Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Nick Smith interviews legendary ‘mad scientist’ Heinz Wolff in E&T magazine, October 2011

November 4, 2011

Heinz Wolff and the future of technology

After a high profile and life-long career in engineering and science, Professor Heinz Wolff thinks that technical innovation is only part of the solution to the challenges facing future society. Words and portrait by Nick Smith

nicksmithphoto portrait of Heinz Wolff, by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, October 2011

Walking into Heinz Wolff’s office in Brunel University I can see that there’s an engineering crisis of sorts. ‘I’m fashioning a new set of spectacles,’ the 83-year old professor informs me with a twinkle in his eye.’ In fact, he’s recycling components from two broken pairs to produce one functioning unit. It’s slightly bizarre to see this variant of the Theseus Paradox performed by the hands of a man more used to solving complex scientific challenges on our television screens. But it’s a conundrum he evidently enjoys. He informs me that the original products cost no more than ‘£1.99 in Boots or something such,’ as though analysing a critical line in a project build-cost spreadsheet.

Proud of the economies made by the simple use of his hands, Wolff explains that ‘all western nations will have to adjust to what is essentially a war economy, where we will need to make things that last longer and repair what is broken.’ He tells me that he lectures at the department of Human Centred Design at Brunel, ‘where I explain that the future of design will be to make things better – maybe more expensive – but with the potential to have a longer life cycle and less waste of materials. All this without removing the adventure of having something new.’

We’re sitting in Wolff’s office surrounded by photographs of several generations of his family, gadgets he’s invented (including an early prototype electronic book) and a much-modified moped. I ask him if today’s universities have got it right when it comes to delivering opportunities for young engineers.

‘I tend to think of things ten years too early. But I do think that we might teach people the wrong things at university. Of course, we need to produce engineers to maintain the technology systems we already have in place. And we need to produce bright people, and the UK seems to be very good at that. But whether there is a real need to produce a lot of engineers that we are going to notionally employ in production of one form or another, I don’t know.’

But that’s not the real question, he tells me, because the issue is why schools don’t produce people who want to be engineers. ‘In the development of a child, when the brain is still plastic, the feature of their education that we neglect is to nurture the ability to manipulate things.’ After the brain, Wolff explains, the ‘most marvelous thing we have’ is the hand: an actuator that can thread a needle one minute or wield a sledgehammer the next without modification. ‘I firmly believe that the continual iteration of hand-eye-brain is how we became Homo sapiens. We started to make tools, acquired manual skills and could imagine a tool that would be better. And then there was a very important point in our development, which was that we could imagine a tool that could make a tool, which could then make something. This is a very sophisticated way of thinking.’ His obvious Implication is that this is the origin of engineering.

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

His hands flash across a QUERTY keyboard. ‘Apart from typing, we don’t use our hands. Girls don’t embroider; boys don’t play with Meccano. With these things you effectively develop an eye at the end of the finger, and you do this when you’re seven years old. And it’s really very clever. But it’s gone.’

Wolff has lectured on the ‘death of competence’ and he thinks it’s brought about by the abandonment of micromanipulation – doing something small and critical with the hand. ‘Our engineering students can’t make things. They might be able to design things on a computer, but they can’t make things. And I don’t believe that you can be an engineer properly, in terms of it circulating in your blood and your brain, without having a degree of skill in making things.’ He explains that this is why apprenticeships were so good, because ‘you actually made things while learning a bit of the theory.’

In neglecting to teach basic manual skills we are producing a generation that carries within it the seeds of its own impotence. Wolff believes that while all teachers agree that children should be articulate and use language with precision and skill, ‘they don’t attach the same values to the use of their hands.’ Is this a health and safety thing? Wolff accepts this might be a part of it, ‘but even a three-year-old knows to stop sawing before his finger falls off.’

This is one of the reasons why our engineering capability is less highly developed than it might be. He knows he’s going to upset people when he says it, but ‘engineering isn’t going to be as important to your future as it has been to our past.’ Interest in SET subjects, he tells me, is in inverse proportion to the wealth and comfort of the country. ‘So in Japan it is quite low. And so also in Britain. In Botswana it’s enormously high. Maybe we’re just growing out of it.’

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I should state that I’m 83 years old and I joined the university late in career terms having worked on the Medical Research Council for thirty years.’ He saw the dark clouds of civil science coming under financial pressure gathering on the horizon. It was obvious that we he was going to run into ‘financial buffers and I thought that if anyone were going to trim my wings I would trim them myself.’

Wolff’s response was to head to the nearest university where he offered to found an institute that would be financially self-supporting. The Vice Chancellor agreed to the proposition and ‘I started off in two rather broken down Portakabins that you can still see at the other end of the campus. We did quite well financially because I was working a great deal for the European Space Agency where I had a split personality job: I was chairman of a number of policy committees, but I was also a contractor. We made things for astronauts to use to do science in space.’

As the project became more successful Wolff scoured Exchange and Mart for more Portakabins and ‘so started a village that we called the Brunel Institute of Bioengineering.’ His growing team set up space research programmes and also a project called Tools for Living. ‘I’d made a forecast that elderly and disabled people would require technology to assist them and at the time this kind of technical research seemed to be rather downbeat. We formed a company as well as a charity and we became an appreciable sized institute within this university.’

This burst of activity occurred in Wolff’s late fifties and by his mid sixties he retired ‘for the first of many times,’ and the institute became more absorbed into the university. The modern building that houses the faculty today concentrates on biosciences of ‘various kinds.’ The building, he informs me, only bears his name because ‘I have a certain degree of notoriety.’

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

‘If there were to be an epitaph for me and it had to appeal to the public, it would refer to the Great Egg Race. I was on the screen for the best part of 30 years. I would be remembered for that, and not as the scientist that worked for the Medical Research Council. This is unless I bring Care4Care off.’ (See box.)

Wolff cheerfully admits that he’s a ‘TV science boffin’, but is critically aware of the serious point that lies behind this: the advocacy of science to the wider public. I put it to him that in a world where the majority of young people have aspirations no higher than becoming a celebrity or a footballer, it’s vital that technologists are visible on television. ‘Yes, but it doesn’t happen any more. I used to get an audience of 2.5 million on BBC2. People interacted with it, some even recorded it and went into their kitchens after the problem had been set.’

