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This robotic bear warns pedestrians about how much smog they’re inhaling

When the air quality gets bad, Toxic Toby starts coughing.

On a recent Wednesday in London, a robotic teddy bear was temporarily perched on a streetlight next to Brixton Road, one of the most polluted streets in the city. When air pollution levels reached a certain limit–the point at which the government recommends that anyone with a lung or heart problem should reduce exercise outdoors–the bear raised its paw to its mouth and coughed.

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“We discovered the alarming statistic that more people die every year from breathing in toxic air than from car accidents,” says James Crosby, a creative at the advertising agency McCann London, the team behind the project. More than 200 people are killed each year in accidents on the city’s streets, but more than 9,000 die prematurely from illnesses related to London’s air pollution. The bear, surrounded by flowers, forms a temporary memorial that the team is installing at local pollution hotspots. The fact that it is animatronic helps make people walking by pay attention.

“The problem with pollution is that you can’t see it, so we wanted to bring it to life in a really visual and arresting way . . . it’s not every day you see a robotic teddy bear on the street,” says Crosby.

The bear, called Toxic Toby, was 3D printed, and animatronics make it possible for it to turn its head from side to side and cough. Air quality data from BreezoMeter, a company that monitors hyperlocal pollution in real time, triggers each cough. As the bear coughs, it also tweets at local politicians urging them to take action to reduce pollution.

Crosby, who suffers from asthma himself, bikes to work on Brixton Road each day. “Just standing by the road for a few minutes, you can taste the pollution in the back of your throat,” he says. “Also, the area is home to many primary schools, and children are most at risk from breathing pollution, as their lungs are still developing.”

The team is using BreezoMeter’s data to identify the most polluted locations in London and move the bear from place to place. It also plans to leave the city. “We’re planning on taking Toxic Toby on a U.K. tour, and then on to different countries around the world to spread our message that breathing clean air should be a human right,” Crosby says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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