If we were a truly efficient people, we’d spend much less time trying to find outlets for our chargers and more time designing new ways to source energy. We’d attach lithium ion storage pods to harvest kinetic energy from our running sneakers, or maybe we’d install bigger versions to the wheels of taxis or an airplane’s turbines. No source would be too small: Even rats could carry little battery packs that turn energy from scurrying into free Wi-Fi signals for passengers in subway tunnels.
Those are just a few of the ideas designer Damon Ahola kicked around when he came up with roughly 20 ways to harvest energy from movement for his School of Visual Arts masters thesis. Ahola, who now works as an interaction designer for Frog Design, imagined everything from “hacked couture” (clothes that could also harvest energy from our bodies) to “harvest labs,” in which individuals might be able to “pirate” energy off of public infrastructure, like moving buses.
“I used to run at the treadmill at the gym, and I saw all these people running on belts,” Ahola says. “It didn’t really make sense to me that we were expending all this energy, but treadmills were consuming all this energy at the same time. So I started delving into the potential of energy harvesting.”
One of Ahola’s most intriguing concepts looked at turning fitness trackers into fitness harvesters. What if, instead of measuring progress by calories burned or steps taken, we measured our fitness in joules, the basic units of energy captured? If we attached energy harvesters to our running sneakers–or bikes–we could then deposit the energy collected from them at terminals Ahola calls “harvest hotspots.”
“You could bring these pods into a cafe with a harvest hotspot, and you could plug the pod into … a cash register,” Ahola explains. “The cafe would then use that energy locally, and give you incentives or discounts on drinks.”
Once the cafes, grocery stores, or yoga studios collected enough joules, Ahola figures that the institutions could then consider buying a renewable energy certificate, the same type of purchase large corporations make to offset their carbon footprints.
At the same time, Ahola acknowledges that today’s technology may not be efficient enough to pick up and store energy conveniently. You’d have to walk dozens of miles to charge a lithium ion battery, for example, which is a pretty major bummer if you could otherwise plug the thing into a wall.
He has hopes for the near future, though, and is still exploring the possibility of turning some of his ideas into prototypes where he currently works. He says: “I think this is definitely going to be real, especially in the next couple of years.”