Video Interview for Times Higher Education Awards Knowledge Exchange Initiative of the Year 2022

 Alasdair Cameron, CEO at ARMA UK and a member of the THE Awards judging panel, speaks with Loraine Leeson, researcher and associate professor in social practice in the Visual Arts Department at Middlesex University, about Active Energy, a six-week artist commission that became a twelve-year project in collaboration with The Geezers, a group of East London retirees, looking at the forgotten potential of tidal power. Active Energy won the Knowledge Exchange/Transfer Initiative of the Year category at the THE Awards 2022.

Active Energy wins Times Higher Education Award

The Active Energy project has won the Times Higher Education award 2022 for Knowledge Exchange/Transfer Initiative of the Year. 

The Geezers with their award at the Times Higher Education award 2022

On the evening of 17th November 2022 at a ‘glittering’ ceremony at the Hilton London Metropole, members of The Geezers Club accompanied Loraine Leeson, Professor Ann Light (who instigated the project in 2007) and Middlesex University’s Director of Knowledge Transfer Professor Mark Gray to accept this prestigious award. Described as the ‘Oscars of higher education’, these annual awards showcase the best in higher education and in this case paid tribute to a twelve-year arts-led project driven by the Geezers’ interest and enthusiasm in ensuring that renewable energy can support the lives of older people in riverside communities.

The Active Energy team at the Times Higher Education award 2022

The Geezers have had a special interest in the development of tidal power, which is not subject to the vagaries of wind or sun and eminently suitable for an island nation with its many tidal rivers. It was the proximity of the Thames and the fact that older people can often not afford to heat their homes that initially inspired the Geezers to embark on this journey with artist Loraine Leeson and others to see where it would lead. Not only has much been achieved, but the value of the initiative has now recognised with the value it deserved.

Ecoart in Action: Fostering Social and Ecological Change

 6.30pm Sunday 22nd May 2022 online

Loraine Leeson talks about her chapter “Active Energy: Bringing Local Knowledge into the Public Realm” for the recently published book Ecoart in Action.

Register for the event here

The event provided an overview of Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities. Compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network. Ecoart in Action stands as a field guide for ecoart practice. It provides adaptable strategies for engaging a wide range of learners within a variety of learning environments.

Recording of this presentation by Loraine Leeson and other authors of the book can be found here.

Active Energy draws to a close

 In 2007 when artist Loraine Leeson met The Geezers, a men’s group at AgeUK Bow, and asked them what technology they would like to see developed that would support themselves or their community, none imagined that they would be still be working on their ideas twelve years later. In the intervening years, with the help of engineers and constant fundraising, the Active Energy team have developed and tested a prototype turbine for the Thames, held two exhibitions, worked with young people to produce a wind turbine for an AgeUK roof, contributed to three university research projects, conducted numerous joint presentations, collaborated with a seniors’ group in Pittsburgh, made working models of turbines with school and college students, and produced floating water wheels to provide aeration for rivers, the last installed in 2019 in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Workshops continued into 2020, then finally a line has been drawn under this long-term project.

Loraine and the Geezers, 2007

Artists can't solve the world's problems, but they are well placed to ask the questions that enable ideas and creativity to emerge, then celebrate the outcomes. The local knowledge of communities holds a wealth of answers.

College Students learn about Engineering for the Future

Eight engineering students from City & Islington College on placement with Canal and River Trust visited the water wheel in situ and were introduced to the environmental issues it was addressing. This was followed by a workshop where they constructed their own working models of turbines and learned more about how, as future engineers, they could contribute to the sustainability of the planet. The College have continued to use the project templates and workshop materials for their ongoing curriculum.

Communities Countering Climate Change

On 20th September 2019, as millions of school children, workers and trades unionists across the globe commenced a week of action for climate justice, the Active Energy project celebrated how older and younger people have come together to work for environmental change in their community.

