The Energy of the Mob

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

As anyone who has ever lived in one will tell you, the population of a large city is a life-form unto itself. It jostles and shifts, moves quickly at times-such as during the morning rush hour-and slower at other times-like the middle of the night or the height of a hot afternoon. From the vantage of the street, the movement of the urban mob can feel chaotic and even fright-ening; but looked at from above, it has its own order, logic, and patterns of behavior.

Now, two students at MIT’s School of Architecture are attempting to capture the untamed energy of urban crowds and convert it into a source of electrical power. James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk call their project a “crowd farm.” It’s a series of connected floor blocks that depress very slightly when people walk, run, or jump on them, causing the blocks to move against one another. The design converts this “slip-page” into power.

The energy yield isn’t much, according to the designers: A single human step can power two 60W light bulbs for less than a second. However, a crowd of 30,000 moving to and fro could create enough electricity to power larger electrical systems, or possibly bring a subway train stuck in a tunnel during a blackout safely to the platform. The design could also come into play at large outdoor gatherings like rock concerts, where the movement of the crowd, converted into power, could be fed back into special amplifiers to make the music louder.

Graham credits the 2003 New York City blackout-which forced millions of New Yorkers out of their apartments to wander the streets in the sweltering heat-for inspiring him to begin work on pedestrian power. Jusczyk experienced a similar moment of inspiration watching Boston’s World Cup celebration in City Hall Plaza in 2006.

“The blackouts in New York and the World Cup celebration in Boston were events that had a strong influence on our work,” says Jusczyk. “However, I would not say that they necessarily led either of us to any sort of epiphany. They were events that included massive crowds that each of us found impressive and memorable. The crowds were both frightening and compelling in the way the throngs of people moved about, and the collective power of the masses of people was astounding. It wasn’t until a few years later (in the case of the blackout), or a few months later (in the case of the World Cup), when we were first brainstorming for this project, that we really started to think critically about the events in terms of energy and power generation.”

Graham and Jusczyk hope that their crowd farm idea will compel people to appreciate the tiny impacts that we have on our immediate environment, as well as how people, by simply going about their day, can create and power their surroundings.

“The Crowd Farm has a didactic element, in that we hope people will gain a better understanding of their own energy expenditure and consumption through their interaction with the project,” says Jusczyk.

-Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2007.

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