A trip too far?

BL Magazine, Sept-Oct 2018. Original article p44-46

On the health impact of business trips, and how employers need to take more responsibility

To have the life of a business hotshot, putting in a couple of hours for meetings before lounging at the pool for the rest of the day – nice work if you can get it, right? But of course you can’t, because this version of business travel doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever actually did. Any lingering luxuries afforded to work travel disappeared with the 2008 credit crunch, and economy flights and tight turnarounds have been the norm ever since. “The guys here take the mickey out of me when I’m going to Dubai, asking if I’m going to the swim-up bar,” says Trevor Norman, Director of Funds and Islamic Finance at VG in Jersey. “But it’s not all fun – business trips are work.”

Seven million business trips are taken every year by UK residents, according to the Office of National Statistics, a number that’s typically risen by 2.8% per year since 1980. A survey by Bristol Airport found that those who travel with their jobs typically head out eight times a year. But frequent business travel can have serious negative effects on health – mental as well as physical. Because there’s a lot going on when you’re travelling for work: you have to get to the airport on time and pass through security, and maybe the plane is late. Trying to sleep in an economy seat is never fun, and you land late at night and maybe there’s only junk food available. You have a few drinks – it’s been a long day – and you skip the gym before crashing into bed for some restless sleep while fighting your body clock. Tomorrow is a day of back-to-back meetings.

There’s a proven link between a high number of days spent on the road and a risk of long-term health issues like heart attacks and strokes. But a study published last December in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests it may be causing some more immediate problems too. People who travel a lot for work are more likely to see their mental health suffering, by having trouble sleeping, being sedentary, smoking, and drinking more alcohol. Anxiety and depression also spiked for those who found themselves frequently on the road.

While most of us probably travel less than 14 times per month – the frequency which the study identified as being particularly harmful – the negative effects can be felt at more moderate levels too. A World Bank study found that the business travellers among its staff were three times as likely to file psychological insurance claims. Health risk appraisal surveys at large corporations routinely show that international business travel is associated not just with poor health, but that it also makes it harder to keep up with the pace of work. This means it’s not just an individual’s problem, but a corporate concern.

“The opportunity to travel is often touted by companies as a benefit in their recruitment of talent, but the accumulating evidence linking extensive business travel to chronic disease health risks needs to be factored into the cost-benefit analysis of the practice,” Dr Andrew Rundle, lead study author and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Employees simply need to be aware that business travel can predispose them to making poorer health decisions.”

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Dr Bob Gallagher, who heads up occupational health at Queens Road Medical Practice in Guernsey, says that companies are getting better at taking responsibility for their employees’ well-being while on the road. The issue should be considered as part of a company’s risk assessment: “Work travel can cause problems that can make people unwell, or it can make pre-existing mental or physical health conditions worse – or both, as these things are often linked,” says Gallagher. At his practice, Gallagher meets people who travel “an awful lot”, sometimes for weeks at a time. “It’s rare to meet someone who travels often for work who says it’s something they enjoy doing,” says Gallagher – for most people it’s something they have to do for the job and it can be a source of stress.

Common ill effects of work travel include heartburn, acid indigestion, digestion problems, and trouble sleeping, says Gallagher. “If you are below par because you haven’t slept, you’re a bit hungover, you’ve eaten too much food, you haven’t exercised, are you performing at your best? Probably not.” While some of this is down to the individual, companies are starting to realise that it’s their responsibility too. “Organisations need to look at this. They shouldn’t cram the day full of meetings so people can’t have some rest. Make sure people have a bit more time,” says Gallagher.

Ensuring employees don’t return from a mad-dash business trip too tired to drive home from the airport is also a matter for companies’ duty of care, says Andrew Perolls, Director of Business Travel Direct, a travel management company. “Companies have to be more careful about how they look after staff.” This also means ensuring staff aren’t staying in hotels in unsafe parts of town, considering things like access to medical facilities, and also, ensuring the company knows exactly where everyone is in case of a natural or political event.

While Perolls can testify to the fact that the life of the work traveller has sped up – going on a one-day business trip to the US is not unheard of – he also thinks this might be improving. “What people are prepared to put up with is changing,” says Perolls, adding that staff are increasingly bristling at being told to fly budget airlines at the crack of dawn. Especially the millennial generation, who’re now in their 30s, are more attuned to work-life balance: “We know that in specialist professions, they may even look at the travel policy before deciding to join a company if the job involves a lot of travel.”  

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Letting employees choose where to stay (within a budget) is one way to keep people happy – that way they can pick a hotel with a gym, or something in walking distance of good food options. Allowing people to fly out the night before will also prevent stress, as well as ensuring there’s downtime between meetings. Giving people a leisure day or two at the end of their trip is a good way to ensure the trip is a positive event, says Perolls: “It’s a shame going all the way to Bangkok only to see the airport.”

Ensuring you don’t have to run through airport security is always a great start to any trip, but ultimately, travel is an exercise in unpredictability. “Stress can be defined as a perceived lack of control, which is common when travelling,” says David Brudö, co-founder and CEO of Remente, a mental health app that aims to promote wellbeing through planning. Brudö explains how he recently used Remente to plan a trip to Japan, from booking flights and choosing restaurants to scheduling in his meditation sessions on the plane. “When you’re travelling you’re a bit disconnected from the outside world, but this means you actually have some time to take care of yourself. A plane is a great place to just sit and meditate, read a book, and invest in yourself,” says Brudö. Remente also works with businesses looking to improve employee wellbeing: “We see that the more balanced people are, the more productive they are. That’s something businesses are increasingly realising.”

