Thursday, 5 July 2018

No 177: I have never had a desire to go into space. Not until this week that is.

Last Monday I was lucky enough to spend an evening at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. I was part of a personal tour given by Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers. Andre has completed 2 missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and has spent over 200 days in space. Perhaps not surprisingly I found myself in awe of Andre (I am very impressionable). He is in perfect physical form and positively oozes a vibe of serenity and intelligence. You can imagine him calmly telling Ground Control that the engine has died and he is going to have to land the craft with nothing more than elbow grease and spit, and yet still being successful. He also has that impressive capability many Dutch people possess of being able to slip seamlessly between English and Dutch mid-sentence (I did say I was very impressionable).

I confess to having a little bit of a man-crush. However, impressive though Andre is, the star of this story is Hidde Hoogcarspel, the man behind the astonishingly ambitious SpaceBuzz Foundation and the reason I was at the European Space Agency.

The ESA is an amazing place. Three thousand scientists and engineers working tirelessly to push forward our knowledge. I got to see stuff I could never have imagined, from novel space capsules to Mars robots. There is a huge model of the International Space Station hanging in one of the main theatres and this enables visitors to get an insight into just how magnificent, yet claustrophobic, life in space must be. The ISS orbits 400km above the earth. It has 6 permanent astronauts and is stretched out over an area the size of a football pitch. It has been orbiting the earth for 20 years and is comprised of 16 pressurized modules, each carefully and imaginatively named. Russia has Zarya and Zvezda. America’s modules include Harmony and Tranquility. Europe has just one, but its name (Columbus) was clearly chosen to carry the weight of history (and, I suspect, to remind the Americans that we may not have won the space race but Europe ‘discovered’ America so any victory they claim we also have a part in). Japan’s modules are called JEM-ELM-PS and JEM-PM. They clearly missed the memo on ‘how to name your module’, but everyone is too polite to mention it.

At a time when Brexit and Trump might lead us to believe that each country should plough its own furrow the ISS stands as a glorious example of what can be achieved when we work together. But is it worth it, I hear you ask.  All those billions spent on Space Exploration, couldn’t they be better spent? A quick google of ‘inventions we wouldn’t have without space travel’ gives the answer. Literally thousands of inventions owe their creation to the space programme. Teflon. Tick. Satnavs. Tick. CAT Scans. Tick. Ear thermometers. Eh??! Suffice to say, modern life would be very different without space exploration.

This December it will be 50 years since the iconic Earth Rise photo was taken. This was the first time people on earth saw Planet Earth as it truly is: a beautiful, fragile, speck of dust in the awesomeness of space. Astronauts regularly return from space changed. They go into space knowing all the facts about how precious our planet is, but they often return with a renewed perspective and passion for conservation. Our planet is a fragile, insubstantial, beautiful, speck in an unimaginably huge universe. We have sullied it with our manmade boundaries. They may be necessary to have functioning governments but they so often restrict our thinking when it comes to doing what is best for the whole planet.  

This brings us neatly to the heart of the SpaceBuzz initiative. Hidde’s plan is to duplicate the ‘holistic earth’ experience that astronauts encounter and use it to inspire a generation. He intends to build 7000 Space Buses which will tour schools around the globe, reaching 250 million children (Hidde doesn’t lack ambition). The SpaceBuzz programme is aimed at the 9 – 11yr olds and will involve a series of ‘pre-flight’ interactive lessons, followed by a flight in one of the Space Buses (basically huge rockets installed with the latest VR technology that will provide the children with a powerful as-if-you-were-really-there experience). Hidde’s dream is to shift perceptions. Just as slavery is now seen as abhorrent he wants to encourage the next generation to see the world as a delicate, beautiful ecosystem that we cannot take for granted. The SpaceBuzz mantra is Excite, Experience, Educate. I briefly wondered if the SpaceBuzz programme was just another example of scientists getting off on one and being nerdy, but the programme has been carefully crafted to avoid this. Teachers can choose how to develop the ‘post-flight’ experience with their pupils, with options to explore either ecological (flora and fauna), technological (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) or humanitarian angles. The intention is that Isle, the business I work for, will work with Hidde and his team bring to life some of the water-related aspects of this education programme. If you want to help us, please let me know. The more the merrier.

