Monthly Archives: May 2016

MEETING THE MAN ON THE MOON

A Rendezvous with Buzz Aldrin

The Real Rock Star

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I have interviewed the world’s richest men, have grilled the chief executives of some the country’s biggest companies and peered at test tubes with many of the world’s leading scientists – but my family have never been excited by the prospects of what I was going to do until I told them I was off to meet a man who walked on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the lunar surface. In fact only 12 people have shared that adventure in the whole history of mankind.

It’s taken some time to set up this interview and despite offering to fly to wherever he was, it turns out that the most convenient time for him to meet me is when he is in London.

Buzz is 86 years old but he walks into our room like a rock star – which of course he is in a very literal way. He wears a short leather biking jacket and his fingers are covered in chunky rings. He has some large bracelets and star spangled braces. He drapes his leather jacket over the chair to reveal a trim body and a tight black tee-shirt.

He must have told his stories thousands of times but his eyes remain bright and he’s full of an energy that belie his 86 years.

I wanted to meet him not so much to talk about the adventures of his past but of his ideas for future space travel and in particular his designs to enable astronauts to travel to Mars.

Mars is roughly 225 million kilometers from earth. In a Jumbo Jet it would take more than 30 years, one way. With our current space technology we’re talking six to eight months.

To get round the problem of having to carry huge amounts of fuel to power the long journey to Mars – the Aldrin-Cycler spacecraft would use the gravitational orbit of earth and Mars to help keep a vessel on a continual orbit between the two planets.

Earth bound astronauts would then only need a rocket to leave Earth and join the Aldrin Cycler on which they are hitching a ride. Once the Cycler gets near to Mars they would then use their rocket to jump off and make a relatively small journey down to the Red Planet.

The Cycler relies on the right alignment of planets, so it couldn’t be used on a whim. And it would still take more than 5 months to get to Mars – nuclear propulsion –  which in theory uses a series of nuclear explosions to create thrust – could be much faster at around 30 days.  The Florida Institute of Technology, in the United States is working with Buzz to develop his ideas.

His idea, he says, is being taken seriously but I asked him whether it felt rather old fashioned to worry about putting people on Mars when robots could do the job as well. Wasn’t this idea a but stuck in the philosophy of the Apollo missions of old.

Not old fashioned and not silly, he says. Buzz talked about how we already built 2 Mars Rovers. In the space of 5 years he says they did the work  that an astronaut could have done in 1 week. Humans are still better than machines.

As Buzz’s family and assistants start looking like they need to move him to his next engagement, I asked how confident he was we would eventually land a person on Mars.

Getting there is the easy part, he says. It’s getting back that might be more difficult. With that he was rushed off to meet a party of school children at the Science Museum’s space exhibition.  With that, Buzz and his leather jacket bobs off into the distance followed by a comet-like tail of fans, family and advisors.

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A Second Life

Dame Ellen McArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur wants to change the world. She became famous for breaking the world sailing record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. The boat she did it in was a little shorter than a tennis court. The circumnavigation took her 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes 33 seconds.

When you are alone in a boat in the middle of the ocean you have to be independent. The resources you carry with you are all you have. There is no popping to the shop to refresh supplies. So you fix, re-use and re-cycle as much as you can.

That make-do approach is the philosophical driving force behind a charity she founded when she hit shore, it’s called the Circular Economy Foundation.

The Foundation believes the take, make and dispose society, is no longer sustainable. It believes there is a new way of designing the world and the things we produce in it.  It believes everything should have a second chance – a second life, if not a third and a fourth.

On the morning I’m due to meet her, I wake up to the old world clatter of a big lorry and men at work. The men who pick up the recycling rubbish at my house come later than the men who pick up the throw away rubbish – so on a Monday you get a double loud visit of banging bins, hydraulic crushers and big engines.

I’m careful about what I buy and I certainly believe I’m a conscientious consumer and yet each week the pavement outside my house testifies to the amount of stuff I throw away.