It’s hard to get around the need for business travel – video conferencing is constantly improving, but it’s not a substitute for a handshake. But a stressed organisation is not a smart organisation, and it’s clear that companies are realising that taking care of people is ultimately a sound business decision; Deloitte found that 88% of UK businesses are working towards improving work-life balance for staff. That also means helping people stay healthy on the road, by booking the hotel with the nice gym, or providing resources for meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy. Ultimately, it also means picking the people who enjoy travel to go on trips, while letting those who’d rather not stay home.

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The lifetime flier

Trevor Norman took 90 flights last year, having gone on 18 business trips from his home in Jersey. “I’m constantly travelling,” says Norman, Director of Funds and Islamic Finance at VG, a Jersey-based independent provider of fiduciary and administrative solutions. “My father was BA staff so my mother flew with me even while pregnant. I’ve flown all my life, literally!” He laughs. “I was lucky enough to fly to all sorts of places before people were really travelling. That’s carried on in my business career.”

Norman’s BA record shows he’s flown almost 600,000 miles. He’s got the routine down pat: “In our spare room I have travel drawers with all the bits I need. I have a bag of electrical leads that I just drop in my case. It’s almost instinctive by now.” As he usually flies to the UK first, Normal likes to get that leg done the day before, as he’s done with risking still sitting in traffic on the M25 as his plane boards. “Also, I always allow time between meetings, for something to eat and a comfort break. … I try and relax as much as I can no the plane, have a snooze and try and arrive fresh. I can sleep just about anywhere and don’t tend to suffer much with jetlag – I’m lucky that way.”

Missing home used to be more of a problem when the children were young. “That was stressful for my wife,” says Norman. Although now that the kids have left home, his wife often comes with him on trips, which makes for a lovely time for them both. “I enjoy the travel to see different places and learn about different cultures. I try and see the positive side of it.”

Down the line: How Crossrail is changing London’s neighbourhoods

OnOffice Magazine cover story, August 2018. Original article (PDF).

Station to Station: How Crossrail is changing London’s neighbourhoods

Any new building will change the face of a block. If the structure is significant enough it can even change an entire neighbourhood, like how the Shard propelled the entire London Bridge area into becoming a glitzy business piece of the City. But once in a rare while there’s an infrastructure project that has the chance to transform an entire city.

When this happens, it’s not just about the buildings or the trains that run underfoot – it’s about creating opportunities that will stand the test of time. What kind of legacy do we want to leave for the future? For the people who move through the city on a daily basis, the open spaces and the green habitats around the buildings may well mark the difference between a city that’s merely functional, and a place to love.

Londoners have watched the construction of Crossrail happen around them for nine years now, eagerly anticipating the opening of the Elizabeth line at the end of this year. £14.8 billion has been spent to create a railway that will carry 200 million passengers a year. This is the largest construction project currently taking place in Europe, building 57 kilometres of new track to create a 118 kilometre-long railway set to bring 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the capital.  

But the train is only half the story. Ten brand new stations have been built along the line, and another 30 have been refurbished. Far beyond that – the surrounding areas have been profoundly influenced by this new lifeline. The presence of this major new transport link has inspired buildings, passages, and squares that will be part of daily life in the city for generations.

At Tottenham Court Road, the new Crossrail station is being built a little way down from the existing station.When you stand at the Newman Street entrance of the new Rathbone Place complex you can see where the crowds will soon make their way. Built atop what was previously a Royal Mail sorting office and a car park, Rathbone Place isn’t an official Crossrail project, but as Graham Longman, Lead Project Architect at Make Architects explains, many of the choices made in this mixed use development were determined by the proximity to the station.

Now, the Fitzrovia site is home to Facebook’s London office, but the presence of the tech giant is barely noticeable when you’re sitting in the garden surrounded by trees and flowers. “It really is all about the garden,” says Longman as he gives me the tour. There are three routes into the green space – two archways covered in glazed jade ceramic tiles, and one that’s open to the sky. That’s the main Crossrail route coming from Newman Street. Make worked with the Space Syntax Laboratory to model how people would flow from the station and into the garden, which makes for a scenic shortcut to the offices and houses of Fitzrovia.

“The garden is like a found space – it’s not obvious as you walk down the street. It’s a pressure valve to Oxford Street,” Longman continues as we find a spot in the shade, behind the public water fountain. The architect says it felt important to give something back to London with this project – central London developments are often tight and this is a relatively large site: “In the 1800s there would have been a lot of garden squares being built. We’re seeing less of that in modern times, but it’s an old model,” he says. “Open, green spaces, and roof gardens and balconies, are so important for people’s states of mind. These are spaces where people can feel happy to be in them.”

Public space, in the form of open squares and green gardens, are a red thread running through many of the architectural projects that have cropped up in the wake of Crossrail. At Canary Wharf, Crossrail Place is a surprising green oasis in the midst of a strictly business area – a deliberate effect, according to Ben Scott, Partner at Foster + Partners, the architecture studio behind Crossrail Place.

“Infrastructure projects act as natural magnets, pulling people in from across the city. We believe they are also an opportunity to create vibrant public spaces and amenities for people, maximising their potential,” says Scott. “The primary planning objective of the project was to create a clear, publicly accessible building that serves both the working population of Canary Wharf and its visitors, as well as the residential neighbourhood of Poplar.”

Foster + Partners worked with Canary Wharf Group to ensure the below-ground Crossrail station and the oversite development had a unified vision. This has been the case for the entire Elizabeth line – in fact, this is the first time that a major UK rail project, complete with stations and surrounding areas, has been designed at the same time. This created a unique opportunity to ensure that the new line not only fits in, but that it actually adds to the character of the city.

