Localism is a global issue

15 Apr

 

Localism is the proactive administrative, economic and societal empowerment of places and their people. Across the world it is a force that battles against the natural centralist instincts of national governments.

Some societies are comfortable with federal structures that allow degrees of local independence. Others, more centrally directed, are far less tolerant of local deviation.   At this time the UK is rapidly discovering that greater localism is a key to future international prosperity.

This shift towards stronger, more-empowered, local leadership has many champions across the political spectrum – and they are supported by many public and private actors.

Opposing these champions are the massed ranks of established national forces and major utilities. They worry that fragmentation leads to a loss of control, a slide towards fiscal indiscipline and greater complexity.  Trust and experience in a common cultural adherence are key issues – defining a sense of identity.

But, while the shift has been debated for years as an issue in domestic politics, it is international trade that drives the more recent place-making emphasis. Localism is a global issue.

At this time when the UK national government is entangled in disentanglement from the European Union, central policy developers (with their dependence on macro-economic approximations) are painfully aware that their science is largely based on the aggregation of many local economic communities each with diverse needs and priorities.

Onto this stage now enter the long-promised metro-mayors and cities emboldened by new concerns for life after Brexit. Add in some fracturing of old political orders and the scene is set for a considered reordering of governmental structure – or possibly opportunistic power plays.

At its best Localism is about people and places. The people comprise residents, visitors and commuting employees. Businesses may create jobs, pay local property taxes and have expectations of local infrastructures but their employees, often commuting from far and wide, have no local democratic voice where they work. Heavily dependent on the redistribution of national taxation, Local Authorities are reduced to insignificant branch agencies with occasional competitive battles to adjust some funding formula that rarely reflects local priorities. Some places are sufficiently enlightened to spend public money predominantly with local suppliers – thus investing in greater local money circulation before it is syphoned away to big brands and Treasury coffers.

Local levers of power are minimal and this frustrates local leaders whose citizens expect them to promote local economic and social well-being. Woe betide, however, those places that fall markedly below common (nation-wide) expectations and risk outraged complaints of ‘Post-Code Lotteries’ and Daily Mail headlines.

Yet we know that some places are more successful that others. Some places seem to attract inward investment in ways that others do not. Some seem able to retain and employ their young people whilst others see only a drift away from home. Some places have a track record in creating new types of employment but others never recover from the demise of old industries. Some seem destined to be losers and never manage to catch the funding streams.

But we also know why some fail where others do not. Some attribute the differences to location, weather, historical accidents, insensitive policies or outmoded formulaic funding rules. Some places have been over dependent on outmoded industries and have not seen far enough ahead to plan a different future. But, most of all, the performance variations come down to the quality of locally collaborative leadership.

This much was recognised by Lord Heseltine’s Local Enterprise Partnerships – bodies that were, alas, quickly dominated by big-brand placemen – public or private. Fostering collaborative and constructive local leadership takes years – way longer than electoral cycles. And it demands a real understanding of local ecosystems.

All that was known and understood way before creation of the European Union. Pre-dating that by several hundred years, cities across northern Europe created the Hanseatic League – a trusted trading network that enabled deep relationships, economic wellbeing and cultural confidence.

The Hanseatic League still has echoes in modern times; embedded in an airline name and in the Business Hanse – an active network of enterprises seeking deeper cross border trade. UK cities, mostly facing the North Sea, very clearly understood that confident trading needed much more than a simple market – it demanded trust and whole community support.   And building on those formative experiences the ‘new’ place-based strategists can understand why some communities succeed where other decline.

This is is why, instead of just puzzling over raw economic data and demographics, successful communities are now being assessed on the deeper quality of local programmes that cut across the top-down sector silos. Creating and sustaining a range of these initiatives requires long-term dedication and a spirit of willing community collaboration – from schools to hospitals, from transport providers to colleges and universities and, vitally, full engagement with really local small business ventures. Hence the recent calls for greater recognition of local business/community responsibilities.

All that, of course, would be helped by a central government that saw its role as an enabler, nurturing local differentiation, instead of a state supervisor determined to scold any local experiment that falls a little short of the lowest common denominators of cost-constrained public services.

All this we know from the evidence of hundreds of places around the world that have defied expectations and breathed new life into their communities.  Building on capabilities that leverage the Smart’ technological enthusiasms of major cities, we are now seeing recognition of a newly empowered breed of ‘Intelligent Communities’. Some achieve this because, simply, “we’ve had enough” and others through inspired local leadership – but, crucially, all are making a name for themselves on the global stage.

