01 | a simple mission
On arriving in London to study my master's, I noticed that the typical consumer had grown accustomed to a rather basic relationship with the environment: use it and bin it.
At its core, Renew had a simple mission—give a second life to all of the newspapers and consumer packaging that was inevitably being landfilled.
There were emerging policies to increase consumers' awareness of and councils' participation in various recycling schemes, but there were often limited funds and publicity and even less will to drive the green agenda in any material way. So, there had to be a private solution to deliver a failing public service and raise awareness.
There was no doubt that consumers would be willing to do the right thing when it came to recycling—as long as it took no time, energy, nor effort. We needed a solution to bring recycling within arm's reach. That was the forming mission of Renew.
The media model of funding public infrastructure improvements had been well demonstrated by the likes of JCDecaux and Clear Channel Outdoor and through the sponsorship of the "Boris Bikes" in London, which suggested that where there was a way for outdoor media models to fund iconic projects and public infrastructure improvements.
I began thinking about Renew whilst I was completing my master's, writing the business plan for a combined public infrastructure business funded privately through a combination of outdoor media and a paper-shredding service. Public collections from the on-street recycling pods would also operate private collections from recycling corporate partners (shredding their confidential material with the paper recycling picked up from the street). Early on, I was advised that I was looking fundamentally at two different businesses – a media business and a logistics paper shredding/waste collection operation – and that it was hard enough to make one work. For investors and the best probability of success, I was urged to choose one, and I picked the shiny one!
When the project ended, it had been over ten years that I had worked on Renew. During that time I experienced some of the greatest wins. To help make sense of it I compiled a video that had been generated from fragments along the journey. Once I started making the list I realised it was hundreds who had worked on this project.
02 | the bomb-proof bin
It took us more than a year to spot a fundamental challenge with Renew which could very well have been the early show-stopper. Where the most premium audiences were walking, working and travelling, there were no bins in London as they were a traditional target for terrorism. Renew was created in a post 9.11 environment where security considerations were paramount. So, we had to answer the very simple question, "What if someone puts a bomb in it?" with "It's the safest place to get rid it.” This required two years of development with military testing centres and material specialists. In the initial stages, Renew was less interested in its ability to raise the profile of recycling, or to bring it within arm's reach, and more interested in a series of capabilities that we coined externally as "Blast Intelligent Technology” and Renew’s ability to withstand extreme internal overpressure and arrest primary fragmentation whilst not causing secondary fragmentation in the process.
The materials and design challenge we had in developing Renew’s recycling container which we called the “B” Module (“Blast” Module) was to use everyday material (not exotic material like Kevlar whose supply had already been fully stripped by the US Army), and of course most armour technology is about keeping what’s outside from going inside – we needed to develop a technology that would keep what was inside from going out; a technology that would mitigate the hazards of an improvised explosive device on the public and buildings around. We called the combinations of technologies and materials we ended up using as "Blast Intelligent Technology (BIT)," and after two years of unsuccessful testing, we were able to keep our unit together and dissipate 95 of the overpressures from an event. It began with a simple mission; to help increase awareness and participation in recycling. But the journey sometimes is far less clear than the destination.
A standard recycling container undergoing similar threat levels as a Renew Blast Module.
The Renew Blast Module at an energetic material research testing centre in New Mexico.
03 | outdoor media 2.o
Renew was not a first mover in the area of public space recycling and outdoor advertising. In Toronto, where I grew up, a company had demonstrated that it was indeed possible to raise revenues from passive media on bins. But I felt there was an opportunity to do better. The product had to be designed for high footfall locations, but the largest panel wasn't facing traffic, so it was key to design an object that was primarily minimal and clean but carried media content in the direction of travel. We had to design the product around existing European standards for recycling – so we had to house a standard wheelie bin. And of course, we had to make the product both neutral and modern, so it could work against any backdrop.
The initial media model of Renew was based on efficient LED back-lit posters, but in the end, the network that was launched in the City of London in time for the London 2012 Olympics was live-streaming geo-specific content across its digital screens. The process of moving from paper to digital was driven by the increased investment that we had to make in building the Renew blast modules, and the recognition that the network could only be deployed in the most expensive and sensitive financial, transport, and retail hubs: places where real-time community and data were relevant not only to a commuting audience (deciding which tube to take home), but the reason for their meetings (financial breaking news or latest offerings). The UK outdoor media companies approached the opportunity for digital not from the audience perspective, but rather from a traditional poster perspective. Outdoor media had gone from a single sheet to multi-sheet scrolling – digital panels were just a more scrolling enabled medium for pre-fabricated content that repeated in a mindless loop. The broadcast channel was a close loop of 60 to 90 seconds with 10-second slots repeating endlessly all day.
04 | the holes don’t line up
Renew is where I met my fellow co-founders of AYR, Ian Murison (whom I affectionately call "Mew") and Adrian Bennett ("Adie") while deloping the Renew outdoor display technology in the UK and the blast technology with a consortium of partners in the US. Now, we needed to pull it all together into one product. I found an industrial design practice quite fortuitously near me, and the rest is history. The first feedback that I got when they imported all of the drawings was that "the holes don't line up." Yes, it's true. I had my American blast technology partners working in inches and my European advertising partners in mm – and the holes indeed did not line up. Over the next five years, Mew and Adie saw me raise capital, secure a contract, raise more capital, deploy a network, and eventually walk my staff to a job centre and give the keys to an administrator when I had to serve to Qatari's notice.
In this process, the two became collaborators, partners, shareholders and, against their better judgement, friends. So, when it was time to pick up sticks and go again with AYR (at the time, it was Product Works, from which we spun out our idea for AYR – initially called Beyond Tobacco, later adjusted to Beyond Twenty and, finally, AYR), they were ready to ditch the agency mindset and become principles on the journey. But, let's go back to the first encounter with Mew at the Visual Space – a 3,000 square foot location under London Bridge station where we had built a piece of theatre to bring Renew to life. It was our staged Renew landing in London, complete with the backdrop of High-Street Kensington, background street noises, and an electric scooter with the turning signal on.
05 | the visual space
This is where I told the Renew story. From 2004 until 2013, we rented a 3,000 square foot space under the railway arches at the juncture of Crucifix Lane and Druid Street. The landlord, David Leonard, would, in turn, become not only the Logistics Director of Renew and help hand-assemble the first 100 Renew Pods that we deployed in the City of London but also a close friend and confidant throughout the project. When we initially met, he was the landlord of the Visual Space, and he agreed to rent his empty mechanic's garage space under the Arches for a short let.
We used that space to bring our initial prototype units from Germany, and we built a bit of London in a three-room "experience" to the never-ending soundtrack of Brian Eno's "An Ascent." I presented Renew hundreds of times in the Visual Space—it was there that we converted our investor base, partners, and, ultimately, the City of London to a 25-year contract. It was our field of dreams, complete with sound, screens, content, projection, and a few Renew Pods to help reduce the leap of the imagination of going from a prototype to the street.
06 | streaming on the street
There were many proud moments where we broke the news on the street as quickly as it was on Reuters, BBC, or Bloomberg – sometimes even faster. Although Renew was not a breaking news channel, it was a way to keep in touch on the go with what was happening with hundreds of updates throughout the day. The pods would carry both network-wide general breaking news stories or geo-specific data (latest travel information from the closest tube station or a number of bikes available at the nearest "Barclays Bikes").
We had journalists who would come in at 06.00 in the morning for the first shift, and a second shift that would start at lunchtime and go till evening. We would review the day's major news stories and convert them using our AFP and Getty image and video pipelines into a short snippet that would be effective in a 2- to 3-second glance. One of our transmissions in 2012 was on Remembrance Day, where we converted 100% of our airtime to a "Remember Us" campaign.
07 | hacking the street
To create Renew, we developed a number of technologies that ranged from material expertise and blast pressure knowhow to digital coding and streaming our content within any browser. The on-street digital module had all the hardware, software, and connectivity challenges of operating an LCD panel in an open environment. We ended up mapping each screen on a layer of Google Earth, so each screen was aware of its location and could pull not just network-wide content but geo-specific content. This allowed us to release a software development kit and run hackathons where developers created novel and innovative screens that would show someone where they were with an arrow pointing to where people were based on what was trending on Foursquare near the Pod. This meant regularly hacking our own code, both on the street and remotely from the cloud.
The Blast Intelligent Technology we developed to protect people and property was the result of countless testing and retesting of the Renew "B" Module or the "Blast" Module in energetic materials research testing centres in the UK and the US. Our product specification required that we avoid the use of exotic materials to address primary and secondary fragmentation, as well as find a solution to mitigate the blast overpressures. In the end, we achieved something truly unique, and the security multiplier for Renew became that much more salient when we also combined our armour with our streaming capability to provide an on-street emergency communication channel for first responders. We thankfully never had to use this capability other than in early morning tests as part of the London Olympic preparations.
08 | threats we didn’t see
Towards the beginning of 2013, Renew began to face three fundamental challenges: the City of London's planning department began to turn against the contract, the Qatari Investment Bank started provisioning their investments, and outdoor media agencies' closed-buying shop represented a fundamental commercial obstacle for new outdoor media networks. We had a strong team to navigate two challenges at a time, but all three simultaneously meant that the capital in Renew post London deployment froze. We had just finished a capital intensive first network deployment in the City – the most significant financial centre of the world – just in time for the London Olympics. Renew pods were also deployed and poised for expansion into Lower Manhattan, Singapore and Dubai. But, the project simply could not survive a lender that was inwardly folding. It turned out that "the irrational" was the hardest to predict and mitigate.
09 | enduring ambition
With Renew, we strove to inspire cultural change. We wanted to build a caring and compassionate medium, an aware network that had a reason to exist and had something to say. With Renew, we had to explore, invent, influence, change, innovate, and collaborate to bring the project to life on city streets. But it was a tough first project.
Renew was, in every sense a multi-disciplinary undertaking – from the way the product came together, the disciplines and teams it combined, to the stakeholders it touched. It required industrial design, user experience, material expertise, code, and at the same time, political lobbying, on-street servicing, and logistics, all whilst running a new format in the oldest financial centre. From the Rosetta stone to religious iconography, propaganda posters, the corporate logos and traditional branding by Coke Cola of Times Square and Piccadilly Circus to the content-rich Google Old Street roundabout, out-of-home has always been, and will always be, where brands build fame and become front-of-mind. Renew was an effort to build a dynamic content stream with a tone of voice, an on-street window to the world that was aware of its physical location, the ambient and dynamic data around it, a call to action on where to dig deeper on your mobile in your pocket, the embodiment of smarter city and infrastructure, and a content hub for two-way communication on the go. The principles that it demonstrated, and the values with which it defied all odds to form and deploy into the oldest financial centre, were hallmarks of the pure grit and determination that didn't ebb when the project came to an end.