Designing in a Polluted City

London is polluted. Very, very polluted. I should know better than most – the road I live on exceeded its air pollution targets for ALL of 2017 by 5 January, leaving my neighbourhood with another 360 days of the year to enjoy 73 times the pollution we ought to have in a year.

And it's not just in my 'hood, the problem is global - the World Health Organisation estimated that 9 in 10 people globally are breathing bad quality air. It's grim – but it's also a design challenge.

My inner designer loves the creativity of one particular proposed solution: to, essentially, use giant vacuum cleaners to scrub the air. But – lets face it – cities full of giant ‘vacuum towers' using lots of carbon to run aren't exactly a sustainable solution – and nor are they particularly scalable.

So, what can anyone who's designing products and services for cities take into consideration to make sure they help, rather than hinder, wider sustainability problems? Here are some practical ideas that I’ve come up with in conjunction with my colleagues, who have been similarly inspired our work on a range of digital mobility and health products:

Improve Public Transport

Creating any experience that shifts the public from using single-person cars towards the spectrum of shared vehicle options (carpooling, car sharing, buses, trains, cycling, walking) can help reduce congestion and emissions. There are already some great products and services that help with this (e.g. BlaBlaCar and Zipcar) but designers can also think of more subtle ways to improve the customer experience on public transportation. Citimapper’s feature that shows you which carriages on a train are the least crowded could lead to a more pleasant journey – nudging people towards using trains more frequently. We recently partnered with Transport for London to investigate how we could use mobile technology and sensor data to create efficiencies and improve customer journeys – we will be posting more information about this soon.

Controlling human demand is only one part of the equation, however. There is going to be huge opportunity to manage the supply of public transportation – delivering it only as and where it’s needed – as fleets of buses, trains and (eventually) autonomous vehicles become enabled by algorithms like Uber’s. If these are done right, they should also be able to manage emissions by creating the shortest journeys, turning off engines when not in use and by avoiding the most polluted areas when possible.

Consider Supply Chains

Increasingly, shopping online is driving up the home-delivery of goods, in turn, causing more congestion and pollution. This is especially a problem in the ‘final mile’ – getting the goods from the supplier to the customer’s home address.

To combat this, Ocado have designed an interesting feature to help customers get their deliveries at the same time as others in their local area, reducing congestion. New food retailer FarmDrop goes further, though – they’ve created (mostly) end-to-end electric vehicle supply chains that support their farm-to-table low-environmental-impact philosophy and brand.

However, this is not just a commercial problem. Our own work on Ford GoPark helps people find a place to park more quickly, reducing the amount of air pollution emitted by drivers whilst they search for that elusive spot.

Carrying excess packaging can also drive unnecessary journeys with unnecessary emissions. We’ve all received the giant Amazon box with a tiny object inside; designers should be working out these details in their systems to ensure the lowest impact of delivery. And if that delivery comes on foot or bike (e.g. Deliveroo) – even better.

Additionally, an irony for urban cycle-hire schemes is the need to redistribute the bikes overnight – often using polluting vehicles. There’s an opportunity there to rationalise the implications of supply, demand and availability: I’d love to see if we could design a smarter, greener solution.

Have Fun

ustwo is known for games and we take having fun seriously. So, I have to ask, why make so many eco-friendly products so serious? I thought it was refreshing to see Badgerscape – a game that tries to influence parents into walking over driving, by rewarding their children with levels in a mobile game.

Another attempt to make pollution issues more palatable by adding fun is Carbon Xmas, an app that quizzes users and visualises the carbon impact of their Christmas as a polluted snow globe.

Don't Wait For Policy Makers To Figure It Out

The Mayor of London, and many other policy makers globally, are worrying about this issue – but that doesn’t mean we should be waiting for them to give us frameworks or solutions to solve these problems. As we noted in our Mobility Whitepaper, cities are awesome testing grounds that anyone can access – this gives designers a chance to trial small, simple ideas early and often.

An ingenious example of this is the work Citymapper Labs are doing to link cabs with public transportation in order to drive fleet optimisation and create a great passenger experience – all without waiting around for transportation operators to make deals to enable seamless travel and data.

Another of my favourite, but admittedly not digital, examples of releasing a quick trial is TfL’s walking map – a simple map that shows how easy it is to walk between Tube stations and what a short distance it is, aiming to reduce congestion and energy usage.

I’d love to see more designers hacking with air-quality and emissions data to see what they can create. You can read about a prototype ustwo made that looked at how data could improve the electric vehicle experience here.

At ustwo we specialise in creating digital products, services and businesses that drive success – something that is underpinned by our passion for innovation and experimentation. We have specialist experience in mobility and would love to work with you to make cities cleaner and better places to live – contact us