'Keeping it clean' with Mairi Brookes
The 5th instalment of the ‘keeping it clean’ blog series, which features interviews with a variety of experts in the world of sustainability, clean technology and future mobility.
With a PhD in Astrophysics and a stint at NASA, Mairi is the closest person I’ve met to a Rocket Scientist to date! That said, she’s certainly switched things up in her career, having moved into tech & product, then policy with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, before moving to run the Sustainable City Team for Oxford City Council, becoming a Head of Transformation and then most recently going it alone with her own consultancy business — Purpose Built Consulting. I think we would all agree that’s a fairly impressive career so far… I for one, certainly want to know what’s coming next!
In her own words she is a woman on a mission: a mission to help accelerate carbon emissions reduction and air quality improvement in cities in the UK with a focus on the adoption of electric vehicles and the roll out of associated charging infrastructure. She is especially interested in working on projects that not only transform our mobility, but also lead to the wider transformation that is needed for a socially and environmentally sustainable economic system.
Here’s what went down….
Mairi, your career has been so so varied, what have been your highlights?
Well, it’s a funny one, because I have to say working at NASA, even though I switched away from that career. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work there for 2 years, which was really quite spectacular! It was a fantastic experience to live in that part of the world and to be a part of something so central. Being involved in something which is such a huge part of recent global history was incredible.
Next, I would say working in central government, there was such a huge buzz… I don’t think I appreciated at the time how amazing it was to have such a strong, energised and productive culture in a brand new department. I feel very lucky to have had that experience.
I think if I was going to pick something more recent, it would be working in local government. I know people's perception of local government is less than glamorous, but being close to the delivery of projects and face-to-face with the people who are part of the change you’re delivering is a privilege, as well as something that motivates me. The opportunity to get direct feedback from a community is amazing, we made an electric car club vehicle available to residents of a street, and got feedback from someone who’d never been in an electric car before. She emailed to say how grateful she was to drive around in peace and quiet and to hear birds singing in the car. It sounds small but it was really touching to know you’d made a difference.
I also worked in a burrito shop for a summer which was super fun! 🤣
What drove these epic career changes?
I’ve done a lot of reflecting on this, particularly during my time at Henley Business School. I really like getting my teeth into a challenge ! Of course, there are times when there you think, why didn’t I pick something easier, but I do kind of like being in the mess of it all. I love being part of something that is contributing to a cause bigger than just myself. Research was always about a wider cause and I guess moving into sustainability is similar.
Interestingly, I think the other major drivers for me has been lifestyle; I have been pursuing one challenge, but then had the chance to improve my lifestyle in a way which allows me to take on a bigger challenge. When I was working in Central Government in London, I was commuting for 3 hours a day, which took up quite a lot of energy. My ‘now husband’ was offered a job in Oxford, I was ready to move away from the commute and was able to take a step up which would have perhaps been exhausting in London, but through an improved lifestyle, I was able to use the space to do what I really wanted to do.
This common thread is not something I really recognised until later on in my life… it’s one of those things you don’t realise that you’re doing, and then all of a sudden you do.
Can you tell me about one of the projects you’re currently involved with?
Yes, Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire) is all about making the local energy network fit for all of the changes that are coming in terms of decarbonising our energy system, and also things like the electrification of heating and the switch to electric vehicles for a lot of our transport. The challenge is that our grid has been designed around local power stations in the middle of nowhere. We now need to be able to cope with local energy generation, and the associated battery storage in order to maximise the energy generated.
This project opens up new income streams for local energy projects and makes them more investable. Local people can invest into projects within this ecosystem without needing to have huge amounts of money, but it is brilliant to see this community ownership contributing to both the economy and the wider community. I’m really excited to be a part of this movement, and am hoping that we can look at local ownership of electric car charging too!
I know your expertise lies in city-scale transition to e-mobility. What do you think are the biggest challenges we are facing?
The biggest challenges, broadly come in 2 aspects, one is around the technical, logistical side of the provision of EV’s and the charging infrastructure that goes with that — it is a massive change particularly when looking at the fleet adoption of EV’s; there is more complexity to charging than the old fuel card system. New tech always brings new hurdles, that said, those are fairly surmountable and with a bit of grit, you can always find the solutions.
The other challenge is in some ways tougher, we are talking about a huge change for people. Changing habits, the way you travel, the way you buy things is quite hard to do. Transformation at a city scale it is not just about the provision of chargers in a certain location, it’s enabling people to be curious and adopt new ways of traveling and free up the space to do that.
Interestingly, if we look at the current situation, it presents us an opportunity, as it has forced us all to adapt, and made us realise that we can. It has a huge cost associated, but that ability to be resilient to the change and make those changes, is the kind of resilience and ingenuity that we need to make this transition to e-mobility. This new found adaptability has made us better prepared for making changes in general than we were just a few months ago.
How do you think we can overcome them?
If I was going to pull out one thing for both of them, it would be the willingness to not just share the success in different cities, regions, orgs, but also to share the pitfalls. To leave our comfort zones and share the learnings, mistakes and get to the heart of what it takes to succeed. When it comes to changing habits and shifting to the next way of doing things, it is harder to do, since we have all have to change our habits, but the mindset is already shifting. It’s opened doors for choosing how we want to behave, rather than just doing what we’ve always been doing. We are all going through a learning curve with less of a herd mentality that we might’ve done.
Can you give me an insight into your vision of the future?
If there’s something that I’d take from all of the wider experiences coming into my mind, it’s that when you’ve got the space to go and be curious, there’s a lot of freedom in that.
If I have a vision for the future, it’s that we need to create a society and an economy in which everybody has access greater freedom — in the broadest sense. So that doesn’t just mean entrepreneurial freedom, or academic freedom, it’s the quiet freedom to potter around in your garden, or reading a book, without worrying about the fundamentals like food, shelter and security of your situation. There’s a lot of talk now about “thriving economies” and “thriving communities” much of which stems from the principles of Doughnut Economics. I’m really inspired by that.
What changes do we need to make as a society to realise this vision?
Well … a mindset shift. Towards the outcomes we want from our economic system, rather than the academic concepts and received wisdom about how it should work. And if ever there was a time for practice a mindset shift, surely, it’s now?
What advice would you give to the next generation?
Make your voices heard! The things that motivate me are the things that make the world a better place to live. That future is the future of the next generation. If you can see what is going on in the world and if you don’t like it, I urge you to make your voice heard, as that’s the only way we can start to make the changes we need to make.
Connect with us to keep the clean discussion going… and if you would like to feature in the series, do get in touch!