SEAS Launches Urban Water Design Challenge Dec. 7

Watch the Urban Water Design Challenge kickoff, held in Davis Auditorium and streamed live on Dec. 7.

Water—a precious resource that poses many challenges in urban areas—is one of the world’s most complex matters facing engineers, planners, and policy makers alike. To this end, Columbia Engineering, in a recent partnership with the Columbia Global Center | Rio de Janeiro, launched a design challenge on December 7 centered on the multi-faceted challenges of urban water. Columbia students, postdocs, faculty, and staff from all Schools are invited to participate. (For a complete schedule, visit Columbia Design Challenge: Urban Water.)

The design challenge kickoff was held at 11 a.m. in Davis Auditorium, where leading researchers and experts discussed the current state of water in Rio de Janeiro and gave a summary of specific challenges for which low-cost interdisciplinary technology solutions and policies could have an immediate impact. Teams clustered around specific challenge topics to form preliminary ideas and designs, with the goal of pitching their concepts to judges the following day. The top contenders will refine their proposals and have just six weeks to develop deployable solutions that selected finalists may bring to Brazil.

Columbia’s water design challenge, while focusing on some of the water-related problems specific to Rio, addresses water challenges shared by many cities around the world. “We hope that some of the technological innovations that are proposed in this challenge will launch solutions,” says Dean Mary C. Boyce.

For this challenge, multidisciplinary teams will collaborate on innovating engineering, planning, policy, and public health solutions to address such problems as delivery systems for access to clean water, enhanced collection and treatment of wastewater, better water storage, and smarter planning and response for extreme weather events, to name a few. The goal is to produce a viable design concept to earn further support and develop a technology-centered innovation or policy change that could be presented in Rio next March. The proposals could also contribute to work of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s Urban Design Program (a cosponsor of this challenge), which is conducting a coordinated urban scale study to help Rio move toward sustainability.

Rio de Janeiro stands among the world’s great metropolises and will host the 2016 Summer Olympics. It also exemplifies the problems faced by densely packed urban centers around the world in providing clean water, reclaiming wastewater, and handling extreme weather. Rio loses much of its water supply to leakages and illegal taps, and struggles to treat the sheer volume of sewage and wastewater while also dealing with floods, landslides, and displaced populations. Contaminated drinking water is a constant concern, while mosquitos and mold from standing water cause other issues.

This marks the second rapid-fire design challenge from the Engineering School. Last fall, in partnership with the Mailman School of Public Health and other Columbia schools, 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, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, School of General Studies, School of Nursing, and the Mailman School of Public Health’s Urban Health Initiative.

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