Experience taught Wolff that ‘you don’t have to be a Nobel prize-winning scientist’ to be an effective communicator. ‘This doesn’t impress children or even adults. They have to like you. They don’t care two hoots about how famous you are. It’s much more about the frequency of exposure and a degree of trust. Of course, you need to have a certain talent for explaining complex concepts in a domestic analogy. But don’t have to be a great scientist to do this.’

I put it to Wolff that in the UK at least it is not very conventional to have a TV presenter who is a German Jew with a heavy European accent. With his unconventional hair and spectacles, the bow tie from another era and an apparently distracted manner, Wolff satisfies in the public the desire to be educated by an eccentric. We laugh as we agree that Albert Einstein wouldn’t be half so well remembered if he’d had sensible hair. Virtually everyone outside the technology community knows more about the photo of Einstein poking his tongue out than they do the Manhattan Project.

But what of Wolff’s appearance? ‘Oh I think I’m guilty of being a notorious eccentric. But, I don’t get my hair cut that way, if that’s what you’re asking. And I don’t put on my accent. I think in English. Although I might sometimes count in German. There are reasons for this connected with the archaeology of the mind. If you drill down into people’s memories you’ll come across a few words that were very important to them when they were young. The memory erodes in a certain way and concepts like this can be important in researching Alzheimer’s.’

Wolff on the end of technology in the western world

‘I’m not far off a century old,’ admits Heinz Wolff with allowable exaggeration. He was born in Berlin in the late 1920s and has clear memories of standing at the window of his family’s library in 1933 watching the torchlight procession that put Hitler into power. ‘I was five at the time and as such a conscious human being. And so I have an overview of what the world is about that a 20-year-old doesn’t have. For a 20-year-old even the Moon landing is history.’ He marvels at how something so recent to him, exploiting technologies that have been central to his career, can seem so remote. ‘It’s like a forgotten war. Exactly where did it come in the order of things?’

He can’t remember the author, but he can remember the title of the book. The prediction made in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (‘The Downfall of the Occident’, by Oswald Spengler), Wolff tells me was that the West would cease to be the epicentre of science and technology, as it migrated to the East.

‘There still seems to be an overwhelming conviction that the way to alleviate the economic problems of this country is to intensify technological research.’ He tells me that while a lot of clever technology will be developed in the UK, ‘I suspect that, because of the numerical superiority and enormous investment the tiger economies are making in technology and education, we will face considerable competition in innovation.’

But it is not so much the challenge of the East that bothers Wolff, so much as the societal trends that affect the way we think about technology. ‘If I had to explain this in historical terms, you could see it like this. Clearly Britain and other parts of Western Europe had the Industrial Revolution, with their spinning Jennies and steam engines… and we got through that. And then we had the information revolution and we largely speaking got through that to the point where – and many people won’t like me saying this – much of the communication equipment that we produce are simply toys.’ He looks at my iPhone and pronounces it ‘a fantastic device, but I wouldn’t argue that the world can’t live without it.’ Increasingly, technology is being driven by what people want, rather than what they need.

Now we are at the beginning of what Wolff calls the Human Revolution. He tells me that in one of his lecture presentations he shows a slide ‘which I use to annoy my engineering colleagues.’ It’s the one that says: ‘Innovation in the 21st Century is not going to be in science and technology, but in the way in which society organises itself.’ He tells me that he’s reached the conclusion that if his career is to have a lasting and beneficial effect on society, ‘it’s unlikely that it will be by devising some form of technology. It’s much more likely to be achieved by assisting in real cultural change.’

Social engineering – reciprocal care

‘Three or four years ago I made a resolution that was almost like a religious conversion,’ says Wolff. This was when he reached the conclusion that the problems facing Britain, in terms of caring for an increasingly aging population, wasn’t one that could be solved by mechanisms, but was going to be solved by ‘pairs of hands.’

‘I’m now working on a scheme called Care4Care, the basic idea of which is that we have to produce more resources, which the country can’t afford.’ Essentially, this is a credit system where younger people provide care for older generations in order that their care further down the road can be paid for by credits they’ve already accrued.

‘And so it will go on. And we have produced a resource without putting up taxation. There is now real interest in this and I’m spending virtually every waking moment propagating this. This is because for a nation where we are used to the state doing virtually everything for the past three generations, this is a major cultural change. We will have to become much more prepared to become much more self-supporting. This seemed to be in line with the idea of Big Society, which has largely disappeared.’

Because of the way in which modern career structures tend to move people about geographically, ‘we have to overcome the reduction in kith and kin care, and the way to do this is to get people to take out insurance. But this insurance needs to be paid in kind: you invest hours and not money.’

Wolff thinks that this is going to be ‘possibly the most important thing I will have done in my life.’ He admits he hasn’t ‘got many years left to get this to happen,’ but as we sit at his desk he tells me that there is someone coming to see him this very afternoon ‘from the banking system that deals with alternative currencies.’ Wolff explains that the ‘hour’ is an alternative currency with the merit that it cannot be inflated or deflated.

For further information on Care4Care visit www.care4care.org

For further reading, go to Nick Smith’s other interview with Heinz Wolff:

Nick Smith's article on Heinz Wolff in IET Member News

Nick Smith interviews Heinz Wolff in IET Member News. Photo: Nick Smith

Advertisements

Nick Smith interviews the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, Chi Onwurah, MP

May 24, 2011

Aiming to make things work better

Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, is a passionate advocate for economic regeneration through science, engineering and technology. Interview by Nick Smith

To get into Portcullis House in Westminster you need to pass through the sort of rigorous security procedures similar to those at Heathrow airport. There are metal detectors, luggage scanners and password-protected revolving doors. Someone takes a photograph of you before presenting you with a bar-coded visitor badge. A junior official collects you and will be in your presence for your entire visit. Photography is not permitted and there are armed policemen everywhere. I’m surprised my digital voice recorders make it into the building.

If this all seems a bit intimidating then the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science quickly puts you at your ease. As Chi Onwurah and I take out seats in Meeting Room ‘O’ she points out that I have two identical DVRs, with a look of mock horror suggesting this might be over-thorough. I reply in the affirmative, explaining that I’m making a contingency for one redundancy failure. She laughs. ‘That’s right,’ she says: ‘you’re from the engineering magazine, aren’t you?’

