It has been six months since Brave Blue World was released on Netflix. The response from the water sector and beyond, has been extraordinary. There has also been great interest in how the documentary was created.
In this transcript of a conversation with Xylem’s Amanda Holloway, BlueTech Research CEO and Brave Blue World executive producer Paul O’Callaghan discusses the story behind the documentary and the change it hopes to inspire.
The interview can be heard on Xylem’s #SolvingWater podcast https://apple.co/3jEOzwc
Amanda Holloway: Brave Blue World is a powerful new documentary about water challenges and solutions that is now available on Netflix. The film co-produced by Paul O’Callaghan, founder and CEO of water innovator BlueTech Research, provides an honest and optimistic view into the innovations and technologies, already in place today, that could solve the global water crisis with the right support from companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations.
Brave Blue World, which features actors and philanthropists, Matt Damon and Jaden Smith, is also narrated by Liam Neeson with all three celebrities sharing their personal comments about the importance of the message behind the film. Xylem’s president and CEO, Patrick Decker, is also featured throughout the film, highlighting the company’s prominence in the conversation around solving the global water crisis.
I am thrilled to be joined by Paul O’Callaghan, founder and CEO of BlueTech Research and co-producer of Brave Blue World. I watched the film a few times, and I really enjoy how uplifting and encouraging it is in the face of such a dire global situation. I think there’s some really great things happening around the world, driven by some very dedicated, smart, passionate people. I think I’ll start with the basics, including if you can tell us a little bit more about your organization?
Paul O’Callaghan: We’re a research organization as the name implies, we provide water technology market intelligence. If we’ve got a superpower, we aim to make things simple because there’s an incredible amount of information out there about the water sector and an amazing amount of technologies, multiple markets. Our role is to help people make better decisions. If you could sum it up, it’s to make more efficient use of capital so that we can all make a difference through the work that we do. Our role is to provide insights and intelligence on what are the latest emerging technologies, what are the new trends we should be tracking that are opening up, how is the sector of evolving and changing?
Our flywheel as a business is that we have fantastic clients and that’s the single biggest thing that drives the business, because they push us to do better work and that creates a virtuous circle. It’s a fabulous place to be where, you’re interacting with the leading water companies, leading investors, universities globally from Australia to Japan, Europe, North America. And it puts us, I guess, in a vantage point, where we can see a lot of different parts of the water sector. And I think perhaps that was why we could also see the opportunities to tell alternative stories about water when it came to the documentary film as well.
So, water must have always been a passion for you?
It really has been, Amanda. When I left university as a young graduate, I traveled to Malaysia and I was ready for the real world. I had finished with academia and I volunteered with World Wildlife Fund, the WWF. I worked on highland rain-forest projects in Malaysia and through that work, I became aware of the interrelationship between water and forest and how they purify the water. That got me into this space and I went back and I studied for a master’s degree in Scotland in water and was fortunate to work alongside Anita Roddick who was a pioneer in The Body Shop cosmetics manufacturer back in the late 1990s and I’ve never looked back. I think if you’re a curious person, there’s no end of things to explore in water. So, it is a passion and I have built a business research practice.
What can you tell us about how Brave Blue World came to be?
It allowed me to put together quite a lot of different elements. I’m Irish, as you can tell by my accent. We’re generally known for being storytellers, writers, singers, and that’s definitely a part of me. I’ve always been involved in music and the arts and drama but with a focus on the science and the engineering, which is the core to my career. Yet, I could see that with all of the fantastic work that we were doing in the sector, perhaps what we needed to do was to really engage with people because that’s what I could see when I traveled to places like Singapore and the awareness among the average person is so high about water. When I get into a cab in Singapore, on my way in from the airport, they’ll start talking to me about water when they know why I’m there they’re so excited to tell me about the Four Taps in Singapore and the new water plant. The same was true in the Netherlands. I was at an airport and I was putting my report through the x-ray machine and the lady who was scanning it said, “Ah, you’re in water.” She said, “In the Netherlands, we’re all in the water.”
Essentially, they’re underground or they’re below sea level in water. So, the idea was if you communicate outside of our industry to a broader audience, the power of storytelling is a great way to do that because as human beings, that’s how we best absorb information. It’s empathizing with another human being, connecting with them. That’s so powerful because that’s what brings us all together as a society and allows us to do fantastic things when we’re channeled. And the idea in many ways would have remained only an idea were it not for a number of, I would say, brave partners who took a leap of faith and said, “You know what, we love this idea. It’s positive, it’s optimistic.” And they got behind it and backed it, which was incredible, really, because it was a new journey for everybody who was involved in the project and we didn’t know how it would evolve.
