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How the Sun Solved France’s Cigarette Dilemma


solar parasols in Paris

A few weeks ago we featured a conceptual innovation at the intersection of solar technology and urban design. Today, we bring you a concrete solar innovation at this same intersection. In addition to decreasing pollution and utilizing previously empty urban spaces, this solar innovation that could change the world includes a world capital, cafes, and one of the world’s biggest cash crops.

Cigarettes Riding Into The Sunset

Starting in 1995 when California became the first state to ban cigarette smoking in enclosed public places, there has been a trend around the world to adopt smoking bans. In 2006, France added itself to the list of places with smoking bans. What’s interesting about France adopting a cigarette smoking ban is the intimate relationship and history the French have with cigarettes. The French have been importing and smoking tobacco since the 16th century. In fact, the word cigarette is a French word. The word nicotine was named after the French diplomat, Jean Nicot, who imported tobacco leaves from America to treat Catherine de Medici’s migraines. French creativity icons like Coco Chanel and Jean-Paul Sartre are famous for smoking cigarettes. How is a country rich in cigarette history supposed to reconcile a modern smoking ban?

Enough Nostalgia – Smoking Kills

Of the 66 million people in France 20 percent – about 13 million people – are smokers and it is estimated that 70,000 people die every year in France of smoking related illnesses and secondhand smoke. The story is no different than anywhere else in the world. So in 2006, the French enacted a country wide ban on smoking in public places. The ban granted postponements for cafes, restaurants, discos, casinos, and other commercial pleasure enterprises so they could brace for the effects of the ban.

In 2008, the smoking ban finally took effect in the cafes and restaurants. In a classic example of enterprising creativity, commercial pleasure enterprises found loopholes in the ban and began building terraces that were almost entirely covered to accommodate their smoking clientele. After flouting the ban for many years, regulators finally caught up with bars and cafes this summer by banning smoking on terraces that have awnings or ceilings.

The updated ban has forced smokers to go outside to get their fix. In the comfort of summertime weather this is no big deal but during a Parisian winter it’s a different story. To attract cigarette smoking customers to their establishments, cafe owners have been heating the outside of their businesses with gas powered heaters, emitting shameful amounts of carbon dioxide in addition to cigarette smoke.

Solar Innovation and Urban Design Meet Again

Paris has gained a reputation of meeting challenging urban issues with innovative solutions in the past few years. Instead of issuing request for proposals for what the city needs, the city puts out challenges for the public to solve. The city identifies the best idea from the submissions, tests it, and scales the idea if it works. One of the most notable ideas that has been implemented through these challenges are fully wired bus stops featuring touch screens and charging stations.

After Parsian city officials could not find a domestic partner with an idea to solve the issue of gas heaters and cigarette smoke, they took their challenge international. The American urban design firm Amorphica’s solar-power parasols ended up with the winning idea. Their solar-powered parasols create heat from the solar power for those under the parasol, and absorbs the cigarettes. This dual function provides a seamless integration of solar innovation while catering to the needs of smokers and government policy.

The solar-powered parasols comply with the smoking ban and decrease pollution from the heaters and cigarettes. Best of all the parasols can be affixed to existing urban structures, like bus stops to provide shelter and warmth, making them useful for more things than just nasty habits. Parisian city officials are testing the solar-powered parasols in a few different locations and plan to scale them across the 10,000 cafes in the city with outdoor seating if they prove successful.

Using Solar For Sustainable Urbanization

Many cities are using climate change and other challenges as an opportunity to reimagine what a city should look like in the modern era. Submitting these challenges to the public is an innovative way to find solutions to urban problems and can help us create a vision for how cities should evolve. As more and more people around the world flock to cities, sustainable urban planning and design will become increasingly important and it looks like solar innovation will play a pivotal role in that transition.

Solar parasols in Amsterdam

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Boyd Arnold is a member of Mosaic’s business development team.  Prior to working at Mosaic, Boyd worked in investment consulting and has experience starting businesses.  He graduated from the University of Colorado and has completed all three levels of the CFA.  Boyd enjoys cycling, brewing beer, and baseball. Follow him on twitter @boydarnold.