Here's how "solar concentrators" could provide renewable cooking technologies for the developing world

Let's get cooking: the technology at work. Image:

The sun is pretty damn important, if only because it stops us from not existing. It presides over the solar system; it accounts for 99.8 per cent of its mass; and, for want of a better word, it produces a shit-ton of energy.

The amount of solar energy the sun produces in a single second is equivalent to about 1 trillion one megaton bombs. Around 173,000 terawatts of solar energy are striking the Earth at any given moment. Yet, in 2010, the global capacity of solar energy production stood at just 0.04 terawatts. That seems a bit of a waste – so why aren’t we using more of it?

That’s the question being asked by Solar Fire Concentration Limited (SFCO), a social enterprise based in Finland. It’s a highly international team, whose members range from the designer of an open source tractor, to an engineer visiting energy companies and projects around the world, to the grandson of a solar pioneer. And its rather optimistic mission is to eradicate energy poverty, by making solar thermal energy much more accessible to many people around the world.

To achieve this, it’s set up a crowd funding campaign called “Free the Sun”, which aims to raise at least $60,000 towards the production and free distribution of construction guides for solar technologies. The success of the campaign will allow small scale entrepreneurs, innovators and skilled workers around the world to base their businesses on solar energy.

When people think of using the sun as an energy source they tend to think of solar panels – a clean, cost-effective way to generate renewable energy. This may be a great investment for those who can afford it – but for many people, not only are solar panels too expensive to attain, and too complex to DIY; the energy it generates is in the form of electricity, which is less needed than heat energy.

So SFCO, is instead focusing on “solar concentrators”: a technology which uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate on a large area of sunlight, and direct it towards a specific area (a cooker, for example). Thus, they covert the sun’s energy directly into heat instead of electricity.

On SFCO’s FAQ page the group says that there are a few differences between most solar concentrators and their own model. Instead of solar panels, they use ordinary mirrors – much like the ones stuck to your wardrobe. Their solar concentrators are flexible, durable and simple to build – it doesn’t need computations and it doesn’t need to be bent into mirror-symmetrical curves. SFCO also says they are more scalable: once the core technique is mastered, it is easy to modify the designed to suit local needs.

Here’s a video explaining how the technology works:

With enough funding, GoSol hopes to get this technology in the hands of as many people as possible. The group argues that energy independence and economic and politic independence go hand in hand.

Although this project isn’t committed to reducing greenhouse emissions directly, it would have a positive knock-on effect on the planet. It could also bring energy to the parts of the world those most in need of it, like India, where 70 per cent of the population is rural.

Oh, and the perk of getting involved in this campaign is getting a sample of solar roasted chocolate, and possibly your very own solar concentrator.

The crowd funding campaign launched on the 15 April and will run until the end of May. You can donate here.


What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.