When waste becomes your life for 3 weeks

So what were we doing here for the past 3 weeks? I realized that in the midst of all the experiences and impressions, we never wrote about what we were here for. One word should give you a hint – or maybe a few depending on where you come from – trash, garbage, rubbish, waste. Yep, we spent the past 3 weeks helping the city of Allahabad figure out how to improve solid waste management in the city. If you’ve ever been in India or have seen any pictures and documentaries – you know that trash is pretty much everywhere. It is a very sad view – let your mind go visual for a sec (and I will help with some pictures) and imagine this:

Busy streets covered in trash, with a few bins but mostly no bins – if they are there, they are either overflowing because there isn’t enough of them or are empty because it is easier to dump than walk a few meters. Trash all around it, organic or non. Cows, dogs, pigs eating all of it and whatever was actually in the bins is now spread out all over the place. Large spaces in the middle of the city covered with trash – basically unofficial landfills that serve as collection places. Rag pickers walking through it, trying to collect anything that can be sold (glass, bottles, plastic). Fires are frequent, mostly because the rag pickers start them to get rid off the non-valuables. Sometimes because of the chemical reaction in the tons of waste, the fires start on their own. Typical home sorting of trash does not happen. Businesses, restaurants, even our hotels, do not regularly install bins (I had to carry around my plastic bottle for 2 hours to finally find a bin). Processing of waste happens in one large plant (which we had a pleasure to visit) where some level of segregation of the wet (organic, food, plants) and inorganic happens. Then a few men physically go through the rest to take out the plastic (usually bare hands, no mask). Drains in the streets are open and usually blocked with trash or full of it. With the 90F/high 30C temperatures, it is hard to not to notice the smell. Houses with trash spread in front of them because if even one person dumps trash, it encourages others to do the same or it spreads around with animals, traffic. All of this has impact on everything else… animals eat plastic, the burning trash pollutes the air, kids play in trash filled areas, the unofficial landfills contaminate drinking water, the open drains and sewage overlap, insects – I think you get the picture.

Our challenge was to help the city of Allahabad to put in place a few frugal, pragmatic and sustainable actions to accelerate the city’s journey towards a smart city. Managing waste is one of the basic city services that every citizen expects, but only about 20% of the citizens are actually willing to pay for the services. Everyone recognizes that a mindset shift has to start with the public – Indians are very conscious of personal hygiene but social hygiene is an issue. Prime minister Modi has launched a few initiatives to focus on cleanliness and has gained some real traction. In fact, our last day in Allahabad, October 2nd was a holiday, celebrating Mahathma Gandhi’s birthday. It is also the day that the country focuses on Swachh Bharat – the national campaign for clean India- but it feels a bit too much top down and a government programme so far.

We spent the first week learning about the city, the process, visiting the plants, talking to people. Not just the officials, but the citizens as well. The stories varied quite a bit so our primary challenge was in sorting through all the said and unsaid with very limited data available. I think we particularly enjoyed talking to the people that really live it everyday – the street sweepers, the residents in the gym, the hotel employees, Richa’s friends – this after all is on everyone’s mind because you can’t escape it if you wanted to. Our second week was spent formulating some emerging hypotheses – and we had many! And week 3 was crunch time in our hotel room #410 – our office – working on the high level presentation to formulate our recommendations and heads down writing the report. We did not forget to have fun though … no worries there. Shopping, tailoring, exploring all the hotel restaurants, even one super local one (where the plates were made of recyclable leaves (surprising dichotomy between the creativity in how to use recyclables and what you see on the street), some Indian mendhi and lots of Indian food (even though I think we are ready for some fresh seafood, vegetables, salad and fruit).

