Columbia Design Challenge Innovates Solutions for Urban Water

This winter, Columbia teams spanning disciplines and continents are tackling the complex challenges of water in Rio de Janeiro and burgeoning cities across the developing world. For the Urban Water Design Challenge, held Dec. 7 and 8, schools across the University partnered with Columbia Engineering and Columbia Global Center in Rio to spur development of a workable prototype or innovation to present to city leaders in March 2016.

Click on the image to see a slideshow from the design challenge kickoff and pitch sessions. slideshow
—Photos by Timothy Lee Photographers

Groups of students and researchers from across campus and in Rio teamed up to develop interdisciplinary solutions for multifaceted issues including furnishing clean water to dense slum areas, treating wastewater, and mitigating the impacts of extreme weather events.

“Water is not only a challenge for Rio but for New York City and cities around the world,” said Dean Mary C. Boyce at the Dec. 7 kick-off, which brought together experts to help inform teams’ innovations. “The Columbia Design Challenge launches collaborations and cooperation across disciplines and around the world, encouraging private-public partnerships for novel solutions.”

Rio, Brazil’s “Marvelous City” and host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, is the third largest metropolitan area in South America with some 11.5 million inhabitants, of whom more than 6 million live in the dense city itself. Like many other expanding cities, its population growth has far outstripped its infrastructure’s ability to keep up. Brazil enjoys immense water resources, but struggles to supply enough to its urban areas, as 58% of the city’s water supply is lost to leakage, and another 15% to illegal taps.

Experts and practitioners including Engineering Professors Kartik Chandran and Vijay Modi as well as Rio-raised PhD candidate Ariane Brotto of earth and environmental engineering outlined the city’s water challenges, especially in the midst of an ongoing drought that began in 2014. Kate Orff, associate professor and director of the Urban Design Program at the Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation, discussed an integrated approach to understanding how mining and heavy industries shape the region’s water chain, while Gina Lovasi, assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and co-director of the Epidemiology and Population Health Summer Institute at Columbia University (EPIC), discussed the numerous health hazards associated with water in Rio’s dense slums, known as favelas.

In addition to trying to provide clean drinking water to homes, Rio also struggles to handle and treat a tremendous volume of wastewater and solid waste in waterways with hundreds of tons of solid waste discharged into the city’s Guanabara Bay daily. Additionally, standing water contributes to serious health issues from mosquitos and mold.

Prospective teams pitched preliminary proposals Dec. 8 to a diverse panel of judges. Ideas ranged from using algae and microbes to treat wastewater and harvest nutrients for fertilizers to constructing artificial wetlands to prevent erosion and landslides. Other pitches included a point of care system to easily diagnose diseases like Dengue fever and Zika virus from mosquitos, rainwater collection and testing, systems to disturb stagnant water to prevent mosquito reproduction, and plans to seal endemic leakages in pipes without having to dig under densely populated areas.

The judges’ feedback and suggestions helped top competitors firm up their ideas and team rosters to further develop proposals and prototypes over several weeks, leading up to final presentations slated for February 5th. Selected finalists will have the opportunity to bring their deployable solutions to Brazil in March.

This marks the second rapid-fire design challenge from Columbia Engineering. Last fall, in partnership with the Mailman School of Public Health and other university collaborators, SEAS hosted the Ebola Design Challenge, which produced a number of real-time solutions to the Ebola crisis. One student team ultimately won support from USAID for their design challenge proposal, and has since been busy testing and developing their prototype, Highlight, a pigmented bleach solution that improves decontamination of infectious diseases.

The School’s Urban Water Design Challenge is an interdisciplinary program cosponsored by Columbia Global Center|Rio de Janeiro, the Columbia Water Center, Columbia Business School, GSAPP, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, School of International and Public Affairs, School of General Studies, School of Nursing, and the Mailman School of Public Health’s Urban Health Initiative.

—by Jesse Adams

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