The SpaceBuzz Foundation is supported by some big influential names (WWF, National Geographic, Isle J). If just 0.5% of the children who use it change their views then that is still an impressive 12.5 million people.  That’s enough to make a real difference. Working together we can preserve and protect our planet for future generations. Making the change through the careful design of an inspiring education programme isn’t a particularly new idea. You might even say that it isn’t rocket science.

You would be wrong.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

No 176: Our Meghan Markle Moment

Last night in Birmingham, UK, the 2018 Annual Water Industry Awards were held.  Now in their 12th year and organized by WWT, they mark the beginning of Utility Week Live. It was a big swanky event; posh food, black ties, loud music….you get the picture. After years of never quite making it onto the podium, last night Isle walked away with our first ever award. After years of being the bridesmaid, we finally became the bride.

We won in the category of ‘Sludge and Resource Recovery’. If this were the Oscars it would probably rank alongside the Oscar for Best Lighting but I am not complaining. An Oscar winner is an Oscar winner, whether they are Best Director or something a little more obscure. The same logic applies here. We are a winner. At last.

What made our win all the more glorious was that our entry was for the INCOVER project. INCOVER is a collaborative project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 programme. It has developed innovative and sustainable technologies for resource recovery, working at demonstration (as opposed to laboratory) scale. It is an awesome project (see It has involved testing at scale a wide range of ground breaking sustainable technologies, from hydrothermal carbonization (to generate household fuel from sludge) to algal farms for bioplastics. It was a worthy winner, even if I say so myself.

If Isle was the bride then the groom has to be our fellow European partners. There are (at least) 18 different organisations from across the EU involved in INCOVER, from big utilities to small tech firms, from consultancies to universities. INCOVER is an example of the EU working at its best. As the UK continues on its determined path towards exiting the EU, in all likelihood crashing out without any deal, it is nice to remind ourselves that not everything about the EU was broken. Collaborative, smooth running partnerships do exist. Like-minded, civilised organisations from across Europe are able to work together harmoniously. Who would have thought?   

My role was that of father of the bride. I had next to no direct involvement in the award winning project yet, unlike Meghan’s dad, I dug deep and found within myself the ability to take some of the glory from last night. After all, it has taken 8 years for Isle to make it onto the winners podium. It might never happen again.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

No 175: Get angry. Do something. Be imaginative.

Like many others across the globe I have been spurred by the reports of the accumulation of waste plastic in our natural environment to change how I live, and in particular to change the relationship I have with single-use plastics. It has not been easy. Try and live a day without creating plastic waste and you will see what I mean. It is impossible. You have to cheat and change the terms of the challenge to ‘single use’ plastics and even then it is nigh-on impossible (less than 5% of plastic is reused). Last week I was in a cafĂ© explaining to a friend how I had made it to lunchtime with my only plastic discharge being that annoying plastic cap that goes on the top of milk cartons (weighing less than 0.0005kg; the typical plastic produced per person is between 0.4kg/day – 0.8kg/day). My impressive run however was broken by the arrival of a smoothie (specifically requested in a glass not a plastic cup) with the world’s biggest thickest plastic straw. In a weak lapse in concentration I had lowered my guard and forgotten to stipulate that my drink should be without a plastic straw. It was a rookie error.

I shouldn’t really complain, I have it a little easier than most. As I gracelessly drift into middle age one of the benefits of my receding hairline is that my usage of hair-products, which are invariably contained in plastic, has dropped significantly. It has been 10 years since I used a plastic comb and I hardly ever wash (my hair that is, I am not a complete animal). Nonetheless, when I am in a hotel I still have to actively supress the urge to collect the complimentary bottles of bath foam, shampoo and conditioner. Despite spending half my life in hotels the kleptomaniac in me still hungers to amass these ridiculous freebies, despite them adding nothing whatsoever to the quality of my existence. Like a devout Catholic at confession, I am able to recount exactly how many days it has been since my last shampoo bottle transgression.

