By David Connor
In 1845, London solicitor Charles Pearson suggested the creation of an underground ‘atmospheric railway’ system that involved pushing trains through tunnels using compressed air. It is an idea not radically different to a modern concept unveiled by a certain lauded Mr. Musk. Pearson's original plans did not exactly take off as expected, but 170 years later the U.K.’s capital now sees over 1 billion journeys per year across its underground rail network.
Innovation is often avoided when the perception of value is diluted across multiple themes, communities and remits. Today’s volatile, uncertain and complex world increasingly demands aspirations and time-scales that we will all feel uncomfortable with. It takes pioneering, tenacious souls to begin to break away at the walls of inertia of any embedded position. As foreboding climate necessity in particular reinforces itself as the mother of innovation, we need many more and much bolder ideas being fed into the top of the solutions funnel.
With many cities now gridlocked, polluted and unsafe during working hours thanks to the domination of internal combustion propelled traffic, and traditional public transport systems creaking, plans B, C, D and all the way to Z are hitting the headlines. The glare of attention toward smarter, more sustainable cities is creating a ferociously fertile environment for exploring beyond the typical planning and technological parameters of yesterday.
Maybe the future of transport and urban centers will see variations on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, drone deliveries, driverless electric cars / taxis, cycle superhighways, maglev and hopefully even the occasional hoverboard become commonplace. Maybe a real flexible working culture may actually kick into mainstream one day and we all really can work from home. We wish.
One visionary solution explorer is Anna Hill, co-founder and the socially entrepreneurially force of nature pushing the Thames Deckway concept, and also as CEO of Synapse Space Systems. With her background in design and space technology, Hill nurtured the Thames Deckway idea along with co-founder David Nixon back in 2005, and further developed it with support from Arup and Hugh Broughton Architects.
A mere 10 years later and Hill is still forcing the debate, with a constantly refined proposal, countless hundreds of hours of focused stakeholder engagement and a reassuringly consistent growing community of supporters.
Hill suggested a wider perspective is required to understand the true possibilities beyond those currently caught up in the battleground-like attention focusing conditions on many of today’s roads. It is not just about cycling, or pedestrians, or cars, but includes bigger environmental and social impact implications. It is a given that the Thames Deckway has to be a robust and steady floating cycle and pedestrian pathway but less obvious is the integration of renewable energy harnessing, multiple sensor platforms and communications technology.
“Many current cycling improvement solutions, whilst wonderful and heading in the right direction, are painfully incremental and reliant solely on public funding. We see the Thames Deckway as an additional and complementary solution that we envisage being paid for by those who use it, and those who want this tomorrow, not 20 years away.”
Hill’s concept appears far more technically realistic on first take than Charles Pearson’s proposal, but the level of technology integration, sustainability and innovation within the Deckway are hidden from most people’s cursory glance, yet essential to making the project a reality away from the usual routes to infrastructure finance.
“First and foremost it has to work to enhance existing transport connectivity, but the added environmental and social value beyond quicker and less polluted journeys could be truly incredible. We believe the opportunity to harness and promote clean energy and improve road safety whilst enhancing access to certain areas of such an iconic river has a moral duty to be investigated thoroughly.” Hill said.
It is not difficult to foresee more than a little reluctance from financial district incumbents in their corporate temples to move away from their luxury cars, even if potentially driven by Google’s artificial intelligence chauffeurs or powered by Tesla’s batteries currently creeping into the picture. Cars will persist for some time yet. Transport for London itself unleashed its latest cycle superhighway recently, with at least one unimpressed single-fingered saluting cyclist, according to related images of Boris Johnson on the day.
Hill’s current thinking suggests a journey that circumnavigates the current traffic mayhem using the Deckway, across London, along a potential 12-kilometer length, could be as quick as 30 minutes and cost a very affordable 1.50 British pounds (around US$2.24). That is, not free nor the most direct, but it would be another commuting option, attract additional infrastructure investment, and most definitely be much better for the soul than the claustrophobic less safe roads.
Without the bold we will never achieve the great. We need tenacious sustainability aware individuals like Hill with big ideas to continue to not except the status quo and disrupt our perception of the achievable or what we can wish for. Smaller successes are absolutely necessary parts of progress, but so is exploring bigger concepts that could create step change improvements in parallel to public projects that usually arrive accompanied by increased inertia and compromise that public money bring.
Like countless other social entrepreneurs, the daily battles Hill faces thrust every ounce of personal effort available every single day into consistent incremental progress as new acquaintances are educated and won over, often one by one. Social media may have brought similar soldiers for social good together like never before but the important battles are won face to face.
"There are so many egotistical and territorial hurdles to overcome with an infrastructure project such as this, especially when we are aiming for a practical business model away from pure public funding, but we take them on one by one.
The Thames Deckway is about an innovative and independent but complimentary social and environmental solution that actually attracts additional investment, not steal it away from other infrastructure project budgets. That's why we tried to crowdfund the next stage. We don't profess to have all the answers, yet, but we do have a credible concept that ticks many priority boxes in today's urban setting.
Our team is small with much to do so we need to pick our battles and use of resources wisely. Not everybody understands our offer and proposal yet as they see only a small fraction of the picture we see as we improve our communication.
Our plans are continually evolving and our supporters continue to fuel our enthusiasm. We would love to get a prototype section up and running as soon as possible to show more people how this all works together," Hill said.
The question may not be when will London see its own Deckway opening, but more which smart city will build theirs first?
Image credit: Thames Deckway Project
David Connor is consultant and advocate for a stronger role for business in social good. He is often found sharing the best in progress on his travels via @davidcoethica.
For disclosure: David is also an advisor to the River Cycleway Consortium Ltd behind the Thames Deckway project.