For several Crossrail-related architecture projects along the line, public life sits at the centre of new developments. When placemaking practice JTP was tasked with the Dickens Yard development in Ealing in West London, there was no doubt: this was an opportunity to create a new centre for Ealing. “It lacked a town square – it has Haven Green to the north but it didn’t really have a civic open space in the centre of town,” says Ian Fenn, Partner at JTP. Dickens Yard is not directly linked to Crossrail, but a large part of the appeal for the mixed use development is the increased footfall expected from the new trainline.

Dickens Yard sits on top of a former car park, but the square at the heart faces a number of listed buildings, including Christ the Saviour church, Ealing Town Hall, and Ealing Fire Station. “A key driver for the design was to create a series of linked spaces that embraced the context of the surrounding buildings,” says Fenn. “We created a new town square that [opened up] the main entrance of the church. The image was that people would spill out of the church on wedding days and into this new realm in the heart of Ealing.”

Architects working along the Crossrail path through central London have had to work in areas with a strong sense of history that had to be respected. Daniel Moore, Partner at PLP Architecture, says their design for the building sitting atop Farringdon East Crossrail station was bounded by conservation areas on three sides, one of them being Charterhouse Square, a Grade II-listed park that’s being opened to the public as part of the development. “We quickly realised we had to be sympathetic to the local context,” says Moore. “You have to treat it with respect, as these buildings may be sitting on the site for a hundred years – it’s a Crossrail station, so there’s an element of permanence.”

Civic architecture is different – building something that’s distinctly intended to improve the lives of the people comes with a sense of added responsibility. Every architect I spoke to echoed the pride and joy that comes with being trusted with creating something that will last generations – the Crossrail stations themselves are designed to last 120 years. Buildings can find a place in people’s hearts, but a public square, or a garden where anyone can go to have a quiet moment, becomes part of the fabric of the city.

The idea of Crossrail is over 100 years old, and its current iteration – the Elizabeth line – is the result of 20 years of planning, as Head of Architecture at Crossrail, Julian Robinson explains. “When you have a project that stretches over that length of time you’re able to plan in a wider way. It presented an opportunity to take a more integrated approach.” The new station at Tottenham Court Road will introduce a public space on Dean Street; Robinson explains how the space that’s opened up around around the existing Tube station at Charing Cross Road is a result of collaboration, as London Underground has been preparing for the added footfall. “Sometimes it’s serendipity as projects are coinciding, but the reason they’re coinciding is because of the degree of planning.”   

With any major building project in an old city like London, something will invariably be lost. The Saint Giles area by Tottenham Court Road – the “grubby” end of Oxford Street – is probably the piece of London that’s seen the most change as a consequence of Crossrail. The much-loved 1927 Astoria Theatre  had to be torn down to make room, along with the Grade II-listed building at 96 Dean Street. For people who know and love an area, it can be tough to accept what’s lost. But Robinson points out that a great deal of effort has been made to ensure that Crossrail preserves London’s character, and that it will improve the area for the people who use it.

A major civic architecture project like Crossrail is really about creating something for the future. When the scaffolding comes down, the stations will be taller and wider than what we’re used to seeing on the Tube. Londoners and visitors will add the new squares and gardens to their mental maps of resting spots throughout the city. Once the Elizabeth line opens, London will continue to mould itself around its new high-speed rail link – developers will see new opportunities, architects will get more opportunities to create open air, and people will adjust their habits. Because ultimately, Crossrail is about so much more than just a train. “The railway is there for people. London is there for people,” says Robinson. “Without the people you wouldn’t have the railway, and you wouldn’t have the city.”

 

Strange birds

Published in Lionheart Magazine (Issue 9: Land, Water and Air) in April 2018

Strange birds

Wild parrots don’t belong in London but still, they are everywhere. I always find it a little jarring to see one – the shocking green and red typical of a parakeet is starkly out of place. It’s like we instinctively know that English birds should be brown and grey, with a hint of colour on the chest at most. The parakeets are striking outliers: they are characters of a brighter, sunnier place that’s clearly very far away from here.

I suppose your attitude to happening upon a flock of wild parrots in London will depend on who you are – will you respond to this uncanny encounter with awe, or with scepticism? They sure are adorable, darting between the trees, but seeming a wild parrot in an English park also feels like someone messed up and put the wrong bird down on the island.

I feel a bit like that myself in West London – a strange bird in a wrong place. I moved here from East London, my home of nearly a decade, for reasons that were good but ultimately not my ideal choice. I was pretty sour about it at first, but I’ve had some time to think about it and I’ve come to take a more philosophical approach to the matter: what makes a home?

The parrots made England their home by being big and bold. Now, wild parrots are actually one of the most common birds found in London, and their numbers are growing at a rapid pace as winters are getting milder. There’s more of them out West, but they’ve been spotted in all 32 boroughs. In Kensington Gardens there’s a group that’s apparently so tame they will eat out of your hand. Peckham, Brixton and Greenwich also have them living in the local parks. There’s lots of different types: Alexandrine parakeets have been seen in Lewisham, while Bromley has blue-crowned parakeets, and Amazonian orange-winged parakeets have made a home in Weybridge.

No one quite knows how London came to have wild parrots. Maybe they escaped from a film set, or from a hanger at Heathrow Airport, or were set loose when aviaries were damaged during the 1987 storms? The best story is that Jimi Hendrix once released a breeding pair of parrots on Carnaby Street in the 1960s, but like is often the case with myths like that, the truth is probably far less remarkable.