Our work is done for now, cameras full of trash pictures, memories full of laughter and funny stories, stomachs full of tikkas and aloo ghobis, hearts full of Indian hospitality – and everyone of us richer with a few new friends worldwide. For this team, it was special & special, at times 100% no problem, a few dry days here and there and definitely lots of glowing with the Indian flow :-)

Formal picture of the team with the Divisional commissioner and the Mayor

Formal picture of the team with the Divisional commissioner and the Mayor

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When children leave you in awe

Over the past week, we have been discussing what the WOW moment of our presentation is. Little did we know that our own WOW moment of the entire Smarter Cities Challenge was around the corner  – and perhaps not surprisingly it came from children of Allahabad.   We were very lucky to be able to visit a truly inspiring school (Khel Gaon Public School) which is dedicated to combining sport and education for the students that attend.   We received an amazing welcome from the students and staff – I lost count of the number of rounds of applause we were given.   We were presented with beautiful garlands upon our arrival before being taken into the school’s enormous gymnasium – to receive yet more applause from the 500-600 children that were sitting above us on three sides. With us on a podium, hundreds of children from 5 years old to 17 years old watching – I just couldn’t believe that this was:

  • for us only! there was a poster with our names on it and pictures!
  • put together in less than a week because it would take a whole PTO and 10+ parent volunteers in the US
  • so quiet and organized – can you imagine hundreds of children in uniforms, in less than well air conditioned gym for 2 hours watching someone speak – quietly? And genuinely smiling?

Each of us had goose bumps (and yes, some got a bit more emotional as they spoke) from the warmth of the reception.

The children performed an amazing set of gymnastics, dance and other sporting demonstrations – the standard of each was extremely high. I was particularly thrilled to finally see a piece of real Indian dance (one that I have been looking for but so far only got the techno beat in the gym). We were then bowled over by the exchange of some beautiful personal gifts  –  embroidered scarfs from the school and signed books from our IBM team.    The students were very interested to hear from each of us about our countries and our schooling – in fact during this exchange we also learned a little more about each other.

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But perhaps the most impressive part of the visit was the smaller interactive sessions we had with some of the senior students of the school.   They were clearly extremely bright children – they had researched our backgrounds and asked us insightful questions about our education as well as our Smarter City Challenge. You should see our faces when these kids, in fluent English started talking brownfields/greenfields, cybersecurity, and quoting information about us that they clearly looked up on LinkedIn or other public sources. I was beyond impressed. The hunger for knowledge, global view, learning from others was absolutely mesmerizing.

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As we drove away – everyone of us reflected on a wonderful morning. I don’t know what the final presentation will look like (I have an idea though) but 100% sure it will not beat this. The genuine interest, passion, smiles, talent – this was something that is impossible to replicate. And I am pretty sure you won’t see us (at least me) sniff during a powerpoint presentation :-)

Note: this blog post was co-written with Colin Hall – thanks Colin!


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Hour of Indian history for everyone

After a week of finalizing our presentation to the municipal commissioner, we were quick to allocate some relax time for Saturday and Sunday afternoon. That basically meant shopping for 80% of the weekend – starting with jewelry that went on for hours – mostly because you can’t see any of it until you sit down. Then boxes start coming out and piece by piece is put in front of you – so with 5 people with completely different tastes and purchase objectives this can take a bit of time (hint, yes, it took the women or me specifically the longest). We then split up and ladies decided to head out to a local beauty parlor for any treatment that would be available and the gentlemen headed out to a tailor for some custom made suits and shirts. Overall, success on both sides – pedicure / massage / a suit / a few shirts / toe rings / ear rings / anklets – and the team re-energized.


Our jewelry shopping experience – sit and wait! And better have 2 hours at least

Sunday was a bit more historical and educational – we visited Anand Bhawan which gave us appreciation for Indian history. This is a house where Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first India prime minister lived. I had a very basic understanding of the Indian independence moments. Seeing where the Nehru family lived, their work, the place where their mentor Mahathma Gandhi stayed and met with the dignitaries – was absolutely magical. Indira Gandhi, India’s first female prime minister was Nehru’s daughter and it was fascinating to read through the details of their family life, passions and dedication to the nation. The place was packed, very simple and casual – and just about the right size – about 7 rooms to give you a look into their life. Mr. Nehru was quite the gentleman, very well educated, adored by the Indians, humble and someone who loved children. He built planetarium for the kids at his house and later in her life Indira Gandhi donated the house to the Indian people. Colonel Pandey, our IBM India leader, gave us a private recollection of his own time in Allahabad in the 60s – he even participated in Nehru’s funeral which happened at Sangam, very close to our hotel at the confluence of the 3 rivers (if you remember!). 

