Tag Archives: economy

Roadside Radiators

26 Jun

In ‘Feeling the Heat’  I describe the green boxes that deliver an apology for broadband as ‘pavement heaters’ – not least because Roadside Radiators might seem just a little harsh.

At the same time it seemed worthwhile explaining why they appear always to be warm, even before they are baked in the sun.

But, however described, these green boxes qualify as rather poor ‘installation art’ – self-demonstrative (and, frankly, boring) monuments that disqualify their owners from any future role as a contributor to economic and social sustainability – or, as Greg Mesch (CEO of CityFibre) would say, lacking ‘the vision, passion and determination to succeed’.

Aided by the Advertising Standards (?) Authority – the folks who misheard ‘Full Fibre’ to be Fool Fibre or Faux Fibre – and Local Authorities for whom the digital dawn has yet to outshine the telephonic twilight – the once vital incumbent has lost the plot.

But, at least homeless souls will have warmth next winter as they shelter next to those green boxes.

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The Intelligent Community

31 May

The Intelligent Community

Kate Raworth, the ‘renegade’ economist and author of Doughnut Economics, knows only too well that ideas are born when and where they are needed most.  Fresh thinking takes time to be accepted.  Darwin’s evolutionary insights are still resisted.  Climate Change science still denied.  Flat Earth advocates still cling to the edges of their world.

It is not enough to gather evidence.  Mass acceptance of fresh thinking oft requires a crisis of sufficient scale to overcome complacency.   Sufficient scale?  Massive impacts for a few may be discounted by those looking at bigger pictures.  Responses reflect agency – the ability to make that difference.  And therein lies the power of localism – the strength of the place, the community, the neighbourhood. That ability to JFDI.

The emergence of Intelligent Communities – places that are not resigned to some externally-imposed fate – reflects locally perceived priorities.  These are communities that really do ‘know their place’ and know it in colours, details, depths of complexity – ‘nuanced knowhow’ that often eludes the averaged ‘higher’ authority.

BUT (and that’s a big but) the vital essence of such communities is difficult to measure and analyse. Qualitative research methods do not easily answer the question:  Why do some places succeed whilst others decline? We can, however, spot the signs – the indicators of prosperity, confidence, wellbeing and community spirit. That is why, over two decades of research, the Intelligent Community Forum has assessed hundreds of places and selected a few as exemplars – communities that may serve as beacons for others.

Every year ICF has brought these communities together to share their learning.   Until now that global gathering has always been held in North America.  2018 is different.  For three days of next week the ICF Global Summit will be held in London.  In preparation for that event (and for the benefit of those new to the notion of Intelligent Communities) we started publishing a weekly series of notes covering several of the primary indicators – the signs of local activity that ICF’s researchers have, over the years, seen time and again in the most successful places.

The series was first announced in a brief note ‘Looking Sideways at that Place We call Home’,and closely followed by ‘Local Fabrics?’ to set a framework for the rest of the series.  Subsequent episodes were:

All of these themes and their local action programmes (calibrated to match local economic and social priorities) are common indicators of Intelligent Communities.

Next week, ICF’s Top7 communities from around the world, together with an array of top flight speakers, will share their experiences with delegates from near and far.

The full 3-day programme includes details of evening receptions and, on June 6th, at the Summit Dinner, Melbourne Australia will hand over the accolade of Intelligent Community of the Year to one of ICF’s 2018 Top7 Communities.

Facing Disasters

27 May

For a brief moment I hesitated.

Interviews with survivors of the Grenfell inferno reminded us of the horror and the tragic consequences of an avoidable and predicted disaster.

Last Wednesday the UK’s national news media was dominated by two events – the 1st anniversary commemorations of Manchester’s Arena bombing and the start of the Grenfell Tower fire enquiry.  Both sobering and intensely local.  Both respecting their community responses.

Last Wednesday I also hesitated – but not in the face of any disaster. On that day it might have been timely to reschedule the last two episodes of the Knowing Your Place Series.  It might, perhaps, have seemed right to bring forward the comments on Resilience and defer the scheduled episode on Sustainability.

But no. Manchester’s memorial moments needed no further comment at that sensitive time – the learning can follow.  West London’s respect for Grenfell’s grieving will, we are assured, gain the time it deserves.   Both are about aftermaths.  The ‘Knowing Your Place’ series is more forward looking.   I pressed ahead with publication of Keep on Running – in circles’.

It’s true that proper local consideration of the need for sustainability can be triggered in the pit of disasters.  In Part 8 of the series the primary example is of the renaissance of a rusting and decrepit steel town but, with evidence already to hand, we need hardly wait any longer for the very worst impacts of climate change to strike.  We’ve surely already waited long enough.  Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Charles Darwin) wrote of man-made environmental damage in 1898.

Working to avoid disasters – to bequeath to future generations an environment in better balance – doesn’t grab media and political attention with the same force as people perishing right now.  Two of the leading approaches to ecological sustainability are rooted in science and economics – and are closely intertwined.  The economist Kate Raworth questions underlying assumptions and Ellen MacArthur asks how resources can be re-used. The answers are being written not by national governments but by citizens, communities, city leaders and their local universities.

