How Are We Going To Deal With Waste Around The World?

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Saturday, 9.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make. – Jane Goodall

I am not a big fan of waste.

No one is, I’m sure, but there is a difference between wanting things to be clean and tidy and not wanting to create waste in the first place.

The reason why this concerns me is that I, like many others, have family living in places where the waste management systems are failing to deal with what’s generated.

This leads to a worse quality of life – and to disease.

If you live in the West then it is hard to remember to wake up every day and be grateful for having clean air, clean water and clean streets.

In many of the pictures I draw as I think through concepts the landscapes are clean, fresh – showing the countryside and nature as it should be.

We perhaps don’t think too often of what the opposite might be – and how impotent you might feel as an individual, however motivated, to deal with the mess in front of you.

So, what do people do and is there some hope?

Well, it turns out that there is.

First of all, as the old Yorkshire saying goes, “where there’s muck, there’s brass.”

There’s money in waste, especially as you transition from dumping the stuff in big holes in the ground to processing and treating it instead.

You need certain things, including infrastructure, trained people and a growth in awareness.

I think that’s happening. The last time I visited Mumbai, for example, there was a marked improvement in the streets due to the policies of the government.

But really, it’s about individuals as well.

For example, I came across Almitra Patel while doing research for this post.

She was the first Indian woman engineer to graduate from MIT in 1959.

She spent thirty years working in industry.

And then, in the nineties, she led citizen-based activism programmes to compel municipalities to separate waste at the home before collection.

The thing you have to recognise about change is that it takes time.

It takes decades to build up the expertise and capability to deal with large, systemic problems.

And somebody has to be willing to invest and fund such efforts – it comes from governments and charities – but it has to come from somewhere.

For people like me who have moved between cultures, we feel a responsibility to give back as well – and examples like Almitra are ones that we can use to understand how that might be possible.

But, it’s also important to remember that we don’t just have to build systems to manage waste – we can avoid creating it in the first place.

India, if the figures are to be believed, generates 135,000 tons a day of solid waste.

That’s around 50 million tons a year.

Total waste in the UK is over 200 million tons a year.

I’m not sure if this is a like for like figure but the UK deposits 52.3 million tons of waste in landfill – which probably counts as solid waste.

In other words, the UK with 60 million people creates more waste than India, with over a billion.

That should make some people pause and think.

I think when you first look at a problem like how to deal with waste the immensity of the challenge can overwhelm you.

But, as you look into it deeper the problems do seem solvable – perhaps even profitable.

After all, how do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

An Amazing New Way to Store Energy With Old Technology

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We’re heading into a renewable future – and the way in which people keep coming up with remarkable ideas seems to make that inevitable.

Take how we deal with one of the biggest problems with renewables, for example.

The wind doesn’t blow all the time. The sun gets switched off at night. That doesn’t happen with coal, or gas or nuclear power – we can rely on power from them 24/7.

So, do we have to live in a world where we need to still burn things to make energy?

The answer, many people said, is having a way to store energy.

Why not use massive batteries – have enormous installations with racks and racks of batteries to store all the energy we don’t need when the wind does blow, and then use it later when we do need it?

The problem is that batteries aren’t exactly good for the environment either.

First, there’s all the mining needed to get the rare earths we need in the first place, and they happen to be in not entirely friendly countries.

Then there is all the plastic needed to make the batteries safe.

After they get used, they are essentially a toxic little package – you can’t just throw them into landfill – and need to be processed and recycled.

All this adds up to a problem building up for the future.

There are less problematic ways of storing energy – in dams for example. But those don’t work anywhere and quite often you need to entirely change landscapes and move entire towns to make one.

But now, a Santa Barbara startup called ARES has had a good idea.

ARES stands for Advanced Rail Energy Storage, and it’s a brilliantly simple concept.

They build a railtrack up a hill. When the sun is shining or the wind is blowing and there isn’t enough need for all of it, they use what is left over to push a train filled with rocks up a hill.

Then, when they need the energy, they let the train roll down the track and get all the energy out again as electricity.

It’s effectively using some iron, rocks and gravity to create an energy storage system – and those items are a lot less polluting than batteries.

Building a railtrack doesn’t take the amount of land needed by a dam, and when you’re finished you can recycle the iron, put the rocks back so they look nice and pretty soon it will look like a normal hillside again.

