Tag Archives: innovation

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.

______

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.

________

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

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!

 

Digital Challenge Awards – 2016 results

14 Oct

westminsterThe highpoint of the UK’s Digital Challenge Awards programme was a dinner and presentation at the House of Lords yesterday evening hosted by Lord Erroll. ( digital-challenge-awards-2016-results-announced-13-oct-final )

The 6th (2016) edition of this competition was launched last January with an Open Call for Nominations.   The Digital Challenge Awards programme has no predetermined Awards Categories – it is only when the Open Call closes that organisers can see the latest digital application trends and then sift through the nominations.  This process keeps the competition fresh and resulted in awards this year for projects in emergent categories such as Digital Healthcare and Local Economic Development.

Unlike many other Awards programmes the Digital Challenge has a strong project focus – and the teams who delivered the work were well represented at the presentation event.   Despite being from very different fields and at varying stages in their digital transformation journeys, what they all have in common are the great challenges of identifying real needs, seeking out innovative solutions and then evaluating their impacts.  And by summarising their endeavours in submissions to the judging panel they all make huge contributions to a wealth of case study material to inspire others.

The 2016 Digital Challenge was supported by O2 Telefonica UK.  Further details will be posted shortly at http://www.nextgenevents.co.uk/awards

 

 

2015 NextGen Digital Challenge Awards: Digital Innovation

24 Aug

 

[This is part 7 of an 8-part series profiling the short-listed Finalists – Ed]

Over the past five years of the Digital Challenge, Innovation has always been a strong theme.   In 2015 the contenders for this award once again demonstrate a diversity of imaginative responses to emergent needs.

NGShortlisthi-resWhen the judging panel buckles down to review the shortlist they will be faced with a three-part submission from each Finalist – detailing each project’s Challenge, Solution and Achievement.

The scale of each Challenge and Achievement is relatively easy to quantify but the judges must also assess each Solution by considering its degree of innovation, and ask how each project is differentiated from the general tide of progress.

The six 2015 Shortlisted Finalists are:

  • British Gas Connected Homes with the My Energy Live – a smartphone application.
  • Dorchester Collection with eShop – adding bitcoin payments to the online shopping experience.
  • DVLA with an Integrated Enquiries Platform (IEP) – the alternative to a Driving Licence paper counterpart – easing, for example, admin for car rentals.
  • Glasgow City Council with their Future Cities Demonstrator project – paving the way to smarter cities.
  • Kemuri with Wellbeing Monitor – a smart power socket with multiple sensors to allow remote activity monitoring for carers.
  • Northamptonshire County Council with Development Infrastructure and Funding for INV-ENT’ (innovation & Enterprise) project.

Which of these projects will be judged to have the potential to make a real difference?

The independent judging panel will review all the shortlisted contenders during September. The winner will be announced at a dinner in the House of Lords following the NextGen 15 event on November 5th.

For details of event sponsorship opportunities contact Marit Hendriks ( marith@nextgenevents.co.uk ) or call 07714 325 657

 

 

 

 

 

Finding your niche: reaching the most remote locations

14 Aug

It is said that the (now leaning slightly less) bell tower in Pisa was used to gain valuable data; news of ships approaching the port – vital news for traders and ship owners who would be affected by the riches on board and, possibly, good news for the families of returning sailors.

The truth of that tale is suspect. Pisa is a fair way up the river Arno and even in the 11th century it was 2.5 km from the coast. But the plausibility of the tour guide’s story rests on our current wonder at how those earlier generations of seafarers managed without reliable communications.

Keeping in touch with very large mobile assets with valuable cargoes en route around the globe has got to be the ultimate broadband challenge. Far more than keeping in touch with crew and passengers, every aspect of shipping operations produces a wealth of data – the engine room’s performance metrics, navigation tracking, cargo conditions and maintenance schedules. Life on board is never dull. Fleet owners and operators (and their insurers) expect to be fully informed.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The international fleet operator Vroon, based in The Netherlands, operates and manages a diverse fleet of around 170 vessels, with more than 400 shore-based staff and around 4,000 marine personnel worldwide.

Their vessels are active in offshore support, offshore wind turbine installation and maintenance, dry cargo, container and other segments, including product/chemical tankers, asphalt/bitumen tankers and car carriers.

That diverse fleet adds up to a megaload of megabytes and the job of keeping Vroon connected to its offshore assets has fallen to Hong Kong based SpeedCast, a leading global satellite telecoms service provider. Their always-on 24×7 broadband platform will support a wide range of services, including Internet, voice and video streaming, with real-time connectivity at sea.

Anyone who has experienced Satcomms on land will be well aware of the challenges. Internet connections via satellite are relatively slow compared to a fully fibred connection – slower even than the hybrid fibre/copper connections that claim to be superfast – and the latency (over half a minute) on a round trip of 70,000km would never be the first choice of games enthusiasts.

But to meet Vroon’s specific requirements SpeedCast have designed solutions for every aspect of the operation with a range of Upload and Download capacities and optimized routing from earth stations to minimize delays. The prize for this design expertise? A multi-year contract for three parts of the Vroon fleet including subsea support ships and Wind Turbine installation & maintenance vessels with up to 110 people on board.

This is a classic example of a technology finding its market niche and ensuring that it has a reliable future – unlike that bell tower in Pisa that took 200 years to install and another 500 years to stop it falling over.