Tag Archives: sustainability

Enough is Enough: Being Growth Agnostic is not an Extremist Position

6 Jun

[Why I took Doughnut Economics[1] to the 2017 ICF Global Summit]

The time for tolerance of misguided creeds is over. That’s an existential issue for politicians searching for economic growth.   The relentless pursuit of progress has not suddenly vapourised but its measurement is, at last, being sidelined.

Economists and politicians have known since the 1930’s that GDP is a poor proxy for progress. The conventional metrics do not come anywhere near measuring the value of real activities. But even if GPD was better formulated it misses the point. The purpose of policy should not be some slavish devotion to a metric and particularly not to one so unfit. But arguing for some higher purpose begs the question: without growth are we doomed to decline? Nobody surely votes for making things worse?

Dissatisfaction with GDP growth addiction is deeply rooted. For decades economists have tried different rationales. Could we, please, have Green Growth (more sustainable) or Inclusive Growth (more equitable) or even Humanistic Growth – presumably less inhuman? The rationales for policies to be regenerative (less wasteful) and redistributive (fairer) are well argued and sometimes non-contentious – leastways, perhaps, at some future ‘transitional’ time if not inconveniently right now. These growth-variants may not immediately upset the supposedly free market dogma. But they are still argued in the context of never-ending growth that will somehow ease the pain of eventual readjustment – really?

Take away that prop – declare that we need not overly care about economic growth – and the well-established response is that the sky will fall down. This growth detox is one of the central tenets of Kate Raworth’s unexpected best-seller ‘Doughnut Economics’.  Kate is the latest in a long and fine tradition of economic re-thinkers starting in the 1930’s with Simon Kuznets who first defined what was then called Gross National Product. He well understood its shortcomings and mourned its excessively ill-informed but widespread application.

Being Growth Agnostic, as much as it may offend all right thinking dogma-driven hard-liners, is not some denial of economic variability – the course of life rarely runs smooth (in sickness and in health) – but is simply a matter of therapy for the growth-addicted and a reminder that true leadership should aim for some deeper (or higher) purpose like societal safety and wellbeing.  And whilst we are in brain reboot mode, can you please stop calling all those investments that happen not to be to your liking, by the derogatory label ‘subsidies’?

There are many reasons for reading Kate Raworth and her illustrious forbears such as Donella Meadows and Manfred Max-Neef (and more recently Lorenzo Fioramonti) but expecting her book to somehow magically reprogramme the deeply embedded dinosaurs of national politics is not one of them; far better to take her inspiration and apply it locally within your own community.

Mayors and civic leaders are desperate for direction every bit as much as they are constrained by top-down austerity. In the search for ‘taking back control’ these community champions can use the doughnut (and other frames) to spark imaginative and enterprising routes to greater public, private and environmental wellbeing. Low flying demands great skill and is risky but it gets stuff done under the radar of the high flyers.

Enough is enough. It really is time to shake off our tolerance of dented and dodgy rulers. We must not rest until we’ve rebuilt our local communities. If that reconstruction of better places turns out to be Growth Agnostic, well so be it.

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[1] Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics‘: ISBN 9 781847 941374

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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.

Migration: the issue that goes away and doesn’t come back

4 Jun

Migration issues are rarely far below the surface in the current neverendum debate. Overcrowding is cited as an inevitable consequence of the migrant influx but no one questions the underlying causes of congestion.

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

To what extent are overcrowded cities and the pressures on services and infrastructure the result of our own homegrown policies over which we have complete control?

Parag Khanna in his new book ‘Connectography[1]’ observes the growth of megacities – increasingly coastal megacities – and, like the UK’s Centre for Cities and the RSA’s City Growth Commission, regards that growth as inevitable – a long-term trend towards the supposed richness of culture and economic efficiencies of scale.  The drift within England from North to South and the consequential pressure on London and the South East has at least been recognized as in need of remediation – hence the Northern Powerhouse concept – but the remedy proposes further growth of great cities from Manchester to Newcastle via Leeds, and HS3 must go to the back of queue behind HS 2 nowhere near as important. The 2007 Treasury White Paper on subnational growth pointed in sensible directions but fell amongst the chaos of global economic calamity (and bonkers bankers) in subsequent years.

But what if our smaller towns and communities in the vastly greater hinterland were better enabled to be economically thriving without driving their citizens away to distant cities never to return? While we bemoan the pressure of overcrowded capitals do we spare any thought for the depopulation of vast tracts of land and market towns or the demands on road and rail travel for commuters who cannot find work near home?

