Category Archives: Horizons

An Unusual FTSE Boss

adam-and-paul-iv

Interviewing Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever

(I think my questions are sticking out of my back pocket)

Paul Polman is an unusual man for at least two big reasons. Most obviously, he is unusual because he is Chief Executive of one of the world’s biggest consumer brand companies, Unilever. But in many decades of interviewing senior executives he also strikes me as very unusual because of his willingness to engage in subjects of global concern such as environmental threats.

Much of the time of a CEO is spent trying to keep the support of major shareholders. Polman has been CEO for longer than most and it’s interesting therefore to know that in his early days running the company, rather than trying to keep shareholders on board, he spent much time trying to get rid of them. Many shareholders want short term returns, he told me. What he wanted was owners who were willing to look to the long term and so he tried to change the ownership of the company to those who would support those long term aims.

Polman appears to be a boss genuinely concerned about the environment and believes that companies can play a constructive role in helping improve it.  To that end he is tackling the problem of waste head on. Unilever says all of its factories now have zero waste – 600 factories globally recycling materials to create no waste at all, they say.

That’s quite a claim and something many believe is a model which others could follow,

The world produces nearly four million tonnes of municipal waste every day. If this trend continues, the daily amount is set to more than double by 2050.

CLEANER WORLD

GLOBAL WASTE GENERATION

2010                2020                2030                2040                2050

3.8                   4.1                   6.7                   6.9                   8.5

Unit: Million tonnes per day
Source: Hoornweg, Bhada-Tata & Kennedy, World Bank

 

2060                2070                2080                2090                2100

9.3                   10.2                 10.5                 11.0                 11.6

Source: Peak Waste: When Is It Likely to Occur?
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/jiec.12165/

Looking over the river Thames on the roof of Unilever’s headquarters, Polman explained his corporate philosophy to me:

“Our role here is to look after the globe for future generations. Whilst we’ve been incredibly successful lifting enormous amounts of people out of poverty, unfortunately we’ve done it in a way that has resulted in quite a lot of over-consumption, acidification of oceans, plastic in oceans, air pollution, water pollution and frankly, leaving too many people behind.”

I asked him whether he felt it was too much to describe the environmental challenges we face as a crisis?

“No it’s not too much. Only 5% of packaging gets reused. So what we’ve now discovered because of population growth, this enormous level of consumption that has happened is that we need to move to a more circular model, where someone’s waste is someone else’s input.”

So just how is Unilever creating zero waste factories? One of its success stories involves a popular British food – Marmite. This savoury yeast spread is itself a by-product of the brewing industry – And now workers in Burton on Trent have come up with a use for the by-product of the marmite-making process.   They’re turning the sludge left in machines – which would previously have been washed away or been sent into landfill – into biogas.

That’s just one example of a different approach to manufacturing. I put it to Polman that this was rare. Indeed, perhaps it was an approach that other bosses shouldn’t take. After all their job is to make money for their shareholders who are trying to get a return for pensioners and their investors who need the company to make money rather than make an environmental statement.

He disagrees. He tells me that companies are corporate citizens who have a responsibility to lead change. But in leading change they don’t have to stop making money, indeed it’s just a new even more efficient way of creating sustainable profit.

He tells me “You have to believe in the goodness of people, which I sincerely do. You need to educate CEOs themselves to be able to verbalise to the financial community why it is important to invest for the longer term.”

One of the big challenges facing the world is sanitation, or the lack of sanitation. I asked Polman what companies like his do to help that?

“Yeah, it’s a tremendous opportunity actually” he says. “Despite the tragedy that 2.3 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water or sanitation. We have set a goal to actually reach 1 billion people in the world with handwashing. The simple act of handwashing can cut infectious diseases like pneumonia, diarrhoea, by 75%. Currently we see every year 650,000 children die unnecessarily of these infectious diseases.

There’s over a billion people that don’t have access to sanitation in the sense of open defecation. Since our bleach cleaner Domestos is single-mindedly focused on building toilets, the brand is growing double digit.”