You can stick them anywhere you have a hill – and if there’s one that’s dry and not much use for anything else so much the better.

So… we’re left with something that is brilliantly simple with very few drawbacks – other than getting to market and creating a business in a pretty hard to crack market.

Hope they can do it.

What are the risks to look out for in 2018?

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We’re very good at managing conventional risk that can be isolated but don’t know how to deal with risks in complex, interconnected systems such as society and the environment, that can lead to the danger of a runaway collapse or an abrupt transition to a new normal.

That is the view of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its Global Risks Report 2018.

The good news is that we aren’t likely to be annihilated – it looks like weapons of mass destruction are under control.

The two areas that stand out are extreme weather as a result of climate change and the changing cybersecurity landscape.

The Paris Agreement was a major step towards global consensus on taking action on climate change, with nearly all countries making national plans to address global warming, that starts in 2020.

Which brings to mind a quote by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt…

Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left? Answer: 5. Why? Because there’s a difference between deciding and doing

Tackling environmental issues is one of the most difficult challenges we face. There are many views that range from support to opposition, while all the time biodiversity shrinks and pollution increases.

We’re seeing the impact of this in more and more extreme weather, from hurricanes to droughts – and the question is whether society will respond in the right way in time.

Which leads us to geopolitics and an increasing trend towards nationalism and self-interest.

Populist politics coupled with protectionism increases mistrust between nation states, and the increasing rhetoric results in overt and covert action being taken between countries.

Cybersecurity is one such area, where attackers motivated by money play in the same space as government agencies looking to test and penetrate other countries.

The UK set up the National Cyber Security Centre in response which includes a policy of Active Cyber Defence (ACD) that takes down bad websites, maintains lists of good sites and “do things to demotivate our adversaries in ways that only GCHQ can do”

We’re all going to have to get much better at protecting ourselves online, because we’re going to get hit at some point.

The WEF thinks that the risk of an energy price shock is low.

That makes sense, given that we are awash in gas and plummeting renewables prices. There is still a big job to upgrade the infrastructure to deal with an electrified heating and transport system, but there is plenty of commodity out there.

Which hasn’t stopped prices bouncing up over the last two years, however, and the continuing geopolitical uncertainty may support them for longer.

So what should we do?

The basics – scan the horizon, assess the risks and make crisis plans.

For example, what would we do if our servers went down today or our employees couldn’t enter the country?

We need to be prepared for a range of outcomes.

Why goals and control are not enough for business and society

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We have been conditioned for a long time to think that setting goals is the way to achieve success.

This may partly be due to the work of Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel prize winning economist who pioneered work in goal-seeking, which spawned fields such as artificial intelligence, decision science and complex systems.

This kind of thinking leads to the unquestioned assumption that the way to make something better is to throw technology at it – a very common theme at present in the energy world.

We think energy markets aren’t working, so the way to make them work is to implement blockchain, AI, machine learning, comparison engines and other types of solutions – which will magically transform it into a clean, lean machine.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

A countering approach comes from the work of Geoffrey Vickers who came up with the notion of appreciative systems.

He argued that ways in which we often thought about the world were inadequate.

The goal-seeking method leads to a narrow reductionist view.

An alternative – the cybernetic view, where there are controllers and actors and one controls the other doesn’t really exist in reality.

Take for example a prison guard and a prisoner. While one is behind bars – both are in prison – and we know how the environment can quickly turn good people bad.

Vicker’s approach is one where life is experienced as a flux of events and ideas – brought out in the picture above from Checkland.

Imagine a loud, raucous party. You arrive, having been invited. You meet a few people, get to know more. Over time, you make friends, have conversations, even throw your own mini-parties in a corner of the room. Then you leave – but the party carries on.

That’s pretty much how life works.

Appreciating the world, or life, then means perceiving it in the first place and making judgements about the things we see.

Those judgements are usually about fact – what we believe is – and value – or what is good.

Given our perceptions and judgement, we can envision what might be and take action.

And we do all this not to meet goals, as a rationalist approach might assume, but to maintain relationships – our place and friendships at the party, if you will.

All this activity results in standards – our expectations of fact and value.

What needs to be seen is that our previous experience results in standards which are then modified in the light of future experience.

At a very basic level, this is what happens when companies become more diverse – the introduction of new thoughts and approaches from a greater range of individuals can change our standards.

