Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Underground Food Movement


I am standing on a busy corner in South London. Cars are hooting at each other, people’s heads are down as they walk quickly to an office or home and barely anyone notices a padlocked gate to an off round building set slightly back from the road.

But it is here that a revolution in farming is starting that could help bring agriculture from the leafy countryside right into the heart of our noisy cities.

There is no obvious bell to ring – so I shout and a friendly face pops out from a Portacabin. The face belongs to Steven Dring, who together with Richard Ballard has built a farm 33 metres below street level in the dark and damp tunnels of an old municipal bomb shelter. Their company is called Growing Underground.

We pull open the metal doors to the stairwell and take the long walk down the spiral staircase. It looks like a disused railway station but Steve tells us it was a shelter for VIPs during the war. The locals got annoyed that they couldn’t use it and persuaded the authorities to open it to everyone. However it took so long to build, no one is sure that it was ever actually used.

At the end of one of the tunnels they have constructed a tent in which they can control the lighting, hearing and circulating water supply. To the background sound of the rumbling tube trains which seem to be all around us, they are growing salads for use by restaurants. One of their backers and customers is Michelle Roux Junior – the Michelin starred chef and owner of the restaurant La Gavroche – which sits the other, distinctly more upmarket, part of town.

We have lots of filming to do, Steve says there is a phone linked by cable to the surface, so we can call him if we need to find our way out. With that, he leaves us to our own devices whilst he heads top-side to sell more salad.

We wondered around with the square LED battery light we use for filming and occasionally turn it on under me face to add to the ghoulish feel of the place. It wasn’t long before we got lost. Every tunnel looked the same. Endless damp tubes seemingly leading to no-where.

Getting lost was funny then it was worrying. I can get lost when I’m in central London and can jump on a bus to get me home – so down here with no obvious way out – it was clear I should never have gone far from the phone connection to the surface.

The crew were more confident of finding our way back and did eventually get us back to the tunnel being used to grow salad. I picked up the phone to say we could do with a guide to find our way back to the exit stairs – only to find that wasn’t working.
Well at least we wouldn’t starve. We had a tunnel full of salad to keep us going until someone noticed we were missing.

This underground farm is a curious world within a world. A world of opposites – dark, damp and un-light brick tunnels hosting a brightly light tent, smelling of fresh herbs and the sound of filtered water being pumped round.

But this underground farm isn’t meant to be just a novelty. Food miles accounts for a huge amount of wasted energy in the food industry. Transporting food from farm to fork involves a lot of transportation, packaging, pollution and waste. Bringing food production nearer to where it is consumed can help dramatically cut the waste and pollution.

The company I’m visiting, claims its food can be picked and in a kitchen within 4 hours of being picked and packed. By using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology, their crops can be grown year-round in the perfect, pesticide-free environment.

Because it has total control over their environment, they can create a consistency that helps quality control.

Their hydroponics system, they say, uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, and because all the nutrients are kept within the closed-loop system they say they run no risk of contributing to agricultural run-off.

Bringing food production closer to the market is serves is an appealing notion. Whether it can be a significant contribution to world agriculture, is another matter. But who knows, maybe one day the cities will be home to hundred of underground farms where city inhabitants need only reach below their feet to pluck a carrot and a nice sprig of rosemary.


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The Rise of The Robot Surgeon

The robot Surgeon is a phrase, which conjures up a clinical foreign future. But it’s wrong to think of it like that for a couple of reason.

Firstly it’s not really the future; it’s already with us. Secondly, the surgeon is no more robotic than they are now – but the tools they are using are becoming more advanced and robotic-like.

To understand the future of surgery I went to a low-rise building just off one of the main roads in Sunnyvale California. The town is home to the headquarters of Yahoo and sits in the centre of the high-tech Silicon Valley. That’s no coincidence – this is a technology company as much as it is a medical one.

Globally the market for medical robots and devices is growing. It’s already worth more than five billion dollars – and is set to be worth nearly 14 billion dollars by 2018. [1]

The company I was visiting creates a robotic surgery technology called the Da Vinci system.

Da Vinci robots operate in hospitals worldwide, with an estimated 200,000 surgeries conducted in 2012, most commonly for hysterectomies and prostrate removals.[2]

However the Da Vinci robot is thought to cost around $2 million- so while the technology is around – it’s not around much as cost prohibits its widespread use.[3] At least the Da Vinci machines cost a lot less than many of the real Da Vinci paintings.

The Da Vinci robots look a little like the robots that build many cars. Articulated arms swivel from a central joint. However there is no welding going on here, it’s a much more precise kind of operation.

To see how precise, I was allowed into their training facility to become surgeon for the day.

