Maybe it is a good thing this August was so wet in Ireland

Photo Credit Meredith Farmer

They say it rains in Ireland one day in every two and certainly this year it lived up to that reputation what with August 2008 being the wettest August since records began.

The Irish Met office said in its monthly report for August 2008:

August was a month of exceptionally heavy rain over most of the country, bringing flooding in many areas. Following the pattern of much of this summer’s weather, low pressure close to or over Ireland brought a succession of Atlantic frontal systems across the country, giving some significant falls. It was the wettest August on record at a number of stations, including Dublin (Phoenix Park), where rainfall records began in 1837.

Given that you’d imagine that Ireland would be the last place suffering from a shortage of water. You’d be wrong!

A recent report from Forfás, the national policy advisory body for enterprise and science identifies four major urban centres – Dublin, Galway, Athlone and Letterkenny which could face water shortages over the next five years. Why? Leaky pipes seems to account for a lot of it, it seems. From the report:

Ireland has relatively high levels of unaccounted for water. Approximately 43 percent of the total volume of treated drinking water produced in the Gateways and Hub towns is lost before it reaches the final consumer.

That goes some way to explaining how Dublin, a city of just over 1m people, consumes 500m liters of water per day.

That level of waste is absolutely outrageous and instead of trying to fix the problem, Dublin City Council are talking of piping water from Lough Rae, a special area of conservation on the Shannon in the West of Ireland to Dublin!

The correct way to tackle this is, similar to our current energy problems, make the system more efficient (fix the leaks) and manage the demand (start charging households for water). Ireland is one of the few EU countries which doesn’t charge its citizens for water, and it shows!

With just 1% spare capacity of water, in some ways maybe it is a good thing this August was so wet in Ireland, or the water shortages might have been a reality sooner than later.


Standing Around The Water Kula, Hanging Out

One of the cool things about the twitter messaging platform is that the application programming interface (API) is really easy to use. The truly outstanding thing about twitter though is the amazing range of communities and cool people it has fostered. Greenmonk has a core belief that web technology is allowing a hitherto unprecedented lowering of barriers. We can all participate.

A good example popped up this week. Dan Light is a fellow East Londoner I had never heard of before a couple of weeks ago, when Hugh Macleod twittered about some great blog everyone should read. The blog, a review of a SXSWi, a hipster conference for people with Ruby skills and lazer-etched Apple laptops, is indeed excellent, a deeply personal manifesto for change.

But that’s just the back story. What’s the water kula thing about? Well- it seems that Dan had an idea last Friday. By Monday the WaterKula application was up and running. Its basically a social platform built on twitter that notifies you about cool stuff (a great great grandchild of boingboing). We had a similar experience building a social application over a weekend when we introduced the chinposin avatar capture service. I don’t buy the need to be reminded to drink more liquids, and like any cool new web service the revenue model is murky. But then the goal is clean fresh water for people that really need it.

Our goal is to use WaterKula to raise money for WaterAid, possibly through some form of sponsorship. This will only become possible if we can attract enough followers, so please tweet the word far and wide, and help us make water cooler.

Dan should really hook up with the people at Akvo, an ambitious clean water initiative, which regular readers will know recently achieved second round funding, and might be interested in a potentially revenue-raising game. It has never been easier to be a social entrepreneur.  If you want to make a difference you can. Dan does. Mark does. The barriers to entry are dropping. You don’t need anyone’s permission to make a difference. Why not try and make water cleaner by hanging out at the virtual water cooler?


How much automation is too much automation? Flushed Away

So you’re sitting there, relaxed, doing your own business. You don’t even have a wide leg stance, when suddenly the toilet flushes beneath you. Why did that happen? You aren’t finished yet, which means another flush is going to be needed. Did your elbow trigger the sensor? Trying to complete your paperwork the bloody toilet flushes again. Not only is the overactive flush mechanism wasteful of water but also of paper- you need extra to dry your freshly “rinsed” privates-a poor man’s bidet. You walk out of the cubicle and everything is automated – soap pump, hot water tap, hand drier, towel dispenser. One of these days you’re going to walk into the “john” and a disembodied American voice, with a relatively pleasant mid-West twang, is going to ask: “would you like me to hold that for you, sir?” i wonder which would be most disturbing- a male or female robot assistant, or one with no discernable gender?

Obviously hygiene is very important in our age of global travel, but isn’t water consumption? The sensors on the taps are evidently designed to conserve water, as well as keep your hands clean. The soap too. Hand towels-I am happy to use the “elbow crank.” All in all though toilet service automation strategies tend to confuse me. Perhaps someone familiar with Japanese toilet automation can tell – what’s up with that?