How did Xylem and BlueTech become partners in making this film?
Well, BlueTech has worked with Xylem for many years. Xylem was possibly one of the first clients BlueTech ever had, certainly one of the first three. So, we’ve had a long standing partnership with Xylem. I think there was a connection between ourselves and Xylem and indeed all of the partners. Your tagline is let’s solve water and that was fundamentally the message of the film. We can do this. There is an alternative story that’s more hopeful and optimistic. We were just delighted that Xylem was able to support.
How is the world of water philanthropy connected? Was it a real challenge to get all the folks in the documentary together?
Well, there was a tremendous amount of goodwill. I found that there’s only a few things in my life that I’ve embarked on where I felt that, very much, the universe was willing this project into existence, that every door seemed to be an open door. When we knocked and we reached out to water.org, they were really supportive and responsive. I think the message was that everybody thought it was about the right time to focus more on solutions and those stories. Jaden Smith’s organization 501CTHREE, again, great good young activist, very committed young man and very earnest.
They were fabulously supportive. I think the overall world of philanthropy and water is actually quite a separate universe to the world of technology providers – there are many ways those worlds don’t often connect. If you attend, for example, Stockholm International Water Week, it’s quite NGO focused. This in a way, allows us all to find something common, which is this idea of, it’s very situationally specific, what we need to do, and whether it is in Africa, which is very much often led by NGOs and philanthropies, or whether it’s in Flint, Michigan, there are commonalities to those stories.
The solutions presented throughout the film address specific problems that are faced locally. What does this say about the global water crisis and our collective approach to solving it?
I think everybody involved in this sector would agree, there is no silver bullet for water. There is no one technology that’s going to arrive that will suddenly help us to solve the global water crisis. It’s so situationally specific because sometimes you’re dealing with drought, sometimes you’re dealing with flooding, other times it’s a quality issue. Whether we were in Chennai in India, where they were facing day zero, or Mexico City, which was sinking under its own weight, or in Kenya where they’re pulling the atmosphere to provide water for a children’s orphanage, the common denominator was that people were open to doing things differently and they were open to change.
Whether that was building a sanitation economy to create value from providing sanitation, or going towards a zero water discharge factory like what L’Oreal, everybody was willing to push the envelope a little bit. And the exciting piece was, I think, we looked upon those stories as lighthouses. I think George Bernard Shaw said that it was one of the most altruistic creations that man has ever made. It’s there for one reason, one purpose, is to serve and guide us to safety. So, together those stories paint a picture, and that was the idea of brave new world. It’s a futuristic world, but it’s actually not that futuristic. Everything we saw was happening already. I’ve been in the sector for 20 years, but I learned an awful lot from the process as well.
What kinds of things are already taking place in order to make some of these technologies more accessible or commercially viable?
Well, we have the solutions, it’s just a matter of bringing them to bear on the problem and doing it faster and accelerating that. The key part is people because we have the technologies. When we visited with Orange County in California, they shared with us that when they started the project of water reuse, they were told this is a communications project. It’s not an engineering project, they had to win the hearts and the minds of the local population. It was risky, and they had to be very open and very honest with people and hope that through that honesty, they would build trust. So, part of it is being open and honest with people and also getting people to want better.
So, making these types of solutions things that people say, “Wow, that is actually really cool. Gee, I didn’t know we could do that.” If you can kind of create that energy then you’re halfway there. Because then, the policy makers are going to go, “Okay, well we’d better listen up here and support this.” And policy is very important to allow change to happen. A number of things need to come together. It certainly is the policy, the finance, the technology and the people.
What is the biggest barrier to bringing these technologies forward?
In one sense we’re victims of our own success in this industry, in that we provided safe drinking water at the turn of the last century in the developed world. Unfortunately, it’s not the case in the developing world where there are still a billion people that don’t have access to drinking water or safe water. But in many parts of the world, we did such a good job of solving the problem that it disappeared from public view. It’s out of sight, out of mind, it’s underground and therefore people switch off.
So, a key thing is to make them know that there is a problem. It is closer than you think. It’s quite likely that it is going to get worse because of climate change, population increase, ageing infrastructure – but also at the same time, the good news is that you can solve it. In some ways, willing to accept that we need to change and that perhaps it is time that we considered maybe having a reuse system in our city or considering, why can’t we go to carbon neutrality when we treat our wastewater? To accelerate it, I personally think that that is the biggest obstacle, is literally what’s between our two ears. We’re thinking constrained.
Because it’s out of sight out of mind in the developed world, and we’re so accustomed to having easy access to clean, safe water, there’s no necessity driving that urgency, whereas in Singapore, it’s just their way of life. They have limited freshwater resources so they have to do what they can with what they have.
