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Changemakers: The digital birdhouses saving the planet

Lam turned an art school rejection into a community-centred wifi solution to Amsterdam's air pollution problem

Joris Lam’s big idea to cut air pollution changed life in Amsterdam neighbourhoods for good. He invented TreeWifi, digital birdhouses installed around the city which pushed people to work together for cleaner air. They were rewarded with free wireless internet when sensors embedded in the birdhouses detected significant improvements.

Lam, by his own admission, was no high-flyer in school. “I was the worst student in the world,” he laughs. “I got kicked out of high school and dropped out of university in the first year.” He fell into entrepreneurship when he realised he needed an outlet for his creativity, but struggled to cope with the school system and authority.

When he was 20, Lam launched his own company making video content for apps. “I somehow shamelessly approached these huge companies as a kid making videos with my mum’s camera, and talked my way into work,” the designer, now 28, recalls. The business grew steadily for four years, hired employees, and Lam was on to a winner in the digital media sphere. But he wanted to give education another shot, so in 2015 he left the company and applied for art school.

We are facing extinction… But it can be paralysing to think about it in that way

Part of the application was a required portfolio of design ideas. Lam had always been passionate about the environment, he says, and was interested in the idea of making a complex problem easy to understand and tackle. He felt vindicated when he discovered that Amsterdam only measured air pollution in 14 places across the whole city at the time. This was how he came up with TreeWifi.

But the art school wasn’t impressed and Lam was rejected. “They thought I was absolutely mental!” he laughs. “I really believed in it though. So I put the art school dream behind me and built a prototype – it wasn’t functional, I didn’t have the skills, but it looked good enough to get people excited about it online. The project really blew up and I was able to fund a start-up through grants and crowdfunding.” Specialists were keen to get involved, and at its height Lam was managing a team of 20 scientists and developers.

Lam led TreeWifi to partner up with Vodafone and T-Mobile to provide a robust wifi network. Each was installed with something similar to a sim card, and when air pollution dropped the birdhouses would glow green and function like a mobile phone hotspot. The team developed an app, too, which allowed locals to see their local air quality levels in real time – and compete with neighbouring streets.

“People were really inspired by the idea that you could do something about the environment yourself, and it helped that it wasn’t as doom and gloom as a lot of talk around environmentalism is,” Lam says. “Even though we are facing extinction… It’s the reality, but it can be paralysing to think about it in that way. TreeWifi seemed to strike a chord with people who wanted a more fun way to engage with environmental issues.”

It exposes some inconvenient truths about cities

A key part of Lam’s project was the hands-on approach he and his team took. When installing the birdhouses in a neighbourhood, they would then work closely with the community to help them make small but effective changes – like developing a car-share system for them, or making public transport information more accessible. 

It was, the designer says, a big thing for communities to have direct access to their own air quality data. “It made the whole issue much more democratic,” he says, and felt the model was vindicated when local authorities pushed back against his initiative. 

“The data exposes some inconvenient truths about cities and how regularly they flout the legal air pollution limit. We saw instances where the council would say they were going to build a new road or install new parking spaces, and a building of people would say ‘Wait a minute, everyone in this block has asthma already’. Authorities can’t dismiss those concerns as easily when locals have the proof that they are objectively right.”

As a result of that pushback, Lam decided he needed a wider set of skills if he was to take TreeWifi global like he wanted to. Aged 24 at the time, he open-sourced the design so that others could build their own version at home. And, again, he applied for university.

Four months ago, Lam graduated from Teesside University with a master’s degree in digital management (the admissions department liked TreeWifi so much that they invited him on to the course even without an undergraduate degree). He learned how to confidently bring an innovative project to the world, he says, and is armed with all the skills he wishes he’d been able to bring to his previous projects. 

Now based in the UK, Lam has been doing consultancy work on sustainability across Europe and China. He has also been working on maps of cities around the world built from digital Lego bricks. They’re hooked up to environmental data on the internet and use coloured lights to show the local air quality levels in real time. But that’s just for fun, Lam says. Or it might just be the building blocks for his next planet-saving plan. 

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