I’m not alone. The world produces a lot of things. Global use of raw materials, from energy to minerals and metals will reach 140 billion tonnes a year by 2050, three times what it was in 2000[1] and so much of it is thrown away.

I was due to meet Dame Ellen at the Royal Thames Yacht Club overlooking Hyde Park. Much of the crew’s early morning preparations are trying to get the builders next door to agree to stop banging for half an hour during the interview and thoughts about whether I should keep calling her Dame Ellen. I think it sounds much too formal but I don’t want to be disrespectful so I try a strategy of not mentioning her name very much at all and just smiling a lot.

Dame Ellen is not at all formal, even in the rather old world atmosphere of the Yacht Club. In fact, we get chatting about a school we both know where she came to give a speech. The school were clearly expecting a much more traditional kind of Dame. But this particular one came in jeans. She was helpfully told by the Head they had a room in which she could change into something more formal. The only problem being – she didn’t have anything – she came dressed as she was.

Her casual, friendly approach should not be mistaken for any lack of seriousness in the task she thinks lies ahead of us.

“We’re in a world where we need answers.” She tell me. Today our economy is predominantly linear. That is to say that we take a material out of the ground, we make something out of it, and then ultimately at the end of its life that product gets thrown away.”

Within a circular economy, you build an economy which is cyclical rather than linear in nature. So by design that product is provided in a way that enables it to be remanufactured, enables it to be disassembled, enables components to be recovered.

She says he approach is “based on hard economics. We live in a world that has more volatility in raw material prices than we’ve ever seen before in history. We’ve got three billion new middle class consumers entering the global marketplace. We have a growing population. We have finite resources. We’re using them more and more quickly. The moment you go circular, you unlock a different form of growth. A form of growth that keeps products, components and materials within and at the highest value and utility at all times.

And that is driven by hard economics and it’s driven by profit for business. And all of that is decoupled from those resource constraints.”

There was no way I was going to attempt a circumnavigation of the world to test her approach but I was prepared to take a budget flight to The Netherlands to see how it was operating in practice.

I arrived at the trendy offices of a company called Fairphone in a converted warehouse loft in Amsterdam, which has developed a smart phone which share the principals of the circular economy.

Adam Shaw with Bas van Abel the CEO of Fairphone in Amsterdam

Rather than just throwing it away each time there’s a model update, this company has designed the product so each element can be replaced. If you want to upgrade the camera or the speaker, you don’t need a new phone, you just pop in a new element.

The CEO, Bas van Abel offers me his phone and says I am welcome to pull it apart. I can open the back and take all the elements out, dismantle the electronics and pop out the camera. It might make for good TV I say, but I tell him I once tried to replace the element in my toaster and ended up destroying the device and had myself a mini breakdown and I didn’t think he should trust me with his phone.

Phone

The point he says is that they’ve made an architecture on the phone that people can actually replace the parts themselves. He’s confident I won’t break anything. True enough I dismantle the phone and can put it back together.

The phones are not cheap – they cost around 500 euros and they want to compete with the best of Apple and Samsung.

There is also something curious that happens when you fix something yourself or when you upgrade your own handset. Van Abel says “If you repair something, you start to love that thing more. And you start knowing the stories behind it. And I think that is also an important aspect, a psychological aspect of people wanting to use that phone longer.”

There is even a message on the home page of the phone reminding you how long you have had it. Many companies might want this reminder to jog you into an expensive upgrade. Fairphone believes it reminds you how proud you should be to have kept the phone so long.

The notion of recycle and re-use is being investigated by many different organisations around the world. Another is the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in the U.S.A. I visited their labs to meet Professor Marion Emmert who is helping pioneer a new industry of Urban Mining.

The idea is that we are surrounded by precious metals and materials that are imbedded in the products we often throw away. Rather than dig down deep into the earth to find new metals – we could mine them form the products we already have around us but no longer find useful. In particular, this urban mining approach could be useful in re-using rare earth metals.