We’re sitting in one of the most expensive office blocks in London. Home to 210 MPs, Portcullis House is on the north bank of the Thames, literally overshadowed by the Houses of Parliament. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, especially considering that its design included a new interchange for the Jubilee Line beneath it. We have exactly one hour, and given that I want the new Shadow Minister’s views on everything from women engineering to skills shortages, there’s not a moment to lose. But first I want to find out how Chi Onwurah – a remarkable woman of unremarkable origins – became Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, holding one of the key opposition roles in the SET sector.

‘I always was interested in science, although I seem to remember at the age of about five I had a brief interest in becoming an artist and got my mother to buy me some oils that I then never used. But, I’ve really been interested in science all along.’ She pauses as she tries to recall what initially inspired her: ‘no one in my family was a scientist or an engineer and so I had no real exposure to that world. But whatever it was, I’d do scientific experiments in the bath, and my ninth birthday present was a microscope.’

The big question for Chi was how to pursue that interest, whether as a pure scientist or an engineer. As she came to choose her A-levels it became clear to her that what she really wanted to do was ‘make the world a better place, and that for me is what engineers do.’ She was further inspired by the famous words of one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein: Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been. The die was cast. For Chi the world of engineering was a land of imaginative opportunity: partly a chance to be ‘involved in the progress of the human race, and partly it was simply an intellectual challenge.’

Chi’s background is hardly conventional for a person holding high office in public life: a black kid from a council estate in Newcastle, and the product of a one-parent family that had very little money. But, undeterred, she forged ahead, and here at the seat of British political power she remembers with pride and affection the reason she was able to become an engineer in the first place: ‘I benefitted from great local schools with great teachers who supported me in my choices.’ She remembers that there was a general assumption at the time – one that she too once believed – that girls couldn’t be good at science. But thanks to her teacher – Mr Dixon – this assumption was overturned. And with that her expectations changed. ‘I became good at maths because I was told that I could.’

This was a defining moment, because for Chi there was no structured careers advice on offer and there was little understanding at her school of what a career in science and engineering might mean. She remembers her work placement in a laboratory, testing sausage rolls for their meat content (‘I think it was 23 per cent’). But that was the closest her school could find to giving her exposure to the scientific environment. Even so, her comprehensive school played its part. A strong-minded female headmistress encouraged the SET subjects, while in Chi’s physics class there were more girls than boys. But her options were limited. In the classroom she was solving simultaneous equations, while in the real world she was finding out that not everyone wants to know how sausages are made.

What followed next was a ‘very bad time’ in the early Eighties reading electrical engineering at Imperial College, a place she describes as a white, male, public school environment. She felt that neither her professors nor her contemporaries were able to interact with women on an intellectual level, which she found ‘unhelpful in terms of encouraging me into the profession. The only women these people seemed to have met were their sisters. I’ve since been told that they were frightened of me.’ At one point she considered diverting her career towards the legal profession that she fleetingly though might be more suited to a black woman from a northern comprehensive. But she persevered with engineering.

The result of which was that in 1987 Chi became an engineer, and in the career that followed she played many roles including hardware and software engineer, as well as product manager. She eventually found herself European Market Development manager for an American company during the Dotcom crash. As with so many others, she found herself out of work for a time, but she managed to reset her career trajectory as a consultant in Nigeria; a country she’d often considered working in, not least because her father was Nigerian. At that time in the Western world there was ‘a lot of disillusionment and cynicism about technology, whereas elsewhere you could see how it was helping development.’

In Nigeria she assisted in the expansion of the telephone network, where the existing fixed line had a penetration of only two per cent. Within a year of Chi’s involvement this figure had risen to ten per cent. ‘We were literally improving communications, and that had an exponential effect on improving the economy and society.’ One of Chi’s proudest moments was when she handed her father the first mobile phone in the city where he lived. ‘I could see the difference we were making to people in the Nigeria and I wanted to bring that sort of change about in the UK.’ Chi returned to the UK in 2004, ‘looking for a job in public service.’

Roles in opposition

Today Chi is a Member of Parliament as well as Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science. She describes the latter position as being two jobs in one: ‘in opposition your role is to hold the government up to account. That’s important because the government is taking decisions that are going to determine our economic future.’ She elaborates, explaining that part of this role is to examine policies in innovation and science, drawing out the implications of proposed cuts in these fields, and to make clear to the electorate what are the implications of these issues. But the second part of her role – ‘which is more positive’ – is to assist in the development of her party’s policies on innovation and science.

This is important too, for several reasons. Central to Chi’s political philosophy is that the route to escaping the economic consequences of the current financial crisis is through growth: ‘you don’t recover from a crisis just by cutting back. You recover by growing. And a huge part of the engine of growth is science and technology, and the new industries that can secure the recovery in a sustainable way’ (see sidebar). Another reason is that there is ‘possibly for the first time in history’ currently a cross-party consensus that the SET sector is a critical part of our future. ‘For decades we have seen ourselves as part of a service economy – an explicit policy during the Thatcher government – and this has become an increasing part of our culture. But now everyone seems to agree that we need to grow our industrial and manufacturing base. And this is a great opportunity for science and technology to take it’s place at the heart of our economic life.’

But isn’t this exactly what great academic and scientific institutions such as the IET have always wanted? ‘Definitely. And it’s something that most engineers and scientists want as well. But my background in engineering and politics probably gives me a unique understanding of how this can be achieved. Engineers and scientists need to stand up for what we do more. We concentrate too much on hard skills – ‘what is the answer to the equation?’ – and we don’t concentrate enough on communicating the importance of what we’re developing. Another aspect of this is to champion the sector in politics and policies generally. But perhaps most important of all is the development of policies that will enable innovation and science to flourish. And that’s complicated.’

Chi goes on to explain that one of the ways of doing this is through the Technology and Innovation Centres, which she feels are not being supported by the coalition government, while RDA-funded centres are closing due to lack of funds. ‘So there are concrete policies we can support – or expose – that are having an impact on our innovation capability. Part of my job is to show that.’

Women in engineering

If science and technology can be seen as one of the components of economic growth, one of the obvious obstacles is the much-discussed skills shortage time bomb. ‘If you look at the IET report that I helped to launch in September 2010, one of the findings is that half of employers don’t think we’re going to have the skills we need for the new economy. So it’s clear that we’re not attracting people into engineering and technology further education. And that’s a huge issue.

Chi says that the responsibility for getting new blood into the sector lies with everyone, from the government through to industry and the institutions. ‘We should be more engaged with young people and schools. I think the image people get of our industry is often formed by the time you’re halfway through primary school. So while communicating with teenagers is important, we need to do more for younger age groups.’ The reason for this is that developing skills ‘is a long-term game, and we need to do more to change and improve our image. But to do this we need to look ahead, five, ten, fifteen years.’

