Monthly Archives: March 2012

TedxWarwick: the business of ideas

Photo by Mark Bristow

There’s an old Yiddish expression popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer who seeks the magnificent in the mundane that, for me, captures the essence of TED: “To a worm in horseradish,” it goes, “the world is horseradish.” Sitting through this series of impassioned talks in Warwick Arts Centre, the maxim is rarely far from my thoughts. We are conditioned to view the world as one big finished product, rather than a constantly evolving body of parts. Everything is normal and most things are unchangeable, so why bother trying to look at anything differently? Yet those that can train their eyes beyond the horseradish are the difference between stasis and progress. How different might our lives be if Galileo had yielded to the Vatican’s flat-earth theory 400 years ago, or if Alexander Fleming hadn’t fished his mould-ridden dish from the bin?

As anyone who has ever suffered from appendicitis will tell you, evolutionary paths are filled with imperfections. By the same token, few of the ideas voiced at TED will revolutionise, but most are worth listening to, just in case. At one point during TEDxWarwick, there’s a man standing next to a car he’s built out of carrots, tofu and chocolate, quoting Kermit the Frog (“It’s not easy being green”). It’s a tad surreal, but utterly fascinating. That he has fashioned a functioning vehicle from the contents of a shopping trolley is barely believable, and more of a statement of intent than a business model. But coming away from Kerry Kirwan’s talk on sustainability, you’re aware of an alternative – albeit one with questionable commercial viability – that wasn’t in your mind before, which is what today is all about.

The overarching title of TEDxWarwick, organised by students at the university, is Global Challenges. How can we, as an ever-expanding, consuming, demanding, developing species, ensure our increasingly digital society continues to thrive on our rapidly decaying planet? The common topics are sustainability, education, spatiality, healthcare and digitalism. Unsurprisingly, it’s the speakers who approach their problems most laterally who are the most memorable.

The internet of ideas

Hyperconnected Andy Stanford-Clarke is an IBM master inventor and has come to tell us that “innovation begins at home”. In a lesser forum, he might have espoused the theoretical wonders of DIY from a lectern. For TED, though, he’s come fully wired to his own humble abode on the Isle of Wight, allowing him to show us exactly how we can make our lives more exciting, efficient and inexpensive through the “internet of things”. He turns on his patio lights all the way from Coventry, then powers up the water feature. He casually shares an anecdote about the time he designed a GPS-tracking system for the notoriously tardy, hard to track Isle of Wight ferry. The ferry operator didn’t realise it existed until Stanford-Clarke altered the ferry’s final destination to Milton Keynes on April Fool’s Day, prompting thousands of worried queries and inspiring the operator to buy his system. By remedying a problem that affected his daily life, he helped out thousands of others in the process.

Taking things a step further, Koen Olthuis’ floating city apps could, at some point in the distant future, provide salvation for billions. “Why can’t a city,” he asks, “work like a smartphone?” Why, indeed? In his vision of the future, Olthuis sees overpopulation alleviated through popup islands floating on the Rivers Hudson and Thames, buoyant favelas providing upgrades from the coastal slums of urban sprawls, forests transposed into city centres, Olympic stadia shuttled between venues quadrennially. For him, urban landscapes should be as malleable and responsive as the contents of your iPhone. Ridiculous, right? Not exactly. In his low-lying homeland the Netherlands, where every day is a battle to stay above the tide, Olthuis has already started working on floating city apps to be used locally and in other tidally threatened nations like the Maldives. Talk of Dubai-esque floating golf courses is frivolous, but with the reality of climate change challenging the very existence of Pacific states like Kiribati (last week the tiny country outlined plans for wholesale migration to Fiji should sea levels rise much further), Olthuis’ futuristic apps are almost pragmatic.

 Are we human?