Aeroplanes are terrible for plastic usage. The airline hostesses, bless them, bend over backwards to offer a seemingly endless array of single-use plastic items (cups, cutlery and plastic food containers). It is as if my guilt over the carbon footprint of my travel schedule wasn’t burden enough. At least that I can off-set. Hey Mr Airline, want to give good customer service? How about trusting me with a real knife and fork rather than forcing me to pollute the environment with a silly plastic one?  

Of course I recognise that my appetite for plastic is not my only flaw. There are many other  aspects of my life which are equally imperfect and un-environmental: I travel too much, I eat too much red meat, I am about to launch my own unique brand of Shark Fin & Rhino Horn Moisturiser*. But to claim that we shouldn’t address a particular problem simply because there are lots of other problems is wrong, lazy and inexcusable. The build-up of plastic in our environment is an issue we should all get angry about. Righteously angry (the very best sort of angry). A few isolated nutters sending their smoothies back because of a stray plastic straw isn’t enough, We need an army of them.

Some people might argue that small changes made by individuals are meaningless and that real change can only be effected by organisations, politicians and policy makers. They are wrong, We cannot leave this issue to The Suits. It is too big and too thorny to be resolved by them alone. It requires widespread engagement. Thankfully there is lots of activity underway. For example this July Northumbrian Water, a UK Water Company based in the North East of England, is holding its second annual Innovation Festival. This is a week-long event which follows the format of a typical English summer festival (ie lots of rain….) and will involve over a thousand people, both general public and water professionals alike.  During the week there will be a series of  ‘Innovation Sprints’ delving into specific problems. Isle (the business I work for) is leading the Sprint on the plastics challenge.

These Sprints are very intense. Over a 5 day period problems are systematically scoped, solutions evaluated and advancements proposed, refined and tested. It is intense but, as evidenced from last years’ NWL Festival, it delivers great results. The combination of technical brainpower, practical experience and sheer, unadulterated can-do attitude all focused on a target topic is a very powerful tool. Already I have seen some of the potential solutions and they make me quiver with anticipation. I am particularly excited about how the water sector could lead the way with the production of proper biodegradable plastic from sewage sludge (‘proper’ as in fully biodegradable, not the rubbish stuff that is called biodegradable but just breaks into micro particles).

I want you to join me in my Righteous Anger. If you share my passion to address this issue, then please join me in taking action, no matter how small. Cafes will stop using plastic cups only if enough of us make a fuss. It won’t be enough on its own of course. This issue requires a swathe of technical, operational, economic and behavioural solutions, all working in tandem. Perhaps we should start by identifying everyone who disposes of more than 500g/day of plastic and painting their front door with a big red cross.

In blood.


Perhaps that’s going a little too far. Nonetheless, I suspect the limit to how much our generation can solve this problem so that it does not burden the next is the scale of our imagination. If you want to be part of the Northumbrian Water Innovation Festival and the Innovation Challenge on plastics then please let me know, or visit the Northumbrian Water website for more details.  

 *Not all of these are strictly true


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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

No 174: A Valentine’s Day Poem?

If you read the last Notes from Piers the following will make sense. If you didn’t then it won’t.

Suffice to say, Richard Stilgoe is an absolute genius.  


Piers Clark is totally obsessed
With how Darth Vader, once undressed
And locked inside the Dark Star’s loo,
Produces weightless number two.
He wrote about it in his blog –
(An entry he called ‘Captain’s Log’.)

And then, when swimming just off Haiti
(Where Oxfam staff get far too matey)
Piers got a sudden inspiration –
“Super Critical Oxidation! –
That would turn Storm-trooper’s poop
Into pure and tasty soup;
Each time Darth Vader needs to go
We’ll just use S.C.W.O.

To prove this isn’t just a gag
I’ll have it ratified by TAG,
And then, with a small loan from REEF,
It’s my conclusion and belief
That this technology will give
Pure water to help people live!”

He flew back home to tell his staff
Who, trying bravely not to laugh,
Once his opening speech was done
Said “Piers – I think there may be one
Darth Vader fact you might have missed –
He doesn’t actually exist.
He isn’t real – there’s no such bloke,
So your technology’s a joke.”

