Sunday, 27 January 2019

No 180: Burn Baby Burn!



For the past 49 years I have effortlessly avoided Burns Night. I was aware of its existence but, being based in London, there is not a much call to partake in a Scottish-centric celebration focussed on (arguably) the most famous Scotsman ever, Poet Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. Burns Night just wasn’t part of my whirlwind social calendar (a hectic nightly schedule of eating chocolate in front of Netflix). This year things changed. This year my wife Stella and I were invited to the annual Northumbrian Water Burns Night celebration. The invite stipulated Highland Dress.

This presented my first challenge. I have a standard dinner jacket which I wear to various back-slapping events throughout the year. Like most DJs, it is too big and makes me look like an oversized penguin. That said, it is at least a straightforward piece of attire and it takes less than 2 minutes to put on. The most complicated it gets is with the addition of a cumberbund, which I have always regarded as a silly piece of clothing designed simply to make fat men thinner and one I have therefore resolutely refused to wear. Highland dress however is a completely different matter. There is obviously the kilt (which I initially wore backwards until the nice Hire Shop man pointed out, in a tone of voice that suggested he thought I wore skirts more frequently than I actually do, that the pleats should be at the back). Then there is the sporran (why they don’t just put pockets in the kilt is beyond me), garters, a little dagger that you tuck in your knee-high socks, a waistcoat, a top-jacket, a bow tie, a special kilt-pin AND a pair of unique kilt shoes which have the most complex laces you can possibly imagine. The Hire Shop man was just as flummoxed as I when it came to how to do up the laces (not quite so clever now Mr I-Know-How-To-Wear-a-Pleated-Skirt, eh?!). Thankfully Mr Google provided the answer. One of the marvels of the modern day is that there are internet chat rooms for literally every kind of need. You can admire my handiwork in the attached photo.

Before I am accused of cultural miss-appropriation I would like to point out that I am 1/16th Scottish. Clark is a proud Scottish name (‘Clarke’ is English). My nasty nasal East-London accent aside, I felt I had enough highland blood coursing through my veins last night to wear my Highland Dress with pride. (That said, only a true 100% Scot would find the chaffing that comes from wearing a rough tartan kilt and a sporran something that they don’t regret the day later).  

The event was held at a multi-award winning venue on the edge of Kielder Reservoir. This is an awe inspiring location, just a few miles south of the Scottish border. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the UK (it also happens to be the darkest sky location in Europe). As it happens it has been a location I have wanted to visit for 8 years. Back in 2011 I had a job interview with Heidi Mottram, CEO for Northumbrian Water. Back then she was relatively new in post and was pulling together her new team. In the interview I asked her (slightly cynically I suspect) to tell me about one of the publicly stated company values: ‘Ethical’. I was keen to hear how she would turn this lovely aspirational goal into something that a modern corporation could credibly claim as their own.

Without hesitation she talked confidently and passionately about the Northumbrian Water holiday cottages, situated around Kielder Reservoir. These cottages were, she claimed, the epitome of Ethical behaviour. Through maintaining these cottages NWL was ensuring that this incredibly rural and remote part of the country had local employment and a thriving healthy community. Her answer was inspiring (Heidi always is). I didn’t get the job but since then I have wanted to see this facility for myself. Last night I did. Stella and I stayed in one of the spectacular cottages (think Centre Parcs…just 1000 times better), it had the perfect balance of ecological sensitivity and heart-warming comfort. No wonder it is something of which NWL staff are rightly proud.

My first Burns Night involved numerous toasts, lots of songs, some lovely speeches and lots and lots of dancing. I even got to spend time with one off my childhood heroes, Olympic runner Steve Cram who now organises the annual Kielder Marathon around the reservoir. Of all the ‘facts’ I learnt about Rabbie (including that he sired 12 children and died at 37, I assume of exhaustion) my favourite is that Bob Dylan cites him as a major influence. As the night became day and the party transformed from a structured celebration into a frantic, glorious disco (aficionados of early noughties dance please note blog title!) this fact felt particularly resonant.

My most popular blog (measured by the number of hits) was no 169 back in September 2017. It was entitled ‘The Bravest Water Utility in the World’, and I shared a story about Wannon Water in Victoria, Australia. I think  Northumbrian Water deserves a similar title. The Most Ethical Water Company? Probably. The Most Environmentally Conscious? I suspect so. The Most Fun to Spend a Night in a Kilt With! Undoubtedly.