If you get the chance to read ‘Running in Circles’, do follow the links to Kate’s and Ellen’s work.  Both will inform future communities and city leaderships who do not want to sleepwalk towards disaster.

The final part of the series, ‘What If?’ will appear, as scheduled, next Wednesday – just in time to complete this primer ahead of the Intelligent Community Forum’s 2018 Summit in London.

Knowing Your Place – Local Fabrics

5 Apr

Local Fabrics [part 1 of a nine-part weekly series]

Why do some places thrive whilst others decline?

How can we shape the future of our communities — the places we call home, the places where we work, the places where we relax?

This nine-part guide to knowing (really understanding) the fabric of communities will explore those questions.

Questions of local prosperity and wellbeing are now far more prominent for many reasons — not least because so much more is known about the huge diversity of local economies and the very different needs and priorities of people who spend time in them. Awareness of these complex local fabrics — each one woven differently — prompts questions over the adequacies and limitations of centrally-driven top down policies.

The flood of new local insights stems from better data and deeper analysis. The realisation (or rather acceptance) that national pictures do not adequately describe the UK economy is a challenge for Whitehall. Tabloids may decry post-code lotteries. Funding formulae handed down from Whitehall are bitterly contested. Local leaders campaign for greater empowerment — some even arguing for ‘city sovereignty’. And, in the Brexit context, questions of national, regional and local identity and belonging are under the spotlight.

International relationships and high policy arenas may seem way out of reach and, for many people, it’s the stuff closest to hand that is important in any quest to ‘take back control’. In this series, therefore, the focus is entirely on local communities and what can make them healthier — prosperous, engaged and sustainable — in a world where the free flow of data demands careful application.

Great cities may be keen to adorn themselves with ‘smart’ technology to further hone their inner workings. Old mechanistic approaches to economies are, however, being supplanted by thematic models — exemplified by Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ and Marianna Mazzucato’s ‘Entrepreneurial State’. These describe, safe places for policy makers to intervene on socioeconomic issues without straying beyond ecological boundaries. The new economics are also delightfully cross-sector with themes cutting across the old silos that fuel so much of central policy and ‘industry’ regulation.

Conventional economic analysis and management is rooted in vertical sector silos, geospatial metrics and demographics. The more-qualitative themes that create local fabrics and bind communities together are the cross-cutting place-making threads shown in figure 1.

Each of the horizontal threads will be explored in the next eight weekly episodes of this place-based series.

Because all places are different these themes will have variable relevance for the community that you know best — the place that you call home. But the activities and priorities that create these threads are all indicators of community cohesion and future prosperity.

The UK economy is only the aggregate of local placed-based activities. Any sense of national cohesion depends on the strength and design of these local fabrics.

These indicators are not new — they are distilled from years of observation. They are at the root of ‘intelligent communities’ and derive from the long-term observations of a global think-tank that gathers annually to celebrate forward-thinking communities.

The episodes will be published weekly throughout April and May 2018 with the full set complete before the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) next gathers in London to ask again ‘Why do some places thrive whilst others decline?

Productivity’s New President

2 Feb

Institute for Management Services appoints new president to take fresh approach to UK’s productivity transformation

IMS – the very British Institute for Management Services – seems to have been around forever.   And the terribly British problem with productivity continues to puzzle, despite decades of effort, a long train of government ministers and grand policy initiatives.

The IMS appointment of a presidential successor to Dr. Beeching, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Monty Finniston and more-recently a couple of Lords, might seem unlikely to make much difference.  Except for one small thing – the least noticed and least understood strand of the UK government’s new Industrial Policy : Place-Making.   Embedded in the latest policy iteration is acknowledgement that local economies are very diverse.  Different places have different needs and priorities.  They are not served well by ‘one size fits all’ policies based on national averages. Bristol is very different to Bolton.

With the legitimization of ‘Place-Making’ – entirely new channels are opened to the incoming productivity president.  Recharged city leaderships are massively motivated energy sources rooted within local economies. Their ‘city sovereignty’ perspectives reflect a new determination to properly manage the shocks and stresses of fast-growing communities.

The energy of new city leaders is undeniable. They wear coats of many party colours. Who better to convene new programmes that could ramp up inward investment, attract talent, grow their local knowledge workforce and get to grips with the chronic mediocrity of digital infrastructure.  In contrast, Whitehall has just celebrated the ‘achievement’ of 95% UK availability of connectivity that is not super, not fast and not broad – and wonder why more people don’t buy it?

Leastways, that’s the story so far. The UK’s productivity wake-up call  could herald a new policy balance – more grass roots than top-down – but much will now depend on finding space in local leaders’ overcrowded place-making agendas and the resources to fuel their empowerment.