There’s a flock of feral parakeets living not far from my house, and I often see them in the trees in my garden. I enjoy their company a lot. I’ve never seen any wild parrots in East London, so the first time I spotted one out West it felt like it meant something – maybe this place would have its own charm too? London is so big, made up of all these little villages, meaning that wherever you are there will be things that you can’t find anywhere else. One of my favourite things is when someone says something smart to me that I hadn’t thought of. When that happens, it’s like my brain cracks open for a second, with the sheer thrill of it. Sometimes, places are a lot like that too.

On synchronicity

Published in Lionheart Magazine #8, the Pattern & Colour issue, September 2017.

On synchronicity

Reality has one advantage over fiction: real life events can be wildly improbable. When you’re making things up they have to be believable, but reality makes no such promises: anything can happen.

It was the author John Irving who said this, I think – I seem to remember reading it in a preface to one of my favourite novels, “The World According to Garp”. This is a book where magical things happen to ordinary people. Or more likely, where perfectly realistic things happen, because reality is full of wild coincidences.

Like this one. I met my friend Johanna in San Francisco 18 years ago, and while we’ve kept in touch we hadn’t seen each other in the past decade. But the other week we’d agreed to meet – and three days before we were supposed to see each other for the first time in all that time, we ran into each other on the street. It was around the corner from my house in London, although she didn’t know I lived there, and she lives in Vienna now. I was headed into a café, so had she walked up just a moment later we’d have missed each other.

I ran into my partner at Waterloo station a few days later. He was on his way home and I was on my way into Soho when our paths crossed by the ticket barriers. This is less freaky as we both go through that station all time time, but Waterloo is the busiest rail station in all of Britain and the place was rammed with people. I wasn’t supposed to be on that train but I’d missed the last one, and I wasn’t supposed to take a left at the gates but did it anyway as it was so crowded. And suddenly Luke was there, I saw him first and reached out to touch his arm, interrupting the flow of people to steal a moment out of time.

Coincidences come with a feeling that something has slipped through a crack somewhere, interrupting the normal workings of time and space. A person shows up in a place they’re not supposed to be in; a name or number repeats; two people have had the same experience; a song plays at the perfect moment. These are some of the most common coincidences, and they happen to all of us, all the time.

But it feels so profound when it happens, and a number of coincidences in a row can create a sense of luck. Maybe it feels like you’re being carried forward by an invisible force, or that things are being nudged along to make sure they’re going your way. Like when you’re travelling through traffic and all the lights turn green just as you approach, or you get what you need in an unexpected way, just at the right time. The psychologist Carl Jung called this “synchronicity” – meaningful coincidences. This relates to Jung’s idea of the “unus mundus” – the idea of “one world” with an underlying order and structure where everyone and everything is connected.

It’s a quick jump from the idea of a connected world to superstition. As pattern-seeking animals, it can be hard for us to experience coincidences and not be tempted to read any deeper meaning into them, especially if the experience feels like it borders on the supernatural. But there are seven billion people on the planet, and with such large numbers, outrageous coincidences actually start to become likely. It may feel unlikely to meet someone who shares your birthday, but mathematically, you only need 23 people in a room before there’s a 50/50 chance two of them will be born on the same day.

Still, none of this explains how it’s possible to be thinking about someone – maybe a friend you don’t speak to every week – and the moment you do, your phone buzzes with a text from them. This happens to me all the time. Once my partner used “oak” as a metaphor, and we rounded the corner to find the ground suddenly covered in oak leaves. I was in a taxi on my way to something I was dreading, and “Don’t bring me down” came on the radio – and the same song played again in the taxi on the way back. I start thinking I want to get some Birkenstocks and suddenly I see them on a million people every day. But this isn’t the universe speaking to us – this is what linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky calls the “frequency illusion”: you think about something and your brain becomes primed to focus on it. It’s not that these things are suddenly happening more often, it’s just that now, you’re paying attention.

If it makes you sad to think that coincidences are just a toss of a coin, don’t be. Just because there’s nothing magical about magic, it doesn’t make our experience of it any less meaningful to us. Although Carl Jung didn’t like the idea of reading coincidences as random: “This would result in a chaotic collection of curiosities, rather like those old natural-history cabinets where one finds, cheek by jowl with fossils and anatomical monsters in bottles, the horn of a unicorn, a mandragora manikin, and a dried mermaid.” He says this as if it’s a bad thing, but it sounds pretty great to me.

It’s such a big world, and it can feel so overwhelming. How amazing is it that we find the things that we end up loving: our people, our places, our songs, our random detours that become memories that stick in our brains for the rest of our lives? I’m sure my partner and I have passed each other at Waterloo station without seeing each other a dozen times, and I believe it was luck that we saw each other that day. But that didn’t make it any less wonderful. A face that I love appeared in the crowd, purely as a surprise, and we shared a moment that shouldn’t quite be happening.

London’s challenger banks are the envy of New York fintech

FusionWire, 2016. 

London’s challenger banks are the envy of New York fintech

New York has no shortage of impressive fintech startups, but when it comes to challenger banks, everyone is looking to London.  

New York fintech holds its own against any other startup scene, no doubt about it – but even New Yorkers will admit that London is ahead when it comes to challenger banks. During a recent reporting trip to New York, the consensus was clear: there’s great admiration for up-and-coming UK banks like Mondo and Starling. These are the next-generation banks that are offering a full retail banking service, rather than just a front-end built on top of existing infrastructure. “This is what I want [to see] more of the US. I want new online banks built from the ground up. I want to see somebody do it,” said Joe Ziemer, head of communications and policy initiatives at Betterment, when we met in May.   