The event was held at The Last Drop café in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, close to where the water wheel is located. It was opened by Paul Brickell, Executive Director for Regeneration and Community Partnerships at the London Legacy Development Corporation

Following this artist Loraine Leeson outlined how the project had developed after the last twelve years and engineer Toby Borland described the mechanics of the various turbines and water wheels the team have created over this time. 

Ray Gipson explained how the Geezers Club had become involved, and the importance of involving older people in the development of new technologies, since none of this would have taken place without The Geezers’ input. Pupils from Bow School, where The Geezers have recently assisted with the making of model turbines, showed their creations to the audience and spoke themselves about their concerns regarding climate change.

Philip Kyeremanteng of Canals and RiversTrust then went on to demonstrate urgent environmental issues for our rivers, while James Hardy, Senior Manager for Energy and Climate Change at the GreaterLondon Authority outlined policy level planning to counter climate change in London. He was then questioned on these strategies by the pupils and Geezers. 

The event was closed by Bridget McKenzie from Culture Declares Emergency, who considered what can be done by each of us to support the planet at this time of climate crisis.

The Geezers are not quite finished with the project however. They will be helping with some more workshops at Bow School, and still want to pursue the idea of how renewable energy can be built into sheltered accommodation in their borough to reduce energy costs for the older population, who are often unable to heat their homes.

Active Energy: Olympic Park

2-4pm Friday 20th September 2019

Loraine Leeson and The Geezers invite you to celebrate their latest venture in the Active Energy arts project. A floating water wheel has been installed close to the London Aquatics Centre in the Waterworks River to drive an aerator that will help counteract the effects of pollution on the river’s fish and wildlife. Meanwhile pupils from Bow School have constructed their own working models of turbines using designs suitable for the generation of renewable energy.

The Last Drop, 5 Thornton Street, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London E20 2AD
Close to the ArcelorMittal Orbit
Nearest tube: Stratford

Pupils create turbines for sustainable energy

Pupils at Bow School, East London have been taking part in workshops led by engineer Toby Borland as part of Loraine Leeson's Active Energy project.

They were supported by members of The Geezers Club from AgeUK Bow, who have been a central part of this project for the last twelve years - it was their idea to find out how the River Thames and its tributaries could be used to power their community. Students from the MA Art and Social Practice at Middlesex University also assisted.

The young people’s working models will be on display at a public event to be held in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the afternoon of Friday 20th September. Watch this space for details.

Active Energy in the Olympic Park

Since early July 2019 new floating water wheel can be seen in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park between Thornton and Iron Bridge, where it has been installed to help the survival of fish and wildlife. In certain weather conditions sewage finds its way into the river, where it uses up oxygen and can cause fish to die. Lock gates along the river are raised intermittently to allow water to flow, and at these times the wheel turns, driving air into the river.

Culture Declares Emergency

Active Energy declares a Climate and Ecological Emergency
We pledge to work with and support our community and local government in tackling this Emergency, and we call on others to do the same.

These are our intentions

1. We will tell the Truth
We will communicate with citizens and support them to discover the truth about the Emergency and the changes that are needed.

2. We will take Action
We will actively work to imagine and model ways that our organisation can regenerate the planet’s resources.

3. We are committed to Justice
We will do what is possible to enable dialogue and expression amidst our communities about how the Emergency will affect them and the changes that are needed.

Declaration ends

Networking in Leeds

In June 2017 Loraine Leeson and The Geezers were invited to join Canal Connections in Leeds to discuss activities that will help spread the word about what has been discovered on the project to other communities and agencies.
They mingled with locals including the Lord Mayor of Leeds and other interested parties on a boat trip along the city's canals, then presented the work of the Active Energy project. The next day a meeting of creative partners involved in the Hydrocitizenship project discussed a bid for follow-on funding to include the next phase of Active Energy activities.

Water wheel supports wildlife in the Lower Lea

The wheel was meant to support fish and wildlife in the Lower Lea by pumping oxygen into the water to counteract pollution. 