Last picture is a bit of a memory of last week – lots of flip charts, lunches, powerpoint, joking, driving, glowing, confusion, discovery, driving around, exploring, trash photography, cow avoidance – so busy week for the team !


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Neighborhoods are the backbone of Detroit

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last two weeks, it’s that block clubs and neighborhood/community groups are really the backbone of Detroit and will drive its rebirth. These resident volunteers have stepped in where, for decades, the city has failed them — pouring in countless amounts of energy and much of their spare time. They board up vacant houses, they clear debris from open lots, they mow the abandoned lawns, they build community centers, they advocate to make sure their needs are heard.

But as with any grass-roots effort, these groups vary widely. Some have existed for decades and are well-organized; some are just starting out. Some are fighting to keep their neighborhoods stable; others are fighting for survival. And some neighborhoods don’t have any help at all.

On Friday we stepped away from our workroom for a few hours to literally get our hands dirty. We rallied approximately 40 more local employees from IBM and TheFrameworks to help clear debris and start building a community park for the Philip Street Block Club in the historic Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, an area that has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn of the last decade, when Detroit lost a whopping 25% of its population.

Here’s the SCC team with Philip Street Block Club president Roberta Bivens, center, purple shirt. Special shout out to DSE Detroit for the late-night delivery of our own Detroit-themed shirts the previous evening!

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Getting instructions from Roberta.

This was some hard-core debris clearing — lots of thick brush in the alley behind the lot!

SCC team member Charlie on his way to breaking the first of three power tools (on trees that had grown through metal fencing).

TheFrameworks team doing some heavy lifting!

Putting SCC team member Henry to work!

A big thank you to everyone who came out, and especially local IBM executive Donna Satterfield for her support!


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Finding value in old homes

Yesterday Charlie, Laura and I paid a site visit to the warehouse & headquarters of ReClaim Detroit, a social enterprise that takes homes slated for demolition and “deconstructs” them, meaning they remove structural elements that can be reused and/or recycled. We learned that in the majority of cases, this means lumber: floorboards, doors, frames, and support beams. Many Detroit homes built in the early half of the 20th century used old-growth wood that is highly valued and extremely difficult to find in modern construction.

Because of the high number of abandoned properties in Detroit and the length of time a home often sits vacant, things like metal radiators, copper pipes, etc. are typically removed very quickly by illegal scrappers, so there’s not much of that left for the deconstruction industry. Any furniture or other personal belongings left in the home is also typically of little value, in many cases due to exposure to the elements from broken windows, holes in the roof, squatting, etc. Every now and then a demolition or debris removal crew will find something of value (like a piano, or collectibles, or a vintage car) — but it’s unusual. There is some market for things like bathtubs, light fixtures, leaded-glass windows, and the like, but it’s uneven.

Part of the task of our IBM team is to figure out a way to integrate what ReClaim Detroit and other organizations like it (for example, Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit) do into the process of demolishing and/or removing debris from homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank. The idea behind deconstruction is not only one that benefits the environment by keeping reusable materials out of landfill, but it also creates jobs down the value chain including people trained to do the deconstruction (building in-demand construction industry skills) and the people who refine & make things out of the salvaged wood. ReClaim and others are committed to training and creating jobs for Detroiters who have in the past faced barriers to employment such as low skills or criminal records.

Here’s an example of a “raw” material: interior doors. There are a lot of these! Exterior doors have typically been too damaged to be salvageable.

Much of the lumber needs to be de-nailed, which is a time-intensive, manual process.

Jeremy Haines, Sales Manager, and Craig Varterian, Executive Director, show us around the warehouse. It looks like a lot of lumber, but in reality it moves very quickly and there is currently more demand than they can regularly supply.

