cities staying stuck in hopelessly outmoded 20th century patterns and actions - because we know for sure that the answer lies not in the deus ex machine of technology but above all within ourselves. But hold on for a minute - let's have a look and give some thought to . . . the Copenhagen Wheel (nice name!).

Anything that works.

As we look around the mournful Nordic battlefield this morning, at the strewn bodies, broken hopes, and hastily retreating figures and CO2 streams that will soon have been all that remain of COP15, we have every reason to be ready to look hard at any and all ideas that may hold out promise for the future, for the near future, no matter how few, no matter how strange at first glance.

So today let's relax a bit and ponder something developed by a group of technology heads at MIT, which, surprise!, brings us right up before the necessary path to behavioral change -- a most obdurate challenge as we have been seeing in Copenhagen these weeks. Still there are times when technology can help us, not only do things differently but also to do them better. To help us make, one by one, more sustainable choices. That after all is what sustainability is all about.

So let's have a gander at the Copenhagen Wheel, an interesting playful, and idea-ful, example of how this can work. And oh yes!, let's not stop there.
MIT’s big wheel in Copenhagen

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —Dec. 15, at the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, MIT researchers debut the Copenhagen Wheel — a revolutionary new bicycle wheel that not only boosts power, but can keep track of friends, fitness, smog and traffic. Though it looks like an ordinary bicycle wheel with an oversized center, the Wheel's bright red hub is a veritable Swiss army knife's worth of electronic gadgets and novel functions.

"Over the past few years we have seen a kind of biking renaissance, which started in Copenhagen and has spread from Paris to Barcelona to Montreal," says Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT SENSEable City Laboratory and the Copenhagen Wheel project. "It's sort of like 'Biking 2.0' — whereby cheap electronics allow us to augment bikes and convert them into a more flexible, on-demand system."

The first goal of the Copenhagen Wheel project is to promote cycling by extending the range of distance people can cover and by making the whole riding experience smoother so that even steep inclines are no longer a barrier to comfortable cycling.

Toward this end, the Wheel can store energy every time the rider puts on the brakes, and then give that power back to provide a boost when riding uphill or to add a burst of speed in traffic.

"The Wheel uses a technology similar to the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System), which has radically changed Formula One racing over the past couple of years,” says Ratti. "When you brake, your kinetic energy is recuperated by an electric motor and then stored by batteries within the wheel, so that you can have it back to you when you need it. The bike wheel contains all you need so that no sensors or additional electronics need to be added to the frame and an existing bike can be retrofitted with the blink of an eye."

"Our city's ambition is that 50 percent of the citizens will take their bike to work or school every day," says Ritt Bjerregaard, Lord Mayor of Copenhagen. "So for us, this project is part of the answer to how can we make using a bike even more attractive."

But there are also a variety of extra functions hidden within the hub of the Copenhagen Wheel. By using a series of sensors and a Bluetooth connection to the user's iPhone, which can be mounted on the handlebars, the wheel can monitor the bicycle's speed, direction and distance traveled, as well as collect data on air pollution and even the proximity of the rider's friends.

"One of the applications that we have discussed with the City of Copenhagen is that of an incentive scheme whereby citizens collect Green Miles — something similar to frequent flyer miles, but good for the environment," says Christine Outram, who led the team of MIT researchers.

The project also aims to create a platform for individual behavioral change.

"The Copenhagen Wheel is part of a more general trend: that of inserting intelligence in our everyday objects and of creating a smart support infrastructure around ourselves for everyday life," says Assaf Biderman, associate director of the project. “For example, the Wheel has a smart lock: if somebody tries to steal it, it goes into a mode where the brake regenerates the maximum amount of power, and sends you a text message. So in the worst case scenario the thief will have charged your batteries before you get back your bike."

The initial prototypes of the Copenhagen Wheel were developed along with company Ducati Energia and the Italian Ministry of the Environment. It is expected that the wheel will go into production next year, with a tag price competitive with that of a standard electric bike. According to Claus Juhl, CEO of Copenhagen, the city might place the first order and use bicycles retrofitted with the Copenhagen Wheel as a substitution for city employee cars as part of the city's goal to become the world's first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

* Click here to play video

The Copenhagen Wheel team at MIT is composed of Christine Outram, Project Leader, Rex Britter, Andrea Cassi, Xiaoji Chen, Jennifer Dunnam, Paula Echeverri, Myshkin Ingawale, Ari Kardasis, E Roon Kang, Sey Min, Assaf Biderman and Carlo Ratti. The project was developed for the City of Copenhagen in cooperation with Ducati Energia and with the support of the Italian Ministry for the Environment.

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Now what happens?

What about this? Let's assume this is something that really can be developed into a serious sustainability tool, so now what?

Let's assume that the goal – I am correct in this? – is to make the strongest possible contribution to a sustainable planet and more livable cities – what is the best, the fastest, the most powerful way in which this idea can be put to work.

Have no doubt about it, if the product really does fill a market niche, there will be industrial groups that will reverse engineer it in a few days and be able to put their own versions on the market before our MIT colleagues figure out what they are going to do next September. This brave new world, the global economy, and the forces of the market will see to that.

So, now what?

The editor

PS. Is there anyone who is brave enough to explain to our MIT friends about the perils of weird CaptALIZation? We need to save the planet AND preserve our languages. ;-)

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