They are the seventeen rare earth elements or metals. Our need for them is escalating, yet our ability to source them is limited.  These vital elements are increasingly needed in electric cars, mobile phones, even medical imaging devices, because they’re good at conducting electricity.

At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Professor Marion Emmert has developed new ways to extract them.

With the help of her students and colleague, Professor Emmert is taking old motors, demagnetizing the elements and shredding the metals.  They add diluted acid which dissolves the material which contains the rare earths. They then selectively precipitate the rare earths to isolate them ready for re-use.

At the moment it’s about 20 percent more expensive to get the material from this process than digging it out of the earth. But Professor Emmert says they are actually in negotiations with several companies thinking about how they can scale it up and make it really commercially feasible.

Marion Emmert and Adam

Professor Emmert let me have a go. She’s a stickler for safety and I have to wear two pairs of glasses – my own and some safety glasses on top – which makes me look like a dotty professor but ensures my eyes safety from all the acid I’m using. After s fairly simple set of processes I manage to extract some rare earth metals from a small electric defunct motor which would otherwise have been thrown away.

I’ve seen examples of the way industry could change to benefit the planet and even help economics. From phones in The Netherlands to Motors in the USA – we are seeing the development of new ways to imaging the way industry can work.

Let’s not pretend that is about to suddenly change the way we live. My rubbish bags remain full – despite my best efforts to cut down on waste. But serious thought and research effort is starting to be focused on a way of re-imaging the world.

A sailor’s journey around the world may well end up helping to change it.

 

Footnotes:________________________________________________________

[1] http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/publications/Poster3-Decoupling-FinalScreen.pdf http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/press%20release/Decoupling%202%20Press%20Release%20English.pdf

 

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Abundant World?

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As the world’s population grows and gets richer, so is demand on the world’s resources. If we’re going to supply enough food, clean water and energy for millions more people, we are going to have to re-think a lot of our approaches to industry and technology.

So I’ve come to a place where they are trying to re-imagine the world. It is the Singularity University based at the NASA Ames campus in California. I’ve come to meet Peter Diamandis who along with Ray Kurzweil founded the University which aims to help people think differently about the world and how it can be shaped by a new era of technology.

Peter and Ray have a long list of honours and achievements. Ray is Director of Engineering at Google but he also invented the world’s first CCD Flat Bed Scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano. Peter Diamandis is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the X Prize. The prize was created to run a $10 million competition to create private passenger-carrying space craft. It’s now a foundation with many prizes to encourage technological innovation in lots of different fields.

The Singularity university is the focus of some serious attention by some very serious minded organisation and is supported by Google and Cisco amongst others.

We set up filming in one of the University Labs next door to a lecture theatre in which Peter Diamandis was presenting to a group of business leaders. He is a man in demand. He ran in for our interview between a number of meetings and whilst we took some publicity shots, he was also continuing a meeting with someone who had followed him from the lecture.

Peter is a man who likes to paint big and bold pictures of the future. His best-selling book called ‘Abundance-The Future Is Better Than You Think’ encourages its readers to think differently about the world – to think of it as a world of plenty. He believes technology is taking what used to be scarce and is making it abundant. His Book called ‘Bold’ drawers parallels between the modern world and the one which saw the end of the dinosaurs. Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur., he says. This new asteroid is called “exponential technology.” Peter’s view is that this tech astroid is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period. It will create a new era of opportunity and abundance.

Such optimistic visions of the future make me sceptical. In a world where millions suffer from basic shortages and regular crisis, his is certainly a revolutionary notion but it’s one he is convinced of.

Take knowledge for example, Peter says “The President of the US 20 years ago and a kid on the streets of Mumbai with a smart phone today – have access to the same level of knowledge and expertise.” Technology, he believes, has made knowledge abundant. It has democratised information.

