Beyond Medals and Memes: The Olympics As Test Bed For Urban Innovation

GE CMO Beth Comstock discusses how London 2012 and future Olympic Games should be seen as labs for urban innovation as the world’s population shifts to cities.

Beyond Medals and Memes: The Olympics As Test Bed For Urban Innovation
Trey Ratcliff

The world’s future is in cities–more and bigger. At the end of 2011, for the first time ever, the majority of Chinese lived in cities, a milestone in the most massive, and still ongoing, rural-to-urban migration in history. That pattern has repeated around the world: just spend a few minutes playing with NASA’s addictive Landsat web app, which allows users to slide through “before” and “after” satellite images of cities from Las Vegas to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to see this great urbanization come alive. How will we make these growing cities work for their residents? For answers, look to one of the best laboratories we have for testing new ideas about urban design, sustainability and infrastructure–the Olympic Games.


Watching the elaborate opening ceremony at London’s Olympic Stadium, I was struck by how a few short years ago, the entire area where the Stadium and most other venues are located was undeveloped. Appropriately enough, Danny Boyle’s rollicking tour through centuries of British history, from an ancient, pastoral England, through the disruptive Industrial Revolution, up to our socially networked present served as a fitting prologue to our future: a world of bigger cities with smaller footprints, of people and machines hyper-connected, in real time, and powered by sustainable, innovative technology.

The new Olympic Village in London’s East End, a bustling city within a city, offers some examples of how future needs could be met.

Efficient, Sustainable Power

The recent epic blackouts in India show what can happen when electricity demand far outstrips supply, one consequence of urbanization and economic growth. And while innovative tech like uninterruptible power supply units can provide back-up—and are part of the GE infrastructure at the London Games—we must encourage longer-term behavior change by both institutions and individuals to help tame increasing energy demand.

London 2012 sponsor EDF Energy took smart monitoring of power usage to the next level during the Games: for example, anyone could track power usage at different venues, in real-time, on dashboards available online. EDF is further driving public awareness–key to behavior change when it comes to something, like electricity, that we all take for granted–with the London Eye and Tower Bridge lighting projects (GE is also a partner), and the Team Green Britain initiative in local schools. In the Olympic Village, where 23,000 athletes and coaches live during the Games, GE Smart Meters let residents monitor and reduce their own personal use. Even more importantly, the data generated by the connected smart meters will help organizers of future Games, along with the City of London, understand patterns of energy usage in order to more efficiently manage the system. Using data smartly is just as important a legacy as the actual infrastructure that will continue to efficiently power London long after the closing ceremony–organizers estimate that the installed Jenbacher combined heat and power (CHP) engines will provide local power for the next 40 years and reduce London’s carbon footprint by 13,000 tons of CO2 annually.

LEDs Light the Way


Just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in June, London’s iconic Tower Bridge debuted its new LED-driven lighting system: 18,000 LEDs, 1,000 junction boxes and 16,500 feet of cable that bathes the bridge in vivid, energy-efficient light, during the Games and for the next 25 years. LEDs also illuminated major venues at Olympic Park, with event light levels of 15 or 30 lux. After the Games, these lights can be dimmed to 15, 5 or 2 lux, depending on needs and in keeping with a monitored, low footprint approach.

And LEDs are a key ingredient in one of the cooler innovations showcased in London: three years ago, British innovator and then-engineering grad student Laurence Kemball-Cook invented Pavegen technology, which takes kinetic energy generated by pedestrians stepping on special tiles in the sidewalk and uses a small percentage of it to light up an LED bulb in the tile itself. The remainder of the kinetic energy–some 95% of the total amount generated by one step–is used right away to power lighting and electronic displays or saved in a battery. In London, Pavegen has been installed at one of the main transportation hubs, the West Ham station, with the energy powering LED lighting nearby for 8 hours of full power a night, and 16 hours of half power during the daytime.

Looking to the Future: the Connected, Real Time City

The digital energy innovations that are helping to power the London Games point the way to how the smart cities of the future will work: as more machines come online, the data generated will enable us to manage and operate complicated energy and transportation networks more efficiently. GE teamed up with MIT’s SENSEable City Lab to visualize the innovations and new technology that future Olympic Villages will sport, some of it already starting to become available, including:

EyeStop: the next generation of smart urban furniture. Combining sensors, interactive services and touchscreens, the bus stop of the future will give riders real time updates, community information and entertainment, while also allowing them to contribute updates and knowledge.

The Copenhagen Wheel: in addition to turning any bicycle into a hybrid e-bike powered by saved energy that is dissipated while cycling and braking, the Copenhagen Wheel also maps pollution levels and traffic conditions in real time and shares that info with other users.

Flyfire: the public art of the future will not be boring. Flyfire’s goal is to turn ordinary spaces into immersive and interactive display environments. In its first application, a large number of “self-organizing micro helicopters” containing LEDs acted as smart pixels, forming elastic display surfaces anywhere.


This is just the beginning. As we plan for the 2014 Winter Games in Sotchi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we have new opportunities to deploy the innovative technology that will make the transition to an increasingly urbanized world more seamless and imagine what’s next. Let the games begin!

Beth Comstock is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at GE.
She was featured in Fast Company’s Gen Flux issue.

Follow her on Twitter at @BethComstock.