This startup wants to clear cities of cigarette butts using crows (yes, the bird)


Sometimes you run into an idea that seems so ridiculous, you simply have to know more about it – even if it’s just to scoff at idiocy. In most cases, thankfully, that’s where it ends. But in some rare cases, crazy ideas follow a different curve. Allow me to sketch it out:

I’m quite obviously no designer, but the y-axis of this graph represents brilliance, the x-axis ridiculousness. Now, on the far left, you’ll notice the curve approaching a horizontal asymptote at 0 – an idea always has a sliver of ridiculousness, just stemming from the fact that we can think of ideas at all.

Moving away from there, ideas become less brilliant as they become more ridiculous – up to a certain inflection point, where perceived ridiculousness can suddenly turn into brilliance.

I digress.

In a recent email announcing the winners of the Dutch Accenture Innovation Awards, which I opened out of sheer post-lunch boredom, the first entry under the category ‘Perfect Cities’ was a startup called Crowbar (Crowded Cities). The description read: ‘A smart machine that trains crows to pick up cigarette butts from the street.’ Right, I thought.

But then I thought more.

I thought of this:

And this:

And opened the link.

Crowded Cities started more or less on a lark. Industrial designers Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman came up with the idea when they noticed the tremendous amount of cigarette butts around them in a park in Amsterdam – and started theorizing a solution.

The most obvious answer was robots, but neither of them thought it would be very elegant to pull off the complex programming needed to vacuum up butts in-between bike wheels and other city nooks and crannies. So they turned their attention to birds.

“First we thought of pigeons,” Ruben tells me in their design studio in the center of Amsterdam, “which would have been great because there are so many of them in cities.” Unfortunately, a quick search revealed that there was not much known about the intelligence of pigeons, and that training them would be hard.

Luckily there’s another type of bird that loves living near humans and possesses the ability to problem-solve and learn autonomously. I can try to stretch this, but you know I’m talking about crows.

For those who are not aware of the wonderful intelligence the corvid family possesses: I envy you. You have an incredible YouTube journey ahead of you.

For those marginally aware: Most of what you’ve heard is true. Crows are currently ranked among the most intelligent species on the planet, with an encephalization quotient (fancy word for smarts) equal to that of chimpanzees.

Thanks to their understanding of causality, crows can conceptualize, create, and use tools. They play, learn from each other, and can manipulate humans into helping them out. Some types of crows can even count. No joke.

“Then we bumped into this project by a guy named Joshua Klein, and everything clicked,” Ruben tells me.


Credit: The Crow Box