Thursday, 25 October 2012

A better idea than a balloon release.

You might be reading this because you have been told releasing helium latex or Mylar (even worse) balloons outdoors is a bad idea. If you don't know, well it is and you shouldn't pollute the environment by letting balloons go because they become litter and they can kill animals. Helium is scarce and non-renewable; so it's best left for using in MRI scanners to save lives. Even so called 'biodegradable' latex balloons will kill wildlife and domestic animals and it leaves a mess as it slowly rots. You would get a fine for dropping an apple core, so what's so different about one balloon or hundreds of them?

Here endeth the lesson on that. But you might be a balloon release organiser who have already sold tags and balloons and advertised a balloon release before you learned the error of your ways and to cancel it now would be a downer and you would lose money and lose face*. So what can you do instead?

You can organise instead a balloon hunt. You need exactly the same equipment but I think this way is more fun and it's cheaper too as you fill the usual 12 inch latex balloons with air, not expensive helium. It not based on the Balloon Fight video game but it has that kind of energy and it's probably a bit easier to get people to participate in than a water balloon fight.

What you do:

You attach the tags you've sold which have the buyers' name and address to lots of balloons.

You have people also pay or volunteer to enter the competition to become balloon hunters. They can be teams or individuals going for special prizes too. They could dress up as pirates or cowboys or video game characters to add value to the spectacle for the audience.

INSIDE a gymnasium, hall or whatever indoor space you have, you can set up an obstacle course. They could be gym equipment or just cardboard boxes and mats. It isn't a HSE nightmare.

The balloon hunters line up at a starting position, ideally some way from where the balloons are going to be dropped.

On a signal the hundreds of balloons with tags you have sold are dropped from a net at a height, or if you can't rig that, tipped out with some people to waft boards or use fans to disperse the balloons. The players rush to catch the balloons. Much fun for all ensures in the melee. Players pop the balloons to collect as many tags as they can find.

When filled with air the balloons will be scattered around by the people rushing around to catch and burst as many balloons as they can. The audience can be involved in pushing stray balloons back into the field of play.

The hunters have to collect tags, they could have a bucket or box they deposit the found tags in. One by one the balloons diminish and soon the players are chasing the last few balloons, which are probably the hardest to reach.

After a given time or a signal by the referee, the game stops or when the last balloon is caught. The hunter with the MOST tags retrieved wins a prize and or acclaim. The tag on the LAST balloon found wins a prize for the purchaser, like the furthest balloon traveled or the first one home. The remainder of the tags could be put in a drum and drawn for prizes as a raffle so everyone's a winner.

If you play the game without tags, you can weigh the balloon debris collected to determine the winner.

This game has very strong elements of pursuit and survival which excite the audience and challenge the players. They are also strong metaphors. The players will want to get as many balloons as they can to win so they will want to continue to hunt until the last balloon is found. The raffle entrants are betting that their balloon is the best survivor. Everyone taking part can honour a cause by participating if the game is fundraiser or memorial event. Playing a game as a memorial or to honour people has a history going back millennia. Watching people playing an active game is a much healthier message than just watching balloons go off, as twenty seconds of wonder leads to years of harmful litter.

The obstacles for the hunters to manoeuvre can be simple or complex or not done at all but this adds another element of challenge. You can have "shark infested custard": areas that are off limits to the balloon hunter to step into so if a balloon goes there, they have to use their ingenuity to retrieve the balloon. Jumping and waving of arms and teamwork can be used here to get the last balloons. Random challenge balloons can be introduced too during play. You might set obstacles as a maze or platforms, making a giant video game with other people as adversaries that can 'tag' the hunters and steal their points.

You could set out an obstacle course and enforce that the hunter has travel across it to take each balloon with its tag back to their starting position before getting another. This works if there are only five to ten balloons per player or it can be introduced as a challenge in a second round if you want.

This game would work really well in a swimming pool where the hunters would have to swim to catch the balloons (though pieces of latex might clog the filters - check with your pool).

There are many other ways to vary elements of the game. It's wide open for imagination to keep it fresh every time and place it is played.

Fundraising balloon releases are usually a race to see which balloon goes furthest and requires a kind hearted person to return the tag they find and a wait of several days to declare a winner, if at all. In these days of instant gratification, this game delivers the winners as soon as you want them.