The trial-and-error process of innovation seems inherently human and TED – a cauldron of ideas, some ingenious, some harebrained – is case in point. Cue Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, to provide the most thought-provoking 18 minutes of the day. At some point in the future, could the process of idea generation be dehumanised? Warwick’s work facilitates the fusion of the digital and analog worlds within the human body. By wiring people up to prosthetic microarrays – chips designed to integrate with our own complex nervous and cognitive systems – a world of extra-sensory perception is just around the corner. For the most part, he’s his own guinea pig. He‘s allowed his wife to gauge his mood from the other side of the Atlantic by wearing a necklace connected to a chip in his arm which changes colour with his temperament. He’s also trialled a system of heat sensing magnets built into the fingertips which allow the subject to detect the presence of someone else without seeing them. Next on the agenda is the creation of a synthetic “human” brain, to be used by a robot. Astonishment flashes across the faces of the audience at this point, no doubt inspired by memories of Skynet or Hal. Far from being dystopian, though, this is riveting, inspiring fare.

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig wrote that “for every fact, there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look, the more you see.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Kevin Warwick when he quips: “I always seem to end up with more questions than when I started.” TED isn’t just about changing people’s perceptions, but how they perceive. It’s about realising that everything is interesting – you just need to approach it from the right angle. On the grey, dreary train journey from Coventry back to London we talk about gerontology, universe bending, nuclear fusion and warp speed. On the way there, we talked about coffee, iPads and how little sleep we’d had the night before. TED: one, Virgin Trains: nil.

Originally published here

Book review: Unfair Trade by Conor Woodman



As the economy threatens to crumble in around them, politicians have been falling over each other to become the voice of “responsible capitalism”, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband preaching a return to a “moral economy” (neither, however, have specified when such a thing ever existed in the first place, nor given much indication that they know how to get there). The British public seems to be listening. In 2011, sales of Fairtrade-certified goods topped £1.3 billion – a rise of 12 per cent on 2010 – which is no mean feat, considering the the problems faced by many other parts of the retail sector. Everywhere you go, shelves are stacked with Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance-certified produce, people are sipping hot drinks made using “ethically sourced” ingredients and wearing “eco-friendly” jumpers. But how many people actually know what these terms mean?

A few years ago, Conor Woodman was sitting on a train, enjoying a coffee, the labelling of which promised that by buying the product, he would “enhance the lives of the villagers of Busamanga, Uganda”. This made Conor feel good, which in turn made him feel very uncomfortable. “A second later,” he reasoned, “I questioned whether making me feel better about myself was quite the intention of the scheme when it was set up.” Feeling that a billion-pound industry shouldn’t be shrouded in ambiguity, he decided to shed some light on the supply chains that provide the supposedly ethical goods we use and consume every day. Unfair Trade is a series of despatches from the Fairtrade coalface.

The lasting impression the book leaves is that ethical business is, in the vast majority of instances, a PR stunt. Satisfying the criteria to brandish the Fairtrade logo is relatively easy and does little to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom of the supply chain. Take the situation of Cadbury, discussed in the chapter entitled Keen to be green. In order to secure accreditation from the Fairtrade Foundation, Cadbury had to agree to source cocoa for no less than $1,600 (about £1,000) per tonne. At the time of writing, the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) daily price for a tonne of cocoa is about £1,500 (14 March). So by signing up to Fairtrade principles, companies pledge to pay just 66.6 per cent of the going rate for a tonne of cocoa. The Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, which predates Fairtrade, has contributed £45 million to cocoa-growing communities in the space of a decade, which Woodman argues is a far greater contribution to the developing world.

Woodman also argues that companies are all too quick to turn a blind eye, pleading ignorance as to the source of their raw materials. In Nicaragua, there are towns full of young men, crippled by the bends contracted after diving, untrained and massively under-equipped to catch lobsters by hand. The Big Red Lobster Company, an American chain of eateries which sources stock from the area, promises customers that it doesn’t stock hand-caught lobsters, but it’s impossible to know how they’ve been caught once they’ve been brought to market. Experts estimate, though, that 50 per cent of the world’s harvest are hand-caught. Companies buying the lobsters, argues Woodman, should be investing in the training and equipment needed by those on the supply frontline, rather than perpetuating the myth that they’re not caught by hand.

