Bay Lights Project Turns to Tech Leaders to Bridge Funding Gap

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1937, six months after the Bay Bridge, “the whole world fell in love with it, and the poor old Bay Bridge, with a cinder on its cheek, began doing the really hard work of carrying 280,000 cars a day,” laments Davis, who also runs a San Francisco-based creative agency called Words Pictures Ideas. The Bay Lights project will finally be “a moment for that bridge to shine,” he says.

In Villareal’s designs, the bridge’s cables will be studded with a network of LEDs, each one foot apart. A computer will control the lights to produce an ever-shifting pattern of dots, rays, and waves. Davis says the lights will be attached to the cables using special non-pinching clips designed by local chocolate magnate Timothy Childs, founder of TCHO, and prototyped on a Makerbot 3D replicator.

“That’s one of the heroic little stories” about the project, Davis says. The manufacturer of the LEDs had thought about using zip ties, but they “didn’t want to be responsible for pinch that might be applied to the cables. We got a really strong assist from Timothy, and the Makerbot tech has been key to fluidly getting the new clip tested.”

Villareal has already made it clear that the designs shown on the bridge will be abstract, with no images or text. That means you won’t be seeing giant Google, Cisco, or Bank of America logos plastered across the bay—but at the same time, it means Davis’s group is forgoing a major funding source.

“This bridge belongs to all of us,” Davis explains. “We’ve been really clear that while we are inviting participation from everybody and are willing to share with supporters in a variety of ways, it’s not the kind of thing where you can have a title or a sponsorship. No one will ever get their image on Villareal’s art.”

But what about non-commercial experimentation? Wouldn’t it be cool, for example, to let Bay Area fifth-graders compete for the chance to show their own designs on the bridge? Davis says Bay Lights’ board has ruled that out too.

“Without question, in the world we live in there is an impulse for almost everything that can be interactive to become interactive,” he says. “We have had significant conversations about this topic, but Villareal’s experience is that there aren’t ways to do it well. This is an important enough space and venue that we don’t want to open it to public-playground interpretations.”

So the clock is ticking on Bay Light’s effort to raise the last $3 million—two-thirds of which must be gathered by July 1. Davis says he hopes other tech leaders will follow in the footsteps of the group’s very first backer, Automattic CEO and WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg.

“He was 27 at the time, and for him to find his philanthropic muscles so early made all the difference for us in the early days,” says Davis. “We need more heroism. We need people to step up who are really eager to give back and support this shared experience.”

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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