Friday, 19 October 2018

No 178: Why old men are grumpy (and how to make them happy)

I like to think of myself as young at heart, but the sad truth is that I am steadily, relentlessly, getting older. The things that brought me joy in the past have changed. I stopped enjoying rollercoasters in my thirties (they make my bones hurt). In my early forties I found that the rush of adrenaline one gets after a great session in the gym had lost its intensity. I just felt even more tired after the session than I did before I squeezed into my lycra (and squeezing into the lycra is almost enough exercise on its own). And now, as I head towards 50 and the age of Grumpy Old Man-dom, I find that if I eat a whole pack of Haribo (as I did last week on a long haul flight - don’t judge me), I no longer get a glorious sugar rush. Instead I just feel a bit sick with a bloated stomach. And my jaws ache.

I have always wanted to age gracefully, but not joylessly. Fortunately I have discovered a new form of entertainment: annoying my accountant.

Long time readers of this blog (apologies for the hiatus by the way) will have already heard about REEF. REEF is the name of the ‘foundation’ we created in Isle back in 2012. It stands for the Revolving Economic Empowerment Fund. REEF provides financial support to water and sanitation entrepreneurs in developing and emerging countries. What makes REEF different to other charitable donations is that our contributions are presented to the recipient as an unsecured loan, not a charitable gift. Essentially we provide loans that no sensible bank would ever endorse! The fund is ‘revolving’ because any money that is repaid is then recirculated to other entrepreneurs (making the money work time after time after time). Obviously since the loan is ‘unsecured’ the recipients could simply treat it as a donation, but they don’t. Everyone who has received support from REEF has treated the money like a proper business loan.

REEF is a marvellous entity and you might think that this blog is going to be me sanctimoniously preaching about how doing this sort of good deed brings joy to my heart, etcetera, etcetera... However, that is not the case. Good though REEF clearly is, my real joy comes from the fact that one of the rules of a REEF investment is that we proudly operate with no (or very very little) paperwork. This annoys my accountant more than words can express, and that fact rather perversely brings a joy to my heart that is similarly inexpressible.

Of course being an accountant he is never truly happy (they are not allowed to be, I think it is part of their professional code). I did see a brief smile once when I shared with him that, despite his cruel belief to the contrary, I do keep and file (some of) my receipts. However when he saw that it was basically just a box into which I randomly toss the receipts his joy melted away (and strangely mine grew….).

The thinking behind REEFs paperless approach is that, rather than spending money on legal paperwork, it is more powerful, more compelling and massively more uplifting for the recipient. By showing the entrepreneur that we trust them we build a strong emotional contract. To date, no one has squandered our trust.

This brings me to our latest REEF investment. It is also the best named charity I have ever come across. In true Catherine ‘Am I bovvered’ Tate style, it is called ‘WellBoring’. WellBoring already provides water solutions for 50 African schools. They expect to reach 100 in the next two years. Our initial investment is to help them repair a drilling rig. Longer term however I want to fund WellBoring’s plan to pilot a model where a "Funji" is employed. A Funji is essentially a waterman/woman who looks after the well site and collects tiny amounts of cash from residents (note to water companies – call your customer service agents Funjis, I think they would like it J). The aim of the Funji is to recoup some of the capital cost, thereby enabling a faster roll-out. This approach is untried and there will inevitably be challenges, but it might be a game-changer and is just the sort of initiative that REEF loves to support (ie creating local employment).

If it works I suspect even my Accountant might grudgingly agree that it is a good idea.

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.