Strange Inspiration

 |   Bob Glancy

Camden Howitt, Founder of Sustainable Coastlines

Sustainable Coastlines Protects Paradise

Inspiration springs from the strangest places. But a dirty nappy is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

Camden Howitt was surfing at Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s wild west coast when his bliss was interrupted by being smacked in the face with a used nappy. He paddled back to shore in disgust, only to stumble upon a toilet seat. It made his heart sink.

Revolting though the experience was, it sparked a lifelong obsession. On his return to New Zealand, Camden was suddenly conscious of all the rubbish along the coastline. Most people would shrug this off and get back to their normal lives. Not Camden. His life’s mission was now clear: to protect paradise.

Sustainability can’t be bolted on – it must be engrained.

Camden does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk, and he even looks the part; sporting a rugged beard and the deep tan of a man who has spent a lifetime squinting at the horizon. And he is more aware than most of how privileged New Zealanders are to have that sublime horizon.

With tourism now being New Zealand’s top earner, it’s a nation invested in its clean, green brand. From Cape Reinga to the Bluff, New Zealand boasts 15,000km of pristine coastline. Anyone who has spent time surfing our waves, fishing our waters, or relaxing on our warm sands, knows it is a paradise worth protecting.

For the interview we meet at the office of Sustainable Coastlines, a non-profit Camden helped to found with friends over a decade ago. As Co-Founder and Coastlines Lead for the charity, Camden and a growing team are now responsible for co-ordinating coastal clean-ups nationwide, running public awareness and education programmes and motivating volunteers to run their own projects.

And the Sustainable Coastlines offices are sustainable both in name and in nature. Opened by Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, the Flagship Education Centre is solar-powered, captures and recycles all its water, and has Nuralite membrane roofing that both insulates and breaks down airborne pollutants into non-toxic by-products. Plus, all grey and black water is treated and composted on site, and the office is fitted out with a state-of-the-art Vector Solar and Battery System. In fact, Camden points out that, ‘The only reason we are connected to the grid is to give power back!’ It’s a fitting base to tackle the task ahead.

Striped Tree Productions: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand PM, Camden Howitt and Sam Judd, Co-founders Sustainable
Striped Tree Productions: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand PM, Camden Howitt and Sam Judd, Co-founders Sustainable

Testing Conventional Wisdom

Having detailed the office, Camden begins to explain the scale of issues they are facing. What he discovered in his journey towards sustainability hasn’t always been inspiring. Camden was often forced to confront classic misconceptions. The image of tidy Kiwis is often taken as truth. And yet the reality is that, according the World Bank, New Zealand is the tenth-largest per capita producer of urban waste in the world. The US is nineteenth.

“That’s a top ten that no one wants to be in,” explains Camden. “And as New Zealand’s population rockets and we consume like there’s no tomorrow, we could easily rise up the ranking.”

Both Camden Howitt and Sustainable Coastlines co-founder, Sam Judd, suggest that the statistics tell a damning story. Now celebrating a decade of hard work, Sustainable Coastlines has removed 1,448,597 litres of rubbish; tens of millions of individual items. More than three-quarters (77%) are single-use plastic.

Yet even after a decade of hard work and fund raising, the task has not dampened Camden’s passion as he talks quietly but forcefully about the crisis of the world’s coastlines. Camden’s vision is, “To combine my deep love for the outdoors with a passion for designing systemic tools for large-scale change.”

It is a passion that has led Camden to look to Microsoft and innovative technology company, Enlighten Designs, to develop cutting edge AI technology that will help keep New Zealand beautiful. A grand ambition, but it’s already underway.

The big clean-up

Microsoft Partner, Enlighten Designs, was brought on to build the platform, which employs intelligent digital storytelling and visualisation tools as part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite. Together, Microsoft and Enlighten Designs are developing a national litter database that will track the impact of clean-up efforts on waste and give the right data and insights to help local organisations reduce waste and keep our beaches litter-free.

Damon Kelly, Enlighten Designs CEO and Microsoft Partner, said, “This tool is the first of its kind in New Zealand. It uses Microsoft’s Cognitive Services, coupled with a United Nations Environment Programme methodology, to help communities around the country capture and categorise what litter is on our beaches.”

