Coming to your neighbourhood soon, to stir citizen engagement in micro environment issues, it’s the EcoPod.
It’s the pop-up product of a collaboration between Toronto’s WZMH Architects, which has its own burgeoning urban innovation hub, and Microsoft, among others. WZMH principal Zenon Radewych says the EcoPod, a solar-powered trailer laden with innovative climate sensors and gauges, was created to boost awareness of hyper-local environmental hazards in cities and promote citizens’ equity and resiliency.
Armed with knowledge of such scourges as heat islands and pockets of noxious air, the engaged residents can not only take steps to improve the daily environment they live in but advocate for better policy from politicians and master planners.
“This whole idea about IoT sensors and putting them into communities and cities, and monitoring the data of air quality, of water quality, that whole concept is extremely important to understanding what’s going on in the city,” said Radewych.
“There are different parts of cities where the quality of air is different. Why is it different? How can it be improved? Why with certain areas is their quality really, really good?
“Getting this information is really important because it really will help urban planners, city officials, public officials to understand where to make improvements and even plan the master-planning of cities.”
Microsoft’s EcoPod made its debut recently in Chicago and will eventually make its way through the neighbourhoods of Toronto. It was designed by WZMH through Microsoft’s Project Eclipse.
Microsoft sensors are custom-designed to measure CO, NO2, SO2 and O3, and various pollutants such as PM 1 and PM 10, along with temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. Data is uploaded using cellular LTE-M technology to an Azure data stack.
The EcoPod idea sprang from the Microsoft Urban Futures Summer Workshop held in July 2020 but WZMH’s collaboration with Microsoft goes back three years earlier, to when the tech giant learned about WZMH’s invention of a prefabricated smart building product called the intelligent structural panel.
The firms have communicated back and forth since then and after Microsoft asked WZMH for its help developing the EcoPod, Radewych set about incorporating many of the elements his firm already employs.
“It has interior design components, it has finishes, it has wood panels, and it has lighting. It has solar panels, and then it has that IoT component, sensors and stuff, which are things that we play with in our lab on a day-to-day basis” he said.
Not only does WZMH design buildings, it is increasingly active in designing materials and components containing customed-created software apps.
“Right now we’re developing some cool apps that are about sustainability,” said Radewych. “One is about recycling. One is about street sensors. So really cool things that we’re doing that go beyond bricks and mortar.”
These efforts have differentiated the firm from its competitors and earned WZMH attention from beyond the construction sector, starting with Microsoft.
“I think it’s fair to say that the building industry is near the bottom in terms of innovation and embracing innovation,” said Radewych. “There’s a lot of opportunity to integrate innovation, the IoT world, into buildings, into sites, to basically make the way that we live, work and play that much better, that much more sustainable.”
Mining the data and offering it to citizens is a mutually beneficial exchange, said Radewych — it’s much more than Microsoft venturing into construction to sell technology. Gathering data, applying machine learning and sharing the results improves the lives of citizens, helps people and vehicles move around better, ensures planners understand the way the sun cuts through communities and generally makes neighbourhoods more livable, he said.
“I didn’t know a lot about this a couple of years ago, but I’m starting to realize the value and the power in the data,” said Radewych.
The apps, the data and the technology can equally be applied to new builds as to retrofits, said Radewych — in fact it’s essential as Canada undergoes major energy retrofitting of its old buildings.
“The older building stock has to compete against the newer building stock that maybe has some of these new technologies,” he pointed out.
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