No patients were harmed in the making of this film and so I was operating on a tiny display of rubber bands and rubberised sticks. They were only a few centimetres high and my job was to pick up the tiny rubber band and hook it over the tiny stick.

The surgeon, or me, sits across the room from the patient and looks through a video panel at a display, which is magnified many times. I controlled the robotic arms via a few joysticks and foot pedals which allowed me to turned my large imprecise hand movements into very controlled small movements around the rubber bands.

It takes about half an hour to get the basic feel for it – and by then I was getting so confident I felt I could really have a go at a patient. There were no volunteers amongst the crew though so I stuck with the rubber bands.

Technology likes this of course enables surgeons to conduct very precise surgery. But it seems to me the full advantages haven’t quite been reached.

I was sitting just a few feet away from the operating table – but there is no real reason why I couldn’t have been sitting at home controlling the operation thousands of miles away in California.

If that happens, it would open a future in which patients around the world could benefit from surgical skills, not of robots but of human surgeons in different countries, delivered to them by robotic arms but very much dependent on a human surgeon’s skill. That, I think is the real future of the robotic surgeon and his very human skills.



[2] Babbage Science and technology (18 January 2012). “Surgical robots: The kindness of strangers”. The Economist. Retrieved 21 February 2013.

[3] “The Slow Rise of the Robot Surgeon”. MIT Technology Review. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.

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Rubbing Along – The Secret of Power

In the last 40 years we have more than doubled the amount of energy we use.[1] In the last 95 years petrol consumption in the US has risen by more than 1200%.[2]

We have long since lived in an age of energy dependency. People power very few things and almost everything we need to do: work, travel, build and entertain ourselves is now reliant on energy generation. Even the simple act of writing is now largely computer based and reliant on electricity.

The future of energy generation and supply is one of those fundamental forces that will shape our societies.

In search of what that future will be, I went to see both one of the most important men in the global industry and someone who at the moment – few will have heard of – but may be hearing more about in the future.

I began on the South Bank of the Thames in London at the headquarters of one of the most influential energy companies in the world to speak to their boss. I had come to Shell headquarters to meet the chief executive Ben van Beurden.

In a very open and honest conversation he talked about the failure of the industry to get engaged with the energy debate. He also believes society does not recognise the role that energy plays. He thinks that the global industry has now to invest $2 trillion a year or £150m every 2 hours to try and create an energy system to fuel the 21st century.

In a world in which, he says, energy demand will double in the first half of this century he claims we can’t image the scale of innovation that will be needed to safely fuel the energy hungry planet.

Well imaging the future is what the Horizons series is all about – so we took that challenge from one of the biggest names in the global energy business and went to see how it is being answered by a professor in China who few outside his specialised area will have heard of, but who is working to create a technology which might go some way to the re-imagining being called for by Ben van Beurden.

In the regularly smog filled capital of China, I went to Chinese Academy of Science to meet Professor Zhong Lin Wang.

He and his team are working on a form of electricity generation called Tribo Electricity. The word comes from the Greek word Tribein meaning To Rub.

Sitting in his laboratory he wanted to show me how he could create electricity. He showed me a piece of copper and a piece of plastic and rubbed them together. Nothing at all happened. In the grand scheme of scientific demonstrations it didn’t rank very highly. Or so I thought at first.

Although I wasn’t able to see anything – something dramatic had happened. At a microscopic level, the pure action of rubbing these two materials together had caused electrons to pass from one to the other. It has also caused a positive and a negative charge. The action of running them together and pulling them apart had created the tiniest electric current.

This Nano electricity generation wasn’t in itself going to change the world but what if we all wore generating materials in our clothes – of if our shoes hitting the streets or shopping mall walkways, could create a small charge. The millions of feet that pound city street or shopping centres would suddenly create quite significant bits of electricity. One square meter of his material, he said, would be enough to power an oven to cook my dinner.

His team of students showed me how you could generate electricity by imbedding the materials in a computer mouse – so every time I clicked I created electricity. They imbedded them in doormats and perhaps more significantly, showed how you could create huge amounts of energy by putting floating balls in the sea and generate power every time the waves bounced the balls off each other.

Professor Wang claimed a 200km by 100km stretch of sea would be enough to generate the same electricity as created by the controversial 3 Gorges Dam in china.

The professor believes this is exactly the sort of innovation that could change the world. You haven’t heard of it yet, he said, but he’s only been working on the project for 4 years and is still trying to persuade the government and investors that this has potential. This energy revolution, he says, is only just beginning.

[1] Source: IEA – Key World Energy Statistics, as per 2014. Source in Wikipedia.

[2] US Energy Information Administration at


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