John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
These insoles would let wearers produce electricity and feed it into the grid.
The average American takes nearly 2 million steps each year. What if there was a way to turn this plodding into renewable energy?
That's the idea behind "Step," a shoe conceived by 22-year-old Vancouver design student Taylor Ward. Inspired by his city's goal to become the greenest urban area on the planet by 2020, Ward has drafted an ambitious blueprint for kicks that could help support the grid. The key ingredient: newfangled insoles that would produce electricity via tiny piezoelectric generators and capacitors (the same pressure-reliant tech that could let your butt power an office desk).
That's just the beginning of Ward's grand vision. When people build up enough juice in their shoes—and Ward believes they could make "over 100W with every step"—they find a transfer station where they stand to release it into wireless charging pads. (A hypothetical pad is shown in the above video made using a variety of design sources.) The energy would be funneled to homes, office buildings, and schools. To maximize traffic at these stations, Ward would place them at popular spots like mass-transit stations, parks, concert venues, and in the stands of hockey arenas.
Ward believes his hometown is the perfect place to test out electro-sneakers. He writes:
Vancouver is one of the only North American cities that does not have a major highway cutting through its center. This has caused our city to develop a high density of urban living and nomadic culture. Within our core, there are 13,000 residents per square mile, the highest in Canada. Additionally, for the millions that are just outside the city, there are 48 skytrain stops that all lead downtown. So what if we could use our crowded streets of commuting passengers to our advantage?
And he believes that such shoes wouldn't cost too much more than a sweet pair of Nikes. "Normally piezoeletric sensors are quite inexpensive. The difficult part comes down to the capacity that a small capacitor (or series of capacitors) could hold and the cost for those parts," he emails. "In the end, I would assume that the wearable itself would still be moderately priced, but the real cost would come from transfer stations. Similar charging stations using inductive charging do exist, but to impact a full city with these stations would be the larger investment from city council and urban planners."
It's a laudable concept, if perhaps wide-eyed in certain areas. Ward sees people giving their personal energy loads to homeless shelters and children's hospitals—perhaps after being incentivized by offers of free coffee or movie tickets—whereas I see people hacking their shoes to recharge phones and personal devices. His designs for a companion app that, among other things, would steer Step wearers to marathons and pub crawls, also assumes people have lots of spare time to pump legs:
Still, Ward has garnered the attention of judges at the Intel-sponsored Interaction15 conference, where Step is listed as a finalist in student-built wearable tech. He's been invited to travel to San Francisco in February to fight for top place, which might help nudge pedestrian power plants toward a viable future.
"A huge goal behind my wearable was to define what a wearable means and [how it] is perceived, and the relationship it can create between city and society," he says. "In saying that, I believe Step is possible with current technologies, but I would need to discuss with engineers about its capabilities, limitations and its build."