This is our internal migration issue, the imbalance of rural and urban economies. It affects many countries – which is why you can buy a second home for next to nothing in rural Northern Spain or the middle of France. We read of massive effort and creativity being poured into solving the challenges of making megacities habitable. That’s no bad thing but let’s not kid ourselves; we choose to huddle together. That internal migration towards ever-more complex cities (mostly internally-displaced economic migrants) far exceeds any issue of a few hundred thousand refugees arriving from elsewhere.

Local Authorities can and should rise to the challenge. They may not have mayors like megacities have mayors but they surely know what is needed to bring the children (and jobs for the children) home. They understand the consequences of neglect.  It is time for Municipal Enterprise.  The issue that went away but now needs to come back requires a multi-year round of rural renewal.  The investment will pay dividends – not least in the greater resilience of cities!

Discuss.

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[1] Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, pub: Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 2016, ISBN 978-1-474-80423-9

 

 

Rural Prospects in Digitally-Enabled Economy

29 May

A theme paper for an Environment Management conference in Delhi has sparked debate about the underlying assumptions.

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

The paper characterises city dwellers as materially rich compared to rural citizens described as ‘poor’ – but then considers the prospects for lifestyle values that would position rural citizens as environmentally rich and city dwellers as increasingly impoverished.

The author’s intent is clear – to challenge delegates with a potential reversal of fortunes – but the problems with these characterisations are two-fold.

Firstly, we are well aware of material deprivations in cities, towns and villages across the land – economic inequalities cannot be fully correlated geographically.  There is no doubt, for example, that rural areas may have a raw deal in terms of transport and digital infrastructures but it is, at the same time, far from realistic to assume that city-zens are much better served.  If you really want a life off-grid then 1 mile downstream from Tower Bridge in SE16 may be just the digital desert you desire.

Secondly, it is mistaken to assume that rural citizens value being less connected.  Some may well luxuriate in leafy glades surrounded by natural wonders and wildlife but making a living, having and creating gainful employment, being able to access medical care and education, and contributing to wider society are not absent from non-urban family agendas.

The key to reconciliation between different environments lies in the priorities given to issues of resilience.  You might imagine that cities need, for example, stronger environmental efforts and rural areas need better digital infrastructures – but those are a generalisations; policies based on averages are ‘merely average’ and, generally, unfit for purpose.

Places and peoples are different and have diverse needs.  The presumed-to-be unstoppable tidal flow of humanity towards major conurbations is as much in need of thoughtful management as migrations between countries.  The leadership effort surely needs to be directed towards ironing out the relative risks and inequalities that prompt these migrations.  Leaving them to grow and fester will surely only fuel future problems.

 

Sparks of Creativity as Energy and Digital Futures Collide

26 Feb

Digital technologies consume way too much energy and present an environmental and sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach

Very few commentators link Energy and Digital policy topics. Even fewer policy developers understand how they are intertwined.

Each policy is on a single track but heading towards each other. Both engines of the economy urgently need collision avoidance. Knocking heads together now can circumvent an even greater mess.

Only now are the full consequences of strategic decisions made in separate silos decades ago becoming clear. Attributing blame and short-term attitudes for current and future shortcomings is, alas, too easy.   It doesn’t add up to a plan of where we go from here but first there’s a need for everyone to understand that we have a problem.

Basically the Internet will not scale – meaning that as demand increases, digital infrastructure performance will suffer and energy supply will become more fragile.

Regardless of which growth forecast you believe – and most insiders bet on a doubling of devices over the next decade – without radical overhaul, the predominant current and planned digital access technologies (how you get connected) will consume way too much energy. It is an environmental/sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach to ensure resilience of these basic utilities.

The solutions are twofold – generate vastly more electricity or waste far less of it on inefficient forms of digital connectivity. No one is suggesting that we put the entire economy into hibernation.

The first option – generate vastly more – is decidedly unattractive and hugely risky in terms of the UK’s energy supply security. But current efforts to reduce demand need rethinking.

The second option – boost connection capacity but at the same time use far less energy – is technologically possible but demands a complete rethink by dominant suppliers – whether they are in fixed line or mobile markets or both.

Digital Management

It is simply not possible to envisage future energy sufficiency (Ref 1) to push signals down copper cables or send mobile signals over great distances – like more than 200 metres – given the sort of high frequency spectrum that is now available.

All mobile services are themselves ultimately dependent on fixed line connectivity to route to and from the wider Internet. Moreover, the implications of using higher frequency radio spectrum are that the much-vaunted low-power 5G designs will be dependent on fibre connections from millions of locations and will look like Wi-Fi on steroids – with demands way beyond the creaking copper connections of yester-year.

How many slightly overlapping 200 metre radius circles fit into the UK’s 65 million acres? That, of course, is a very hypothetical question – we live in a multi-channel landscape – but, as digital applications accelerate, the current lack of any mobile coverage on thousands of miles of UK roads illustrates the challenge.

