Now Playing: Tomorrow, Today

Television has rarely predicted good things for the city. Since The Twilight Zone, it’s been one prime-time dystopia after another, with urbanites plagued by Orwellian despots, harrowing pollution, or, worse, killer robots. Not so at the Discovery Channel, whose new 14-part documentary series, NextWorld, insists that the coming decades will be bright, sustainable, and, above all, teeming with innovation (what one producer affectionately calls “gee-whiz techie stuff”). The program, which premiered in August, features dozens of inventors, including two of Metropolis’s 2007 Next Generation competition awardees: Civil Twilight, the four-member design collective behind lunar-responsive streetlights, and Elizabeth Redmond, whose PowerLeap floor tiles transform energy from footsteps into electricity. For the show’s executive producer, Rob Cohen, they were obvious additions to the program. “We’ll always walk, and there’ll always be the moon,” he says. “It’s an optimistic thought that there are technologies that can harness energy sources we won’t run out of.”

Both projects make cameos in an hour-long episode about the cities of the future, airing this month. By 2050, the earth’s population is expected to swell to nine billion, 75 percent of which will inhabit urban areas. “Obviously, the dystopian view is it only creates problems for cities,” he says. “The opposite view is that it creates all kinds of interesting solutions to make cities accelerate at what cities need to do.” The program offers a world in which 500 million streetlamps fade and brighten as the moon waxes and wanes, slashing their ener­gy usage by as much as 90 percent, and the daily trudge from subway to office powers block upon block of urban infrastructure. “Imagine an entire train station with a PowerLeap floor,” a voice-over says excitedly. “Imagine PowerLeap gyms and Power­­­­Leap dance clubs.”

Actually, the technology required to make good on such breathless predictions already exists. Lunar-resonant streetlights rely upon readily available dimmable LEDs and photo-sensor cells. PowerLeap draws on piezoelectricity, a phenomenon discovered more than a century ago whereby common materials like quartz and ceramics convert applied stress into electrical energy; the same effect has given us L.A. Lights shoes. The obvious question, then, is: If the raw goods are at the ready, why aren’t these contraptions on every street corner?

Chalk it up to age-old barriers. Redmond needs $2 million to research storage and distribution and to reduce design costs. Civil Twilight is learning, as designers always do, that much of planning for the future involves navigating the bureaucracies of today. “The way municipalities work,” says Anton Willis, a member of the collective, “it’s just kind of slow and entrenched, and often there are long-term contracts for power and component supplies that in some cases discourage going for extra energy effi­ciency.” And yet Cohen, ever the optimist, insists, “It’s just a question of our collective will. Do we want to make this happen? Absolutely.” How soon might our collective will catch up to reality? Stay tuned.

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