*If you can't change your plans, consider there's nothing more inspiring to others than admitting your mistake and cancelling an outdoor balloon release because of the environmental harm, rather than spin PR that the balloons will be "biodegradable" without strings and so on. To persist with that calumny will perpetrate further and less careful imitations. To admit a painful mistake, before others called you on it, will win admiration for integrity for you and your cause. offers this eco-friendly alternative to a Balloon Release - the Virtual Balloon Release. 
Have three cheers and on each cheer have everyone raise their arms to the sky.
On the last cheer, as well as raising their arms to the sky everyone keeps their arms up and gazes upwards to consider the what's being celebrated.
The challenge is then to see who lasts the longest in this position.
The final person to have their arms raised is then given a hearty clap when they are unable to hold their arms up any longer.
This would be good for the soul and for everyone's health!
Of course, people could still be holding their balloons, just as long as they weren't to let them go!
You can use the twitter hashtag #balloonrelease for links and info and you can share this page with

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Idea for litter prevention scheme

A scheme for raising awareness and the prevention of take-away food litter.

1. On joining the scheme customers pledge to be good citizens about litter to get rewards and an ID card to use with cash purchases.

2a. Participating food vendors offer a lottery draw or point-of-sale discount when purchasing food using payment processing which records their ID e.g. debit cards.

2b. Cash purchases are tagged with CCTV or photo at point-of-sale.

3. Scheme terms and condition include permission to capture data.

4. Food packaging i.e. boxes and cups is marked with unique machine-readable code at manufacturing plant with UV ink.

5. All packaging is passed through a scanner at point of sale and linked to POS transaction data and cctv images or customer ID.

6. Evidence of disposal violations (such as street litter) is collected and scanned for match to sales data.

7a. Customers with ID can redeem any packaging to gain reward points.

7b. Customers without ID (or choosing not to use theirs) can redeem any packaging at point of origin or another branch with reward points going to charity.

8. Evidence of disposal compliance (such as waste receptacles) is scanned for match to sales data.

9. Compliant disposal data is searched for trend evidence and learning.

10. Violation disposal data is searched for match to customer ID and trend data.

11. Customers with record of consistently compliant disposal are entered into a reward lottery or acknowledged with discount coupons.

12. Consistent non-compliance evidence is passed to law enforcement.

13. Identified customers with consistent non-compliance are offered educational interventions rather than prosecution to preserve the vendor brand values.

From: McDonalds Customer Services
Sent: 12 August 2011 16:22
To: Nat Bocking
Subject: McDonalds Customer Services Department Reference: 1182617
Dear Mr Bocking 
Thank you for your enquiry and interest in McDonald’s.
I would like to take this opportunity to explain that at present, we are in the process of reviewing our approach to litter. Regrettably, it remains a social problem for the country as whole as it seems many people still feel it is acceptable to indiscriminately drop litter wherever they choose. Ultimately, this is something that will require long term action toward changing the ‘mind-set’.

Our franchisees and individual restaurants work closely with local schools, youth groups and scout troops on litter education. In addition our restaurant staff carry out regular ‘litter patrols’ in the surrounding areas throughout the day.
In Manchester and Birmingham we employ dedicated litter pickers who walk the streets. In addition we are exploring ways of working with national organisations like Keep Britain Tidy, Keep Wales Tidy and Keep Scotland Beautiful, in an effort to try and tackle this issue together.

We have also made a lot of progress with our packaging suppliers in order to reduce the amount of packaging we use and where possible use recycled packaging, whilst at the same time complying with food safety standards.

Please rest assured that this is an issue which is high on our environmental agenda and one which we take very seriously.

Natasha Callis
Internet Response Team
McDonald's Customer Services Department
11 - 59 High Road
East Finchley
N2 8AW

Dear McDonalds,

Thank you very much for your reply. I hope you appreciate that the diagram I sent you explains how you can change that ‘mind-set’ that is the root of this pervasive problem.

If you had a mechanism to reward compliant behaviour and gently re-educate (rather than punitively punish) litter violators, it would do a lot for your brand and counter your detractors that you are serious about your environmental and social impact.

I do appreciate you have litter patrols but I have witnessed McDonalds litter being thrown away 20 miles from the nearest restaurant in rural Suffolk and so it strikes me the only way to help prevent that is to make the litter traceable to the point of origin. 

Even if the actual purchaser could not be identified, then at least some spatial data about where litter originates and ends up would be useful to McDonalds and the fast-food industry to understand what is or isn’t working in getting an anti-litter message to the customer and such data would assist the siting of waste bins and distribution of litter patrols and so on.

I look to the market leader in McDonalds to consider such innovation as, after over 30 years of operation in Britain, I haven’t seen improvement in the results of your current practise. Making your litter traceable would demonstrate that you had, if you could.