However some moorhens have taken the support literally, and seem to have grown accustomed to the wheel’s slow rotations. Permission to install the wheel was only temporary, but now will need to be extended until fledglings have left the nest. A more permanent home for the wheel following the moorhens’ departure is currently being sought.

The Geezers present Active Energy in virtual symposium

On 31st May 2017 artist Loraine Leeson and the Geezers took part in a virtual symposium organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands. 

They presented the Active Energy project as a case study to demonstrate the value of social practice in art, research and education. Artists, cultural professionals, academics and students connected online from more than a dozen different locations including Shetland, Orkney, Ireland, as well as some of Scotland’s most remote islands, to discover and debate how socially engaged arts practice can help to build a better society.

New water wheel launched at Three Mills

On 13th May 2017 the new Active Energy water wheel was launched at Three Mills heritage site with an opening address by Jane Caldwell, Chief Executive at Age UK East London. 

She took the opportunity to emphasise the value of older people’s experience to the wider society, together with the benefits of creative and purposeful activities to those involved. Artist Loraine Leeson outlined the trajectory of this decade-long project, and engineer Toby Borland indicated the importance of community input to design and the value of an open source approach whereby each new development can be taken up by others. Professor Graeme Evans of Middlesex University described the involvement of the project in Hydrocitizenship, a research initiative led by academics from nine universities to investigate how citizens can better live with each other and their environment in relation to water.

 The day was stolen however by The Geezers, with Ray Gipson describing their longstanding struggle to bring renewable energy in to their community, in particular to help older people who can often not afford to heat their homes.

Construct your own floating water wheel

Drawings of the floating water wheel in the Lower Lea have been posted on the technology page. If you would like to create your own wheel, these can be downloaded and sent for laser cutting.

New turbine to be launched at Three Mills

3.30 - 5pm Saturday 13th May 2017
at National Mills Weekend

Loraine Leeson and the Geezers' latest phase of the project is a floating water wheel, which is being placed in the River Lee close to an historic tidal mill. The outflow from the mill pool will turn the wheel, which will then drive an aerator to oxygenate the water and counteract the effects of pollution on the river’s fish and wildlife.

The process has been supported by the Lea Valley team of the Hydrocitizenship research initiative. Engineer Toby Borland has designed and implemented the new wheel, while Thames21's Love the Lea project have provided advice, facilities and further support. The wheel's low-cost open source design will soon be viewable on this web site so that others can take up the idea.

House Mill, Three Mill Lane, Bromley-by-Bow, London E3 3DU  020 8980 4626
Nearest tube: Bromley by Bow

Active Energy wins Green Energy Award

Active Energy has received the Best Arts and Green Energy award from Regen SW. The awards were announced at an event at the Bath Assembly Rooms on 29th November 2016. This is the 13th annual awards ceremony to honour innovation in the development of green energy and the first to recognise the arts as a key player in this process.

Active Energy: Three Mills

Open workshop at Three Mills heritage site during National Mills Weekend

11am-4pm Saturday 14th May 2016

To celebrate National Mills Weekend The Geezers will be working with artist Loraine Leeson and engineer Toby Borland in front of House Mill at the Three Mills heritage site to construct a stream wheel for later installation in the Lower Lea. The wheel will be activated by the outflow of water from the mill and will power an aerator to help oxygenate the water and counteract the effects of pollution on the river’s fish and wildlife.

This current phase of the project is taking place as part of the Hydrocitizenship initiative.

New Turbine for Lower Lea

The next phase of the project is to take place in the Lower Lea, where the outflow from part of the Three Mills heritage site will be utilized to drive a slow moving stream wheel. This will generate sufficient power for an aerator that will help oxygenate the water to counteract the effects of pollution and support the survival of fish. Partners helping us with this initiative include Thames21House Mill and Middlesex University via the Hydrocitizenship research project.

