Cooper, community team up to create emergency system

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  A group of Cooper Union students will soon work to develop a unique new tool to help residents of the Lower East Side — and perhaps, someday, people all over the world — cope with the destructive impact of future storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Under the direction of a longtime Cooper professor, and in association with Lower East Side neighborhood organizations, students from the university’s schools of art, architecture and engineering will collaborate to design a solar-powered product that can simultaneously provide public wireless Internet, emergency lighting and a charging station for computers or cell phones.

Community leaders supporting the project hope to install the innovative, three-in-one power stations around public spaces — starting near the East River waterfront, where so many people suffered after losing power when Sandy struck.

“It’s really a fantastic opportunity for the students,” said Dr. Toby Cumberbatch, who teaches the interdisciplinary class, titled “Sustainable Engineering and Development,” that will host the project once the next semester begins in mid-January.

“It presents a lot of stimulating challenges,” Cumberbatch added. “But the big thing is that this involves real people and a real need on the Lower East Side, and it’ll push students to provide a great benefit to the neighborhood.”

The project — which has been named the Cooper Lumen Design Challenge — was conceived by Paul Garrin, an East Village resident and Cooper alumnus who in 2003 created WiFi-NY, a member-supported, noncommercial Internet provider that has grown to serve the East Village, Lower East Side and western Brooklyn.

Back in 2010, Garrin reached out to the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in order to bring his wireless Internet service to their community. After Sandy struck last year and left many Two Bridges residents stranded, without power or access to vital online information, he also began working with them to develop the WiFi-NY People’s Emergency Network, which aims to connect people in case of a devastating storm that knocks out service from major corporate Internet providers.

Garrin explained that when he recently began thinking of the possibilities for a new three-in-one product that could provide lighting and a charging station, as well as Internet access, he decided to bridge a gap, and brought Cooper and T.B.N.C. together.

“I feel it’s important for me, as an alum, to offer the students the chance to do something unique, while also allowing Cooper to engage the local community more than they have in the past,” Garrin said.

Now, he’s serving as a mentor and community liaison for the Cooper Lumen Design Challenge, while T.B.N.C. acts as the primary fundraiser.

The neighborhood group has set up a Web site — — to collect donations that will go toward purchasing supplies for students as they design and eventually produce the triple-feature power station. They hope to raise at least $10,000 by Jan. 15.

“Paul’s a genius, and rather than being motivated by profit, he’s just totally committed to this idea, and so we’re glad to fully support him on it,” said T.B.N.C. President Victor Papa.

Garrin said he hopes to show off a prototype of the students’ work by the end of the coming semester, at Cooper’s Founders Day event next April. Once the design is perfected and more products can be made, he plans to work with T.B.N.C. and other community groups to place them in vulnerable Lower East Side areas.

Cumberbatch noted that, beyond serving a local need, the innovative Cooper Lumen power station could eventually be used by people in other places that are underserved or heavily affected by natural disasters.

“If it turns out to be really good, you could take it to a place like the Philippines, which has been destroyed by an even bigger natural disaster [than Sandy],” he said, “and, really, I could imagine someone taking this out to remote villages all over the world.”

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