Cried Piers, “Thank God the staff at Isle
Will always go the extra mile
To test and trial new ideas –
I need the judgment of my peers!”
(At this the staff polite laughs uttered –
They knew which side their bread was buttered).

Piers went on, “Of course I knew
Darth Vader doesn’t really poo,
And thanks to you the truth now dawns –
Instead we will use unicorns!”

The staff said “Poor Piers needs a change;
The Elon Musk Home for the Strange
Must be his future domicile.”
So now, retired, Piers lives in style
And smiles his medicated smile
While dreaming of his happy years
Desalinating all Earth’s tears
With Isle.
Richard Stilgoe
14th February 2018.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

No 173: Forget Starlight Express…

Earlier this month I spent a delightful evening at the top of The Gherkin with Richard Stilgoe. For readers not familiar with Richard, he was famous 3 decades ago for being a witty, charming, raconteur who frequently appeared on TV.1  Think of him as a 1970s Stephen Fry, only wittier. Best known for his humorous songs he wrote the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webbers ‘Starlight Express’ and was part of the writing team behind ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Lovely bloke that he is, he has donated a significant proportion of his royalties from these shows to various charities, including WaterAid. No wonder he was knighted in 2012.

I confess that I was not enjoying an exclusive 1-2-1 evening with Sir Richard. We were attending a WaterAid fundraiser. Part of the evenings fundraising activities included a silent auction, and a ‘personalized poem’ composed by Sir Richard was one of the coveted lots. Buoyed by the fact that my money would support WaterAid I bid feverishly and won. Next came the dilemma of deciding to whom I should dedicate my personalized poem.

Better men may have been tempted to dedicate such a unique gift to their wives. Or gift it to their children for future generations to enjoy. Not me. There was only ever one recipient I wanted my poem to focus on, and that is Isle. Isle is the specialist technical consultancy for which I have been Chairman since it formed in 2010. Today Isle employs 60 people, spread across 8 locations around the world. Our goal is simple: to help the water sector embrace and adopt new technology. I love Isle.

Forget Starlight Express, this could be the start of ‘Isle The Musical’

The fact that 48 hours previously I had been in Haiti with 7 of my Isle colleagues participating in the 5th annual 10km sea swim probably also shaped my decision. As has been recorded in these blogs previously, Isle has strong links with Haiti. This year the Isle team was raising money for Watering Minds, who provide clean water to local schools. $13k has been raised to date by the Isle team, which will ensure over 2600 children get clean water for the next year. Donations can still be made ( Highlights are here:

Quite by chance this year I discovered the secret to having a successful swim. Once the initial horn is blown all the swimmers disperse very quickly and it can become a very long, very lonely and very gruelling event. This year, after about 2km I spotted another swimmer 20 yards ahead of me. It was a lady about my age, powering her way through the sea. I was immediately taken back 30 years to when I first met my wife at our local swimming club. I would chase her down the pool, trying to keep up. I locked into the same mind-set, imagined that she was my wife and that I was once more a hormonal 17 year old chasing the woman of my dreams through the water. The remaining miles just melted away and we crossed the finish line together, achieving personal bests of 2 hours and 54 minutes. Admittedly this is 30 minutes behind the winner, but he was a man called Diego and had the distinct advantage of having been born with both gills and fins.

When I shared with my new swimming partner, whom I had been chasing for the previous 2 hours, that my mental strategy had been to fantasize that she was my wife, she gave me a look that could only be interpreted as ‘Step back Wierdo. You are a creep’. Somehow the deeply romantic angle to my strategy, which had seemed so righteous at the time, got lost in the telling. My wife seemed equally unimpressed. Apparently chasing other women is always wrong. Always. Period.  

I may need to rethink to whom my poem is dedicated.

 1 For readers not familiar with The Gherkin it is an iconic London building, so named for its uncanny resemblance to a small pickled cucumber. Other London landmarks named after fish and chip accompianments include the Curry Sauce Interchange and Pickled Egg Circus.