A few years ago, no one would have questioned mostly male panels. Now it would be a brave organiser that didn’t have any women up at all.

Why does thinking about any of this matter?

It’s easy to be cowed by what seems like the unstoppable march of technological progress – the bots are going to take our jobs and there will be nothing left for humans to do.

Except to be human – appreciate life as it is and aim for better standards and relationships in business and society.

Can a bot help us predict financial performance?

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We are bombarded with information every day and don’t have enough capacity to process and analyse it all.

One way we try and simplify is to look at the numbers.

For example, we look at figures and statistics over time – the performance of markets, the change in interest rates, the purchasing managers index and year-on-year comparisons.

Numbers are easier to process, chart and analyse, so we focus on them – but are they telling us the full story?

Are we missing out on what the associated text is saying?

Numbers rarely exist in isolation. They are often accompanied by analysis and commentary in the form of text.

Take annual reports, for example.

New investors look at company annual reports as an accurate and faithful rendering of a company’s performance.

Seasoned investors know that an annual report is the starting point.

It says what the company officers want to say.

The real messages are buried in the text and the numbers have been “managed” to meet expectations.

Is it possible to automate text processing?

This paper by BangRae Lee, Jun-Hwan Park, Leenam Kwon, Young-Ho Moon, YoungHo Shin, GyuSeok Kim, and Han-joon Kim analyses the relationship between business text patterns and financial performance in corporate data.

Specifically, they use annual reports of US listed companies in 10-K format that report on financial performance, the state of the business, competitiveness and the risks the companies face in their industry.

These reports talk about the past. What can text analysis tell us about the future?

Text mining is a way to process and extract insights from text

Text mining techniques process text and analyse it using descriptive statistics, clustering and sentiment analysis.

For example, the length of text in company annual reports can be expressed in terms of the number of sentences, the number of words and the number of words per sentence.

Clustering involves grouping companies that have similar statistics and then comparing their performance.

For example, we could use their average compound annual growth rate (CAGR) and compare that with another set of companies.

Finally, sentiment analysis looks at how positive, negative or neutral the text is – a way of measuring the subjective content and tone of text.

Does it work?

It’s still early days for this kind of technology but some interesting things are pointed out in the paper.

Companies with good performance talk about products, services, users and business, while those with poor performance talk about the government, contracts, results and the future.

It’s possible that companies that do well write more – longer sentences and more words about how they are doing.

Finally – and an interesting result – the tone of the text has no relationship with sales performance.

The takeaway is – don’t get sucked in if the company officers predict good times ahead, or if they are pessimistic about things.

That says more about them than the company.

It’s possible that text mining techniques will help us make better forecasts as we continue to use and refine them.

Key principles for smart appliance standards

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The appliances in our houses – washing machines, fridges and air conditioners – have a key role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Electric vehicles and electrification of heat could increase peak demand from 60-70 GW now by 18 GW by 2020.

That will need around 6 new nuclear reactors the size of Hinkley Point C and a huge investment in additional network reinforcement.

Smart appliances that can change when they use electricity could reduce that additional demand from 18 GW to only 6 GW, according to a government consultation on smart appliances that runs from March to June 2018.

The consultation is looking at defining standards – the principles and associated functionalities required for smart appliances – to give industry something to aim for.

A smart appliance is, according to the policy, a product which:

  1. Has communications: It can connect to a network and communicate
  2. Is flexible: It can change how it uses electricity based on a signal like price (automatic, responsive modulation)

The standards will not apply to all products – only the ones with the most potential for flexibility. In particular, lighting and cooking are not included.

The kinds of products that could be smart are:

  • Cold appliances: fridges, freezers
  • Wet appliances: Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers
  • Heating: Electric heaters, controls, heat pumps, air conditioners
  • Battery storage: Standalone or combined storage like PV-Solar systems

The standards for smart appliances look at five key areas.

It’s important that people can choose brands of product without having issues with how their machines talk to each other.

Open standards that promote interoperability help with this – and using a common data model that has a standard instruction set is a preferred approach in the policy for communications between machines and between machines and their controllers.

The point about smart appliances is that they help with grid stability, for example by shifting when they are on away from times when there is lots of stress on the grid.

Clearly, they can also do the opposite: add load to the grid if misused and put more stress on the grid – potentially leading to faults and blackouts.