Starling and Mondo both secured UK banking licences this summer, joining the dozen-plus new banks that have received licences since 2013; that was when UK regulators changed the rules in an effort to encourage innovation in the retail banking sector. Goals are lofty and ambitious and there’s money available to pursue them: Starling raised $70m in January, while Mondo was valued at £30m following its £6m fundraising in February. In May, new name Tandem raised £1m on crowdfunding platform Seedrs in less than 20 minutes.

In New York, leading US robo adviser Betterment is an example of a fintech startup that provides a full service, rather than just repackaging products from traditional financial groups. There are two key benefits to this approach, says Ziemer: “One is the user experience. If you open a Betterment account you will open the entire thing in two minutes – the advisory relationship and the brokerage relationship. … If you fund your account tonight you’ll be fully invested tomorrow morning.” This is possible because Betterment handles everything in-house, and no outsourcing means no delays, no profit-sharing, and overall full control.

Building from scratch – like Betterment is doing as a US robo adviser, and Mondo is doing as a UK challenger bank – has drawbacks. For one, it takes much longer. It also requires more funding up front, as years can go by before the product can be launched and even then, it can take years to make money. But if successful, the payoff will be a company that’s central to the customer, rather than a nice-to-have. An example of this is how we may use a service like PayPal, but this is useless without a bank account: our central relationship is still with the bank. The overall goal of Betterment gets to the heart of this, says Ziemer: “We want to get to a place where we are the client’s central financial relationship.” For UK challenger banks, the goal is the same – this is what’s caught the admiration of the New York fintech scene.  

The regulation advantage

So if New York can nurture a full-service financial advisory startup like Betterment, why the dearth of groundbreaking challenger banks? Put simply, it’s the lack of supportive infrastructure or permissive regulation. “There’s certainly a number of connecting data points around challenger banks being more prominent in Europe and Asia rather than the States. It may have to do with the regulatory scheme here in the US: you don’t often see them popping as much,” said Jesse Podell, Managing Director of Startupbootcamp Fintech New York, when we spoke in May. “[In London] you have some proven leaders, like Mondo. Whereas here, it may feel a bit stalled.”

Podell says London has done a remarkable job at boosting its fintech scene, which unlike in the US, benefits from being focused primarily in one place. But the UK still lags behind when it comes to funding. In North America, VC-backed fintech companies raised $1.8 billion across 128 deals in the first quarter of 2016, according to KPMG and CB Insights, which concluded fintech deal activity in the region is on track to reach a new high this year. In Europe, funding numbers for the period came in at $0.3 billion, and half of this went to WorldRemit and LendInvest. “Fintech investment in Europe has certainly been less overheated than in other markets,” CB Insights CEO Anand Sanwal said when the numbers were published, adding that this has resulted in increasing interest from US and Asian investors. These number do however pre-date Brexit, which has created uncertainty; London’s ability to hire people from all over Europe has been a significant asset when it comes to competing with the US.

London benefits from having more fintech accelerators compared to New York, and Podell is impressed by the quality of the infrastructure set up to support fintech startups in London. “What I do really appreciate and like about London is the regulatory scheme. It seems to be more adept at working and experimenting with startups. It’s seen as quite adversarial here in the States.” Podell, who’s just overseen the first round of companies completing the Startupbootcamp Fintech New York accelerator programme, says this is something he would like to work towards improving in the US: “[In London] you have a regulatory sandbox that startups have enjoyed. That could be a big part of the reason why the UK has done well.”

Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth

Aquila Magazine for children, July/August 2017 (PDF)

Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller wanted to bring humanity closer to utopia – a perfect place where everyone has what they need – and he believed that technology was how we’d get there. Fuller’s dream was borderline crazy but “Bucky” got closer than most, in part because he didn’t just try to solve each problem individually but he looked at how every single thing in the world is connected.

Buckminster Fuller was a scientist, as well as a designer, architect, geometrist, engineer, and cartographer. Or you could simply say he was a genius – and a bit of a crackpot! He had wildly creative and beautiful ideas for how to solve humanity’s problems, and he was deeply interested in pretty much everything he came across.

As the root of technology is science, Fuller studied the basic patterns in nature in the hopes of reproducing them in his inventions. Fuller is probably best known for his Geodesic Domes – those half circles that look a bit like a football cut in half. This construction doesn’t need any supporting beams, and is stable enough to endure harsh weather. Standing inside a Bucky Dome shows you how this design isn’t just strong and light, but also elegant and graceful. Fuller said: “I never work with aesthetic considerations in mind. But I have a test: If something isn’t beautiful when I get finished with it, it’s no good.”

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Richard Buckminster Fuller Junior (1895-1983) was born in Massachusetts, USA, to a family of strong individuals dedicated to activism and public service. Young Bucky was no different, and the work he went on to do inspires us to this day. Fuller was severely nearsighted as a child, but until he got glasses he refused to believe the world wasn’t blurry. Early inspiration came from family trips to Bear Island in Maine, where Fuller learned about nature and boat construction. Fuller was later thrown out of university for spending too much time with friends and missing his exams. He then went to work at a mill, which taught him about machinery. His time in the Navy meant learning about engineering – Fuller invented a winch for rescue boats that meant pulling planes out of the water in time to save pilots’ lives. This invention earned Fuller the opportunity to train with the US Naval Academy, before he went to work with his father-in-law where he invented a new way to strengthen concrete buildings.

After the construction company went under, Fuller found himself at a loose end. He withdrew, wondering how he could best contribute to humanity. “You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe,” he concluded after he emerged from two years in deep concentration. His goal was ambitious: “To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” Fuller wanted to find a way to solve all the problems in the world at the same time, because he believed it was all connected. Fuller called his particular brand of whole-system thinking “synergetics” – to look closely at the natural relationships between objects, and examine how we think about things.