To demonstrate how we’ve failed in this area the Shadow Minister gets out some figures. When she went to Imperial College in 1984 the proportion of women reading electrical engineering in tertiary education was an embarrassing 12 per cent. ‘And now, today, it’s exactly 12 per cent. Nothing’s changed in a quarter of a century. If you factor in that two-thirds of women don’t return to STEM after their maternity leave, we have a profession that is not representative of society.’

For Chi this is a major issue, primarily because we’re unnecessarily and artificially reducing the skills pool by not tapping into women – and ethnic minorities – as a resource. But also she sees the exclusion of women, for whatever reason, from the sector as a barrier to SET taking its place at the centre of our society, and in so doing providing stimulus for economic growth. ‘My experience as an engineer of 23 years is that there are aspects of the scientific and engineering culture that put women off. I have quite often felt excluded by being the only women in a boardroom like this.’

Changing the culture of an industry isn’t an easy task, Chi acknowledges. ‘We’ve been trying to do it for half a century. There isn’t a silver bullet, and any one expecting there to be a situation where in the next few years 50 per cent of all engineers will be women will be disappointed. But I have a sense of urgency about this that many in the profession don’t share. So many in our sector are complacent. We have to go out there and engage with society in a more positive way. We have STEM ambassadors and so on, but we’re not doing enough.’

The clock has wound down and Chi needs to get to her next appointment. But I’m allowed one more question, and so I ask if the plight of women and ethnic minorities would be helped if there were more parliamentarians with an engineering education. ‘There are more lawyers in parliament, or members with PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, than there are those with a background in science. So it probably would help. But what I’d say to our profession is we need to engage with the public through schools, industry and politics. And we need to emphasise that a career in engineering is a good starting point for other careers. The analytical mindset that training in engineering gives you is incredibly useful in other areas. As an engineer I like to focus on what I can do and change for myself. It’s every single engineer’s job to champion the profession that they are part of.’

I wonder what advice Chi would give to the parents of young children who may not know what a career in engineering may hold for them. For her it’s simple: ‘engineering and science are all about finding out and discovering and making things work well. And that is part of what we want to do as a human race – part of our natural fight for survival. But it can be great fun too, because we’re always answering questions. One of the greatest threats to existence is boredom, and a career in engineering means you’ll never be bored. There’s always a question to answer, and you can always make things work better. The world is not perfect.’

Innovation: The engine of progress

Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Professors and Heads of Electrical Engineering on 12th January 2011 at the IET’s headquarters at Savoy Place, Chi Onwurah highlighted some of the challenges facing the SET sector today. Here are some extracts from her speech.

‘Standing still is not an option. If government and industry can work together to invest in innovation I see a strong future. We need to be more commercially ambitious… But I am concerned at the messages going out to school students now as funding and support are cut… It is absolutely essential that all those involved in the profession shout out loud and clear how important engineering is to our country’s future; particularly to creating the quality jobs of the future and securing a sustainable recovery.

‘Properly regulated industry in a fair society, innovation should be the engine of progress for all. We need new industries if we are to have a balanced economy; one which is resilient to future crises. The financial crisis showed us the consequences of putting too many economic eggs in one basket.

‘I think the answer is around four main themes – a competition environment, infrastructure, skills and finance… Government should be active in ensuring a level playing field. For example, agreeing standards in audio visual encoding, developing a supply chain for wind power or rolling out the next generation broadband…

‘Government has a role in education and therefore helping put in place the skills we need. We need to ensure we provide the skills for the future as well as addressing any current shortfalls. We need more engineers and technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs. We need great engineering education if we are to continue to be world class in the face of increasing competition. ‘

This article first appeared in the Member News magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology

Nick Smith interviews American philanthropist Greg Carr in E&T issue one, 2011

February 7, 2011

Bringing new life to Mozambique

A main player of the voice mail revolution, legendary American CEO Greg Carr amassed a colossal personal fortune. But then he turned his back on the business of technology to become a humanitarian. Interview layout

‘If you want to get anything done here you’ve got to stop thinking like an American CEO’ says Greg Carr, looking out over a small car park where field scientists, engineers and biologists are packing up their Land Rovers in the early morning African sun.

We’re sitting in the bar of Chitengo lodge, drinking iced-tea, while the soft hum of insects and the purple glow of neatly trimmed bougainvillea make this a pleasant place to be. ‘See the swimming pool over there?’ he says pointing through a stand of acacia trees where weaverbirds are busily building their nests. ‘That used to be a prison during the Civil War.’

Carr was one of the most influential American CEOs during the digital technology revolution of the 1980s. And the rewards were substantial as he amassed a colossal personal fortune. But here in the middle of Mozambique – the world’s poorest country – he has no Croesus-like delusions of grandeur, while pioneering telecommunications is a world away. There are no power trips, status symbols or trivial luxury. ‘If you look at the organisation chart, you’ll see I’m not even the boss’ he says, before explaining that what he does now, in partnership with the Government of Mozambique, this is his most rewarding challenge to date.

And it’s made him a national hero. Having once made a living from hacking through the lianas and creepers of the corporate jungle, he’s now dedicated his professional life to restoring a real jungle – Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. His aim is to return to Mozambique its ‘crown jewel’ in pristine condition, and in doing so provide sustainable employment, education and health for local people whose economy has been destroyed by civil war. Understandably, for the village people of this rarely visited country his new career is far more important.

Well known for his championing of humanitarian causes, Carr has signed a deal with the government in a ‘classic public private partnership’ that sees US$40 million of his own money ploughed straight into the project. Both parties hope that in 20 years time the Park will be a self-sufficient business that will put much needed economic activity into the country’s tourism sector with benefits for all. With the project still in its early phases, local people living around the Park have started to benefit from Carr’s corporate acumen. They now have jobs. And Carr has helped provide the local village of Vinho with water pumps, medical facilities and a school. But it’s only the start. ‘We need 750 medical centres’, he says referring to the other villages surrounding the National Park.

Carr is best known in the world of digital communications as one of the protagonists in the emergence of voice mail, a technology that informs so much of our everyday business and social lives that, as with other basics such as email, we never really stop to consider the engineering behind it. But the story goes that, inspired by the breakup of AT&T, he founded Boston Technology, one of the earliest organisations to market voice mail systems to telephone companies. Carr served as the chair of Boston until Comverse Technology bought it out. He went on to become chair of Prodigy, an early global Internet service provider.