In IT we talk a lot about automating paper processes. But the hand dryer is a fine example, in my opinion, of unneccessary automation. i will take a paper towel (recycled of course) every time…

The real point I want to make here-cutting the deal, as it were, is that all automation decisions involve tradeoffs, not all of which are beneficial. The green lens is another one to consider when making process automation design decisions.


Weirdly, according to TedsBlog on Flickr this is a toilet at Google Corp. Deodorizer – enough said.



Working water twice

I’ve spent the past few weeks emerged in the water sector and the opportunities that exist to tackle the problem that 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

There are some fascinating people out there working to overturn assumptions and find new models of collaboration. There are also some great design ideas. Check out this system, or should I say cistern, which initially looks bizarre but is actually an astonishingly simple way of improving the efficiency of flush toilets. If we make toilets more efficient, they require less infrastructure.


Bill McDonough points out that to develop a strategy of change requires genuine humility. He follows on with one of my favourite quotes to use with naysayers:

“If anyone has any trouble with the concept of design humility, reflect on this: it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.”

Stuff like this shows how much we can redesign even the most familiar things. Thanks to Juergen Kikuyumoja Eichholz for the link.


Water bottles of the future?


Forget Richard Pim’s garden wall made of wine bottles. Here’s a much more serious idea for the drinks companies like Cadbury Schweppes, Pepsi and Coca Cola – pick up on the spirit of the beautiful ideas by Dutch designer Nienke Vording and stop shipping vast quantities of bottled water around the country, which then all get chucked into landfill.

Instead, sell gorgeous reusable water bottles – indeed promote designers to create all kinds of personal reusable bottles. Then install ‘water stations’ into local shops and other locations. Offer either tapwater (still or gassed-up, either of which you pay for) or mineral water from tanks (which you pay extra for). But charge a bit less than you would for bottled water.

And don’t cheat and only distribute water from the tanks. That’s as absurd as the huge logistics operation that underpins the water cooler industry, which busily expends energy shipping water barrels into every office building in the land.

Of course, in the Greenmonk spirit of innovation from the roots up, this could be done without the support of the major drinks distributors…


On The Web, Green Change, Architectures of Participation and Rain-making

One of the reason we chose the name Greenmonk Associates is that this blog is about the associated community. With no community there will be no Greenmonk. Community drives serendipity.

Example1: This morning I got into the office and found an interesting link on my Monkchips blog – as part of a comment on a completely different topic. I followed it and came to Thomas Bjelkeman, one of the leaders behind GreenOcean, a “non-profit organisation which provides education and information about sustainable energy, food and water production based around our oceans.” First post I see there refers to Mark Charmer, one of my Greenmonk partners in crime, and his great post Why Open Source marketing changes everything. The post mentions the Netherlands Water Partnership and the Unesco-IHE Institute for Water Education. These are the organisations we’re working with on the SMART Water project for India. Then the penny finally drops. Thomas is the guy Mark profiled yesterday.

A Swedish entrepreneur and technology visionary, he has worked doggedly to build a series of ventures that tackle the world’s most important problem – access to water.

While studying environmental sciences at Stockholm University, he cut his teeth helping Brit Charlie Paton build the profile of Seawater Greenhouses. The ingenious desalination system, which allows you to grow commercial-scale crops (or power air conditioning) in arid coastal regions using just sunshine and seawater, has bagged lots of awards and now just needs some enlightened punters to get on and build some big commercial projects.”

Which is where Mark comes in, with funding to try and help Thomas build a networked, rather than top down systems, opportunity. They are going to coalesce opportunities, becoming rainmakers for clean water funding.

“The problem, of course, is that many of the ‘systems’ people might build could easily, like a decade of corporate intranets before them, lie unused and unwanted. The point of an open development process is that a concept will constantly adapt to the needs and opportunities of its market – of the communities that use them. There are several communities that will matter for this and other open source projects. Crucially, how do you create something relevant and empowering for the communities themselves? Second is the ability to galvanise the NGO / development community – read hierarchy. And how do you build a base of support among the stakeholders, including NGOs, corporations and national, regional and local governments? Also how do you involve software experts who can make sure the system evolves as it needs to”

Mark and I will both be in SF next week and hopefully make some progress.

Example 2. This morning CleverClogs contacted me via instant message. After we talked about a couple of things I showed her Greenmonk. She immediately suggested some resource and people to reach out to:

Information World Review is looking into Cleantech.

Meanwhile Al Tepper compiled these resources.

Photograph of a waterdrop courtesy of Kevin Pelletier who prefers me to link here.