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 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).

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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.