These were good breaks for Carr and by 1998 he retired from ‘for-profit’ business an extraordinarily wealthy man and made entrepreneurial philanthropy his full-time job. Today he spends half of his life in Mozambique, and as he describes his new job it’s clear that, while success in the world of digital technology was a major milestone in his career, it’s what comes after financial success that really matters. ‘I’m a human rights guy’ he says just in case you might be thinking he’s still a hotshot CEO. What you really have to do is listen to what the people want. So what did they want? ‘Bicycles’ he says. That was the most important thing for almost everyone. As the employees took home their first wage packets from the restored Chitengo Lodge, most of them invested in a set of wheels. It changed their lives.

In the 1960s Chitengo was a hip hangout for cool and trendy (and very rich) South Africans who wanted to go into the bush to see elephants and lions at close range. Businessmen in their smart new Mercedes-Benzes drove up in, well droves, to visit a National Park that had arguably the densest population of mega fauna – lions, elephants, wildebeest – that Africa had ever seen.

But when the Civil War rolled in, Chitengo became popular for a different reason. Strategically placed on the Beira Corridor that links the Indian Ocean seaboard with Zimbabwe, it was also the only brick-built permanent settlement for miles around. The competing political factions Renamo and Frelimo were fighting one of the bloodiest battles seen in this part of Africa. They both wanted Chitengo as a military stronghold. Before long, or so it seemed, all the animals were dead and Chitengo was just another war-blasted ghost town. Meanwhile the war killed a million humans.

There’s still plenty of evidence of the war today. As Carr and I walk around the lodge he shows me bullet holes in the walls and gates, grenade damage to the water towers, while the path we take to the ferry to the nearest village Vinho threads its way through a cleared minefield. Cleared or not, you don’t stray from the path – just outside the chicken-wire fence enclosing the compound there’s a post close to buildings that were once used for interrogation. It’s riddled with head-height bullet holes.

But the mission the Carr Foundation is not one of a truth and reconciliation committee; rather it is to restore the park to its pre-war glory. The theory is simple: Get the land in shape and the animals will come back. Get the animals back and the tourists will come back too. Tourism brings money and the money, if fed properly into local communities, will bring health, education and employment. Or as Carr says: ‘sustainable economic development.’

For the visitor the most pressing question is that of where the animals have gone. Although there are lions and elephants today they’re present in nothing like their former numbers. ‘There have been two wars – civil conflicts – here in Mozambique in recent times’ says Carr. ‘The first, the War of Independence, didn’t affect the ecosystem that much. Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1974. And so the National Park in the late Seventies was in good shape.’ But then followed a civil war between the resistance movement Renamo and the liberation movement Frelimo. ‘That really got going in the Eighties, and there were battles fought here at Chitengo, and it changed hands a couple of times. The camp was shut down to tourism as it was occupied by the militia.’ He tells me of a local ranger working at one of the local who was held prisoner in that swimming pool.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. Two factions competing for a place where the main military benefits were the occupation of permanent buildings and unlimited bush meat to feed the soldiers. While there’s no doubt Chitengo became a flashpoint because of the protection it gave, the bush meat issue is more complex. ‘The real carnage came at the end of the war’ says Carr. ‘This was when professional hunters saw an opportunity and raced in here with weapons and vehicles. There was a massive slaughter and they wiped out the buffalo and sold the meat. It took us a while to figure that out, because we just thought that the soldiers had eaten the animals. But it was more of an organised commercial activity than that. It’s true that ivory was being taken into South Africa and being traded for guns, but the problem was the commercial hunting.’ Carr says that when he first came to Mozambique he was told there were no elephants in the park. ‘But in fact there were 300 in hiding, and now we think there are 400.’

This was all a far cry from the heyday of the Sixties when, according to Carr ‘this was paradise and tourists were coming from all over the world and people loved it.’ But something else was going on at that time too: with so many tourists coming to Gorongosa, the National Park was also was also the economic engine of Mozambique. ‘I’m a big believer that if you do it right, National Parks can protect nature and create a lot of jobs. Good jobs too, because what does it take to run a national park? It takes a lot of knowledge. So you need scientists, biologists, engineers with certain skills, service industry people and guides.’

But it’s not always been done right. National Parks don’t have a good reputation for protecting human rights. In the bad old days it was like this: phase one, let’s have a National Park, if you’re not an animal please leave. But, says Carr, at Gorongosa ‘we have a rights-based philosophy, and that’s the new way of thinking.’ But not new for Carr, who’s always been more interested in human rights than making money in the business sector. ‘I was a human rights activist before coming here – I created a human rights centre at Harvard University and my philanthropy was based on human rights too. When I came to Mozambique to choose a humanitarian project I thought that restoring Gorongosa was a great opportunity for helping people.’

But when Carr arrived in 2004 post-war Mozambique was a wasteland. He waves his arm around as he surveys Chitengo: ‘everything you see here was rubble. I didn’t even know that there was a swimming pool here for the first year because the grass swamped everything. It was so overgrown it was difficult to find what used to be the flow of human beings here.’ He says that when he took his first game drive around the region he simply didn’t see any animals. ‘Maybe you’d see a warthog. Maybe you’d see a baboon. But you could drive for days and not see any animals. But, it turns out that they were hiding, because all of the human activity that had been going on had been bad news. But animals are smart and they do figure out who’s who.’

Within a few years the wildlife ‘started to calm down as they realised that nobody was shooting at them.’ And part of the success story of Gorongosa is that, as it is an unfenced park, animals can make their way back whenever they want to, while the Park authorities reinvigorate their protection. ‘Today if you’re lucky you’ll see elephants and lions, impala and magnificent birdlife.’ He’s right. I was woken up one night by a female lion roaring outside my tent. Nerve-wracking as this might have been, when I told Carr this, he smiled. ‘They’re coming back.’

And it is this return that means the tourism product will flourish and that the cycle of economic activity will gather its own momentum, requiring less and less stimulus from agencies such as Carr’s philanthropic foundation. But there’s work to do if this is to become a genuinely self-sustaining ecosystem: ‘What we were missing most are bulk grazers – big buffalo, zebra, wildebeest – of which there were thousands and thousands. You need them because they eat a lot of grass. We really need 10,000-20,000 grazers for the proper functioning of the park.’

