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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were ‘Sixteen, going on seventeen’: growing through turbulent times

2 Jan

hi=-tech buildingAs 2016 fades away and we embrace the New Year, we take a moment to reflect on the seismic shifts that make any predictions seem hazardous.   Some of those upheavals arrived packaged with polarized opinions and dubious evidential credibility. Other shifts gained far less media attention because they do not yet lend themselves to snappy headlines or slogans. These ‘straws in the wind’ are however just as real and may well have far reaching impacts – not least in the management and wellbeing of local communities.

To capture the uncertainty of what community leaders are heading into, lyrics from the Sound of Music may seem a very unlikely text. In the musical, young Leisl places her trust in someone just a year ahead – not much older, certainly no wiser and about to betray her trust.  Convenient calendar coincidence aside, the sense that we are now sailing into the latter stages of ‘troublesome teens’ is a handy metaphor for anyone concerned with the local development and wellbeing of communities. And in these turbulent times, those UK readers who are concerned will find it challenging to fathom the realities, see bigger pictures or plan for longer-term futures.

You might imagine that vast years of experience would suggest otherwise. Our diverse UK communities are, however, more Unique than United and, when academics study community wellbeing, the current research papers might sometimes seem to have been written on (or of) a different planet.

Take, for example, John Lauermann’s Municipal Statecraft: revisiting the geographies of the entrepreneurial city. It is, undeniably, a splendid work with many interesting insights.   But many UK readers will find his observations on post-growth diversification of entrepreneurial policy impacts to be several light years ahead of prevailing realities in our over-centralised State.

He contends that the search for economic growth is no longer the primary or dominant rationale for local initiatives.   Narrowly-defined growth goals, he argues, have become just one of many local policy objectives across a wider societal spectrum.   In truth there may well be far greater Municipal Enterprise being practiced across the UK but, with few exceptions, local leaders dare not highlight these efforts for fear of (a) harsh media scorn, (b) an irrational blame culture and (c) central financial penalties for daring to find creative alternatives to austerity cuts. Look no further than the momentary media outrage about hospital car-parking charges.

Lauermann’s acute observation that the historic rationale for municipal enterprise (boosting economic growth) has evolved into a more diverse and imaginative focus across multiple aspects of public/social policy will, however, mean little to those who have yet to fully embrace Heseltine’s (‘No Stone Unturned’) 2012 notion of Local Enterprise Partnerships. Being this far behind the curve might, however, provide scope to leapfrog the learning process but only if local leaders adopt a less insular perspective – a notion that, with few exceptions, runs counter to prevailing politics.

The theme of an evolution in economic thinking is also evident in Erik Beinhocker’s ‘Evonomics’.   His Oxford-based New Economics programme has a mission to identify and address the large gaps between prevailing economic theory and reality. He does not underestimate the scale of the challenge. So an explicit, widespread use of new economic approaches to policymaking may require some education of citizens, the media and politicians themselves on the risks of overconfident top-down solutions, and the importance of small-scale failure as a way to learn and prevent large-scale disasters.” His theme of multiple and local small-scale experimentation (inevitably with some failures) is, he would contend, vastly more likely to induce success.

There is no shortage of instructive reading for the UK’s local leaderships. The RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, led by Stephanie Flanders, still bangs the drum for local economic growth but sees that ‘place-based’ growth as moderated in ways that would counter run-away social inequalities. Inclusive growth is about living standards and earnings, as well as in-work progression and tackling long term unemployment. It offers a social return in helping more people participate meaningfully in the economy, but it also has an economic rationale, with the potential to address some of the key drivers of the UK’s productivity puzzle.”

The Inclusive Growth Commission’s final report in March may be a useful stepping stone but no-one should underestimate the scale of political and public education that will be needed to counter four or five decades of ill-informed governance.

Similarly Mariana Mazzucato’s work is gaining traction but the fact that her ideas are often described as radical is a sure indicator of the depths to which economic and regulatory management has sunk in the hands of unconstrained admiration of over-simplistic, supposedly ‘free’, market mechanics.

In the old musical we may have pitied teenage Leisl’s naivety, but we should now also feel for city and community leaders, who must cast around for clues in these uncertain times. Who can they trust? What are the local priorities?   A recent discussion note written in preparation for the 2018 Global Summit pointed out that in the last six decades the meaning of the phrase knowing your place has shifted from an admonishment (not speaking out of turn) to an empowerment enabled by the advent of access to Open Data and better visualization tools.

Fortunately for the UK, a few sharper minds are becoming focused on the need for renewed effort to stave off what many see as an evolutionary crisis – a crisis for which the populism of the Brexit and Trump votes are just symptomatic.   Perhaps one of the best (and most readable) starting points would be Rick Robinson’s ‘Three Step Manifesto for a smarter fairer economy’.