Microsoft’s National Technology Officer, Russell Craig, describes the initiative as: “A fantastic example of how our Cognitive Services suite is being used for good – in this case, delivering large-scale, grassroots solutions to our growing litter problem in New Zealand.”

“We can’t improve what we cannot measure. Our charity has been collecting data on this for ten years. This is a new, scaled-up, scientific approach, focused on working closely with communities around the country,” says Camden.

Just because you build it does not mean they will come …

Camden wants to encourage every person in New Zealand to invest in keeping their nation beautiful, and equip them with the tools to protect paradise. He is realistic enough to know that, “You can build the most powerful database in the world but if you don’t change people’s behaviour then it will be redundant.”

Never short on ideas, he has a plan for that too. The first is that the database will be open to all. Even children can get involved, becoming what he calls, ‘citizen scientists’ that will be deeply engaged in collecting and interacting with the data, and using it to take action in their own communities. Using AI they will help them determine the sources, causes and solutions to this problem.

Camden’s second strategy is education, to keep driving the core ecology message directly into schools. Like Microsoft, he wants to empower children to do more in order to improve their own futures.

His mission is to embed sustainability more deeply in the curriculum, to teach the next generation, the future guardians of Aotearoa, the importance of acting to keep New Zealand beautiful for generations to come. He is even thinking of ways to gamify the Sustainable Coastlines platform for kids, to give social rewards that encourage everyone to get involved. Sustainable Coastlines empowerment principles fit with Microsoft’s, empowering children to be citizen scientists, investing in their own beautiful beaches and their future.

Imagination is the only limitation

Russell Craig, holds great hope for the project and for the future application of AI. “We are only limited by our imagination. If we can get an army of volunteers capturing the data then we are in a strong situation to determine where to best place our efforts.”

But Camden’s vision does not stop at the New Zealand horizon. He appreciates that everything is connected – that the oceans don’t divide the islands and nations, they connect and combine us all together.

With this in mind, Camden’s ambition is to scale up the initiative so it can be used by any nation with a shoreline, creating worldwide, world-class data that will help all countries scientifically analyse the pollution of their coastlines, and stop it at the source.

A strong scientific backbone is essential to enlist global support. To achieve this, the Microsoft AI tool is paired with a United Nations Environment Programme methodology to help groups around the country capture and categorise what litter is on our beaches.

Camden is bringing this idea to the world, hoping to raise funds and amplify awareness of the programme. This week he returned from the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi to present the very first demonstration of the new citizen science-fuelled technology, hoping to inspire and onboard other nations. Sustainable Coastlines may well become the blueprint for keeping the world’s most beautiful beaches and shorelines clean for many generations to come.

On his return from the UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Camden received some good news when Microsoft President Brad Smith announced that Sustainable Coastlines was the recipient of an AI for Earth grant at a special beachside ceremony.

Smith was in New Zealand to meet Government Ministers and address audiences from across the public and private sectors on privacy and security in the digital era. He took time out during the visit to meet Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt and development lead Dr Sandy Britain, along with project partners from the Ministry for the Environment.

Camden Howitt , Brad Smith & Sustainable Coastlines
(L- R) Ben Knight, Programme Coordinator, Brad Smith, President of Microsoft and Camden Howitt, Founder of Sustainable Coastlines

At Wellington’s Lyall Bay, Smith was able to see the organisation’s litter-busting technology in action as he helped collect litter from the beach, log and categorise it in Sustainable Coastlines’ unique database.

“This kind of initiative is exactly what our planet needs – something simple but effective that can easily be adopted at grass-roots level to make a difference, empowering every community to keep their environment clean and make the world a better place for future generations,” Smith said.

“Technology plays a critical role in ensuring that data collected by citizen scientists is recognised as credible and useable to inform decision-making worldwide,” Howitt said. “This grant puts us one step closer to taking this innovative program to the world.”

Since the programme’s launch in June 2017, Microsoft has awarded more than 230 AI for Earth grants to recipients in around 60 countries. AI for Earth is Microsoft’s $50 million, five-year commitment to put artificial intelligence technology in the hands of individuals and organisations around the world who are working to protect our planet across four key areas – agriculture, biodiversity, climate change and water.

For more information on AI for Earth please visit:

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