As Carr leans back it’s hard to see him as a trailblazer in the digital world. But as his story unfolds it becomes clear that the challenges are familiar to him, and the citizenship values that make the wheels of good business turn well are transferrable to life in the bush: ‘I’ve got 20 years to make it work. We’re two-and-a-half in and we’re getting there. I think that the government of Mozambique is open to healthy relationships with international partners. They invited me here and that’s a very critical point – they said to me let’s do something together. I couldn’t turn up in someone’s country and just say here I am. It’s about partnerships. This is a new philosophy in aid and philanthropy. It must be done together. If you look carefully at this organisation chart you’ll see I’m just a member of a committee. I’m not here as a big cheese.’

Case study: Local people made good

According to Greg Carr, roughly 80-90% of the workers hired at Chitengo or otherwise in connection with the Gorongosa National Park are locals, many from the village of Vinho, a few miles away. ‘They get a salary, but what’s important about this is that it might be the first formal salary they’ve ever had in their lives.’

As employees they are trained in a range of park management skills, learn languages and advance their education. But it’s the salaries that really count because this takes hard cash back into their village, where only five years previously the economic model was subsistence farming. ‘I’ve got to tell you’ says Carr ‘that it’s hardly the Champs-Élysées now, but five years ago you never even saw a bicycle. Now one of the first things they do when they get their first pay packet is buy one. They ride their bike to get water or go to the market or get their kids to school. It’s changed everything.’

The bikes have created an entrepreneurial buzz in Vinho. Once there were no markets, but now there’s transport to collect goods and set up shop close to home. The real entrepreneurs set up bike-fixing workshops, and the mechanics wear football shirts and baseball caps. ‘They used to be in rags – now people are starting to dress better.’

‘The other change I’ve seen in Vinho is that the farming has increased and diversified to meet the demands of the sustainable tourism. Also in our 20 year agreement with the government we’re obliged to the communities by Article 8 to build them a school, a health clinic and so on. We also share 20 per cent of the Park gate revenue with them. We talk to them to see what they want – maybe a new roof for the school – we listen.’

For more about:

Gorongosa National Park visit http://www.gorongosa.net/

Visit E&T magazine online by clicking http://eandt.theiet.org/

Nick Smith’s feature ‘Omega’s Gold Standard’ from the Sunday Telegraph, 22nd November 2009

December 1, 2009

Omega’s Gold Standard

In February 2010 Vancouver will host the Winter Olympic Games. Nick Smith flew to Canada to look at the new technology put in place by official timekeeper Omega...

It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Up high on Blackcomb Mountain in western Canada the conifers are a deep emerald green, the clear skies are cobalt blue and the snow, well it’s as pure as driven snow. This is Whistler, an exquisitely sleepy village tucked away in the crisp, cold air of the Fitzsimmons Valley. Home of the Vancouver Winter Olympics ‘sliding sports’, it’s hard to believe that in a few short weeks Whistler will be packed with some of the fastest, most adrenaline-fuelled athletes on the planet.

When it comes to the Olympic sliding sports – bobsleigh, skeleton, luge – timing is everything. A mere hundredth of a second can mean the difference between a gold or silver medal. These athletes can reach up to 90 mph and for the people in charge of timekeeping there’s simply no room for error. A billion people will watch the games on their TVs, and so the technology simply has to work, and it has to work every time.

Here at Whistler, a team of engineers and technicians has been busy integrating and testing a massively complex system of infrared emitters and receivers, sensors and transmitters, that will make sure nothing, at least with the timing, can go wrong. As the countdown progresses to the opening ceremony on 12th February, technologists from Omega are preparing for the competition, where for the 24th time, the Swiss-based watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeeper.

Omega’s president Steven Urquhart is on hand to launch a commemorative Vancouver 2010 watch. He tells me that sport, particularly Olympic sport, is part of his brand’s equity. ‘We’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th, and so we’re in it for the long run. We’ll be at the London Olympics in 2012, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and at Rio in 2016.’

As each competitor breaks any of the 42 infrared beams installed at intervals around the track, time-tagged data is transmitted to a bank of computers in a control tower. It’s complicated stuff and this nerve centre where all the split-times, rankings, sector times and so on are automatically compiled, collated and published looks like mission control at NASA. There are dozens of technical people swarming around the tower, checking software, wiring, power… One man in the middle of it all is radiating calmness.

Christophe Berthaud is head of Olympic timing at Omega. He’s got more than twenty years experience in developing new electronic timing systems, and he knows the six-year rhythms of bringing new technology to the games. His faith in technology is astounding and his job is to ‘remove the possibility of human error.’ He’s currently in Whistler to oversee some timing technology trials using real athletes.

Berthaud says that most of the technical innovations he’s been involved with have arisen from controversies and he’s adamant that although you can blame the timekeeper for virtually anything, he has a good relationship and reputation with the competitors. ‘You have to remember’ he says, ‘that Omega does not deliver the world records. The athletes do that. It’s all about the athletes and their results only become official once they are approved by the International Federation, the ultimate timekeeper.’

When Berthaud’s team arrives in Vancouver next year he’ll be spearheading the largest technical support operation the Olympics has ever seen. Although he’s not revealing the exact figures, at the Turin Winter Olympics back in 2006 he deployed 208 people – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with more than 220 tonnes of equipment. These were the games when speed skaters had transponders strapped to their ankles for the first time. These were to measure bursts of acceleration, the speed around a hairpin bend, or in the case of a skater crashing, sudden deceleration. According to Berthaud, Vancouver 2010 will ‘blow that away.’

But it wasn’t always like that. The first Winter Olympics Omega was involved in was way back in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. A lone timekeeper from Switzerland arrived with a suitcase full of stopwatches to time each event. Admittedly, these timepieces were certified chronographs, and there were twenty-seven of them, but for nervous competitors expecting instant results, they were in for a long wait. The official rankings were posted on a notice board often hours after the event.

Back at the track Christophe Berthaud can take one last question before he getting back to his time trials. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Olympic games start. ‘Nothing’ comes the reply, because he knows it’s all going to work.

 

Timepiece to remember

As the clock counts down to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Omega is releasing two commemorative watches. The Seamaster Diver 300m ‘Vancouver 2010’ is being produced in 41mm and 36.25mm versions, each in an edition limited to 2010 pieces.