Celebrating the Active Energy turbine

On 8th October 2013 a new design of tidal turbine was tested for the first time on the River Thames as part of the Active Energy project led by artist Loraine Leeson. Over fifty people attended an event opened by John Biggs, GLA member for City and East, to celebrate this highspot in the five-year project. A small-scale turbine was moored alongside the Tamesis Dock barge to test its functionality.

The turbine was developed and built by engineer Toby Borland in consultation with a group of senior men attending the Geezers Club at an AgeUK centre in East London. The Geezers initiated the idea through an arts-led project designed to enable the life experience of older generations inform new developments in technology. Their aim has been to raise awareness of our nation’s tidal rivers as a potential source of renewable energy.

Active Energy Turbine installation October 2013 from Loraine Leeson on Vimeo.

The hydrokinetic turbine tested this week was designed for low budget, zero head, low speed river/ocean flow and ease of transport/installation. Efficient use of off-the-shelf-components make it comparable in expense to Scoraig wind turbines of equivalent capacity. While similar designs have been previously used in Peru, Sudan and Malaysia, the turbine blades are the first of their kind optimised for low flow and operation with a shroud to deflect items floating in the river and protect wildlife. Its low cost and ease of manufacture make it particularly suitable for developing nations overseas. The engineer is putting the information gleaned from its construction into the public domain to enable others to take up the design for future use.

Turbine on the Thames

Join us and Shadow International Development Minister Rushanara Ali MP for drinks and to witness the launch of our innovative underwater turbine on a Thames barge close to the Houses of Parliament.

6.30pm Tuesday 8th October 2013

Tamesis Dock
Albert Embankment
London SE1 7TP

Nearest tubes: Vauxhall or Lambeth North

Refreshments provided by:


New Blade Designs

The turbine blades are skewed in two planes, the angle of the hydrofoil section relative to the axis of rotation varies with the diameter of the blade. The slower moving profile near the hub has a correspondingly steeper angle. 

The leading edge of the blade is curved to encourage entangled debris to slide off, this curve is a logarithmic spiral. It remains to be seen whether this arrangement will necessitate a greater clearance between blade tip and shroud.

Where the blade meets the hub (the blade root), the main consideration is an even transfer of load from the blade to the hub. Early configurations used an extrapolated hydrofoil profile projected onto the curved hub surface. The smoothest transition was found to be a loose ellipse composed of two intersecting radii. It has proved more reliable and expedient to rely on a mathematical description of the curves that define the blade surface. A significant proportion are exported from a numerical visualisation program (Scilab) for defining the surfaces in the solid modelling program (Solidworks).

Read More

ActiveEnergy: Pittsburgh, Mattress Factory

During the summer of 2012 Loraine Leeson took the concept of Active Energy, as developed through her project with the Geezers in East London, to a residency at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh organised by curator Hilary Robinson as part of her Feminist and… exhibition.

Working with Northside Seniors, she commenced with a question to the group, similar to the one that initiated the Geezers’ project: “If there were any technology that could be developed that you feel would best support yourselves or your communities, what would that be?” Following some discussion the group arrived at an issue that would turn out to be one of the greatest health concerns for the US – a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. This group of older women felt that they would also like more information about the disease to help their awareness of its signs, and for this to be more readily available to younger generations, who might then better support family members stricken with the disease.

Participants United, University of Central Lancashire, Preston

The Geezers were participants in the Connected Communities project ‘Participants United’ which ran for most of 2011, involving Ann Light and led by Paul Egglestone of UCLAN, to look at constructive styles of community participation in academic research projects. 

After an initial set-up workshop at which the men considered who they would like to meet to continue to develop their ideas (in this case, British Waterways, the authority responsible for canals and rivers at the time), Loraine, Toby and three Geezers (Ray, Ted and John) travelled to Preston for a summit of discussions about participating in research.

What was most notable about the Active Energy contribution was the way that the research had moved out of the hands of the original team based at Queen Mary University of London who brought Loraine and the Geezers together. Although the Geezers had lots to say about being participants in a research project, they were exemplary of a different form of relations, where the men led the work and the team round them ebbed and flowed as needed to make their intended innovations a reality. This was no university project, even though it emerged from one.