It’s a puzzle for sure when we have an abundance of ‘fairly average’ national economic data but very little local data granularity to enlighten aspiring city leaders.

So when the central ‘industrial strategists’ scratch their heads and our political classes try to imagine how to recover from natural disasters or self-inflicted wounds, this time, we’d hope, the old sectorial orders must be refashioned – supplemented and overlaid with place-based and inclusive, locally-led, economic and societal nutrients. Tolerance and flexibility for their encouragement from the top down will (or should) seek accommodation with local homegrown energies.

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This article was written as a discussion paper for the Global Summit Steering Group 2018.

Blessed are the Place-Makers

2 Apr

To cynics the notion of changing what counts, and what is counted, is a classic goalpost-shifting exercise. From the top-down perspectives of macro-economists, barring a few definitional disputes, the numbers revealed by, say, VAT returns are solid. On the other hand, anyone rooted in the economic and social behaviors of local communities observes an extensive colour-chart of micro-shades. Both, however, would agree that, whilst artistically fashionable, citizens and their clustered communities could do without those distressed finishes.

As searchers for new growth strategies loudly sing cuckoo, Whitehall’s acknowledgement of the shortcomings of sectoral economics has been a long time a-coming in.

Call it devolution, call it empowerment, call it subsidiarity, call it place-making, call it Inclusive Growth, Municipal Enterprise or Regionomics, but whatever way you call it there’s no denying that economic growth and social development cannot be commanded from on high but must be created through local leadership.

That much, of course, was foretold by Lord Heseltine and his LEPs, The RSA’s City Growth Commission, the champions of Metro-Mayors, endless analysis by the Centre for Cities and myriad reports that sit uncomfortably with deep-set post-80’s dismissal of Local Authority competencies. And austerity certainly didn’t help the Northern Poorhouse.

But this new place-based impetus is not now an optional ‘nice to have’. The Brexit notion of tearing up the book, throwing the pages in the air and seeing what could be done with the pieces heralds a remarkable opportunity to do things differently and to do different things. Whitehall may not yet be entirely convinced and parliament may resist a more federal diminution of their imagined importance but, glory be, the people have spoken.

What is needed now is a clear understanding of how to better nurture place-making, local economic growth and community development. There’s no shortage of ideas that are soundly based on experiences from around the world.

Of course there’s a shortage of local data evidence – but no shortage of imagination.   Some cities and communities prosper whilst others decay. It’s not difficult to understand why. Assessing the fabric of local economies means taking account of cross-cutting programmes that bind those vertical economic sector silos together. The priorities may vary to match local needs but local leadership needs a plan.

So, as summer is a-coming in, we say ‘blessed are the place makers’ for they are inheriting the opportunity to build a better future.

 

‘Evidence-based’ or ‘Evidentially-biased’?

26 Mar

Evidenced-based policy seems like the healthy option. Be gone with ideological witchcraft, wayward whims and fancy.   This supposedly improved diet has shifted the focus towards facts and arguments about alternative analysis.

 

Where’s the evidence?

Take three recent reports about entirely different subjects. Three different audiences. Three different research teams. Three sets of recommendations for different policy developers.   The reports all deliver what it says on their packaging.   Scratch the surface and all three reports reveal a single common theme.

In the space of just 10 days, these three reports highlighted the challenge.   Put simply, the rear-view mirror does not show the way ahead. With hindsight, past mistakes might be revealed but foresight requires a different sort of vision. The data (or its analysis) may be deficient and the future is a different country. We are destined to live with ambiguity.

Upon a riverbank serene, a fisher sat where all was green – and looked it.

One day before the UK Chancellor’s budget, Stephanie Flanders made this her opening line – the lack of meaningful data to illuminate local economic priorities. And Stephanie should know. Having toiled for a year chairing the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission the former BBC Economics correspondent is also Chief Strategist at the JP Morgan school of economic endeavor. Facing the reality of macro v micro and knowing the systemic reliance on ‘evidence’, her views could be interpreted as a critique of the discipline. How can one argue for doing things differently if the data shows only past indifference?

He saw, when light was growing dim, the fish – or else the fish saw him – and hooked it.