In this summary of the state we are in, he finds little reason to blame our ills on ‘other’ (external) presumed malevolent forces but understands our own home-grown failures. “The failure to invest in local services and infrastructure . . . . is caused by . . . the failure of national government to devolve spending power to the local authorities that understand local needs.”  Dr. Robinson is very much aligned with the RSA’s Inclusive Growth work when he calls for legislation ‘to encourage and support business models with a positive social outcome’. His perspectives are informed by his work in the ‘smart city’ arena but he has grasped that those inspiring innovations should be driven by a far higher purpose than mere technological novelty – and in this he sees Open Data as making vital contributions to local leadership priorities. He is not alone – as the unusually articulate and constructive post-blog comments testify.

All of these references point towards something that has been happening for decades but has been largely ignored by dominant central governments. Central policy development deals in averages. Local needs and impacts are lost in ‘rounding errors’.  Is it any surprise that the effectiveness of top down directives is so often far less than their instigators hoped? What, however, has been going on are remarkable but largely unsung local heroic efforts to cope with those top-down determinants.   And those local inspirations can be observed in communities the world over and, more frequently than they might admit, within in many very large companies: progress despite the senior management.

 This local experimentation, this inventiveness, this local understanding of needs and priorities is in some countries constrained by central authority and a general lack of leaders who dare to be different. Many brave experiments may fail but really great local leaders do not buckle under the barrage of ignorant media bullies. That is why the creation of metro mayors and increased devolution of powers to local communities will be both significant and challenging.

For the last few years the charge into local projects has been led by technologists keen to create a market for their ‘smart’ systems and devices. Their enthusiasms have not been misplaced – great benefits are evident – but, as local leaders gain strength, as economists gain greater insights and as citizens begin to speak up, there is a renewed interest in learning from others.

For the past two decades the Intelligent Community Forum has researched these issues. Every year a few hundred communities from around the world volunteer their experiences for assessment in the hope that their efforts will be recognised and honoured. Through that evaluation process the contenders themselves gain great insights and understanding.  From those that apply, the selection of the Top 21 and then Top 7 provides a vast archive of evidence of the characteristics that, in aggregate, indicate the emergence of truly intelligent communities.  The indicators gleaned over the years have six or seven dimensions – the themes today being much broader than in the earliest research.

The underlying focus in on the quality of locally managed programmes for Connectivity (the extent to which digital broadband infrastructure is fit for future purpose) is now joined by assessments of local programmes for:

Digital Inclusion (or Equity) – the great effort of bringing the whole of society into a digitally-enabled world without creating yet further divisions and inequalities.   In the UK the work of many charities (such as Good Things Foundation) and housing associations are delivering brilliant programmes.

The generation of a Knowledge Workforce – has impacts encouraging inward investment/employment and discouraging migration of young people. This is becoming a major focus for Local FE Colleges and partnerships with enterprise and public service agencies.

The extent of Innovation Capacity – particularly in the local provision of low-cost workspaces, mentoring facilities and investment finance to enable locally-grown new business ventures.

Local programmes for Sustainability and Resilience – whether designed to counter environmental threats or to ensure rapid responses to disasters, these local initiatives have become a key leadership priority.

The visibility of local needs as revealed by Open Data – particularly in (but not limited to) the public realm – has been hugely boosted by (a) improved visualization tools and (b) a massive growth in Data Journalism expertise.

And finally, Local Advocacy –championing pride in the local community and not shrinking from the reality that it sometimes needs more than the local football team to establish credentials on the world stage. Some might regard this ‘showing off’ as a most un-British and immodest capacity but leaders are defined by their leadership – and that often demands that they cross the boundaries of departmental silos that leave universities, hospitals, schools and energy companies to survive in separate boxes.

These primary indications of ‘Intelligent Communities’ may not exactly align with John Lauermann’s ‘Municipal Statecraft’, but they do provide a framework for local priorities – a policy mix that rises above many well-meaning but merely average national initiatives.  Local priorities must inevitably adapt to meet local needs but, when the mayors, civic and communities leaders come together to share their experiences, the common ground is extensive and is dominated by that theme of developing and experimenting with imaginative local ideas and initiatives that would never occur to any centralised authority.

So, as we contemplate an uncertain 2017, we can at least be sure that the opportunity to bring the Intelligent Community Forum’s Annual Global Summit from its home in New York to the UK in 2018 will provide a great spur for many community leaders the world over.  We are now ‘seventeen, going on eighteen’ but hopefully just enough older and wiser to cope with the year ahead!

 

Fibre Mobile

16 Nov

Describing Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) as Fibre Broadband (more truthfully ‘phoneline broadband’ on shorter lines) has led to (a) great confusion for consumers and businesses and (b) huge dissatisfaction when advertised speeds cannot be delivered on account of the variable constraints of the remaining copper in the final link.

