Sustainability, Innovation and Creativity at TEDxBristol

On 8 September 2011 I attended TEDxBristol, an independently organised TED conference showcasing local leaders in the fields of sustainability, innovation and creativity. The event was held at Bristol’s newly-opened Mshed in a waterfront area that is quickly becoming a creative hub for digital industries.

The theme for the event was the World Around Us. A particular strength of Bristol enterprise is the ability to work both at a global and local level.

  • Wendy Stephenson, a renewable energy engineer, described how The Converging World helped a small Somerset village, Chew Magna, build wind turbines in India to offset their carbon emissions.
  • Tony Bury, a philanthropist and serial entrepreneur, explained the difference a mentor can make. His charity, The Mowgli Foundation, matches mentors with entrepreneurs in South West UK, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The Innovation session saw talks from, amongst others, Bloodhound SCC, the Nanoscience & Quantum Information (NSQI) Centre at the University of Bristol and inventor Tom Lawton.

  • Richard Noble of Bloodhound CC entertainingly explained how they found themselves inspiring the next generation of engineers as part of their efforts to obtain a Eurofighter jet engine. The Bloodhound Education Programme involves over 2,410 primary and secondary schools, 176 further education colleges and 33 universities. Their journey to build a 1000mph car is now gathering pace, with tests due to begin in just over a year.  They are aptly based just behind the SS Great Britain in Bristol Docklands.
  • Professor Mervyn Miles presented some of the Centre’s current research including some mind-bending work on a holoassembler. This device use optical traps of focused near infra-red radiation, positioned in space via a dynamic hologram, to assemble microscopic, and even nanoscopic, structures. Researchers have combined this technology with a multi-touch interface to create a system that would not look out of place in a science fiction film.
  • Tom’s talk provided a fascinating insight into the ups and downs of a private inventor. Over the last 10 years Tom has worked on a 360 degree camera for capturing immersive images (a “BubbleScope”). Tom explained his journey from his initial inspriation while travelling to his current iPhone pre-production accessory.

The event also featured preformances that built upon another of the West Country’s strengths: an ability to combine technology and the arts to produce truly original creations.

  • nu desine, a young start-up from Bristol, showed off their AlphaSphere musical instrument. Their presentation also produced one of my favourite quotes from the event: “I don’t rap, I’m an electronic engineer”.
  • David Glowacki, a theoretical chemist at the University of Bristol, demonstrated his Danceroom Spectroscopy project. This fuses theoretical Feynmann-Hibbs molecular dynamics simulations with a 3D imaging camera to allow the motion of dancers to warp the external forcefields felt by the simulated particles. The result is projected onto a screen with collisions mapped onto a muscial output. View it here.
  • Tom Mitchell and Imogen Heap ended the day with a demonstration of Tom’s musical gloves. These gloves allow wearers to manipulate music using just hand gestures. The result is unbelievable; you can watch the performance here.

In all, the day was a resounding success. A big thank you to Karl Belizaire, the event orgnaiser and his team. Hopefully those that attended were inspired to create their own impact in Bristol and the wider World Around Us.

PS: I was very impressed with the designs and doodles from the event – Nat Al-Tahhan lead the design work; check out here blog and event doodles here.

BEN: Green Profits

BEN Logo

Bristol and Bath Enterprise Network (BEN) is a network for the technology business community based around Bristol and Bath. They hold a series of events designed to foster profitable connections between individuals and companies in the region.

I was recently lucky enough to attend one of their events in Bristol: Green Profits.

Green Profit

Green Profits

The key question for this event was: can commercial and environmental success be aligned? To help answer this question two case studies were presented.

ModCell Logo from Website Linda Farrow talked about how her innovative architecture and design practice, White Design, allowed them to develop a new building module, Modcell, for the rapid construction of sustainable (and even carbon-negative) buildings. The Modcell is a brilliant idea: a prefabricated flat pack wooden frame is assembled and filled with compressed straw bales before being coated with lime render to form a wall panel. I was pleased to see that Modcell have a granted UK Patent GB2457891B of a broad scope and are moving forward with protection worldwide. This will help ensure that they can adequately capitalise, from a commercial perspective, on the (literally) years of design and testing that went into the product. Both White Design and Modcell are a fine example of the kind of technological and commercial thinking that can help address the seemingly intractable problems of climate change and dwindling resources. Also being a Somerset lad, I am always glad to see straw used in novel ways. Take a look at White Design’s website for examples of the kind of buildings where this technology may be used in the future. If you are familiar with Bristol and the South West you will probably recognise their structures.

Friska Logo from Friska Website Linda was followed by Griff Holland of Friska Food, a take-away/restaurant/sandwich shop on Victoria Road in Bristol. Griff offered a different perspective on sustainable business practices. Even though food is a rather low-tech industry, Griff had important lessons on how to make clients and customers feel good about themselves by incorporating sustainable (or “green”) thinking into the heart of the business. An illuminating example was how customers liked to sort their recycling; at first allowing this would seem somewhat counter-intuitive – surely customers do not want the extra burden? However, what Friska observed was that customers had become used to sorting recycling from their homes and felt good about making some contribution, however small, to offset their impact on the world. A similar example was provided with fridges – by having doors on the fridges much electricity was saved and customers were happy opening and closing the doors (as opposed to open fridges), especially if they were told their slight inconvenience was good for the environment. Friska had big plans for growth over the coming years; more outlets like them are only a good thing for a sustainable UK.

LCSW Logo The case studies were followed by a presentation by Amy Robinson, Network Director of Low Carbon South West (LCSW) who explained the myriad of accreditations and organisations to support (and somewhat confuse) business in the South West. LCSW are a trade association with a mission to promote growth in environmental technologies and sustainable services in the South West of England. They are the recent offspring of what was Bristol Environment Technology Sector Initiative (BETS) and a Low Carbon group from Bath University. Amy explained how LCSW are happy to offer assistance to individuals and companies as to how to navigate this confusing landscape and gain the right advice and services from the right people.

A lesson that emerged from the presentations and resulting round-table discussions was the need for long-term thinking and investment coupled with effective client/customer communication. Laying the groundwork for a sustainable business unfortunately often involves higher initial investment (and possibly higher product cost). However, this investment may pay off several years down the line when you find the market shifts and your business turns from fringe player into market leader, with your competitors struggling to retrofit their own practices to keep up. In a way this reminded me of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, wherein the disruptive innovation may be sustainable practices. Effective communication then becomes important to attract and maintain early adopters in the market that are may be better placed to afford the initial green /cost trade-off. A given example was that of the premium hotel market – they were prepared to pay a little extra for sustainable printing as this paid off in terms of better marketing for the hotel.

The next BEN Event is a free allday event: Investability at HP Labs Bristol on 29 March 2011.