Kind regards,

Nat Bocking


I have now entered this idea in the GeoVation Challenge. Please vote for me and make this a reality. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Replace CEEFAX please

With CEEFAX gone now there is now even a bigger place for rolling silent news or current affairs programmes accessible with a web browser with pages for national or regional topics for which the BBC is probably the most trusted and capable potential provider.

The pages for this service should be totally automatic, requiring no input from the user unless they wanted to move onto another edition but the longer text items would automatically scroll to read and be automatically refreshed with new items, as Ceefax was. Without the limitations Ceefax had, on this web service, when video or any audio content is played, it should have subtitles over it and be of short duration. There could be a small control to set in preferences for the scrolling text speed, subtitles language and sound always off on launch.

There are many situations where people would like to consume news and current affairs or any other kind of content without screen interaction and without sound. For me, when I am eating my lunch at my desk, I don't want to keep touching the keyboard to move to another story and my co-workers don't want to hear the sound (on some office desktops we don't even have sound). You might want to watch or read something while on the phone or doing the ironing or using a laptop in bed beside a sleeping partner where headphones are inconvenient.  You might be hearing impaired or lying in a hospital bed. A doctor's waiting room could provide a screen to view the service too.

It's important for bandwidth accessibility (and cost) and screen definition and text colour  reasons that this content is delivered as html and is not a page with text streamed as video. It could be much much better than Faux News with subtitles on and sound off.

So I hope this wish list finds its way to someone who will provide it. I know I would use it if I could.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Rock and Roll Architecture updated

The Boilerhouse Battersea. Not actually a conversion by temporary internal structures but close enough.

I have been imagining ways to reuse redundant buildings. There's nothing unusual in that yet I can't find any examples, some close but not quite, of what I have in mind. 

In my part of Suffolk we have many churches without sufficient congregations to support them and historic but under-used buildings and rural agencies have been approached by people looking for ways to protect those buildings and keep them in use. The church authorities sound amenable to leasing them for community use.

Suffolk generally lacks backpacker or otherwise affordable accommodation for visitors on a budget and yet East Anglia has plenty to attract them.

So we should consider how to convert one into the other. After all, St Paul was a tent maker.

Things to consider:

Many of our churches and similar buildings are in a place of natural beauty so such adaptation should not impact the exterior.

They also have a historic interior fabric that the owners (and the community around it) wouldn't take kindly to significant amendment.

Churches are strapped for cash to maintain them. Home owners with chancel repair liabilities are refusing to pay them.

There isn't much demand in Suffolk for more community space like village halls or much excess demand for space that can't be met by village halls. Yet some village halls and now-redundant schools have realised the potential market for accommodation and have considered part conversion as hostels as a way of making their buildings sustainable.

Funds from investors and public agencies are likely to be tight but there are many social benefits from local skills development and such plans could be a catalyst for employment.

Both churches and water towers offer large interior volumes but don't have much infrastructure, in the way that you would use to convert an old prison into a hotel. Converting buildings to high specification sleeping accommodation is naturally expensive but spartan accommodation need not be uncomfortable.

Architecture can be exciting. Sleeping and staying in a novel space can add value to the experience.

I imagine a solution lies with the reuse of modular building components combined with tensile fabric and inflatable structures, warehouse racking and flooring and portable kitchen and bathroom units with the portable utility distribution systems that are already on the market. That approach could enable the adaptation of sensitive buildings with large but delicate interior spaces into multi purpose accommodation which would protect the historic fabric and, if need be, could be removed later leaving the original structure intact.

I call this approach 'rock and roll architecture'. It takes the technology widely used in festival staging, film production and circuses who turn up and erect a village overnight then move on without a trace.

A tent erected inside a Berkeley barn to house a NMR machine at a critical constant temperature.
School library reading area made of recycled waste materials from nearby furniture factory

At one particular site I know, it looks possible to bring in modular kitchen and bathroom units and erect a mezzanine floor above them with wooden beach huts (with a nod to nearby Southwold) for sleeping accommodation. A translucent fabric tent suspended from the ceiling - or even a bog standard wedding marquee - would cut down the draughts and protect the interior to be the common areas.

Yoshitomo Nara + graf installation in Baltic, Gateshead 2008
Stacking on mezzanines. Small caravans could be dismantled and rebuilt indoors as private space.

