Creating a sustainable future for London: the London Environmental Challenge

by Helen Lacey, Alexandra Hicken (SSCP-DTP students) and Enrico Berado

city hall

Safeguarding the health, quality of life and wellbeing of 8.6 million Londoners, as well as those of future generations, is of utmost importance to the Mayor’s Office in London. In order to tackle these challenges and build a sustainable future for the UK capital, there is a clear need for innovative projects and ideas using state of the art technologies, clever designs and bottom up approaches.

From 13-24 April 2015, seventeen of us PhD students with an interest in environment, entrepreneurship, new technologies and climate change met for the London Environmental Challenge. The goal of this two week course was to provide new input into London’s focus areas of waste management, low carbon growth, greening London and cleaning London’s air.

During the first week of the challenge we listened to a series of talks illustrating the problems that the city of London faces in order to create a sustainable future. We visited a variety of interesting locations, including Siemens Crystal, City Hall, the Future Cities Catapult and the Old Ford Water Recycling Plant where we gained an insight into London’s Climate Change Mitigation and Energy Strategy. These thoroughly enjoyable and diverse talks covered five themes: creating a sustainable future, maximizing low carbon growth, greening London, smart London and the built environment.

During this first part of the week we also had intense brainstorming exercises to come up and select the best ideas for our own projects with the help of our coaches. For each idea we considered both its novelty and its potential environmental, social and economic impact. On top of the ideas produced during the brainstorming session, Peter George, Meridian water’s Programme Director, assigned us five further open problems that the Enfield Council is currently dealing with and for which innovative and alternative solutions are urgently needed.

Finding out about waste water treatment with Thames Water at the Old Ford Water Recycling Plant
Finding out about waste water treatment with Thames Water at the Old Ford Water Recycling Plant

Time for action

Entering the second week of the NERC School, we had the chance to employ our technical skills and emphasise our roles as researchers in the system of environmental innovation applied to London. We were given the task of developing ideas for a more sustainable future for London and presenting these project ideas in front of an expert jury.

After pinning down four concrete and innovative projects, we split into teams, each one covering a range of skills, expertise and interests. The final projects selected were “Cycle for Enfield”, “Converting flood risks into benefits in the Meridian Water area”, “Sustainable Transport with East/West connectivity in Meridian Water” and “ReRoute, future-proofing London’s street with adaptive green infrastructure”.

In the remaining days of the school, each team developed their idea, focusing on defining a detailed plan for the chosen project while building a compelling case for change. With the help of the coaches and external feedback obtained during drop-in clinics from experts in the field, we worked towards making our projects attractive both to the stakeholders and the marketplace, while being both affordable and achievable in a short/medium term.

Once the project plans had been fully developed, in the last part of the week each team worked in close collaboration with a coach on the communication of their own/chosen idea. For this purpose, we had access to the Hackspace tools (3D printers and design experts from Imperial College) where we had the chance to prototype our ideas and to create a story-line which would best gain support from stakeholders.

The final task was held at the Siemens Crystal, where the four teams had to pitch their project plans to an expert panel of judges. Each pitch was followed by an open table discussion, where the jury members had the chance to challenge the teams on the presented project plans. The jury was unanimously impressed by each team’s ability to quickly develop enough knowledge to discuss the projects in a professional way and to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems. The winning pitch, given by Didi Van Doren from Utrecht University, Svitlana Karamshuk from Queen Mary University of London and Helen Lacey and Alexandra Hicken from Imperial College, was the project “Sustainable transport with East/West connectivity in Meridian Water”. Peter George, who was from Enfield council and formed part of the jury, said that a few of the suggestions presented in the winning pitch could be soon implemented in the Meridian Water urban area, currently under development.

team winning prize
Alex Hicken, Helen Lacey and their team delivered the winning pitch for their project ‘Sustainable transport with East/West connectivity in Meridian Water’

Some final thoughts

This NERC London Environmental Challenge course gave us as early career researchers a chance to network with decision makers, learn skills and information across disciplines. The first week provided us a with a wealth of knowledge which we can now apply to our own research, future careers as well as everyday lives.

We found that there was much overlap between sustainability issues between different disciplines, but also how much there was to learn in bringing different issues together into a concrete plan and project. A main consideration was the involvement of the community within the projects; it is all very well implementing a sustainable plan headed by the council, but without local involvement from the beginning, it simply will not be maintained and hence is not sustainable.

The opportunity to develop a novel and innovative project, bringing together issues of sustainability, new technologies, bottom up approaches and smart data allowed us to consider the real benefits of interdisciplinary working and get a chance at making something which was directly applicable to our surroundings and actually would be implemented, as in the case of the ideas in “Sustainable transport with East/West connectivity in Meridian Water”.

As PhD students, it can be easy to get very involved in theory and almost forget about how your work can be applied and have impact away from the laboratory, and so this course was a reminder of how important it is to have real world application.

Although the prospect of presenting to a panel in a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style was daunting, the task of turning skills and information into ideas to real life innovative plans was a fantastic experience. It was great to work in teams from all over the world, sharing ideas, plans and networking. We would definitely recommend it to other students.

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