The Vancouver watch has a distinctive white lacquered dial with red anodized aluminium bezel rings, recalling the maple leaf on the Canadian national flag. There is a further connection to the Games with the addition of the five Olympic rings on the counterweight of the red-tipped rhodium-plated second hand. All hands and indexes are coated with white Super-Luminova, creating a soft blue reflection in low light.

The ‘Vancouver 2010’ has its caseback embossed with the Winter Olympics Games logo, including a design based on the stone cairns erected by Canada’s First Nations peoples as a greeting to visitors in their territories. Called Ilanaak – the word means ‘friend’ in Inuktitut – it is the official symbol of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

http://www.omega.ch/

 

Nick Smith’s interview with Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, as featured in E&T magazine (full text)

May 23, 2009

Timing for success

Omega is the world’s largest watch manufacturer and has developed a portfolio of marketing alliances with aspirational brands such as James Bond, the Olympics and even NASA’s Lunar Landings. Nick Smith talks to Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart…

Stephen Urquhart studied Industrial Management at the University of Neuchâtel and has been a member of Omega’s Management Board since 2000. With dual nationality (British and Swiss) Urquhart is currently President of Omega, part of the Swatch Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of finished watch products. Urquhart began his career at Omega in 1968 and although he has worked for other companies since he returned to the Swiss manufacturer in 1997.

Omega has regularly been the official timekeeper for the Olympics since the 1932 summer games. The Swiss manufacturer has been the official timekeeper for every Olympiad this century including the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They will be operating in the same capacity at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Canada (see Engineering & Technology ‘Olympic Time’, 23rd April 2009) and will be on hand with several new technical developments for London 2012. In the 2008 Olympics, Omega bought out an Olympic limited edition edition watch with its logo on the second hand. Olympic swimmer and multiple gold medalist Michael Phelps is an Omega Ambassador and wears the Seamaster Planet Ocean.

Today, the Swatch Group continues to invest heavily in research and development, driving the steady expansion of its leading position in materials and process technologies and in product design and manufacturing. In particular, the Swatch Group engages in significant development activities in microelectronics and micromechanics. Sports timing and measurement technologies, although not a core business, play a key role in Omega’s brand and corporate visibility.

Nick Smith: Describe the relationship that Omega has with the Olympic games…

Stephen Urquhart: Everybody knows we started of in 1932 the first ever watch brand to be commissioned by the IOC. We sent three watchmakers to Los Angeles with a little briefcase of stopwatches and they timed a few of the events. And then we went to Berlin and London. We missed a few for different reasons – so there’s a very historical basis. Second, I think we would be crazy not to pursue this association with the Olympic world because it is a unique world, a unique entity. Secondly sports is very much part of our brand’s equity. We’ve been involved in diving, sailing and golf over the years, but to have the Olympic games as your main hook for your message is a chance to go in for the long run – we’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th. It’s part of the brand’s DNA. We don’t sit down and ask ourselves ‘do we as part of our strategy sponsor or become a partner for the Olympic games’. It’s part of our future and it goes without saying. So we’ll be at the London Olympics, then Sochi (Russia Winter Olympics 2014) – that’s definite – and also the 2016 games. We don’t know where they will be yet, but Omega will be there.

NS: What are the tangible commercial benefits of this relationship?

SU: For Omega to be where it is today, somewhere along the line the Olympics must have played an important role. There’s an old saying in marketing, which is ‘half of what you spend is a waste of money, but you don’t know which half.’ And the thing about the link to the games is that it has helped us to build up the brand in terms of seriousness, reliability and quality. Obviously to be a part of the games in Beijing for us as a brand was an incredible opportunity to make the brand known in China. For the Chinese, it was such an important event for them. We saw the result there: we saw the build-up, during and after. If the brand is strong today in China then the Olympics has doubled our strength there.

NS: Can you put a graph on the wall and say these are the results?

SU: I don’t want to put a figure on it. It’s brand image and that is hard to measure. At every Olympics we launch a limited edition watch to coincide with the games and there will be a new one later this year for Vancouver. Okay, so we know that we can sell these watches because of the Olympic connection. But we’re not investing all this money and effort just to sell a few more watches. A watch is nice to have and it is part of our whole message, but it is not really our main message. That is to convey that Omega is heavily involved in the most universal sporting event in the world. But I can’t put a graph on the wall.

NS: Who is the message for? Is there a profile of the Omega client, how do you reach them and what is the method of delivery?

SU: Let’s face it, the purchase of a watch these days is not a rational decision. Today, who needs to buy a watch to tell the time? And if you do, who needs to spend thousands of pounds on one? But below the surface, to own a brand that has the notions of longevity and quality makes a difference, I think, to people’s decisions when hey come to buy one. Obviously people will buy a watch for many different reasons – it could be spontaneous, it could be for prestige reasons, or maybe even to show off – but they need to have a brand that has reliability. When our consumers spend three, four, five thousand pounds on a watch this image does play a role. If you ask the consumer, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t, but it does and our surveys say it does. When the market gets difficult, such as the economic environment we find ourselves in now, issues such as reliability and quality play an even bigger role.

NS: What part do the brand ambassadors play in establishing this reassurance?

SU: They play a role. I think maybe it’s above the line, with the precision, accuracy and reliability below the line. When you see James Bond wearing Omega, that’s when you can put a graph on the wall. We can show that during the period of promotion for Quantum of Solace the sales of the James Bond watch went like that [Urquhart points to the ceiling]. Cindy Crawford has been with the brand now for more than a decade associated with one particular product that is heavily promoted in Asia, and that line is now 60-70% of our business out there. I won’t say it’s entirely due to Cindy Crawford, but the ambassadors are there to help. They are people that the consumers can relate to, and they can relate to them much more tan to time keeping. In Beijing we had Michael Phelps along as an ambassador, and that helps. I am sure of it.

NS: Famously, Buzz Aldrin was wearing an Omega watch when he walked on the moon in 1969. The Speedmaster Professional is the first and only watch to make it to the lunar surface. What sort of effect does branding like that have on your business?

SU: Although there hasn’t been a mission to the moon for twenty or so years, to this day the Apollo 11 mission still has incredible appeal. We know that there are a lot of people out there who still follow this, so every year we celebrate the moon landing and to celebrate the 40th anniversary this year we’ve made a very special version of the moon watch. It’s sort of semi-limited and we’ve made a lot of them because there is a big following for the Speedmaster and a lot of people will want to own it. At the Basel Watch Fair in March there was a big event where we actually had Mr Aldrin with us. I am amazed to see how this story still has mass appeal to people of all ages, even people who weren’t even born when the moon landings happened.