They wanted to become more resilient and diversify. That was their story. Stories in Israel are different. Netherlands, Australia are different. City by city, town by town, it does vary but I do think that even in terms of quality, even if we’re living next to the great lakes where, for all intents and purposes, we’re not going to run out of water if you’re near Lake Michigan, not in the foreseeable future. But there’s quality issues though, which people need to be aware of, that we could unknowingly cause nutrient enrichment of those waterways, that could cause algal blooms or flooding, for example, sea level rise and even the problems with leaking pipes and sewers. They’re never too far away.
We have a program within Xylem called Essence of Life which has been exploring partnerships in terms of microfinance. How do you see microfinancing fitting into the future of solving the global water crisis?
Trevor Noah commented upon it when he was interviewing Matt Damon and said “It’s such a simple idea? It’s amazing no one thought of it before.” It’s hard to imagine what stands between many people and access to water could be $300. Well, that’s like $20,000 for somebody in another part of the world. You need to go and get a loan from the bank. It gives them time back. The beautiful thing about that story is they no longer will get sick, so they don’t lose those days at school or work. It allows them to go back into the workforce and then they can actually pay those loans back.
We need to think differently about how we solve these problems. If we think about 1850 in North America, Europe, we were at the same stage back then as somewhere like Nigeria is today. We didn’t move in one move from 1850 to 1950. It happened bit by bit. Microfinance is a part of that but small little businesses pop up, and sometimes those businesses find that they can provide water quicker. They’re more nimble than maybe the government. That’s what’s one of the biggest challenges that Africa faces, is their populations growing, organizations increasing, and governments struggle to be able to move that fast, where small businesses can. And if you can bring a little bit of microfinance to bear, because these people have an ability to pay and they would love to and oftentimes the tragedy is they actually pay more water than you or I do. If you look at how fortunate we are, we’re probably paying less than some of these people.
What was your process that you used to find these people and technologies that were featured in the movie?
It truly was a journey, it was somewhat organic. I was very fortunate that the film producers and the directors were willing to be flexible. We knew that we wanted to tell global stories and we wanted to show them operation in different settings, different skills. That much was clear. But when we would get to one location, we might learn something that would lead us to another location. So, when we went to Spain to an advanced membrane research center that DuPont had, they told us about this amazing project in India, where textile mills had gone to complete zero liquid discharge. “Oh, we’d love to go and see that.” So, the film crew said, “Sure, okay.” Literally within two weeks, you’re on a plane to India. It was fabulous from that perspective.
Likewise, when we engaged with L’Oréal, they looked around and said, “We think Mexico would be great location.” It’s a mega city, it’s 10 million people. Water is very important to the future of Mexico City. So, it seemed like a good place to explore that story. That’s one of the things that partners helped us with. They opened up doors to help us learn about different solutions, whether they were in Chile or India. Many of those stories we still have to tell. Xylem was a great partner, in that way as well, in opening up our minds to different solutions in different parts of the world.
How long did it take to make the film?
Well ostensibly, we had about 30 to 35 days of filming. That took place over a period of eight to nine months. We did some initial pilot shoots in Singapore in September 2018 but we really began in earnest in Davos, in January. We got a call from water.org, and it said, “Can you be in Davos in January?” We said, “Yeah, absolutely.” Suddenly we’re all making our way through the snowy landscapes of Switzerland and getting started and after we were on the road every few weeks, really, to different continents, different countries until August. At the same time the production had started so the guys went into the studio and they started cutting and editing from really July onwards. We worked, then, up until the launch in December where we added in the narration from Liam Neeson.
I think there’s a story that goes along with how Liam Neeson became the narrator of the film?
There was a lot of serendipity. We reached out to a contact of Liam Neeson’s, and he said, “This is an important project, I really want to do this.” He was very gracious. We went into studio in New York to record the narration and he had all sorts of stories to tell us. It was fun and my whole office was crowded around the microphone. To hear Liam Neeson’s voice was so surreal for everybody.
Then we had to get him back because Netflix wanted to make a few tweaks to the film, which were great suggestions, and we were delighted to work with them on it, but it meant that we had to go back and redo some narration. It was during COVID-19 and they said, “Liam is not going to studio currently. Everything is locked down. Maybe we can do it at his house in upstate New York?”. So, sure enough, the crew headed up to upstate New York with the equipment. One day a hurricane came and his power went so we had to delay it. When we got him on the phone, he was super excited, again, because he’d seen the final cut of the film. He said, “Look, every child, every school child, every college kid should see this film.” which is a quote we use.
Can you tell us about pitching the film to Netflix?