Monday, 17 December 2018

No 179: More Wetflix than Netflix


Give me just three minutes of your time and I will show you something incredible. In fact, I will show you three incredible things. Firstly a no-dig repair process for sewers which is magical in its simplicity. Secondly, arguably the most exciting thing to happen in the world of sludge (it’s a narrow field). And thirdly, a makes-you-tingle-with-excitement-at-the-possibilities technology that might, just might, help save the planet from disaster.

First up is Tubogel, a German company with a method for repairing sewers without the need for troublesome roadworks. It is a gloriously simple, involving little more than two special liquids, T1 and T2. To repair a sewer one simply pumps T1 down the offending pipe. T1 seeps into every crook and cranny, and oozes out of any breakages. The pipe is then flushed clean, and T2 is added, where it also seeps and oozes as did its sister only a few minutes before. This is when the magic happens. Where the two liquids touch they become an impenetrable solid, instantly fixing any cracks or breakages. You can see the magic happen in the following clip. Jump to 2min 18 seconds to see the best bit. This is more than just a pipe dream…


Next up is Orege, a French company who has developed the SLG process. This technology significantly enhances sludge thickening and dewatering processes. How the SLG process works is irrelevant, it is what it does that matters. All you need to know can be seen in the following 40 second clip. It shows an Operator taking a sludge sample after it has been SLG’ed. This is my go-to clip when a water utility CEO asks me what is ‘hot’ in the world of wastewater. Watching their jaws drop as the big reveal becomes apparent is a joy to behold.


Finally we come to Los Angeles based company, Advantageous Systems Inc. To be fair, the use of magnetic nanoparticles is not new. Neither is the development of specialist coatings which can proactively bind to specific pollutants. Where Advantageous Systems have made a leap has been in combining the two to create a non-membrane technology that can selectively remove contaminants with minimal energy consumption. Written like that it doesn’t sound exciting, but bear with me because the potential applications are astonishing. The ADS technology can already efficiently remove pollutants such as arsenic, selenium, perchlorate and nitrates, amongst others. The following video clip shows how it works with algae (more visually dramatic than watching arsenic removal!)


My dream for Advantageous Systems is that their technology might remove micro-plastics from wastewaters. Micro-plastics are becoming a serious issue, contaminating our food chain and poisoning our environment. We need to find effective removal solutions. Control at source is the obvious answer but I suspect that’s two generations (40 years) away at least. We need to develop solutions which can deal with the problem right now, especially if we want to maintain our sludge-to-land recycling routes (ie the driver for developing this solution is not just to protect the environment, there is also a public health angle and a clear commercial need). Following discussions with the CEO for Advantageous Systems we are developing a research programme to explore the micro-plastic removal application further. If you want to know more/get involved then let me know. The more brains focussed on the problem the better.

The above clips are part of my growing collection of exciting video clips of innovative water technology technologies. The company I work for, Isle Group Ltd, works with over 200 utilities around the world, helping them identify and adopt new technology. We scour the planet looking for solutions to our utility customers’ challenges and have screened over 6000 technologies in recent years. Isle is an independent technical consultant and we make no commercial gain from recommending one technology over another; we simply look for those technologies that might solve a problem. What I absolutely love about the above clips is that they showcase what they do in a crisp, compelling way. You might not know how the Orege SLG process works, or what the special formuale is in the Tubogel fluids, but you are left in no doubt about what they can do. They get straight to the heart of the technology pitch.

I love my job. Not least because it enables me to mix with some of the worlds hardest working and most inventive entrepreneurs. If you want more information on any of the above please contact me directly (or email August Von Joest (office@vonjoest.de) for Tubogel; Ian Patheyjohns (ian.patheyjohns@orege.com) for Orege or Adam Stein (adam@advantageoussystems.com) for Advantageous Systems). Finally, an important disclaimer: The above is written in good faith. Any miss-representations are completely down to me and my innate ability to oversimplify things and be blindly optimistic about the role technology can play in making the world a better place. Join me in seeing the world through rose tinted spectacles. You will sleep better at night.


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 http://incover-project.eu/). 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.