I asked him whether he felt such acts were part of the company’s charitable works – and he interrupts me before I’ve even finished the question.

“No, it’s not a charitable act for us. It’s an integral part. The more people have toilets, the better it is for Domestos. The more people wash hands, the better you sell your bar soaps.”

There are many in the world who try to make it better. There are many in the world who try to build companies, offer employment and improve economies. Paul Polman is a man who believes you can do both. Almost his final words, before we shook hands and left were these:

“We find out that every brand that has a strong social mission, because ultimately brands should be there to address issues in society, otherwise why should we accept them to be there? But the brands that have the stronger social mission grow at twice the rate of brands that don’t, and are actually more profitable as well. It makes good business sense.”

 

The interview and report on how to create a cleaner planet can be seen (only outside of the UK I’m afraid)  on BBC World News. For regular updates and behind the scenes pictures of our filming trips – follow @AdamShawBiz

 

 

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A Slice of The Sun

Energy – limitless, abundant and clean. That is the goal of scientists trying to create new energy sources.

Nuclear power has for a long time been the centre of much controversy. Although it doesn’t create the pollution associated with fossil fuels, it does leave us with an almost unimaginable period of radioactive waste, Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.[1]

So whilst nuclear power might provide a short term fix to pollution problems it can also create other problems which might last longer than modern man has existed. That’s why so many people are so worried about it.

But a tantalising possibility has been raised by nuclear scientists to create a form of nuclear power that provides almost limitless power with few side effects. This nuclear power is based on fusion. Traditional nuclear power stations are based on fission. The difference may sound little more than the replacement of a few vowels – but that is very misleading.

Fusion nuclear power is a world away from the fission power we know today and it involves creating a bit of the sun right here on earth.

The race is now on to design a fusion reactor. In France, they’re building one of the largest machines the world has ever seen. .

Burn one kilo of fusion fuel, it will generate the same amount of energy as ten million kilos of fossil fuel.

The problem is that nuclear fusion has for years been held up as a possible solution to our energy problem. It has always been the next big thing, but it’s never been the thing. However, there now does appear to be a critical mass of scientists, a new generation of brains determined to crack the problem.

So here is how it works. At the moment all of our nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission. This process relies on the ability to split atoms to produce lots of power, but also, lots of radioactive waste.

A fusion reactor will join atoms together. It’s likely to be Hydrogen to form helium, like our sun. Any radioactive waste, they say will be relatively short-lived.

And the fuel? Well hydrogen is found readily in water, abundant the world over.

The proponents of fusion power have for years been promising us a plentiful and relatively safe form of new energy – well here at ITER in France they are starting to make good on that promise.

Over 200 experimental reactors have been built worldwide. But to date they’ve all consumed more energy than they produce. In other words they can make fusion happen but it takes so much energy to make it happen, that its pointless. You put in more energy than you get out.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, hopes to turn this situation around.

It is an enormous project. It’s going to cost at least 15 billion euros. It involves 35 nations and when it’s done they say it will be the largest experiment ever conducted by man.

It will be a 23-thousand tonne nuclear laboratory. Three times heavier than the Eiffel Tower.

The man heading up this remarkable scientific test bed is Bernard Bigot, ITER’s director general.

I asked him on the grand scheme of human innovation and science, how significant he thought this project was? His answer was unequivocal. “It is one of the most striking change in the history of technologies.”

That’s quite a claim. He and the other supporters of this project believe it could transform the world’s relationship with energy. He believes it will happen within the next 40 – 60 years. It’s not quick but science that might change the world never is.

The journey to a new energy source – is our Horizons programme this week. Do watch it and tell me what you think on Twitter at @adamshawbiz

 

[1] http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

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Abundant World?

Voila_Capture 2016-05-13_11-23-21_am

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.

Voila_Capture 2016-05-13_11-33-02_am

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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How To Make A TV Series in Numbers

Next week we, (in fact BBC World News) is broadcasting a look back at 5 years of programmes I have made for Horizons. It is a journey which has taken me to some far flung places and to more cheap hotels and sandwich shops than I care to remember.