So, cyber security is an essential part of all internet connected devices these days to make sure this doesn’t happen.

A secure by design approach is a recommended one.

The appliances will create and store data so data privacy requirements will be in the standards.

Finally, when it comes to consumer protection, the standards will cover product safety and end-of-life process – and these will cover how the physical product is recycled and how the data on the system is handled.

Products that comply with the standard will have a label, and the standards will also be aligned with what is happening internationally.

A smart energy system could save taxpayers £17-40 billion to 2050, so many people will be watching this space with interest over the coming years.

How could microgrid and peer-to-peer energy networks work?

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Why is the energy business so heavily controlled and regulated?

Mostly, its history.

When you have a few large generators and millions of consumers, its big business – and that leads to operators trying to control markets which triggers political oversight, which inevitably leads to questions of control.

So what we have across the world is a system of generation, transmission and distribution over a grid system that connects where energy is made and where it is used, and a parallel system of metering and accounting to bill users.

Microgrids and peer-to-peer systems want to change that

Imagine a new housing development where the developers have decided to create a private network of electricity wires that connect the homes instead of using the cables and equipment provided by the grid.

There may be a few connections to the main grid, but the rest of the properties are effectively off-grid.

At the same time, each house has solar panels for electricity and hot water, excellent insulation, low running requirements and perhaps a micro-chp unit and battery storage.

The independent network forms a microgrid.

The existence of housing units with the ability to generate electricity and heat from a variety of sources and a population that uses energy creates a network of peers – equal participants.

The concept of peer is sometimes forgotten – the households of the future will be both producers and users of energy – so called prosumers.

What they need to work are markets

In a microgrid peer-to-peer system, there will need to be some way of keeping everybody happy – and that is done by a price system and a market.

If people are free to set prices (or the trading is automated and the machines trade among themselves) then the market will result in a price that matches supply and demand.

It avoids the cost of routing energy through the grid, so it should be cheaper.

Experiments like the Brooklyn microgrid set up by LO3 Energy are showing how this could be done.

A peer-to-peer network does not have to be part of a microgrid

We could have renewable generators, like a solar farm, connected to the grid that want to directly sell all their output to a user connected somewhere else on the grid.

They can currently enter into a bilateral contract that is settled and billed by a supplier.

A true peer-to-peer system could eliminate the need for a supplier, and simply have a separate contract – based for example on a contract for differences model – although these are still complex to create and agree on a one-to-one basis.

A start in this direction is Open Utility’s Piclo platform that matches users with local generators.

We are still in the early stages of a transition

We’re a long way away from having solar PV on every roof and local networks of users have yet to spring up.

Will there be a revolutionary peer-to-peer change, or is it likely that the majority of the system will still be controlled by a few producers.

If history is anything to go by – network effects and scale matter.

We may have lots of committed, small players, but Google style companies for energy will still probably emerge – a few highly connected hub players that aggregate and influence how everything else works.

We still operate in a winner-takes-all ecosystem, and peer-to-peer is a small part of it.

Will it be different this time?

What is emergence and how can we make it happen?

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We’ve all seen a flock of birds wheeling and swooping as if it were a single, giant organism.

The same thing happens with shoals of fish, or even people trying to leave a train station at rush hour.

Why and how does this happen, and what does it mean for us?

The term emergence is used to describe complex phenomena or behaviour that emerges from the interaction of simpler elements – often in a way that can’t be predicted from the features of the simpler element.

We can simulate flocking behaviour by setting up a system that follows three rules:

  1. Don’t crowd neighbours
  2. Move in the average direction of where neighbours are moving
  3. Move in the average direction of where neighbours are

These three rules result in a swarm – see here for example.

In organisations, emergence can happen in two ways.

In a hierarchy, the rules are set by those in charge.

People are given jobs, roles and responsibilities. In most organisations now, they have latitude and discretion in how they do their roles but have rules to follow.

Take the flocking rules, for example, and recast them for a job role. This might say:

  1. Avoid doing the same work as someone else – create your own niche.
  2. Try and make sure what you do is aligned with the vision and mission of the organisation.
  3. Do work that feeds into and works with what others in the organisation are doing.

If company had a number of people who organised their work in line with these rules it’s very likely that they will do some very interesting things.

