The River Cycleway Consortium were awarded first place in our Impact Scholarship Programme 2015. Their first innovation, the Thames Deckway, is a clean-energy generating floating cycle path and flood emergency relief system along the River Thames which will provide a traffic-free bicycle pathway through the heart of London for commuters and tourists. Offering an integrated renewable energy, transportation and flood relief corridor, the Thames Deckway will address problems of cycling safety, severe traffic congestion and poor air quality.
We speak to entrepreneur, innovator, award-winning artist-designer and Thames Deckway co-inventor Anna Hill, to find out how this revolutionary project came into being.
What were you working on before Thames Deckway?
I’m an artist by background, and studied Sculpture at Central Saint Martins, London, and at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. Since then, I’ve worked across a number of different industries including international space; creative industries – gaming, music and film; and education. I went back to study at the Royal College of Art in London as a mature student and worked on a thesis on the subject of systems science and consciousness, looking at the relationship between people, the environment, and the sustainability of the planet.
I didn’t consciously make the decision to become a business woman – that happened by default! There seemed to be a limit to how many options were available at that time in academia. If I had gone on to do a PHD, I would have been focussed on a narrow area of research rather than looking at the bigger picture.
How did the idea for Thames Deckway come about?
Whilst working at the European Space Agency on a contract for a software communications system and an astronaut communications device for the Columbus Module of the International Space Station, I met David Nixon, a space architect – one of the first architects to work in the international space industry. Both David and I shared an interest in systems engineering and systems science, and sparked by our frustration with the bureaucracy of the space industry, we started to brainstorm what we would do if we had free reign there.
People often ask, “What makes a good collaboration?”
For me, you’ve got to have the same values, vision, and then you have got to have absolute respect for one another’s ability. That’s a great foundation.
I moved back to London in 2008, and had a place on the river, that at high tide had a window which was less than a metre from the water’s edge. This made me really aware of the power of the tidal force of the Thames, in some places the tidal range is 8 metres! I went to have a rummage through a historical archive in Rotherhithe, finding lots of images of flooded London from the 50s & 60s, and became aware of the vulnerability of London to flooding. Simultaneously, to travel East or West from my home, you had to access some dangerous routes, with a lot of HGVs and congestion.
Inspired by Leonardo di Vinci’s water devices, Renaissance approaches to engineering and design, water and cycle systems in the Netherlands, and many other influences, including knowledge from a previous project for the international space station; the concept for Thames Deckway was born. David and I co-designed and built it together, and began introducing key stakeholders to the concept – including the Environment Agency and the Department for Transport, as it was important for us to get support early on. We continued to work on the designs and integrated the clean tech aspects, harnessing the tidal force of the river, wind energy and solar power.
In the late summer of last year, a number of factors came together and David and I decided to make a public announcement about Thames Deckway, as everything previous to this had been done through non-disclosure. Despite the caution that had been advised, we decided to take a leap of faith, go public with it, and announce ourselves as the originators of the concept. We put together a press release and worked with a publicist in New York, to help field responses. We got an incredible hit – with almost 600 articles published around the world!
What have you learnt along the way?
It’s very typical that entrepreneurs with big ideas get ridiculed and even laughed at. You just have to be really resilient, because people perhaps aren’t ready for what you are presenting them with. I think a key quality for entrepreneurship is to use any rejection as fuel to the fire. Since 2000 I have applied for a number of funding bids to get the feasibility study off the ground and haven’t got them, so I’ve had to put the project on ice and tried to not lose momentum.
Why did you apply for the Impact Scholarship programme?
Before we were awarded with an Impact Scholarship, I was working from home. It can be very isolating and lonely when you’re up against so many constant “Nos” or “You can’t do that’s”. I’ve learnt that building networks is very important, and being in an invigorating environment, where there are people with the same mind-set, is going to be invaluable.
What does the future hold for Thames Deckway?
It’s at this point that we’re looking at crowdfunding to get citizen support to back the first stage of the feasibility study. We’ve divided our crowdfund into two phases – the first being reward-based and the second being equity-based. We are looking to raise £250,000 in the first phase, launching in September, which will fund the marketing aspects and high level engineering feasibility study. This will lead to the development of the high level blueprint. The next phase will be the full engineering feasibility, which we hope to roll out in a year’s time. After that production can start, so this could pick up momentum very fast! In the meantime we are hoping to attract major partners, in alignment with our values and brand.
Our long-term plan is to develop the brand to represent sustainable solutions for people on every level, from flood relief in Asia, to tourist attractions in London. We have a multi-faceted approach, and want to expand to become something that citizens want to engage with.
Anna will be speaking at the New London Architecture Cycling Summit today, Tuesday 4th August 14:00 – 20:00, follow this link to register.
To find out more about Thames Deckway, visit – http://www.thamesdeckway.co.uk/
Interview by Felicity Cremin, July 2015.