This image an Amsterdam theatre set from 2005 designed by Catherina Scholten for a production of Checkov’s Ivanov went viral on the internet as a  'Hillbilly High-rise'.
scaffolding and lino samples recycled into mezzanine cafe
one of many sleeping pod ideas on the market

Inflatable workshop in an aircraft hanger
ModTruss is an incredibly flexible and useful way to create floors and walls

This approach is similar but quite different to the now commonplace reuse of shipping containers or modular outdoor structures for accommodation. One challenge is although you don't have the weather proofing problems building inside an old church, access could be a lot tighter. All materials might have to come through a 6' x 6' door. Ideally the heating plant could be housed in a trailer next door. Human waste might need a macerator to transport it to the sewers as it might not be routed underground. 

I think a plastic design and build approach is feasible. If you needed to extend or adapt or completely rethink a project, the construction methods are simple and cheap enough to allow experiment and find the optimum solutions by trial and error. While temporary structures are not as durable as permanent conversions, they probably have a much faster ROI and there is the advantage that if a hostel - or another use - doesn't pan out, then there isn't an expensive white elephant left behind. But if the plan does work, then de-installation won't create a huge amount of waste nor significantly increase the cost of conversion.

I don't know if temporary adaptation has as much planning regulation as permanent structures but from what references I see, it don't think so. Certainly the best way to preserve historic buildings is to keep them in use. Materials used in portable and modular construction are generally already compliant with fire and structural regulations. A social enterprise set up to undertake conversion projects would be using low-tech production methods that are rapidly scalable and the learning and skills of the personnel - which might be recruited from NEETs - will be transferable into other occupations, along with the materials and techniques being compatible over a range of sites.

The only example of internal temporary structures I have been able to find so far is All Souls Church in Bolton. OMI Architects have got approval to convert a redundant church into a community centre by erecting pods inside the existing space. This bespoke solution is more permanent, and at £3 million pounds, much more expensive than what I envisage but it serves to illustrate the potential.

Architect Jim Eyre who created the 12,000 seat basketball arena, one of the biggest temporary structures ever built for an Olympics, told the Independent: "We're seeing intensive use of temporary structures and in future Olympics I expect this to increase.. I find the idea of 'nomadic architecture' appealing. Temporary buildings can become more adaptable, transportable or reconfigurable."

If you are a vendor or property owner or community interested in the reuse of buildings in this way, please get in touch.

Bolton All Souls - OMI Architects

Bolton All Souls - OMI Architects

Bolton All Souls - OMI Architects

Tensile fabric is great for structures and space dividers
MiNO by Antonio Ravalli Architetti
Antonio Ravalli Architetti
PKL modular kitchens

Monday, 1 October 2012

100 metres of beach

The balloon industry widely claims that released latex balloons ascend into the upper atmosphere where they freeze and burst into biodegradable and harmless microscopic fragments falling over a wide area. However recent research says that actually 80% of the balloon will remain intact and 10% of the balloons released won't burst at all.

I don't need to argue with them the merits of all the scientific research because walking 100 metres of Dunwich Beach I found seven balloons with strings and valves that can choke sea turtles and sea-birds (who feed on jellyfish) and farm animals. Even if every measure is taken to reduce the risk of harm, i.e. not attaching strings or tags, which evidently almost never happens in the hundreds of balloon release photos and videos published each year, a balloon release is PLAIN AND SIMPLE LITTERING.

Sorry for shouting but that simple point seems to be missed by every public relations apologist and churnalist promoting each balloon release reported in the media, usually for good causes. Every officially sanctioned balloon release seems to encourage thousands more imitators who use strings and mylar balloons that compounds the harm of littering with animal cruelty and causing power blackouts. Let's leave aside the waste of helium gas but it is common sense that something in limited supply would be better used in life saving MRI scanners rather than balloon releases to raise "awareness" for ten seconds and to raise money which others elsewhere have to spend on cleaning them up.

Dunwich Beach is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The rangers working for various agencies in the area; Natural England, RSPB and Forestry Commission tell me balloon litter is a serious nuisance. They are constantly picking up balloon litter caught in fences and trees, a time consuming process stretching their limited resources. Also the degraded latex leaves a sticky residue, the colour dye leaches out and stains the ground. With those I found on Dunwich Beach, the dye was as durable as permanent marker.

How many tonnes of litter does seven balloons per 100 metres add up to on the 18,000 km coastline of the UK? Well I reckon at least 2 million balloons at 12 grams per balloon comes to 24 tonnes which is two council rubbish lorries full and there must be hundreds of tonnes of litter falling to earth elsewhere. When these balloons land in water or on land they can kill years later. The national Beachwatch survey back in 2006 put the amount of litter rising from 3 sites of balloon litter per square kilometre to 10 per sq km in just ten years. I have seen no evidence yet that this trend has stopped or reversed.

More evidence and links are in a previous post. Follow #balloonrelease on twitter to make a difference. Tweet a link to this page with