It’s that balance between individuals and the collective that creates the conditions for innovation and creativity to emerge.

It’s also why micromanagement doesn’t work.

We need freedom and control – too much of either results in very simple or chaotic behaviour, neither of which are useful.

The second way in which emergence happens is through markets

Take Ebay, for example.

By creating a platform where people can exchange things, they created a thriving ecosystem of buyers and sellers.

Products from bicycles to floor mats flow through the system, in bursts of transactions that spill out into the real world – triggering a flow of packages in white vans that then creates emergent behaviour in the flow of traffic.

On a macro-level, the most successful economies are those that let markets form – allowing people to freely exchange goods and services.

We are surrounded by emergence – and what it reminds us is that we cannot control everything.

The best stuff happens when find the space between simplicity and chaos.

Do you have the skills needed for modern work?

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Hedge funds could look very different in a few years.

The Financial Times published an article about the rise of DIY algorithmic traders – people who develop automated investment strategies.

These people don’t work for hedge funds or banks on Wall Street.

Instead, they are mathematicians, progammers, physicists and data experts who are using their skills and cheap, powerful computers to tackel investing.

And this is happening everywhere we look.

Online sales are hyper-competitive, and the companies with an algorithmic edge can squeeze out more profits from their platforms.

Recommendation engines are key to keeping users interested, as algorithms work out personalised offers.

The energy business is fuelled by data – from meters recording generation output to those working out who has consumed it and what their bill should be.

In a world of abundant, cheap money, projects have to work on razor thin margins.

Getting the numbers wrong, over time, will mean that the project makes negative returns.

So, who is going to succeed in this new world?

Drew Conway came up with the Data Science Venn Diagram to explore the key skills needed in the world of Data Science – the field that will most likely underpin modern work.

In adapted form, the key is having three sets of skills.

Hacking skills are an entry requirement – being able to deal with and clean text and numeric data is part of every project.

Excel won’t hack it anymore – we’re going to have to use better tools to deal with more and messier data.

Then we need some maths and stats knowledge.

Knowing how to draw and interpret charts and understand the relationships between sets of numbers makes the difference between guessing and having a theory.

And a scientific approach is based on having hypotheses and running experiments.

Finally – many people think they can simply waltz into a new field and take it over.

Domain knowledge often makes the difference between success and failure in a field – it’s very hard for someone to build a tool to solve a problem that they have never experienced themselves.

That’s why we get lots of tools that look pretty, but end up doing little.

Curious people with good tools are what we need for modern work.

Why we don’t understand how we fit into reality

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Science has been more successful at making life easier for us than any other system of thinking so far.

We have learned to control and adapt the material world to ourselves.

As George Bernard Shaw said, The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

That’s worked for a few hundred years because of a particular way of thinking.

The positivist approach looks at reality and sees it as something that is independent of anything in it, including ourselves.

If we drop a stone, it falls the same way it will when dropped by anyone else.

That means we can look at objects, measure their properties and build concepts and ideas that exist independently of us.

Gravity would exist whether there was life or not. Once a building is constructed, the designer is no longer needed for people to live and use the building.

In the positivist’s world, there are things and other fuzzy things like people that don’t really compute.

We get into trouble when we try and apply positivist thinking to social structures like organisations and companies.

These structures exist because humans.

We can argue that if people didn’t exist, then there would still be moon rocks.

If people didn’t exist, there would be no companies to work for or carbon emissions to reduce.

Interpretivists see people as inseparable from reality. They are part of the world.

What we see around is constructed from what we see and the ideas we have – and how we interpret that.

This is why the assembly line organisation constructed by Ford and the lean manufacturing system constructed by Toyota both, on the surface, make cars – but have fundamentally different organisational philosophies.

Positivists run into trouble when they try and apply principles that work very well for things in the real world to organisations.

It’s easy to fix a problem in a machine – apply grease to a stuck part and it gets going.

An organisation’s equivalent of grease is harder to grasp – is it a meeting, a study, a team that works on a problem?

The extreme positivist approach says that everything can be fixed with a hammer and a spanner.

The extreme interpretive approach says everything is in our minds so nothing really matters.

A pragmatic view is somewhere in between.

There are technical solutions to some problems.

In many other situations, however, we need to have a model for how people fit in as well.

Without that, we can fool ourselves that we understand reality more than we actually do.