Thankfully that dilution of truth by Fixed Operators has not yet been mimicked by Mobile Operators.

mobile-phone-comms-tower-3031If they did so, any cellular mobile service delivered from a Base-Station linked to the wider world by fibre optics could be marketed as ‘Fibre Mobile’ – a tag that would seem nonsensical as many folk imagine that Fixed and Mobile broadband are direct competitors.

Not all cellular Base Stations are currently fed by fibre ‘backhaul’. Many of the consumer complaints of poor mobile service are rooted in coverage and capacity limitations (congestion) further back in the network and in an environment where highly variable demands on the service make tailored design difficult.

Design complications arise not only from the siting of Base Stations and their ‘backhaul’ capacity. There are technical limitations with wireless propagation – radio signals behave differently in different parts of the spectrum.   Designers must contend with a wide range of physical environments – the thickness of walls, foliage on trees and user devices moving at speed across Base Station areas – and they are also constrained by the licensed spectrum available, typically with separate upload and download frequencies.

The point of these observations is that these constraints and performance limitations will be cruelly exposed in the coming era of 5G Mobile. That exposure stems from (1) raised expectations of vast capacity to deliver video and other interactive ‘cloud’ applications and (2) the intended use of much higher radio frequencies. System designers will gain some relief from those challenges by advanced antenna design and complete digitalization – nearly all traffic is now in data form, including voice calls that in earlier mobile generations (and fixed line telephony) were ‘analogue’.

The dominant service design factor is the frequency. Ofcom is already planning to licence frequencies above 26GHz – vastly higher than currently used spectrum typically around 1.8 GHz to 2.6GHz. Lower frequencies (or in old terminology ‘Long Waves’) can travel further – hence the use of 0.7GHz for TV and radio broadcasting.

Some of that legacy TV spectrum usage has been cleared away to make room for wide area coverage of low data-rate services – typically sensors linked with ‘Internet of Things’ applications that often operate only in one direction.

fibre-mobile-freq-coverage-graphHigher frequencies are best used for higher-intensity and interactive applications – and readers will be familiar with the large dishes that beam signals ‘line of sight’ across the country.

At the frequencies now being considered for use in 5G mobile devices, typical coverage areas are reduced to around 200-metre radius and indoor penetration through walls becomes an issue – but throughput capacity is not so much of a problem.

The bottom line on 5G design development is that a vast number of very small lower-power base stations will be needed. These may be more like today’s WiFi routers, or in the style of pizza boxes, with external antenna that are almost invisible compared to today’s mighty masts. And almost all will need a high capacity link back to the Internet and other networks in both directions.

Estimates vary but complete coverage of the UK’s 24million hectares and property (outside and indoors) could, in theory, need between 5 to 7 million small base stations requiring high capacity fibre optic connections. The current operating model, with few sites earning high revenues for property owners, will need to change to many sites (including street furniture such as lampposts) with low (or even zero) wayleave fees.

It does not take a genius to understand that the future of Mobile communications is inextricably linked to the local availability of fibre connectivity that is (a) future-proofed (unlimited capacity) and (b) symmetric i.e. having an equally high speed in both directions.

Short-term improvements for current systems such as ‘national roaming’ and ‘mast sharing’ do not address the longer-term challenges – although they may provide some clues for future technical design and the shape of future regulatory and competitive (but more collaborative) market forces.

What is urgently needed is a reimagining of how we transition from the established notions of infrastructure competition to a more advanced appreciation of consumer and business needs and encourage the willing cooperation of users in shared infrastructure development.

At the same time, the UK’s ability to implement 5G Mobile requires a complete rethink of fixed line environments. The passive infrastructure (i.e. holes and poles) needs to be liberated and, like other utilities, managed in partnership with public agencies. Renewed investment in this arena is challenging and less than glamorous but urgently needed in this era of full-throttle fibre transformation.

Surely with that imaginative but radical ‘separation’ we could envisage a massive shift away from legacy copper networks to energy-efficient pure fibre optics. Sadly most of the public investment in the asymmetric ‘Superfast Fibre’ broadband (FTTC) ‘cul-de-sac’ has been a colossal diversion from the long-term ‘future-proofed’ requirements.

Our economy’s future now depends on policy developers, regulators, local governments and industry setting aside previous tech-ideologies and reaching an understanding of future interdependencies. Only then can the work of educating consumers and enterprise begin – an essential first step towards a more collaborative future that can enable the transition to 5G.

 

London’s post-Brexit Futures

16 Nov

WestminsterAlexandra Jones (Chief Executive at Centre for Cities) is right to point out the strengths of London’s enviable standing as a European economic leader.