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With the benefit of hindsight

14 Jan

My first blog of 2018 ‘Unintended Consequences and Digital Dilemmas’ reflected on the recently aired ‘backlash’ against addictive smart phones and other concerns around popular platforms.

There is always an undercurrent of discontent and discomfort around disruptions engendered by new technologies and it’s far too easy to blame lack of foresight on those who have pioneered new online systems and digital devices. This time around, however, there’s an interesting reaction from within the tech community itself.

There’s a growing realization that this innovative industry needs to be far more than ‘clever clogs with computers’ obsessed with technological novelty and inventing yet more uncalled for stuff. “Hey Google. Who needs wireless woolly mittens to tell your smartphone you have cold hands?”

 It’s not just the digital industry that’s learning to focus on real needs. Across all sectors the question ‘And your point is?’ focuses minds on real purpose – ‘what exactly are we really trying to achieve?’ Even (some) economists are learning to strip away layers of substitutes for common sense and question mechanistic devotion to dogma.

In these ‘hindsightful’ hours there’s space to reflect that if there’d been some adherence to basic principles we’d not now need remedial actions. And, more than that, there is scope for those blessed with sharper minds to restate those principles.

My blog on the Medium platform points to an example of some basic principles for inspired local leaders. I also reflect on the relative deafness of macroeconomics – the fluffy blankets of average ignorance cloaking the insights and priorities of hugely diverse local economies and communities that still lack the freedom to seize their destiny.

A toast to 2018: Greater Granularity: delight in diversity.

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Cross-Party consensus and other ‘escape hatches’

27 Nov

It may not have been the first such example but the pre-2015 election consensus around long-term infrastructure planning was certainly a ‘learning moment’ for Westminster. The lessons have not been lost – despite the divisiveness of ongoing policy power struggles.

The case for removing infrastructure from knockabout political games was, eventually, grasped by Party leaders despite their decades of devotion to partisan debate. Endless arguments and prevarications get in the way of well-considered solution investment whilst the people, emulating Doogle, shake their heads sorrowfully and mutter ‘What a way to run a railway’.

Even building that infrastructure consensus was hard fought. Never mind that the life cycle of governments was far too short for serious investment. Never mind that the lobbyists were routinely exposed as short-term market manipulators. Never mind that the complexities of major projects didn’t fit into 78pt tabloid headlines. It was no small wonder that anything was ever achieved in the febrile atmosphere of Westminster party politics.

But opening an escape hatch requires broad recognition of some impending disaster.

With today’s launch of the White Paper on Industrial Strategy it is timely to review the Green paper comments from industry and academia. The Policy Lab led by Kings College London (KCL) observed, ‘It is difficult to sell a big change to the entire country without a sense of crisis’ and went on to ask whether ‘a burning platform exists to launch the industrial strategy from?’

Last week’s budget scene-setter strived to embed ‘productivity’ as a central motivating focus but was that sufficient to establish a ‘war footing’?   The KCL input was as positive as possible – suggesting unity around securing a ‘peace dividend’ ‘as the country moves through this time of profound change and heightened disruption’.   They didn’t dare suggest that Brexit was itself a sufficiently severe and imminent unifying threat – a diplomatic caution that serves to underline the long road between rhetoric and reality.

Getting consensus around infrastructure planning set the scene for further calls to remove contentious arenas from everyday politics.  Writing in the December issue of Prospect magazine, Diane Coyle’s candidate for cross-party consensus is Economic Strategy.

Writing as a member of the independent Industrial Strategy Commission, Diane concludes that, There must be a commitment, across party lines, to strategic management of the economy, monitored by an independent body analogous to the OBR. The strategy must go far beyond a few eye-catching sector deals and be aimed at long-term challenges, such as decarbonising the economy and delivering health and social care for an ageing population’.

That plea for cross-party consensus was echoed again last week when 90 MPs repeated calls for removal of the Social Care/NHS policy complex from the political maelstrom. The BBC reported, The letter argued that only a cross-party NHS and social care convention – a forum for non-partisan debate – could deliver a sustainable settlement for these services where conventional politics had failed to do so.’

What may have started with independence for the Bank of England and the creation of the Office for Budgetary Responsibilities and a seemingly endless list of ‘arms-length’/independent regulators seems now to have become the model for a new hands-off school of government.

That withdrawal, however, is a prospect that now seems far more likely to succeed at a local level closer to the people and their communities. An alternative ‘escape hatch’ for conflicted macro-managers is to back-off and devolve issues to regional/metro and local governments where attending to the great diversity of needs can help untangle the centrally knotted issues. The other great advantage of letting go is that local political discourse is far more inclined towards the consensual and the emergent White Paper is certainly not short of placed-based aspirations.

The UK is, arguably, the most centralised of all advanced economies. Sadly, subsidiarity is often and erroneously painted as some dark and suspect EU concept but as any parent with teenagers will know, there comes a time when youngsters must be let go. So it is with Mrs and Mr Whitehall – the offspring must be trusted to provide the energy for the entire family’s next generation.

And I wrote all that without using the F word.

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