To celebrate the fact, I have put together a chart of what it has taken to make the 95 programmes we have so far made.

What It Takes To Make A TV Series

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The New Millionaires

Texan Farmer and his Cotton

The eccentric looking successful US investor, Jim Rogers thinks farming could be one of the most profitable industry if the future. He told me: “It’s going to be the farmers who are driving Lamborghinis. The smart MBAs and stock brokers will learn to drive tractors and they will learn to drive tractors for the farmers. We‘re going to have a dramatic shift, we‘re going to have serious food shortages. I‘m talking about real famine, the kind that you read about in the Bible and your history book. There are going to be dramatic food shortages coming up which is one of the reasons that farming is going to be such a major industry and exciting profession.”

That if course is a very dramatic and stark prediction of the future. If true it will mean huge hardship for millions and of course a fundamental change in the balance of economic power.

The US is arguable the most successful farming nation in the world and so I have come here to Texas to see what innovations farmers both big and small are coming up with to prepare them for the future.

The farmers are already facing huge environmental
problems. According to the UN, every year, between 20,000 – 50,000 sq km of arable land is lost due to soil degradation. While land is a major issue, so is water, Agriculture swallows up around 70% of our useable global water supply and it takes 3,000 litres of water to produce one persons daily food intake.

To see how they are coping with those challenges I’ve come to a huge farm, stretching as far as the eye can see. With me are five Texans each with their own monster pick-up truck. We are looking at how new irrigation techniques are helping the farmers control their crops and increase output.

Wandering around the farm looking for good filming spots,
I hear myself telling the producer, “Look there is a real cowboy” as I watch a man in a Stetson walk John Wayne like through fields of cotton. He’s not on a horse but he walks as if he just got off one. It’s a slow pondering wide legged gamble and I half expect him to spit some tobacco and shout howdi.

This is the middle of the bible belt and in keeping with that, there is no alcohol on sale for miles around. The farmers offer to get us lunch and I rather sheepishly explain that despite being in cattle country, I am a vegetarian butt they shouldn’t worry if they don’t have anything for me. They promise to have a look and drive off. Half an hour later they come back with a huge bags of burgers and a salad.

As I start eating I notice my salad has bacon in it. “That’s a Texan vegetarian meal” I’m told as that was the thing with the least amount of meat available.

These are some of the most hospitable friendly people I have met on any of my trips around the world. They are quiet hard working men who are clearly trying hard to make us welcome.

They are at the sharp end of a problem which is affecting many parts of the world. More land is being lost to urbanisation and soil degradation – at the same time water is becoming scarcer and climate change is making the seasons less predictable. So the pressure is on to produce more food from limited resources.

Texas is suffering its worst drought in nearly 100 years, and the underground lake is running dry.

Already this year, drought has cost the State $5.2 billion.

One way of tackling the problem is a more efficient method of irrigation. What at first glance looks like the simple job of watering crops, is becoming a fine applied science.

I’ve come to see how one company is trying to provide a water solution. Lindsay Irrigation has been working on the problem for over 50 years. Their Zimmatic irrigation pivot enables farmers to increase crop yields while using less water, energy, labor and chemicals.

Using a mobile phone to connect to the Internet, I send an instruction to a huge array of automatic watering arms that cover all the fields I can see to the Horizon. Slowly the arms respond to my instruction and careful and precise irrigation begins to happen.

Instead of spraying the crops the water is drip fed onto the plants, ensuring that as much water as possible reaches the roots and is not lost in evaporation or run-off. It’s a simple idea but the farmers claim it revolutionises their water usage and dramatically improves crop production. The company claims that more than 100,000 Lindsay Zimmatic automated irrigation systems are irrigating millions of hectares of cropland worldwide.

It’s hard standing in the fields with my new Texan friends, to think that this is the new growth industry. It’ a stretch to believe, as Jim Rogers does, that the farrmers I am standing with could be the new dot com style millionaires of the future. But if he is right, it will no doubt be the biggest shift in the world economy seen in a lifetime.

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