It was a real insight into a whole other world, the world of Hollywood and production and again, we were fortunate that somebody had worked with Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, and they shot him a short note and said, “Look Reed, this might be worth you casting your eye over.” So, he put it onto his content people but Netflix are always being approached with films and content. Maybe the untold story there is, we had three nos from Netflix before we got the yes.
Often the first reaction is, “Look, that’s interesting. Keep in touch with us, check back in.” You say, “Yeah.” and then maybe two or three months later, you check back in and you keep the discussion going. Then on one call, they said, “Look, we really love the film. Would it be possible for you to change one or two things to have stronger calls to action at the end?” That was one thing. We said, “That’s a really good suggestion.” So, we worked them to tweak it, and then it became an incredible process because once that started, the Netflix machine kicks into gear. Now you’ve got a graphics design agency, a group that did the artwork for the Frozen movie and they’re working in the hero images and they’re adapting it for different people and their preferences and you have all of this value-add support that Netflix bring to the table. The fact that they can subtitle it in 29 languages amplifies global reach.
Every description that I’ve read about Brave Blue World, has the term optimistic. Was that an intentional production choice?
The idea was to tell an alternative type of story. There are many stories in the media, in different forms, which outline a crisis, which is true. There is a crisis but if you only focus on that side of the story, people can become a little bit despondent, and they feel, “Oh, there’s nothing we can do. Or there’s nothing that I can do to get involved.” Yet everywhere I looked, all I could see was solutions. Maybe we should start to tell that story as opposed to this doom and gloom story?
The production crew at one point were amazed after about three different locations, they said, “You water guys, you’re incredibly on message,” because everybody they asked would say to them, we have the solutions. It wasn’t like we told anyone to say that, but that’s how people feel. The discovery through the film was that we had to tell the story through people because that was how we could bridge outside of our world to a broader world.
When I finally went on to Netflix, that was a real… I got home and my wife had a party, and she had put red streamers out on the door and the kids were dressed in red and black, Netflix colors, and there was popcorn and then it really finally hit me, that it’s actually there, and side by side with My Octopus Teacher and David Attenborough’s documentary and then I was getting messages from my mother-in-law, who watched it three times, and my nephew who’s eight who loved it, and I was going “Okay, I think we’ve managed to bridge outside of water. That was the real goal.
Anything else that was very surprising to you while you were filming?
The overwhelming tide of a grassroots movement of support and positivity that we found that is going to ensure the success of the film. So, it really is now about everybody telling one other person or two other people, and then, hopefully, perhaps it’d be shown in a school or in a university. That that builds up that momentum, it catalyses debate in local situations where people may have a different experience, but they may relate to certain aspects of it.
What’s next for you and BlueTech Research? What’s next for Brave Blue World and the Brave Blue World Foundation?
The Brave Blue World Foundation is a not-for-profit, registered in Canada. It was the vehicle we established to enable the film to come into existence. Its mission and its mandate is to produce educational engaging content around the topic and the theme of water. So, its work will continue. We’re working on a podcast series as a companion to the film so we can explore different ideas and topics in more detail over the next year. I think a series is certainly there. We can see it, we can map it out. So, once we’ve drawn a breath, that’s probably next, exploring that.
For BlueTech, really, the work never stops because there’s always new innovations, new technologies, and that’s what’s exciting about it. I think particularly the next 10 years, if you look to 2030, you’re going to see a very interesting decade because of commitments corporations are making towards net zero, because of the SDG 6 goals, because of the imminence or the urgency of response to climate change as well. So, I don’t think we’re going to run out of things to look at in BlueTech and we look forward to doing that. As for the film, I think there is probably, perhaps, a part two, and we’d love to hear from anyone that has stories or inspirational ideas.
Seems like you have a good lead on a lot of those stories?
We do. We feel that there has been no definitive series on water. There’ve been definitive series on many things, our own natural history, but water is such a fundamental element. If we thought about simply too much water, then certainly an episode that could dive into that and look at sponge cities in China. What is a sponge city. How does that work? Why do we build them? Why do we need them? How is Jakarta in Indonesia dealing with the fact that the city is sinking and the sea level is rising? Then there could be another one on food and water. I also think the next 10 years will be about water off the planet, because there is Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson… Many people are trying to get to Mars, and they’re going to need to figure the water side of that out, too.
Well, Paul, anything else you want to add about the film itself, or just the state of the world in terms of water?
The key thing I took away from it is something I learned at, of all places, a water conference, where someone said, “Human beings, we derive happiness from working together towards a common shared goal.” This is a great goal to work towards and I think it motivates us, it inspires us to keep doing what we’re doing and there’s a role for so many different people in being a part of this. So, I think that’s a key message is, we’re in this together and we can be part of the solution.