One small step
Every step you take could be a powerful experience.
London-based industrial designer Laurence Kemball-Cook has developed smart floor tiles that convert kinetic energy from footsteps into electricity and data.
Jeremy Liebman, Pavegen, Silvia Izquierdo, AP Photo, Picture Alliance, iStock
27 April, 2020
“You motivate people to keep making progress by creating rewards systems, offering immediate feedback, making abstract values tangible”
You can’t buy charisma. But you can design it. Interview by interview, performance by performance. Which is how things went for Laurence Kemball-Cook, the creator of Pavegen. He gave himself a complete makeover during the past nine years, going from geeky garage engineer to the impeccably dressed, cosmopolitan ambassador of an appealing, sustainable startup.
The idea at the root of his company is as simple as it is brilliant: turn the force of a human footstep into electricity. This intriguing approach quickly created a stir, and today Kemball-Cook markets Pavegen as an enthusiastic one-man show so engagingly that many see in him the next Elon Musk – a rock star of digitalisation.
Even when he founded Pavegen way back in 2009, Kemball-Cook was no awkward techie. Despite his claims of having locked himself away in his tiny London digs for around three years while tinkering with the technology behind Pavegen, for Kemball-Cook, who holds a degree in industrial design and technology, one thing was always paramount – fun. Or more precisely, the philosophy he derived from the concept of fun.
He calls it the “gamification of life,” explaining:
“You motivate people to keep making progress by creating rewards systems, offering immediate feedback, making abstract values tangible.” He aims to generate a new awareness of resources and individual responsibility – but in a playful way rather than by wagging a finger.
Kemball-Cook, now 32, and while Pavegen has become success story, that story started with a dismal failure. As a student at prestigious Loughborough University, Kemball-Cook’s work included research for a European energy company, which then awarded him his own project. The task was to design urban street lights as a closed system powered by renewable energy.
“We operated like a kind of ninja clan within the company,” Kemball-Cook recalls. Naturally, the team first looked to the established resources using wind and sun. “Our ideas were ambitious and expensive,” Kemball-Cook says. He recommended investing heavily in special LED manufacturers and external research contracts – and the company gave him free rein. But after six months, reality caught up with the visionary.
None of Kemball-Cook’s carefully thought-out designs were viable and the project went south. “Wind and solar energy are simply not suitable for powering the systems in a large city reliably long-term. Urban canyons are shady and buildings block the wind. We gave up and I left the company with my head hanging.”
Too late to save the project but just in time to perhaps change the world, inspiration struck while he was waiting for the underground at London’s Victoria Station. London’s Tube stations at rush hour are like beehives, buzzing with human activity and energy – well during normal circumstances anyway. What if you could harness that energy and transform it? The idea behind Pavegen was born.
Inspiration struck while he was waiting for the underground at London’s Victoria Station, which at rush hour are like beehives, buzzing with human activity and energy
The Pavegen team developed a three-sided model with a wheel in each corner, where a single step generates up to 200 times more electricity than the square our prototype
So, with rekindled enthusiasm, he set about implementing it. “Once I had built the prototype, I had to find suitable sponsors as fast as possible.” As a typical millennial with the attitude that visionary thinking and pragmatism need not (and indeed must never) be mutually exclusive, he thought: “Anybody can design something. But designing it so that it can be reproduced infinitely – that’s the mark of design success.”
Laurence Kemball-Cook is not a patient person. He had no appetite for spending years knocking on doors or buying the implementation of his vision by forking over 70 percent of his profits to some big-time player. That was when he discovered his talent as a salesman and struck gold with bold guerrilla marketing tactics. “A handful of business angels who believed in us provided the first four million pounds,” he says. “We went into production.”
In 2016, another milestone was achieved supported by a crowdfunding initiative, and its success surprised even the ever-optimistic Kemball-Cook. Starting from what was then a square floor tile with a single, footfall-activated flywheel in the centre, the Pavegen team developed a three-sided model with a wheel in each corner. “With that, a single step generates up to 200 times more electricity than with our prototype.”
Considering the practical applications in shopping centres, airports and pedestrian zones, the triangular model also means less wasted space; the individual tiles mesh together with no gaps, almost like a honeycomb. It uses an innovative click system that’s easier to maintain, generates fewer costs and comes with a 20-year guarantee. This is good news that’s silencing critics one by one. The ‘gimmick’ originally unveiled with great fanfare at technology and light art festivals has now evolved into a viable building block of tomorrow’s smart cities.
Bird Street, just off Oxford Street with its nonstop bustle of foot traffic, is London’s first smart street. During 2017 pedestrians were able to generate energy for street lighting, sounds and data collection, thanks to Pavegen. Several metres’ worth of Pavegen surface were installed near the White House in Washington, D. C. in 2017, along with another area in a shopping mall on the outskirts of London in spring 2018.
The first public installations were along the lines of a PR demonstration, such as the layer that was placed under soccer turf in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas so the players could operate the floodlights themselves – though they still required a boost from solar panels on the surrounding buildings’ roofs. Nowadays, project by project, Pavegen is taking on ever more practical forms. In 2018 Kemball-Cook signed a memorandum with technology giant Siemens in an effort to expand his global footprint even further with the company’s help. The collaboration will target airports and hospitals.
“Some day, we hope to offer Pavegen for the same price as regular flooring,” Kemball-Cook says confidently. For quite some time, he has been using lectures and podium discussions to preach about the ‘Internet of Beings’ as a more advanced iteration of the Internet of Things. Kemball-Cook still firmly believes in motivation through gamification.
A layer of tiles was placed under soccer turf in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas so the players could operate the floodlights themselves
Over 200 sites in 30 countries currently feature Pavegen panels
“That’s why Pavegen was well accepted from the outset,” he says. “Because seeing the immediate results of your actions is fun.” You take a step, a light goes on. You walk along a Pavegen surface and you can decide via an app where the energy you are generating goes. Want to light up the facade of your favourite café? Or donate the power to a good cause? “Using a permission- based system to reward people for their footsteps is our goal for the months to come,” Kemball-Cook explains.
Pavegen’s designers are working flat-out to deliver ever more digital benefits and there is no end to their ideas for ways to use the product. After all – and this could be a crucial help with the planning of whole smart cities in the future – Pavegen systems contain lowpower bluetooth beacons which transmit data about movement patterns, providing an idea of peak times for foot traffic and consumer behaviour. Another possible next step is the automotive world. Theoretically, vehicles could use the Pavegen principle to generate many times more energy with the pressure they create when stopping on the road surface.
Over 200 sites in 30 countries currently feature Pavegen panels. Pavegen’s latest projects include working with Transport for London and New West End Company to create the world’s first smart street and partnering with Google to create the world’s largest energy and data harvesting array in Berlin. The real estate company Globalworth commissioned Pavegen to construct two energy-harvesting walkways at its high-tech green office in Bucharest, Romania. And in Las Vegas, the British company is a partner of Bleutech Park, a six-year, $7.5 billion project to construct a sustainable mini-city featuring automated multifunctional designs, renewable energy, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence (AI).
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