Throughout the book, there are instances of misspent philanthropy. In exchange for permission to grow massive rubber plantations, China built a shiny new national stadium in Laos, now a white elephant on the horizon while the local farmers struggle to earn a living. Across Africa, well-meaning NGOs have constructed schools and water wells without providing the locals with the tools needed to operate and maintain them. They’re left to decay, shrines to the ethical naivety that Woodman finds to be rife in boardrooms around the world. Organisations want to be seen as being ethical, but are less keen to commit to ensuring what they’ve signed up for actually makes a difference.

To his credit, Woodman’s tone is measured throughout. He’s not an anti-capitalist and highlights a number of firms who are operating truly ethical businesses and making money out of it to boot (the most notable examples include Green and Black’s, Olam, Ethical Addictions and Rare Teas). The book is simply written, low on inflammatory language: Woodman is keen to let his research do the talking, and it does. In the year he spent investigating, he travelled to five different continents. Rather than observing from the periphery, he threw himself down Congolese mines, into Nicaraguan waters and among Afghan poppy-field raids. He has earned the authority to pass comment on a sector of UK industry which is widely misunderstood. His is a voice we should all listen to.

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Brown and Forrest smokery in Somerset (which provides stock to such restaurants as the Caprice group and Fortnum & Mason) to interview its owner, Jesse Pattison. “I don’t jump on the organic bandwagon, the local bandwagon or the Fairtrade bandwagon,” he told me. His methodology was simple: he visited farms, found the ones which operated in a way that matched his own ethical standards, and took them on as suppliers. Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of visiting the source of the products we purchase, but we all have the capacity to pose the question: am I buying this to satisfy my conscience, or to help change the life of someone less fortunate than I?


Comedy and Chameleons: Playlist for February 2012

It’s been a long time since I posted one of these – probably about two years. Let’s blame the Koreans and their Spotify thwarting ways. Or alternatively, me for being too lazy to find any other way of posting it. Barriers overcome, I’m going to make one of these monthly. The playlist is a mix of old and new songs that have been tickling my lugs through February and the amount of new tracks on there is indicative of what, I think, has already been a great year for new releases.

The Kathleen Edwards record, Voyageur, in particular has taken me in. Justin Vernon’s midas touch hasn’t deserted him and you can really feel his presence at the production desk. She always had fantastic songs, but I think these are her strongest set to date. I’ve reviewed a few of the albums and spoken to a couple of the artists on here, so if you like what you hear, have a wee read.

Some of the older songs contain great memories. Nowhere Again by the Secret Machines reminds me of sitting on a torn seat, with yellow fluff coming out of it, on a bus from Belfast to my university campus. We had to pass a dog food factory en route, but luckily I’m not synesthetic enough to smell the molten “meat” when I play their album. I only realised last week that Benjamin Curtis from the band is one of the main guys in School of Seven Bells, a group I’ve heard great things about, but am yet to investigate.

And then there’s Shack. Ah, Shack. A blast from my Select reading days in the late 90s. I think I heard the track Comedy on a free cd with the magazine and after that got into Waterpistol and HMS Fable. Everything I read about them at the time had some sort of tragedy connected to it. A band member died. A studio burnt down, with their masters in it. Noel Gallagher said they were his favourite band. Tragic stuff. The Head brothers have a nous for brilliantly simple songs. Comedy is beautiful.

Enjoy the playlist and if you like any of the songs, buy them. You won’t regret it.

Listen here (Spotify link)

Comedy and Chameleons

1. Last Days – Thoughts of Alice

2. The Dead Texan – The Struggle

3. Delay Trees – Uni15

4. Clem Snide – The Dairy Queen

5. I Build Collapsible Mountains – Where We Go Tomorrow

6. Perfume Genius – No Tear

7. Tindersticks – Show Me Everything

8. Active Child – High Priestess

9. Damien Jurado – Everyone a Star

10. Shack – Comedy

11. Kathleen Edwards – Chameleon/Comedian

12. Ane Brun – Do You Remember?

13. Shearwater – You as You Were

14. Errors – Magna Encarta

15. We Are Augustines – Augustine

16. Secret Machines – Nowhere Again