But it’s not just Google searches which are now available to everyone. Peter also says “We used to think of energy as being scarce. But technology is driving new revolutions. Solar cells are becoming ubiquitous. Oil used to be available in just a few places but now technology is allowing us to go 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to find more and more.”

Peter is certainly an engaging character. He speaks with enthusiasm and commitment and he is taken seriously by a large number of people and businesses.

But the notion of us all living in an abundant world still jars with what I see on my travels. In many ways I think his view is a First World view of problems. Millions of people in the developing world don’t experience abundance at all. They are time poor, money poor, energy poor and food poor. The abundant world Peter describes is not the experience of their lives.

I put those concerns to Peter but he believes things are changing. He says in Africa a billion people will soon have access to cell phones which gives them access to the world’s knowledge. Yes in comparison to the rest of the world they are still poor, but the world is being transformed by these devices, he says and that change is coming to the poor as well as the rich,

He believes that technology is changing the nature of the world to “create abundance at scale”. The number of people solving problems is exploding and the tools they have to help solve these problems – is also exploding.

On our travels around the world for this series of Horizons, we have certainly seen an explosion of ideas aimed at tackling the world’s biggest problems. Whilst many of these ideas are coming from the globe’s biggest corporations, big business doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. Many of the most interesting ideas come from unusual and unheard of businesses,

Petra Wadstron is the CEO of a company called Solvatten which my colleague on Horizons – Alex Forrest visited in Sweden. Petra and her company are trying to solve the problem of unclean and dangerous water supplies which blight the lives of millions in the poorer parts of the world.

She has invented a water carrier that sits in the sun and absorbs light to power a filtration process that can take dirty river water and turn it into something safe to drink. The solar powered system breaks down the cell membrane around potentially dangerous micro-organisms. The UV destroys the bindings in the DNA and makes the water safe from bacteria, virus and parasites. It also creates hot water of up to 75 degrees – meaning it can provide warm showers and baths to those who have no powered heating water systems. Her Solvatten system is already being used by 40,000 families with hopes it could expand to millions more.

The system costs around $100 a unit but it lasts for up to 10 years. One of its users is Nancy Wamaitha Njuguna. She spoke to us on the bank of a river in Kenya where she scoops up water for her family. The system, she says, is changing her life. She used to go for firewood several times a week to heat up her water. She also used to have to pay out of a very limited wage for typhoid treatment for her family- something she no longer has to do.

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Petra points to examples like those of Nancy and her family and says this is not just about a technology solving a practical problem, it’s about energy and dignity.

In this first programme of the series another colleague of mine on Horizons  -Sharanjit Leyl, saw how in Singapore technology is coming to the rescue of food scarcity. Due to a shortage of land in this city state, almost all of its fresh vegetable has to be imported. Only 7% of fresh vegetables is grown there. The city state wants to improve its food sustainability by producing more locally.

Jack Ng has taken farming to new heights by creating Sky Green. It’s a farm in a building in which tiers of food are in motion to the top of the building and down again – regulating the light they get. It produces 1 tonne of vegetables a day. It’s part of a worldwide investigation we have seen in many countries to try to re-imagine the world of farming – making it more efficient, more sustainable and producing food closer to the markets and people that consume the product.

There are certainly examples of the kind of innovation that Peter Diamandis thinks will change the world. Some of the ideas you will see in this series of Horizons have taken billions of dollars to create and have involved the support of some of the world’s biggest companies and countries. Some have been created by individuals with few resources other than a big idea, optimism and drive.

We are living in an age of innovation where technology is driving change at an unprecedented pace. However millions do not live in a world of abundance. Millions risk their lives travelling away from disasters, uncertainty, insecurity and shortages to find a life where these things do not exist. But Peter Diamandis says: “When I think about creating abundance, it’s not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it’s about creating a life of possibility.”

Investigating the world of possibilities is certainly what Horizons is all about. I hope you enjoy the series.

You can follow our exploits at @adamshawbiz and @horizonsbiz

 

 

 

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