But even when the recent past is closely examined, the pace of change in many arenas will render that analysis as increasingly irrelevant. That was the obvious lesson from the EU report on the state of National Broadband Plans. Moreover, much of the analysis must be qualitative and thus risks being rubbished by anyone with a less than holistic perspective. Bigger pictures inevitably arrive with bigger generalisations.

He took, with high erected comb, the fish – or else the story – home and cooked it.

Our 10-day trilogy was completed by the report on Rural Health and Wellbeing that gained media attention for a few moments last Saturday. One of the main findings is that the general run of statistical ‘evidence’ is woefully lacking in granularity and that very real issues are lost in data averages that are ‘merely average’. But that data deficiency is only part of the story. All these reports are not really about the past. The authors surely want to look forward to a better future – to be forward looking.

Recording angels by his bed, weighed all that he had done, or said, and booked it.

In business as in politics, forward vision is a matter of trust. Innovation is often described as ‘disruptive’ and inherently risky. A shortfall in creativity reflects a lack of trust – personal uncertainties or insufficient collective ‘buy in’. Celebrated innovators often marvel, later, how they managed ‘to get away with it’. They are great storytellers but, even when there is a groundswell of generosity or tolerance, the naysayers will be out in force defending their vested interests. For forward thinkers, determination is at a premium.

Looking Forward

The conventional approach to garnering fresh ideas for policy interventions is to either publish a Call for Input or create a proposed course of action that is open for consultation – a ‘ConDoc’ or a Green Paper. Despite high response rates and great effort invested in preparing those inputs, few have faith in the assumption that these efforts will modify governmental or regulatory actions. And while most respondents are pleased to see their protestations published by the Department or Regulator concerned, there can be grave suspicion about inputs that are not fully disclosed. Some respondents will argue ‘commercial confidentiality’ but doubts linger over whether such claims are rigourously examined. Transparency, it seems, has several shades of obscurity.

Given that consultation is, by law, requisite the Department or Regulator will often try to ease their analytical burden. Typically they can suggest a set of questions so that the responses can be more-readily categorised. Some respondents, of course, choose to ignore the questions and then worry that their views might be ignored. Others object to the questions – concerned that the compilers have not fully understood the issues.

It is inevitable that qualitative analysis must be blended with enumeration of simple metrics – but deeper research is expensive and time-consuming. Respondents with strong vested interests in resisting change will always welcome delay. Balls inevitably get lost in the long grass.

How then can we make a better job of looking forward?

One route (exemplified by the LGA/PHE Rural Health & Wellbeing report) is to give prominence to small innovative projects. Highlighting the micro needs consistent and determined effort to shift those embedded macro assumptions. These projects may only be ‘straws in the wind’ but the story telling is powerful – and, as in books for young children, repetition is essential.

Another route is to invest in better qualitative research. Why depend on respondents’ literary skills when small discussion groups can yield deeper insights? Businesses must constantly battle against simplistic quantitative research. If we had believed only in polling results, then (back in the 1980’s) there was no case for eMail or mobile phones. The workshops currently being run by the National Infrastructure Commission provide a useful clue. The NIC’s existence was born of a cross-party push to remove partisan politics from long-term planning but there’s still a need to bang industry heads together and capture the sparks.

Carefully designed ‘open’ research – nowadays more easily managed – can enable an even wider public to inform the issues. We do not need to depend on the mobile operators’ own data to garner a more accurate sense of system performance and coverage. Ofcom recently consulted on Passive Infrastructure Access – their concern being that the shift towards ‘full fibre’ might be accelerated if the owners of holes and poles facilitated better use of those assets by new investors. No doubt Ofcom has been assured of the current quality and adequacy of the underlying infrastructure – but would those assurances stack up against open-sourced photos contributed by the general public? A new photo competition perhaps?

No doubt, in some administrative corridors, the implications of the three reports will sink in. Certainly some reports arrive with considerable forward lobbying. The words ‘Inclusive Growth’ featured in the budget.  But, whatever the industry, the cost of compiling consultation responses is not insignificant and is most easily afforded by incumbents with most at stake.

The notion of policy and regulation becoming ‘evidence based’ was a welcome alternative to the myth-takes of deep-set ideologies.   If, however, we are to look forward, then we should adopt new tools and techniques to find the data, probe the data, learn from the mistakes and then encourage fresh thinking.

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Readers may also be interested in the 2013 report by the UK Public Administration Select Committee ‘Public Engagement in Policy-making.

