It’s a cold morning in San Francisco and I’m in an Uber wishing I’d had time to rent a bike. We’re meandering slowly through commuter traffic to get to a talk with what now feels like the toughest audience I have ever faced. I’m talking about the 321 five to 11-year old students of North Hillsborough School, a respected primary in the suburbs of this great city. As CEO of a UK clean-tech company, Pavegen, I suddenly feel exposed and nervous. Will the slides work on the school’s set-up? Do I have any jokes for this age group? Will the kids get it?
I needn’t have worried. The children and their teachers were amazing. We’ve had a good deal of experience in schools, but I’m always blown away by the intensity of the reaction that our technology inspires in young people.
Working with our digital partners Tribal Planet, also based in the Bay area, we constructed a ten-square metre walkway of our latest V3 energy-harvesting tech. The modular system of triangles, which picked up a 2017 SXSW Smart Cities Innovation Award, converts the kinetic energy of footfall into off-grid electricity and data via electro-magnetic generators. We work with many leading companies and cities, including recent projects with Google in Berlin and building the world’s first smart street with TFL in London.
To share data and reward interactions, our system has integrated Low Power Bluetooth beacons, which connect to smartphone apps. But with personal devices banned during school-time, for this demonstration, we deployed a large screen next to the walkway. This gave the students instant feedback, displaying how much off-grid electricity their movement generated. It wasn’t long before their steps became jumps and stamps, and their faces lit up as they could see the impact that their efforts were making.
Having tried out the tech, it was time for the kids to come into the assembly hall and listen to what the strange Englishman had to say. My approach was to go back to basics. The fragility of our small planet. The huge environmental challenge we face and why we need to work together. These were smart kids, and no doubt many of them had parents working in the tech field who would be familiar with these issues. At this point, most were listening.
But it was when I started to talk about the opportunities that building smarter cities of the future will deliver, that I knew I had them. We’re going to need all their skills – from engineers, to designers to storytellers. Everyone can play a part. And that’s the beauty of our technology. It’s highly engaging and simple to understand, even if it’s been complex to develop.
So my journey back into the city was much better. We were driving in a hybrid car against the traffic and I was thinking about those eager faces in the audience at North Hillsborough. To build that better future, we’re going to need all their talent. We need those 5 to 11 year-olds. They are tomorrow’s smart-city super heroes.
Laurence is a thought leader and speaker at various technology and entrepreneurship events worldwide; his TEDxBerlin talk was featured amongst TED’s top talks on envisioning the cities of the future and changing attitudes to fossil fuels. Additionally, he was the youngest CEO of a delegation of leading British companies, joining the Prime Minister, David Cameron, on a state visit to China.