Not everyone liked Fuller – his ideas were unusual and pretty out there – and even those who supported him found he could be exhausting at times. He would often start talking about one subject and before you knew it, hours had gone by and Fuller would have covered not only the original topic, but put it into context with everything else around it. In Fuller’s world the simplest thing, like ancient boat building, was a vital component of the biggest issue, like the development of modern science – and listeners would find themselves not only convinced, but also inspired. Concluded the New Yorker magazine concluded after interviewing Fuller in 1966: “As Fuller told it, the whole rousing saga sounded absolutely irrefutable.”

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“More with less” was Fuller’s guiding principle as he worked on one of his key areas of interest: revolutionise construction in order to improve housing. He invented the Dymaxion House, a cheap, mass-produced module that could be airlifted into place. The name, a mix of the words “dynamic”, “maximum” and “tension”, became a calling card for Fuller, who went on to invent the Dymaxion Car – a vehicle that even today looks like something out of science fiction. This car had three wheels and aerodynamic rounded edges, was 20 feet long and could hold up to 11 people and it used very little fuel. The Dymaxion Car caused such a stir when Fuller drove it that he was asked that he kindly keep it off the streets during rush hour because it caused gridlock. Fuller also dreamt up underwater settlements where people could receive supplies via submarine, and floating communities where people could live in the clouds.

The Dymaxion Map shows the whole planet on a single flat sheet of paper, without any of the usual distortions that you get with maps – the idea was to encourage people to think about the planet in a more comprehensive way, instead of focusing on individual countries. Fuller also developed the World Game, which used the Dymaxion Map to help people better understand how to use the planet’s resources to the benefit of everybody. Fuller figured we were all in the same boat, so it would make more sense if we all pulled in the same direction: “I’ve often heard people say: ‘I wonder what it would feel like to be on board a spaceship,’ and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That’s all we have ever experienced. We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.”

Just talking about the weather

Lionheart Magazine, February 2017.

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Just talking about the weather

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” (Samuel Johnson)

White sunshine is pouring down from a cold blue sky today, creating a rare moment of picture perfect autumn, the kind you see in postcards. The light hits the trees, covered in yellow and orange leaves – it’s so bright they’re glowing. I’m a summer child and the prospect of winter scares me, but right now the autumn is putting on a show, and it’s spectacular.

I feel bright today too, because the weather affects me far more than is reasonable. In the summer I’m happy, basking in the heat and the sun, grateful every day for the sweetness of it. In the winter it’s the opposite, although it’s not the cold that bothers me – it’s the absence of light. The grey January sun becomes a metaphor for my mood: not quite enough, stretched too thin. It’s always been like that for me, but in 2003 it was the worst: I’d just moved to London after finishing university and the city was too big, the rent was too high, the world was coming in too fast, and it was too damn dark outside. In winter, hibernation instinct takes over, and all you can do is wait.

eliasson2I don’t remember much from that winter, but there’s one thing that stands out. At the Tate Modern, in the central cavern that is the Turbine Hall, was an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson. It was very simple: a sun-shape mounted on the wall, filling the gigantic space with yellow light and a fine mist. The mono-frequency lights, similar to those used in old-fashioned streetlights, meant you could see only three colours: yellow, black and white. The ceiling was covered in mirrors, which meant that when people walked into the space and looked around, very often they would lie down.

All through that winter I would go down to the Tate several times a week on my lunchbreak, just to sit in the sun. It might be gloomy as hell outside, but for half an hour it felt like the world was a place with light in it, and that I would find a way to make London agree with me. Now it’s 13 years later and my life is no longer something I feel the need to get away from, but I still think about that magical sunscape every single winter.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Olafur Eliasson’s Tate installation has been hailed as one of the most successful uses of the Turbine Hall to date. Eliasson called it ‘The Weather Project’, in recognition of how weather becomes our most immediate experience of nature in an urban landscape. “The weather has been so fundamental to shaping our society that one can argue that every aspect of life – economical, political, technical, cultural, emotional – is linked to or derived from it,” Eliasson wrote in the project catalogue. “Over the centuries, defending ourselves from the weather has proved even more important than protecting ourselves from each other in the form of war and violence. If you cannot withstand the weather, you cannot survive.”

Ahead of the exhibition, Eliasson asked people questions about the weather, including whether they thought the idea of the weather in society is based on nature or culture? 53% said nature – 47% said culture. As they teach you in meditation: there may be clouds in the sky, but the trick is to remember that above them is always a blue sky.

The light always comes back after the dead of winter and we survive it, every time. It can be difficult to remember in the depths of it, but in 2003 it was easy because there was summer on tap at the Tate. How amazing was that sun! How warm and reassuring. How it felt like a promise that things would change.

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Brixton Pound: How fintech boosts the local currency agenda

FusionWire, December 2016. 

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Brixton Pound: How fintech boosts the local currency agenda

The notes are eye-catching, but South London local currency Brixton Pound is most commonly traded in the form of text messages. We sat down with B£ Communications Manager Marta Owczarek to talk about how technology is furthering the local currency cause.

The Brixton Pound has just turned seven years old, making it one of the most successful local currencies in the world. Maybe you’ve seen the notes – the one with David Bowie is best known – you can get them from the B£ cash machine in Brixton Market, the first ATM of its kind. Or maybe you’ve been to the shop in South London – B£ has just moved to a new location on Atlantic Road, operating a pay-what-you-feel café and community space.  

