Human Powered Utopian Thing

This entry is partially a test a my ability to communicate my favorite kind of idea; which is to say, one that spans multiple disciplines, and has nested purposes–meaning that it has a benefit or utility in the most immediate, micro-level sense, and also ties in to benefit on successive larger frameworks or goals. In this case, it’s a mechanical device, a pedal-power or otherwise human-fueled machine. For example, a pedal-power electrical generator. Pedaling is not, i think, the best choice, but it is the best known and iconic example.

So what happens if you plunk down a pedal power generator on a sidewalk in a city and let people use it, and give them a reward for doing so? And why would you want to do this? Let’s take a look at some categories of users in the target market, and some facets of human nature and physiology.

First, keep in mind that the human hardware set is a legacy product that hasn’t been significantly updated since its ca. 50,000 years ago distribution. How the analogy breaks down with regard to software and firmware revisions is up for debate (I’d say software, widely revised frequently; firmware, not so much). But the upshot is that, to the best of our knowledge, we are basically an outlandish civilization mod running on a hunter-gatherer console. In the interest of brevity for the quick-witted and the uninterested, suffice to say the human prototype runs around a lot, eats hunter-gatherer food, thinks about hunter-gatherer stuff (food, family, friends, predators, competitors, weather, story/myth/news, god[s], space and time; or something like that), and has a very direct, hands-on interaction with its world, whereas the modern human has to worry a lot about getting too fat, about getting enough selenium or whatever, about worrying itself, and generally has a somewhat more abstract interaction with the cause and effect results on one’s own life (balanced any spreadsheets lately?).

Target 1 is a ‘homeless person’, a street bum, urchin…{insert your label of choice here}. It is interesting to me that the people who, for various reasons, have chosen to most overtly eschew the dominant paradigm of civilization are the least respected and most inherently illegal in their everyday existence. We know that in the United States, psychological conditions are prevalent among the homeless, ranging from relatively commonplace conditions such as depression and chemical dependence to extreme schizophrenia and other severe disorders. The condition of and prognosis for this category of citizen is not good currently, in that the structure as we know it now tend to create a downward current which is hard to escape, and the methods of subsistence in this mode, consisting largely of begging for handouts and digging through garbage, are time-consuming/labor intensive, and further damage both the individual and the image of such individuals as useless, alien, and repulsive.

Yet, it should not be neglected how much effort and ability to survive is required to maintain such an existence, and I suspect it is in many ways strongly analogous to that of the hunter-gather, although sorely lacking in key beneficial characters of the hunter-gather experience, as are we all. Thus I do not believe it is initiative that is lacking in most humans, but mechanisms for effective action. Further, one of the simplest and most effective therapies for improvement of mental health is plain old exercise. Whereas lack of physical activity can contribute to a downward spiral of malaise and depression, initiation of even the most mild exercise routine, such as a daily walk around the block, can have a compounding positive effect to aid in an upward cycle of improvement. Physical activity is a mental health bootstrap.

Enter the street-side utility generator with positive feedback and reward.

This device converts human power into something generally useful, such as electrical power. The amount of electrical power a human can generate by mechanical action is minuscule next to the scale of current consumption via the municipal power grid to which we are accustomed, but nonetheless can have significant utility when thoughtfully applied in a small-scale, all-DC system that is highly localized, such as a portable device charging station or an LED art piece. But the power generated or the artistic beautification provided is just part of the puzzle. Additional benefit to society which is difficult to quantitatively predict, comes from the physiological benefit to the user doing the power generation. Diet and exercise are the two most powerful health factors which can be readily controlled by an individual, and offering everyone who walks by the opportunity to improve their psycho-physiological health while feeling a sense of purpose and contribution in doing so could be a much more cost effective investment than existing systems for treating only the symptoms and results of high risk factor living. Further incentivization is applied to this system in two ways: by creating a game or system of feedback which provides the user with a record or score, virtual distance traveled, high speed etc… that can be tallied and compared either individually, in teams, by location or other criteria; second, by providing a direct reward for work performed, such as a short-term food voucher to be redeemed for good, wholesome food, or any number of other creative solutions such as a photograph, transmittance of a unique email, postcard, or phone call, or even coupons or vouchers for clothing or lodging. In this model it behooves the system for the device to be viewed as an aesthetic improvement to a neighborhood, to the machine’s environs. If for example the machine is a beautiful kinetic sculpture that requires human power to make it go, then every time a person gets on that machine and powers it they are seen as doing something of immediate benefit to that area of the city, that section of street, and that benefit is shared directly by local businesses. In the ideal implementation, businesses would be clamoring to have a human power generator on their block, and offering to support it directly by offering their goods or services to be dispensed from the machine as a reward for use.

Target users 2 and 3 are the tourist and local resident. The tourist or visitor is a person looking, seeing and experiencing a city from an outside perspective. They are curious and interactive, wanting to see and to do, particularly those things that are unique or special to a given locale. Therefore I envision the tourist happily willing to donate some physical effort, try something different, to feel a part of the local community for a moment and generally just have a good time. I envision a group of tourists, one or two of which pedal while the others take pictures, and then realizing they have almost pedaled their way to a free item, go a bit longer, and a bit longer, maybe even have a friendly competition, then off they go vouchers in hand to the local business where they end up doing some shopping in addition to redeeming their prize.

User 3 is the local resident. The local user is one who thinks it’s cool to have this sculpture/charger device in their area and patronizes it because a)they simply like it and possibly enjoy the activity as well, getting exercise and watching people go by, b)they directly benefit from the activity–‘dang, my cell phone died, better charge it up’; ‘dang, i’m starving, but forgot my wallet’; ‘hey, i’ll go out for a run and get a tea and send a text or tweet while I’m out but won’t have to carry my wallet or cell phone’; and c)they become invested in the gaming aspect of the system, and wish to accrue more points for their self/team/location, etc…

Given these hypotheticals and scenarios, the device itself can be broken down into a few very doable components, and it remains only to choose some particulars from existing technologies and some cost benefit analysis for implementation of a functional machine.

Optimal design specifics:

1 Human power in: pedal, row/pull, stair-step, teeter totter, hand crank, etc…

2 Power output and storage: electrical or mechanical power storage via batteries, capacitors, raising a weight, flywheel, etc…

3 Power management: electronics control of voltage, current with universal outputs to charge user devices and to power the machine’s subsystems

4 Wireless/wired connectivity: wireless preferred for simplicity; remote administration, networking and recordkeeping, possibility for communication link provided to the user

5 User interface display

6 Immediate output/aesthetics: examples: a simple streetlamp; a color-changing flywheel persistence-of-vision-based reader board; a kinetic, rotating sculpture of illuminated and counter-rotating interlocking parts that must be ‘charged’ by the user and then gradually performs its kinetics for all to see; a van-de-graff generator that makes mini blue lightning bolts of static electricity, a transponder that sends and receives a signal from passing or geosynchronous satellites, the Intl. Space Station, etc…; a camera and photo printer

7 A printer or other system to dispense tickets/vouchers, or, alternatively a paperless system such as a digital pic which is sent instantly to the vendor offering the prize

8 Microcontroller brain of the system

Subscribe & Connect


, ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply