We did it! Building a Lego Low Carbon Kāpiti

Well the dust has settled after an epic project to bring a ‘low carbon’ future vision of my local community to life with Lego bricks. My previous blog entry explains how this came about and why.

Lego Low Carbon Kāpiti 2025 was a community project built by forty-three Lego fans of all ages working together. The completed display represented a section of the Kāpiti Coast in the year 2025 where we had started to make the significant changes we need to move to a low carbon economy and get on track to be zero carbon by 2050.

The changes we featured included renewable energy, more walking, cycling, public transport and electric vehicles, building more densely especially around transport hubs, tree planting, urban food production and more. It also showed how we will be starting to adapt to climate impacts with managed retreat from parts of the coast, new houses in the hills, restored wetlands and dunes, repairs to sea defenses and even floating houses. There was a new hospital with an organic waste recycling and energy plant next door powering it, and a new rescue base to deal with the increased number of natural disasters. There was a school, a marae, shopping precinct, swimming pool, museum, sports stadium, eco-sanctuary, marine reserve and an ocean-cleaning boat. And also a heap of other futuristic, cool, fun and funny things!

The completed display was 6m long by 1.8m deep and was on show in Coastlands Mall from 31 March through to 29 April 2018. In the preceding two months I recruited and worked with volunteers to plan the display and create the models.

I was enormously impressed with the models the builders produced – they had great ideas and there was a lot of skillful execution also.

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People enjoying the display at Coastlands Mall.


The feedback we got from the public was uniformly positive. I enjoyed spending time down at the display watching and listening the crowds of people enjoy it, and react and understand the content. Some observations:

  • There was a people’s choice vote for the best model and we received over 600 of these. People could see who built which model from the photos on the back, and they enjoyed checking these out. There were also posters explaining some of the models which people paid attention to as well.
  • The moving features were a big attraction. I used a Lego Mindstorms robotics set to make the train and hot air balloon move set distances and turn the motors for the wind turbine and water-wheel on and off. I also programmed all the movements to turn off overnight. Much to my amazement, the arrangement worked reliably for a whole month, with only a daily check-up from me. I honestly expected a motor to burn out from overuse. Pretty good going for a toy!
  • What didn’t work out so well was a button I built to activate the display. I thought it was pretty robust but it was broken from overuse on the first day. I think the problem was people kept pressing it over and over, trying to get a reaction when in fact they (or others) had already activated the movements and just had to watch and wait for a while. With interactivity like this, I have now learned feedback loops involving the public need to be really short and really obvious, and the buttons need to be industrial grade!  I removed the broken button rather than try to repair it, and had everything on a timer from day 2 onwards. This worked just as well, with the display suddenly coming to life and taking people by surprise.
  • Toddlers would charge at the display once they caught sight of it, desperate to get their hands on it. The polycarbonate sheets were the ‘forcefield’ that stopped them. This kind of protection was absolutely essential in the uncontrolled environment of the mall concourse.
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Supporting information on the back of the display.

Despite being on show for a whole month (extended to this by popular demand), many local people missed the display. I have also been asked ‘do you still have it’? by various people. Most of the models were returned to their builders immediately after, and of course setting it up again would be a huge logistical challenge. However, prompted by these requests I created an easy to transport version of the display (1/8th the size of the original), using the models I still had and asking some builders to lend theirs back again. It had a screen showing the YouTube video (above) to explain the full-sized display. I brought this to the BrickconNZ 2018 show in Te Papa at the beginning of June, where a several thousand more people got to see it.

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Smaller version of the display used at BrickconNZ, Te Papa, Wellington 1-3 June 2018.

Anyway, I’m pleased that I have demonstrated once again how Lego can be a highly effective tool to communicate complex subjects. I’m very happy to have given a lot of young builders an opportunity to show off their ideas and improve their skills. And although it is hard to measure, I’m also hopeful that we’ve helped the Kāpiti Community to better understand and buy in to the very necessary real-world changes we need to make to meet the challenge of climate change.

To see more pictures and read more of the background to the project, see the project website here: http://lowcarbonkapiti.org.nz/letsbuildit

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