Walking up to the café through the local market, seemingly every shop or restaurant has a B£ symbol in the window. This is a currency, yes, but more than that it’s a community interest project, says Marta Owczarek, Brixton Pound’s Communications Manager. As we’re sitting down on the hottest day of the summer, Owczarek gives me the breakdown: Brixton Pound is a non-profit organisation employing five people, running a local currency accepted by around 250 businesses. 200 of them also operate the B£ pay-by-text scheme, which has over 2000 registered users. This is what I want to talk to Owczarek about: how technology can help future-proof a local currency that ultimately depends on social goodwill to survive.

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The technology behind the current B£ pay-by-text system is simple, and that may well be the key to its success, says Owczarek: “It’s a pay-by-text system that doesn’t need internet. You just need a phone that operates text messages.” She explains that the B£ notes have become a collector’s item, which is good PR but doesn’t actually help the local economy. Because of this, the electronic payment system has been an important tool for getting people to actually spend Brixton Pounds.

People can top up their B£ pay-by-text account at any time with a transfer from their bank accounts, or with cash at one of the dedicated outlets. “Lambeth Council has a payroll scheme for local employees, who can dedicate how many Brixton Pounds they want to receive as part of their salary every month,” says Owczarek. She takes out her phone to show me how the electronic payments work. It’s easy: just type out a text message with the amount and the name of the recipient (a shop or a person), and send it to the B£ phone number. Then each party gets a text message confirming the transaction – that’s it.

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The case for local currencies
Brixton Pound is tied to Pound Sterling, meaning this isn’t actually a separate currency – there incentive to use it isn’t financial. But there’s a strong community message attached – it’s a symbol of belonging to Brixton, and wanting to support the local community in an area where rapid gentrification is affecting local businesses’ ability to keep up with rising costs. This means B£ is mostly an independent business thing, but not exclusively; Honest Burgers and Franco Manca are both London restaurant chains that started in Brixton, so they accept B£ at their Brixton outlets as a signal of their dedication to the area.  

But while B£ has a strong social element, this is very much a financial enterprise: “Brixton Pound was set up by a group of local activists who wanted to do something in response to the financial crisis,” says Owczarek. “Many [local] currencies are about alternative banking, or alternative value systems.” Take the café we’re sitting in – people can pay however much they feel is appropriate. “When we at Brixton Pound started to ask questions about money, we were also asking what is value, or what is money in a wider sense,” says Owczarek. “Nobody is going to be using Brixton Pounds for profit. … [But] it really does start conversations. It means people are connected to each other, to their local community, and to their local business community.”

There are significant financial advantages to keeping money local. The New Economics Foundation concluded that spending money in local shops means that cash circulates in the local economy up to three times longer than if it had been spent in a national chain. The think tank also reported that £1 spent with a local shop is worth £1.76 to the local economy, while being worth just 36p if it is spent out of the area.

“We’re in touch with lots of other local currency worldwide and in the UK,” says Owczarek. “In the UK, we were the first to launch in an urban area. The ones that were operational before us, like Totnes, Stroud and Lewes – the initial idea was more about local supply chains, to be able to grow your own food and supply it locally.” Bristol Pounds has been a particularly successful addition to the local currency family, allowing individuals to pay council tax in Bristol Pounds. In comparison, Lambeth Council will accept Business Rate payments in Brixton Pounds, but individuals have to stick to Sterling.

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Technology experimentation
Owczarek is eager to point out that local currency is only one aspect of the Brixton Pound. “That’s is how it started, but we’ve now developed other projects.” She tells me about the Brixton Bonus, a lottery with a monthly draw of B£1000 – individuals can’t cash out their B£ so it has to be spent. The surplus of the Brixton Bonus, as well as 1.5% from each pay-by-text transaction, go into the Brixton Fund. This is a micro-grant awarded to organisations whose work fulfils three criteria: it furthers Brixton communities; takes action for social justice; and increases local employment opportunities. “The [second round] was completed in June, and we gave grants to nine local organisations,” says Owczarek, adding she was surprised to get 60 applicants for a grant with such narrow criteria. “We’re trying to have a business focus and community focus at the same time.”

As electronic spending has taken over from cash as the most popular way to pay in Britain, I ask Owczarek if she thinks technology is key to future-proofing the Brixton Pound. The B£ cash machine empties out on a weekly basis, Owczarek points out, suggesting there may be a novelty factor drawing people to the paper money. But there’s no reluctance at Brixton Pound to go high-tech. Just over a year ago, Brixton Pound piloted a contactless payment scheme, but Owczarek says it was unsuccessful: “It was a pioneering scheme, and it didn’t quite … there wasn’t a lot of take-up. People were maybe interested, but not enough to make it work.” Owczarek adds there were some issues around hardware – traders already had one terminal, and weren’t so keen on adding another. “It’s interesting to follow these bigger trends, but what we observe on a smaller scale is often its own thing. Pay-by-text has been incredibly successful, and it really took our currency to another level. It’s the most hassle-free payment option.”

Brixton Pound has also experimented with a payment app, which was closer in function to the current pay-by-text system. This was scuppered by technical problems, preventing the app from working after B£ updated their systems. “We’re looking at developing another version of the app that would work with current system. But I think even with the app, most [electronic] payment was pay-by-text.” One reason for this could be that you don’t need a smartphone to use the old system. I ask Owczarek if she thinks the current pay-by-text system is actually working fine as it is – maybe less is more? But Owczarek won’t go that far – she says it would be very nice to have the money to build a great app that looks professional and runs smoothly. But the B£ motivation is clear: “Our priority isn’t to make Brixton Pound as technologically advanced as possible. Our ambition is to make it work for the local area, and for the local community.”  

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Ada and Abbie: The Difference Engines

Aquila Magazine for children, November 2016. 

