Sustainability, Olympic Cycling and the Mission to Mars
Two things have been massively distracting me from work this week – Team GB’s continuing amazing success at the Olympic Games and the Curiosity rover’s descent onto the Martian surface. So, in order to justify this skiving to myself, I’ve been thinking about what lessons we can bring back to the field of sustainability from these achievements.
Like much of the country I’ve been paying particular attention to the Olympic track cycling. Team GB’s domination of the Siberian pine boards in the Velodrome has been put down to cumulative incremental gains – tweaking absolutely everything to squeeze the last improvement out of it – after all you only need to beat your opponent by a thousandth of a second to clinch gold. So something that looks very normal to us – someone riding a bicycle – has been optimised to the nth degree.
The Mars landing is altogether a different proposition – although one wag on Twitter described it as “NASA takes gold in the 563 billion metres.” It takes 7 minutes for Curiosity to pass through the Martian atmosphere, but 14 minutes to send a signal back to earth, so there’s no way to control it in real time. It all has to be pre-planned and programmed before Curiosity leaves earth and once it goes into what NASA calls “the seven minutes of terror”, it’s on its own. The programme is costing $2.5 billion and 60% of past Mars missions have failed, so we’re talking about really high stakes, high reward. And if you watch the video below, you’ll see just how ingenious NASA have been with the innovative ‘sky crane’.
On the face of it, aiming for sustainability is more like the Mars mission than the track cycling. We’re not looking just to be fractionally more sustainable than last time, but to take ambitious leaps forward, thinking outside the box and taking risks – landing on Mars is the ultimate stretch target. But like the cycling, and unlike the Mars programme, we do have fine, real time control over how organisations and technologies perform – testing and tweaking to optimise performance in a constant search from excellence. And the idea of cumulative incremental improvements has applications to sustainability too – straightening a pipe in a process can mean smaller pumps are possible which in turn can lead to a lighter structure and so on – lots of synergistic increments can lead to significant improvements within the limitations of your overall approach. There are lessons from both.
So in answer the question I set myself, yes, there is justification for the amount of time I’ve spent in front of the TV. Now back to work.