Have been in Bristol, speaking at the Blue Earth Summit 2023, held in The Propyard. Great panel session with Kresse Wesling of Elvis & Kresse, Juliet Davenport, who founded GoodEnergy, and Andres Roberts, of the Bio-Leadership Project. Theme was: ‘Is Regenerative Business Possible?’ The answer: yes, but it’s the scaling that’s the challenge.
Then this morning, Nick Hounsfield of The Wave picked me up at my hotel and drove me out to the site with Abby Richardson. Magical. Then back to London for a session with the WWF Council of Ambassadors. Here’s the column I did for the Future Frontiers platform run by E-Square in Japan:
The boom of huge waves rolling, breaking, and crashing down was all around us. This, I learned, was Big Wave Thursday, with lines of wetsuited surfers paddling out to catch the incoming walls of water. The odd thing, though, was that we were not on the coast, nor anywhere near a beach.
Instead, we were deep inland, near Bristol, one of Britain’s larger cities. And instead of the surf being whipped up across thousands of miles of wind-swept ocean, it was being generated—according to digital menus, as I saw in the control room—by banks of machines powered by renewable energy.
Finally, I had found my way—in a renewable energy-powered Tesla—to The Wave. It proved to be one of the most fascinating sustainability experiments I have ever visited. Better still, I was being guided around by the founder, entrepreneur Nick Hounsfield.
I was in Bristol to speak at the 2023 Blue Earth Summit, chairing a panel on the future of regenerative business—and the possibility of dropping in on The Wave had been top of mind since the invitation to speak first came through.
Nick and I had first met at an awards ceremony where, again, I was speaking. We were celebrating the architectural and planning firm WWA’s winning the Queen’s Award for Environmental Excellence. And one of their flagship projects, I discovered, had been The Wave.
I was welcomed onto the WWA stage by Chris Hines, founder of Surfers Against Sewage, one of the most effective environmental campaigners I have come across. He had worked closely with Nick back in the early days of The Wave—building the concept around my idea of the triple bottom line.
That was back in 2012. From that point on, it took seven years to develop the £25 million surfing project—powered by 100% renewable electricity. It enables users to surf all year round, regardless of weather conditions and tides. Although it is not the world’s first artificial surfing lake, it was the first to use ‘Wavegarden Cove’ technology, providing up to 1,000 waves of varying sizes and shapes an hour.
The Wave Bristol eventually opened in October 2019.. The kite-shaped lake is 180 metres long, 200 metres wide and varying in depth from approximately 50 centimetres up to 3 metres. It contains 26 million litres of water and is divided into two parts for left breaking and right breaking waves, separated by a pier which houses the wave-making system.
I had first met Chris thirty years ago, back in 1992, when he helped us launch our book, Holidays That Don’t Cost the Earth. He turned up at that event, which we hosted in a grand London swimming complex, with his surfboard—and cheekily wore a wetsuit covered in the sort of abandoned condoms that surfers so often encountered amidst the sewage around our coasts.
A couple of years later, I came up with two ideas that went on to have quite an impact. The first was the ‘triple bottom line’, launched in 1994. Then, that same year, I also developed a wave-based model of change with a friend, Nick Robins, who went on to become a leading climate specialist.
From today’s perspective, each of the societal pressure waves we have tracked since then has built on previous ones. In that vein, the current, fifth, wave, has focused on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda that evolved out of the triple bottom line. It also focuses on economic, social, and environmental impact, with a business’s impact seen as negative, neutral, or positive. Hundreds of impact reports are now being produced by the world’s 7,000-plus B Corporations and by many thousands of other businesses.
My own organisation, Volans, was Britain’s first B Corporation, having incubated the UK end of the B Lab platform that promotes this approach to ‘for-benefit’ (rather than just for-profit) business. Although we should have produced an impact report each year since, we have struggled with the task of working out how to measure our real-world impact in terms of shifting how businesspeople think and feel about sustainability challenges and opportunities.
Now, however, we are evolving our first impact report—and it helps to look behind the scenes with other changemakers. Though its B Corp application is still going through the process, The Wave’s 2022 impact report is a model of how to engage and inform. Among other things, it spotlights several key challenges The Wave Bristol has experienced, among them cost control issues, an outbreak of an aggressive form of algae in the lake, and difficulties in attracting enough female surf coaches.
The team’s core focus is on three converging sets of change waves. The first, ‘waves of growth’, aims to support and expand the British para-surfing community, enabling disabled people to surf (One surfer I met there had a prosthetic leg, following a car accident; she is now a champion surfer.) The second, ‘waves of support’, involves working with organisations that help people with mental health issues to access the wellbeing benefits of surfing and surf therapy. And the third, ‘waves of change’, focuses on improving the gender and ethnicity balance in UK surfing.
Nick has long been an activist for ‘blue health’, exploring how the body and the mind responds to being in, or near, water. Among others, he has worked with legendary Irish surfer and social scientist, Easkey Britton. Five times Irish national surfing champion, she helped by pulling together more than 30 studies exploring the health benefits of water-based sports for both body and mind.
Among the less obvious benefits identified in surf-therapy work with local youngsters were increased confidence, self-esteem, and resilience. Astonishingly, in 2019, surf-therapy was made available to children through doctors’ prescriptions via Britain’s National Health Service. An independent report concluded that the approach has ‘a lasting, positive impact.’
On the environmental side, one Wave project that caught my eye had first been mentioned to me by Easkey when I interviewed her for a new book of mine. And now Nick—and The Wave’s 2022 impact report—filled me in on the background. Late in 2022, The Wave team woke up to the fact that most wetsuits today are made of a synthetic rubber called Neoprene, the commercial name for chloroprene rubber, the product of a toxic, carcinogenic chemical process.
There is only one chloroprene plant in the US, owned by the Japanese chemical company Denka. It sits at the heart of a region known as ‘Cancer Alley’. The cancer risk here is 50 times the national average. This, The Wave team says, is completely out of line with its triple bottom line approach to business, so it is now working on non-Neoprene alternatives for its surf school wetsuits.
All work in progress, clearly, with The Wave team also now working on future surfing centres in cities like London. For me, though, one striking lesson from visiting the Bristol Wave was that we must now move beyond tracking and surfing today’s societal waves of change to building tomorrow’s. Great, thundering waves of social, political and market change. Positive versions, perhaps, of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa.