In a world saturated by start-ups there is only one way to get yourself noticed; solve a problem that affects everyone. That is the leading idea by the Dutch company Crowded Cities, who is in the proses of fostering a generation of litter picking crows. The idea is inspired – or more appropriately disgusted – by the tremendous amount of cigarette butts surrounding major cities, industrial designers Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman came up with the idea.
Crowded Cities proposes the concept of a 'crowbar' which is a smart machine training crows to pick up cigarette butts from the street. The idea is an evolution of the 'crow box', an open source project that dispenses peanuts after crows insert coins – in essence, a vending machine for birds. Even though it seems like farfetched ideas that insist you do not underestimate the cleverness of a crow and those who are marginally aware will not. This particular species is ranked among the most intelligent on the planet, with a relative brain size measure equal to chimpanzees (a simple search on any video hosting site and subsequent four hours spent in amazement provide enough proof).
The first step for Crowded Cities is to present the crow with food on a tray in the machine; teaching the creature that the crowbar is, in fact, a new-age tuck shop for birds. The food is cleverly placed next to a cigarette butt getting the crow used to its existence before the food is taken away, only dispensed when the crow arrives. The second step in this learning process is that "the crow gets used to the machine doing things", says Spikman.
The third step is crucial as here the food is completely removed leaving only the butt. When the crow arrives, clever as they are, it eventually knocks the butt into the receptacle causing the food to drop. Step four involves the scattering of cigarette butts around the machine, mimicking those that are found ‘in the wild’ encouraging the bird to reset its life’s mission, destined to clean-up after the human race.
To be able to complete the Crowded Cities project, the pair is looking for a way to fund a serious experiment to understand the possibility of training wild crows. Crowded Cities have already acknowledged the potential sacrifice of a few crows in their bid to clean the streets of butts or perhaps the solution will conjure a response in those causing the problem – the cigarette smokers. If crows become too efficient cigarettes could be scavenged before they’ve even reached the pavement, leaving city smokers stunned as the dedicated trainees make off with their packs of 20. Then again, as some governments increase the efforts of their plight to ban smoking, perhaps the opening of crowbars in major cities could kill two birds with one stone (or butt).