Transformative Projects do not ‘just happen’

1 Mar

Truly transformative projects are rarely (if ever) the work of a lone genius. And Digital Transformation is not weasel wording for yet more budget cuts.

The projects that really make a difference result from great collaborative effort and diverse inputs – but they do not start from a focus on saving money. Truly transformative projects are driven by a lust to make things work better together.

That is why the UK’s Digital Challenge Awards programme honours projects more than products.  We celebrate team effort more than individual leadership.  We seek out the examples of great endeavour that really do change the way we work and live. And we look out for projects that do far more than just replicate what others have already explored.

In this graphic you can see the lateral thrfabric-6eads that excite our judging panel.

They are not so much concerned with the arena for those endeavours. The judges are far more interested in how and why digital expertise and fresh thinking is applied.

Your work may typically be described as being in Health, or Retail, or Manufacturing or any other economic sector.  But the themes that knit them all together are those that cut across those ‘vertical’ silos.

Your local community may be dominated by just a few industries or embrace many. Your business may specialise in one sector but demand many diverse areas of expertise. Across any area of commercial or social development and public administration, the impact of changes enabled by digital technologies will reflect the effort invested in their application.

Right now the 2017 Open Call is registering nominations for review. Come the end of April we will analyse the class of 2017 – the projects that folks have said – ‘Wow – look at this’.

By mid-June we’ll be ready to declare this year’s shortlist. Then we’ll ask each of those ‘Finalists’ to submit a project summary – just 3 sections describing Their Challenge, their Solution and Their Achievement.

Those projects will be assessed by our independent judging panel. We’ll see the winners at a celebratory and prestigious Awards Dinner in October. But that will not be the end of the story. The Finalist’s case studies will become teaching materials for young graduates who are exploring future opportunities across the fabric of our economy.

Your project may have been transformative but it could also inform and transform the next generation.

If you spot a project that deserves recognition – don’t hesitate to nominate it for the 2017 NextGen Digital Challenge Awards programme.

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The NextGen Digital Challenge Awards programme (now in its 7th year) is free to enter.  It is a joint production from Groupe Intellex and NextGen Events

So squeezed they stopped squeaking to each other

22 Feb

Oft-lamented short-term pressures drive the search for ‘asset efficiencies’.   With the benefit of hindsight, the making of unforeseen consequences seems to be rooted in a disregard for fairly obvious but difficult-to-measure policy impacts.

In corporate careers, management brownie points seem often to be awarded for displays of macho discipline encouraged by ‘perverse incentives’. Whatever the motivations, it is surely a matter of good governance that that short-term wreckers are not allowed to destroy values that underpin future sustainability.

Question Marks And Man Showing Confusion Or Unsure

But still it happens. Whatever presentational flavor of austerity or efficiency or asset utilization is used to justify the squeeze, the consequences are inherited by the next generation – or at least the next elected set of policy makers.

Or is that really so?

A recent article in The Economist takes issue with the conventional theories around short-termism.  A McKinsey study had argued that 73% of firms were short-termist and the ‘elite’ 27% actually performed better. However, the Schumpeter columnist begged to differ; questioning the evidence and doubting both the causality and relevance of labelling firms as short-term or long-term actors in our very dynamic market environments.

The Economist writer does, however, point out that many big firms ‘wallow in lucrative stagnation’ where profits are high but investment seems not to be boosted by the currently low cost of capital. Rather than label them short-termist and urging them to invest, the real need is for more rigorous competition policy to target ‘fat’ incumbents and boost new market entrants.

Such competition policy rigour might not be immediately popular amongst the self-regarded leaders but it is evident, in one sector at least, that this strand of policy imagination has already taken root. Hence the Chancellor’s autumn statement to inject funding into new entrants deploying ‘full fibre’ networks and also the recent indications coming from Ofcom of an urgent need to deliver ‘at scale’ the sort of infrastructure required to sustain a post-Brexit economy and enable (beyond 2020) an entirely future-proof collaborative architecture to support 5G Mobile.

So despite the common interpretations of austerity, efficiency, cuts, the general woe around short-term follies, narrowband thinking, or ‘squeezing until the pips squeak’, the more mature lesson seems to have been learned that those who are ‘too big to fail’ probably should.