NS: The lunar landings were technology at its most flamboyant…?

SU: I agree. And it’s technology that doesn’t really exist any more. If you go to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas and have a look at the stuff they’ve got there you can’t believe that they got to the moon and back using just this technology – it’s so rudimentary. I’ll always remember meeting the astronaut General Stafford, who didn’t actually walk on the moon, but was commander of Apollo 10, and did the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where he made the historic meeting with a Soviet Cosmonaut. He picked me up at the airport in Dallas in a small Japanese car and said: ‘Stephen, do you know that there’s more computing power in this car than there was in the whole of the whole of the Apollo space programme.

‘Olympic Time’ by Nick Smith, E&T magazine (full text)

April 15, 2009

Olympic time

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada to see how electronic timing equipment trials are progressing

We’re looking at a fairly innocuous electronic component that could be straight out of a Radio Spares catalogue. But to Christophe Berthaud, head of Olympic timing at Swiss-based watch manufacturer Omega, it is at the heart of an infrared system he’s installed at the Whistler Sliding Centre, the site of the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions for the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held in Vancouver, Canada.

This high-performance, world-class sliding sports venue includes a 1,450m-long competition track, as well as the usual Olympic village buildings. Whistler is nestled in the beautiful Fitzsimmons valley on the southeast slope of Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia. Its centrepiece is the horseshoe-shaped competition track that may look benign on television, but is terrifying up close. The athletes are barely visible as they whistle past at up to 90mph (140kph).

Along the track there are 42 pairs of infrared emitters and receivers that send a time-tagged message along a wire to a central computer in the onsite control/timing tower each time the light beam is broken.

There are two systems working in parallel – a master and a backup – placed exactly 1cm apart. The instrumentation receiving and processing the data for both systems sit in a 19in rack.

The system looks remarkably straightforward, and anyone expecting to see sci-fi pioneering technology will be sorely disappointed. But the simple infrared sensors will track the progress of luge and bobsleigh competitors in real-time to the precision of a hundredth of a second. The systems used in the Olympics can resolve to the millisecond, but they don’t use that resolution in most events because the committee felt that such tiny differences were beyond the reliability of the technology. At a hundredth of a second, you can award a gold medal with confidence.

“What is important in terms of technology is that we never bring anything new to the Olympics,” Berthaud says, describing the evolutionary process of developing and installing new timing systems for the 2010 Winter Olympics. “If a technology is used for the first time in the Olympics, it is not when it is new.

“This switch here,” he adds, pointing to a tiny blue gadget in his hand, “this is the first time this particular one has been integrated into a timing system that’s going live. There is some evolution of the electronics in terms of the number of cards or the type of component, but there is no dramatic change between this system and that used at the 2006 games in Turin.”

Berthaud, an engineer by education, has spent more than 20 years working with Olympic timing technology. He knows the six-year rhythms of integrating new electronic systems into the mix. The key is to deliver something better, more accurate, faster and more appealing to the public while maintaining infallibility.

With an estimated three billion viewers expected to switch on during the course of the Games, the key issue is reliability and the system testing starts in earnest a year earlier.

In a way, the engineers at Omega have made a rod for their own backs with new innovations such as the photofinish, synchronized on-screen timing, split times and a host of other technical achievements over successive Games.

Sports showcases rely on the integrity of their measuring and timing systems as much as they rely on their ability to broadcast evermore sophisticated programming to keep the punters hooked. Today’s systems are light years away from the early days when synchronised chronographs simply recorded the time the skier started and finished his run and the results were pinned to a notice board several hours later.

“We are in the process of holding test events,” says Berthaud. “We started last October with the short track, then we had the ski-jumping and the cross country. Now we are having a cluster of tests on all the remaining events except ice hockey, which will be around September. We have a complete cluster of six to eight weeks on all venues including test events or the Paralympics – the first time it has been done.”

One of the systems that Omega is bringing to the 2010 Games is a new timer designed for the alpine skiing event. Called Chronos, it’s a new generation of timer with a new clock and software. Chronos was developed last year, tested at the end of last season and tested again at the start of this season. It’s being trialled at the World Championship at Val d’Isère where it is being used as a back-up system during the races and the main system during the training.

“We don’t take risks with the new technology. We progressively bring it to the front. The Olympic test event for alpine skiing was in March 2009 when it was used as a main system for the first time in advance of 2010. There are other systems in development and we can expect further announcements before the Games open, but depending on how the process goes we’ll release them during the year.”

As the countdown progresses toward the opening ceremony on 12 February 2010, Omega’s technologists are actively involved in preparations for the competition where, for the 24th time, the Swiss watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeepers at the Olympic Games. On 12 March, they will play the same role at the Paralympic Games.

At Omega’s first timekeeping assignment for the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a lone technician used 27stopwatches to time each event. Seventy years later in Turin, Italy, Omega deployed 208 professionals – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with 220 tonnes of equipment. Those numbers will be blown away in 2010 as the company mobilises the largest timekeeping contingent ever in winter sport.

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the reason for all these people is to minimise the possibility of human error. “What we are trying to do is get rid of human intervention,” says Berthaud. “Most of the innovations in timekeeping emerge from controversies.”

Berthaud is adamant that Omega has a good relationship with the athletes and develops the technology with athletes as design partners. “What you have to remember,” he says, “is that Omega doesn’t deliver the records – the athletes do. It is all about the athletes, and their results only become official once they are approved, so the judge of the International Federation is the ultimate timekeeper.”

The technological dream, he says, is to develop systems that can become independent of the judges. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008,Omega installed a camera with a capacity for taking 2,000 frames per second. “There were two instances where a decision was made on the basis of precision down to one pixel,” says Berthaud.

In the bobsleigh event, the competitor starts and stops the chronometer by passing through light beams. With these systems “no one can make a contestation. You can have a cell that doesn’t work, but there is no human judgement”, explains Berthaud.

I’ve spent four days touring sites including a snowboarding test at Cypress. But Berthaud is on a tight schedule. There is time for one last question. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Games. “Nothing. The Olympic Games is six years in preparation so if the day before the games start you don’t sleep then you’ve done something seriously wrong.” I check the time on my recorder. We’ve spoken for 14 minutes, 29 seconds.