In the early hours of a July 2012 morning, in a public plaza in Beijing, 40 locals gathered to take part in one of the city’s most beloved pastimes: kite flying. As they wove between playing children, public karaoke singers and elderly dog walkers, their kites began to light up the sky with LEDs. It was a colourful, if not haunting, representation of the ever-worsening air quality in the megacity, which recently reported pollution at 20 times the levels deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization.
Called Float, the project is the brainchild of grad students Xiaowei Wang, of the Harvard School of Design, and Deren Guler, of Carnegie Mellon University. The high school friends came up with the idea for an open-source mapping project while Wang was taking a class at MIT. A former resident of Beijing, she saw the cultural significance of kites as a way to engage communities, while Guler sought to develop technology that citizens without prior tech knowledge could build themselves. The pair constructed a 7.5-by-7.5-centimetre module outfitted with a sensor, and LEDs that change from green to pink to indicate air quality, from best to worst. A slightly heavier version comes with an SD card that logs the data for users to view or upload; both are lightweight enough to be held aloft by any medium-sized kite.
To set up workshops about how to build the units and read their output, the pair navigated local politics. “We had to reassure state security agents that we weren’t trying to overthrow the government,” says Wang. “But we hope residents will use this data to compel them to enact environmental change, whether through political means or by improving their own habits.” While the project is shortlisted for an Index: Design to Improve Life award, Guler and Wang are already preparing for the next step: making the data infrastructure more flexible and accessible to a wider audience. After all, what could be more universal than flying a kite?
Micro-environments to go
Three air-changers for the home
While traditional purifiers use HEPA filters to clean particles above 0.3 micrometres, the iF Design Award-winning AirCare 2, by Taiwan’s AcoMoTech, attacks at the molecular level, breaking down carbon bonds in bacteria and viruses. acomotech.com
Fastened to the top of any plastic bottle and powered via a USB port in the side, the Amazing Humidifier, by South Korean company Ecoco, is equipped with a fan and a 12‑centimetre-long water filter to mist the surrounding air for up to eight hours. aggift.com
A finalist concept in the Electrolux Design Lab, Ohita, by Jorge Alberto Treviño Blanco, is designed to filter air using bamboo charcoal. The polygonal module adheres to any flat surface, and can even be attached to a backpack. electroluxdesignlab.com