Enthusiasts for maintaining use of legacy copper networks insist on pointing to technologies that seem to increase their capacity (if only in one direction) but these in turn exacerbate the energy challenges. Their application is misplaced. Sure, run fibre all the way to a building and then use the technology to push the signals a little way further inside the building – but even that local in-building distribution is inefficient compared to low power wireless technologies like WiFi.

Energy Management

At the same time, Energy Management systems have developed to render past infrastructures obsolescent. The top down view of energy – generators, the national grid, local distribution – is being turned on its head. Alternative energy sources – solar, wind, tidal, wave, ground heat pumps – are popping up all over the place.

Soon the complexity of managing demand will be further complicated by new local storage options. One thing that will not help lessen the load is the current and expensively failing UK Smart Meters project.

Collision Avoidance

So what if policy developers for both Energy and Digital better understood each other?

We don’t need to dwell on the past mistakes – but refocus minds on where they go from here.

For around the same investment cost as Smart Meters the Digital camp could reduce Energy demand by between 5-10% – depending on how quickly they buckle down to eliminating copper networks.  But, of course, much of that Smart Meter money has already been spent – some would say, wasted.

On the other hand the costs of fibre have been falling and the investment returns rising – a completely different investment scene to that prevailing 2 decades ago. The cost savings come from all aspects of network deployment.   That could easily be accelerated with liberalization of incumbents’ passive infrastructure – the ducts and poles,

And the net benefit of this silo-fusion?   Accelerated economic growth and greater energy supply security – massively faster connectivity and far fewer power failures.

If only it was that easy to knock government and industry heads together to avoid an unexpected collision. Maybe, in our newfound love of devolution, city mayors will be resolved to point out that the utility emperors are lacking decent underwear.

Brace, Brace.

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Notes/References

  1. Telecoms & Exponential Growth- Cochrane TJV8 Pt4  (PDF download)   Cochrane P, Telecoms and Exponential Growth, ITP Journal Vol. 8/4 Oct/Dec 2014 reproduced with permission of the Institute for Telecoms Professionals www.theitp.org

This article was first published by Computer Weekly 26/Feb/2015

 

Circular Economy – a natural evolution

30 Sep

Groupe Intellex logoMy blog for the RSA, ‘Circular Economy – let the market decide‘, was prompted by calls for some enabling legislation and stronger market regulation.  Great minds are devoting themselves to puzzling out just what that legislation might look like.

I suggest that the Circular Economy concept is part of a natural evolution and what is needed (if anything) is less disabling regulation – a clearing away of outmoded rules that can (and probably will) be used obstructively.

There may be a case for cautious consumer protection as we enter uncharted waters – but apart from nuanced nudges, long live the evolution!

 

 

2015 NextGen Digital Challenge Awards: Sharing Economy

27 Aug

 

This is the last in our series of blogs for each of the awards categories in the 2015 Digital challenge.   Earlier in the year the Open Call for nominations signaled that the Sharing Economy deserved to be recognized as a significant new category.

NGShortlisthi-resSo, in this final Awards Blog we are delighted to introduce contenders with a wide range of approaches to collaborative endeavours.

The Sharing Economy is all about better use of resources – enabling folks to utilize spare capacity, share talent and expertise, and help individuals and communities to work in greater harmony.

The digital connection is that these projects are often made possible by greater online engagement with systems and platforms to connect resources to needs – and those resources may range from intangibles like expertise and data to tangible assets like a redundant Hard disk Drive or the driveway to your house.

The six 2015 Shortlisted Finalists for our Sharing Economy Trophy are:

Fairsay with eCampaigning Forum – sharing the talent for debating skills and social action.

Just Park – Pre-Book Parking – utilizing the value of your home driveway.

MyNeighbourhood – the Smart City and Sharing Communities initiative in Birmingham

Circular Data Solutions – Large-scale 100% recycling of redundant Hard Disc Drives whilst ensuring that no stored data can be inadvertently recovered or misused and full compliance with Data Privacy legislation.

Roomlala – a flat and room-share platform new to the UK and very popular in student communities where the property rental market needs greater flexibility.

Made Open Monmouthshire from Monmouthshire County Council & Made Open Communications – creating the conditions for communities and businesses to raise challenges, start projects and play a part in tackling the challenges that impact their place.

Research suggests that the emergence of Sharing Economy is a significant step in the long transition towards a more sustainable ‘circular economy’ where resources are not wasted but are re-used or re-purposed – designed to be ‘made to be made again’.

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 David Brunnen on +44 (0) 7714 325 657