In terms of scale the capital’s economic output has a 12.5% lead over second-placed Paris. Scale garners great advantages – like availability of diverse skills – but also creates challenges that eat away at economic and societal sustainability.

Brexit may have induced the summer’s existential crisis amongst London citizens but more recent events have confirmed that uncertainty is the new certainty. Clearly, comforting as recitations of strengths may be, we should avoid complacency and focus more attention on bolstering longer-term directions. So Alexandra is also right to warn of the danger signs signaled by productivity and innovation data that place London in a less-enviable position – even if Brexiteers question the veracity of variables used in economic models.

In matters socioeconomic, like brushing your teeth, we have choices that must be exercised if default decay is to be avoided. It might well be useful and timely to remind leaders that the entire country will suffer if London loses its edge but, more significantly, future fortunes will be decided by the individual decisions of thousands of enterprise leaders – and the speed of those decisions. ‘Muddling through’ seems not to be high on the curricula of MBA courses.

It is therefore entirely sound that the capital, its employers, citizens and leaders of the entire eco-system of stakeholders, should identify weaknesses and not be brow-beaten into silence by ‘patriots’ who would cry ‘talking down’ at any honest self-assessment. . . . and not merely kvetching over the state of the kitchen but cracking on with remedial resourcefulness.

Cracking on with future sustainability has two very obvious themes – investments in infrastructure and in advocacy. The former is an urgent response to the woeful state of London’s digital connectivity – trailing far behind the sort of facilities that villagers in remote parts of Lancashire now regard as commonplace.  The latter, investment in advocacy, demands an attitudinal change in the way London projects itself to the world at large and needs fully to co-opt London’s digitalized diaspora.

Earlier this year (prior to the mayoral election) FISP championed the creation of DfL as a platform for accelerating future-proofed digital connectivity. The underlying principles remain valid and recent reconsiderations of the role of passive infrastructures have exposed the urgency. Now, in advance of the 2018 Global Summit, a small coordinating body is preparing an advanced understanding of what previously may have been called ‘Smart City’ but is now becoming a stronger ‘Intelligent Community’ theme – a shift above and beyond the cleverness of technology towards deeper understanding of the myriad ways in which society can enable greater economic and community wellbeing.

London’s future sustainability as a place to live, work, and dream is dependent on both of these themes – unconstrained connectedness and a deeper mission – with recharged resourcefulness in the way those themes are articulated to Europe and the world at large.

(Written as a response to observations by Centre for Cities – 14th November 2016)

Survival Strategies: muddling through

2 Nov

For many years I railed against crusty politicians who lauded the ‘great British tradition of muddling through’. To my ears it sounded like an excuse for complacency, a lack of clear vision, and a totally unfathomable faith that things would, somehow or other, ‘all be fine’.

So why do I now doubt my earlier convictions?

img_2154Possibly the revision was prompted in part by Prof. Appiah’s current series of BBC Reith lectures. Possibly it was stirred by the Short/Sharp Brisk Brexit camp and it cannot be a coincidence that the shadows of this Halloween have been made spookier by flickering lights from orange trumpkins. But perhaps more than that, here at home Judith & I managed the awkward, almost embarrassing, enthusiasm of family members insisting that we should celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary – an achievement, from our perspective, of no great endeavour except for an ability to survive by ‘muddling through’.

It was during Prof. Appiah’s second episode broadcast from Glasgow that I pondered again the great value of approximation. Back in 2014 I’d been moved to write to friends in Northern Ireland to remind them of their diverse roots.  Those words came flooding back when, in the course of the lecture, the word ‘ambiguity’ made an appearance as a problem. I had always regarded ambiguity as one of the great jewels of the English language – the scope for flexible approximation, for multiple meanings and, as in an unwritten constitution, a lack of precision born of rich layers of diverse evolution.

From two decades ago I recalled the job advertisement for a senior Civil Service post requiring candidates to demonstrate ‘a proven ability to cope with ambiguity’. Back then I would have shouted ‘fudge’!   Now we are exposed to sharply drawn, absolutist and increasingly intolerant, blustering bullies who shout in tabloid post-truth headlines and defy any hint of ‘soft’ deviation. And it is only now that one realises that such extreme forthrightness is not just wrong but so very thoroughly un-British.

We Brits are and do ‘what it says on the tin’. Ish, sort of, defies the absolute. It is embedded in our gloriously crossbred British DNA. My letter to Norn Iron in 2014 was prompted by reports of intolerance of immigrants.   As we are now resolved to survive the next two brexiting years we would all do well to understand and ‘stand up for’ our brand values and rejoice in our great history of muddling through.

Every clear plan needs a fair amount of flexibility.  We must, of necesssity, cope with outcomes but that doesn’t mean we should hold any great respect for the illusions and misunderstandings  encountered along the way.