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My, how you’ve grown

15 Feb

(Musings from Marseille)

The time-lapse shock of grandparents is guaranteed to annoy their youngsters. Much the same effect can be evident when delegates turn up at their annual conference. While they’ve not been paying attention this past year, the world has moved on. And it’s no longer ‘their’ world.

That shock is very much on display here in Marseille at the annual FTTH Council Europe conference. And yes – the youngsters do get annoyed, not least because it takes time and great effort to turn around those giant oil tankers that plough on not noticing (or caring) that that the tide has turned.

But make no mistake; the tide has more than turned. The seas we are navigating have been redefined. The assumptions that have driven businesses along straight lines probably never envisaged buffers at the end of the track.

Here at this fibre-fest the proponents of G.Fast to interconnect with old copper networks inside buildings (not an interconnect from some point halfway to a distant hub) are hearing that the Passive Optical LAN (POL) brigade are intent on eliminating even that last copper thread.   For corporates and campuses, the drivers are two-fold – future bandwidth flexibility and vastly reduced energy consumption.

That latter driver is major. Whilst IT departments have been urged to find ways of cutting datacenter energy costs, the internal networks to desktops have been ignored. Optical Networks may reduce energy demands by 80% and that immediate saving has great appeal for the property management sector. It has long been obvious that pushing signals through copper is more difficult than using glass. In the wider networked world, are any network providers offering ‘Green’ access tariff options as are found in energy packages?

Putting a value on future bandwidth flexibility is more challenging but, at marginal cost, few enterprises would choose a cul-de-sac. Come back next year and we’ll probably find that tech-competent extended families will want to create their own software-defined and very private virtual wide area networks – and manage their interconnections with the global web as they wish. And then they’ll not tolerate providers unable to envisage integrated fixed and mobile elements within a shared virtualized infrastructure.

But that’s not all. Even long-standing fibre enthusiasts are finding ‘surprising’ (AKA blindingly obvious) applications that they’d never dared predict. The caution of some investment models has been blown apart by the major service providers – leaving network operators to wonder who will pay for investment in access networks whilst not paying heed to what their customers really need. Do they not realise that once connected (and properly connected) users will use it? No. Provide some half-baked, semi-skimmed, highly asymmetric broadband connection and, surprise, it doesn’t turn them on.

Nowhere demonstrates this as well as Sweden’s 162 local access networks – and wholesale dark fibre opportunities for any enterprise that needs nationwide branch operations. The returns to the investors (often local municipalities) are a godsend to citizens – nobody likes paying taxes. And where did Facebook decide to locate its datacenter? In Lulea, up near the arctic circle, but every bit as well networked as Stockholm and a great deal cheaper. Even their energy bill is reduced in that cold climate. The region also pioneered FTTCP – Fibre to the Car Park – it makes life so much easier for nurses onboard the mobile clinic or library assistants visiting schools. Remote mammography with consultants on demand is way ahead of small UK pilots where (perhaps) a hospital may hook up using Skype for triage work with care-homes and prisons – dramatically reducing the A&E load.

But all that was very evident during our first Study Tour to Sweden in 2013. It takes time for others to hear the messages. If and when they do they’ll probably pronounce themselves ‘”shocked” at the appalling lack of service in, say, rural areas.

The real surprise is that these laggards are, at last, waking up. The truth is out. And the truth is that future optical connectivity is something completely different – with little or no relationship with a past littered with copper wires deployed for some other purpose like analogue telephony.

No wonder the youngsters get annoyed with the ‘so-called’ grandparents. Despite any superficial (or imagined) resemblances, these youngsters were surely born of different stock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Digital Challenge Awards – Open Call announced

24 Jan

NextGen logo smallThe Open Call for Nominations for the 7th annual NextGen Digital Challenge Awards has now been launched.  The Awards celebrate great endeavour across many fields of digital transformation.

Over the past six years the programme has tracked many of the brightest and best digital projects – from rural broadband designs to innovations in Data Privacy, from fresh approaches to health services delivery to remarkable Open Data applications to boost transport networks efficiency.

Last year’s crop included drones for assessing flood risks, new SDN services for corporate networks and a cooperative approach to creating Digital Exchanges.  Winners included The British Red Cross (a mobile app for emergency responses) and Digital Forensic Archeology – bringing Virtual Reality to inform complex court cases.

The entry form suggests some obvious categories for your project nominations but the programme is very open to fresh fields of digital endeavour. Nominate or recommend a project now and maybe your team could be celebrating your success at our prestigious awards event next October.

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