Sadly, no one from British Waterways made the trip to join the Geezers in their discussions, despite a long optimistic exchange with the local branch. But the spirit of innovative research models was a good complement to citizen innovation on the tides.

Bow Boys School

The experiences and ideas of older people are rarely voiced in the context of renewable energy technologies, partly because of the stereotyped view that innovation is the remit of younger generations, partly because older people have little access to public space within which to express their desires and share their knowledge. Similarly, young people and teenagers are often excluded from playing an active role in the promotion and development of renewable energies at a local level. 

Although Design and Technology is a compulsory course in secondary education, young people are seldom able to experience the connections between renewable energies and their everyday lives. This was particularly true for pupils at Bow Boys’ School, who live in a densely populated urban environment in one of the poorest boroughs of London. Crucially, bringing this project into their neighbourhood was a form of operating small-scale changes. ActiveEnergy put Bow on the map of renewable energies by demonstrating to the local community, and to London at large, how to set an example and become a model for the rest of the city.

The Not Quite Yet, SPACE, London

In 2007 SPACE Studios commissioned artists Manu Luksch, Mukul Patel, Loraine Leeson and Stacy Makishi to respond to the research project Democratising Technology led by Ann Light, Lois Weaver and others at Queen Mary University of London.

Through this project Loraine met The Geezers at their AgeUK base in Bow and together they embarked on a journey to find a way for renewable energy to support the older population of East London. For The Not Quite Yet exhibition at SPACE Gallery they demonstrated through a large-scale visualisation how tidal turbines could be incorporated into the Thames Barrier. The Geezers themselves made a succinct case for the renewable energy argument and video footage of this was projected in the gallery. The group also presented their ideas at a symposium On the Margins of Technology that accompanied the exhibition. Their contribution to both events aroused considerable interest and it was clear the project could not stop there…

Democratising Technology

Where did it all begin? In 2007, Democratising Technology (DemTech) set out to explore creative aspects of discussing digital technology with groups being marginalised by it. 

We invited five groups of older people to represent those excluded from discussions of future tools and help design some ways of involving them. Led by researchers in performance and computer science at Queen Mary University of London (Pat Healey, Ann Light, Gini Simpson and Lois Weaver), the goal was twofold:

1) to discover a method for inspiring people whose voices are ignored in discussions about technology to consider the values they would like to see embedded in networked tools of the future; and

2) to provide a platform for showcasing those views through the creation of artworks and an exhibition (see fig 1). We used collaborative art practices throughout the 18-month project as a means of achieving these goals. Indeed, the exhibition served to show the results of two kinds of collaboration: it was a means to display pieces created by artists and older people working together, and it allowed us to assess the effectiveness of engagement between artists, researchers and the groups of older people who had come together to work on promoting greater digital inclusion.

One group who participated in DemTech was The Geezers. They followed the general path of helping develop the workshops for use to engage others and were then invited to stay on and work with Loraine Leeson to help her produce a piece representing their experience for the exhibition. This pairing led to the envisioning of GeezerPower: an alternative energy source based on water turbines in London’s Thames.

Fig 1: An overview of DemTech activities

We based the work on a number of premises, including: that digital networks herald significant and hard-to-grasp changes in technology; that new pockets of marginalization will result from this; that older people represent a good cross section of society and yet a statistically marginalized group; that everyone has something to offer the design process; that overcoming exclusion is as much about values as skills; and that art methods provide a means of involving people that science or technology education cannot. When we set off with this aim, we were optimistic that people had opinions to share about future tools and could be supported in sharing them. What we didn’t know was that 5 years later, an idea born in discussions about future technologies and those that had been ‘lost’ during our participants’ lifetimes, linked to their concern about environmental challenges, would be the spur to actually innovate and make new technologies with an environmental theme.