They get all kinds of lumber, such as this collection of floorboards, which they categorize and inventory.

Currently ReClaim sells most of its lumber with minimal processing, however they do have a millshop where Detroiters are trained to turn the wood into more finished products.

One easy and innovative use for some of the lumber is to make stakes to mark demolition sites around the city. In the past these stakes were made of metal, which meant they were often stolen for scrap — and created a safety risk for demolition & deconstruction crews who rely on the stakes to mark hazards.

But the bigger opportunities lie in more finished products, like this tabletop and cutting board. Beautiful!
Thanks to the ReClaim team for taking the time to show us around and sharing your insights with us!

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The glow of the Ganges (and of our team)

After a full week of touring sewage and waste management plants (and interviewing government officials, rickshaws and street sweepers), we headed out to Varanasi for a tourist-only weekend. This came with a clear direction of “no laptops” which we gladly followed. Varanasi is THE Indian town that makes every single tourist book, as well as the 500 or 1,000 places to see in your lifetime – and it lives up to it. After a rocky (literally and figuratively) 3 hour drive from Allahabad, we arrived and headed for some shopping and walk around the city. After a few of sarees, pashminas, silk scarves negotiations, we were ready to board a small wooden boat on Ganges to see the river banks from the water. I am personally not very religious or spiritual (full disclosure) but there is something about this city that throws you in a very quiet state of thinking and reminiscing (after the loud engine boats stop though). As the sun was coming down, we (and other 100 boats) stopped by the Dashashwamedh Ghat and waited for the aarti to start. What’s a ghat and aarti, you may ask….

Ghat is a series of steps leading to the river Ganges – and there are many of them across Varanasi. Aarti is a prayer ritual / ceremony which translates to a Worship of fire. The ghats fill up with people, the rivers fill up with boats – and the aarti begins. Richa was able to participate from the bank which was a very unique and rare opportunity for her – the rest of us watched from the water. Even though most of us didn’t understand what was going on, it was clearly very emotional for Hindus around us and absolutely fascinating to watch. And so was the traffic on the way back :-)

The next morning, we experienced probably the busiest 430 am wake up call in the world, as close to everyone was heading out to the banks again for the sunrise. I was a bit skeptical – is this just a hype and a credit to the Varanasi tourism bureau or will this really be spectacular? It was fantastic – the dark walk thru the markets, the boats full again, the sun coming up and shining a beautiful light on the city. Seeing it wake up to the world, watching the families and Hindu tourists take baths in Ganges and praying, kids splashing water and playing – pictures tell a better story so look below. I think most of us were a bit conflicted though. Seeing importance and emotions the river ignites in Indian people was once in a lifetime opportunity. But seeing how polluted and possibly contaminated the water is, the trash on the river bank right next to the kids swimming, the ashes from the cremated bodies thrown in (and hearing about the dead bodies being thrown in as they can’t be cremated) – it is hard to reconcile.  Enjoy the pictures…

We finished our trip with a visit to Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Despite the brutal heat and humidity (the team decided to just call it a glow b/c you turn very shiny very quickly), we really enjoyed the brief history of the jainism and buddhism – and there are hundreds of stories, names, gods and traditions – so definitely a big to-do for some of us to “get a comparative religion book in local library” – you have to – once you visit these sites with so much history, tradition and spirit.

I almost forgot to mention that we met with the #ibmcsc team India 28 which is based in Varanasi for the next month. It was great to catch up, hear about their projects and for me personally to remember my fantastic IBM CSC experience – go team (picture coming later)!

And the glow? The river glows for sure – but everyone of us had a bit of a glow too – not just from the 40C degree temperatures, high humidity and the mix of repellent/hand sanitizers – but from being in a place of such a significant history, tradition and spirit.


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Detroit by foot

I’m loving exploring Detroit on my morning runs! Team member Emanuele, from IBM Research Dublin, and I have tried  out a different route every day. 

This morning we came across a mural by street artist FEL3000FT that says: “It takes heart to fight for something that so many consider a lost cause… Keep your heart true and your mind strong Detroit.”


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