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Ada and Abbie: The Difference Engines

Engineer Abbie Hutty’s job is to build a vehicle that will be sent into space to look for life on Mars. Things have changed a lot since Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer 200 years ago, in a time when women weren’t supposed to study science.

Science can’t get very far without imagination – before we can create new things, we need to dream them up. But once we have the idea, we need scientists to actually create the fantastical devices from our imaginations. You can’t have one without the other.

Right now, a team of engineers is hard at work preparing to send a rocket to Mars – they have four years to get everything ready. Curiosity is what’s driving us: is there life on Mars? But what’s making it possible to actually go and find out is the work of scientists like Abbie Hutty. She’s a Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus, where she’s in charge of designing the body of the ExoMars rover. That’s the little car that will be sent on a nine month journey through space, before setting down on Mars to explore and look for life.

“I lead a team of specialist engineers, and together we design the structure, choose materials, do lots of testing, and make sure everything about the rover’s body will work perfectly on Mars,” says Abbie. When the rover gets to Mars there won’t be anyone to fix it if anything goes wrong, so it’s a very important job: “I have about 20 people working for me, and some of them are much older than me,” says Abbie, who’s just 29 years old – it’s unusual to be in charge of a team like this at her age.

Abbie’s position is even more unusual when you consider that most engineers are men. Out of all the people working in the STEM professions – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – only 14 out of every 100 are women, according to the Office of National Statistics. But anyone can work in STEM: “I always liked making things,” says Abbie, when asked what kind of interests she had as a kid. “It didn’t really matter what it was, from biscuits to marble runs to knitting with my gran – I enjoyed the thrill of seeing an idea made into reality. I always liked science too: learning about nature, the world and the universe, and how it all works.”

Ada Lovelace, prophet of the computer age

ada-abbie-1Abbie got to where she is today by going to university: she has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. But things weren’t always so easy for women who were interested in the sciences. When Ada Lovelace was born in 1815, her mother decided she should learn about mathematics, which was an unusual thing to teach a girl at the time. Ada went on to become the world’s first computer programmer – that’s incredible when considering there weren’t actually any computers around. That meant Ada didn’t just have to come up with computer programmes, but she pretty much had to dream up the idea of a computer too.

When Abbie first became interested in engineering, some of her friends, and even some teachers, were confused. Why would a young girl want to become an engineer? Many people don’t actually know what engineers do, says Abbie: “A lot of them thought engineers were the same as mechanics, and thought I’d be fixing people’s cars! But I explained what I’d found out: engineering is all about designing new technology, and using creative and technical skills to make new things and solve global problems.”

That sounded great to Abbie, whose favourite subjects were art and design technology, plus she was good at maths and science.” She still remembers the moment when she saw on the news that British engineers were working on a mission to Mars, called Beagle 2: “I thought: ‘Wow! If engineers make cool things like missions to Mars, then I want to be an engineer!’”

200 years ago, girls would be told they were better off staying away from intellectual matters, but Ada didn’t listen. When she was 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, a professor of mathematics who’d invented a complex calculating machine called the Difference Engine. Fascinated, Ada wrote to Charles and asked him to be her mentor. This marked the beginning of a lifelong professional collaboration and friendship.

When Charles was working on a new calculating machine he called an Analytical Engine, he asked if Ada could translate a mathematical paper about it, from the original French. Ada took to the task with gusto, adding so many notes that the translation was four times as long as the original text. Ada’s proposed that the Analytical Engine could be used to read symbols, not just numbers, and that it could be programmed with code. Ada’s translation is now considered the world’s first algorithm for a machine, making her the world’s first computer programmer. Ada’s ideas were visionary: she understood that the machine could be more than just a fancy calculator – it could be an all-purpose computing device that could be used to solve all sorts of problems.

The poetry of science

ada-abbie-2Being good at maths isn’t enough to make a breakthrough like this – it requires a good dollop of creativity. Ada’s mother had been the one to insist she learn maths, but Ada had inherited an artistic temperament from the father she never met: Lord Byron, the famous, passionate poet. Ada herself called this powerful combination a “poetical science”.  

Working on the ExoMars rover, Abbie has also found she needs to be creative: she collaborates with people from all over the world as they work out exactly how to push humanity further out into space. “I love seeing something that was once just an idea in my head becoming real and taking shape. Then, knowing that one day it will land on a planet that no human has ever set foot on, is just incredible!,” says Abbie. There’s a shortage of engineers in the UK so we need to get more kids interested – both girls and boys: “We have lots of big challenges to solve, like climate change, green energy, getting clean water to the developing world, reaching new planets. We want people who have had lots of different experiences and learnt different things to come together to solve these problems,” says Abbie.

Abbie admires Ada Lovelace for being very smart, and she also has a lot of respect for Donna Shirley, the engineer who led the team that built the Sojourner Mars rover. That was the very first robotic rover to explore another planet 19 years ago. “It’s a real shame that a lot of women scientists and engineers historically have not been recognised or remembered in the same way as men,” says Abbie. Everyone who works in computer technology now knows that Ava was a true visionary, but she was largely ignored during her lifetime. Many women never get re-discovered like Ava was, and this is a shame, says Abbie: “Inspirational women are an inspiration to everyone – not just girls. All of us are missing out on knowing about half of the inspirational people from history.”

Asked what she wants to do after the ExoMars rover is finished, Abbie says she wants to keep working on groundbreaking projects: “Now that I’ve had a taste of working on a mission to another planet, I don’t want to give it up!” Maybe that means working on other Mars missions: “But there are also missions planned to go to other interesting planets and moons in our solar system. Like the icy moons of Jupiter – we think they might have life in the oceans.” That’s the imagination part done – now we need more engineers like Abbie to figure out how to get us there.