Cities As Platforms

Gerard Grech is CEO of Tech City UK, a nonprofit organization focused on accelerating the growth of UK digital businesses. This piece is reblogged from TechCrunch.com: 

Cities As Platforms – To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities. Every digitally enabled citizen living in a city is a hub of real-time data. When analyzed in isolation, there’s no actionable intelligence. But when you view the data we produce on a macro scale, the possibilities for radical inventiveness are endless.

Read the full piece here.

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Improving climate change communications: moving beyond scientific certainty

The University of Nottingham has just blogged a great piece which reaffirms the challenge of engaging more effectively on the causes and effects of climate change and how to help people understand what they can do to mitigate and adapt to climate change now and in the future. My experience is this is a really tough thing to achieve. Unless somebody has direct experience of the effects of climate change (such as a flood, or heatwave or similar) they fail to believe it will have any effect in their lifetime.

Dr Pearce says: “Climate science draws on evidence over hundreds of years, way outside of our everyday experience. During the press conference, scientists attempted to supplement this rather abstract knowledge by emphasising a short-term example: that the decade from 2001 onwards was the warmest that had ever been seen. On the surface, this appeared a reasonable communications strategy.

“Unfortunately, a switch to shorter periods of time made it harder to dismiss media questions about short-term uncertainties in climate science, such as the so-called ‘pause’ in the rate of increase in global mean surface temperature since the late 1990s. The fact that scientists go on to dismiss the journalists’ concerns about the pause – when they themselves drew upon a similar short-term example – made their position inconsistent and led to confusion within the press conference.”

This short termism and, for want of a better expression, disbelief, meant it was incredibly difficult to engage decision makers, let alone the general public, in this debate. DEFRA, for the UK Government, has plenty of evidence and data about the causes and effects of climate change but they have been unable to help people understand what it means for them as individuals, communities, businesses.

Expertise in the field of social marketing does exist. The last Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ acknowledged this but was often met with a cynical ‘Big Brother’ stance. But look at the good work that has happened in the field of health (@divacreative) and climate change () as examples of where it does work – but you need to take a long term and sustained view to achieve it.

The full press release is here and a blog by Warren Pearce is here:

[Are] Higher student fees [really] influencing university emissions cuts?

Edie.net published a thought provoking piece “Higher student fees influencing university emissions cuts” in which the assertion that increased tuition fees and competition among UK universities have created a generation of evermore demanding students which is complicating the sector’s attempts to reduce emissions. That’s the view of Andrew Bryers, energy manager at Aston University – which was recently rated as one of the most sustainable higher education establishments in the UK.

This is an interesting piece and certainly illustrates the challenge of meeting the expectation of students now. But have fees really changed things? And if they have raised expectations, isn’t that actually a good thing? Why wouldn’t you want to meet the highest standards of comfort, quality and strive for world class facilities? Of course, how you meet those expectations is the key to all this. If your solution is to simply heat buildings to higher temperatures for longer then, of course, you’ll see your energy and CO2 consumption rise. However, a strategic approach to fabric investment, controls, monitoring and efficient systems can achieve the same outcome and actually consume less.

In Russell Group universities, like Nottingham, whilst student numbers have grown and fees have increased, the real causes of emissions growth are in the energy intensive research activities that typically occupy science, engineering and medicine. STEM is right for the UK’s industrial policy of course and we have recognised the compelling need to invest in those subject areas but operationally it comes at a cost. But in the global scheme of things, the research being undertaken is creating solutions to climate change, resource depletion, health, biodiversity. If ever there is a sector with a Net Positive impact it’s the Higher Education Sector.

We are reviewing our carbon management plan and taking into account growth in scale, in intensity and number. We are targeting areas where carbon emissions are high in a systematic manner. You can see from our annual reports for energy and carbon those areas are in our schools of Chemistry, Physics, Medicine.

Universities are enjoying (I think) the new found freedoms of greater autonomy and the shackles have been consistently loosened under the past 2 Governments. However, it’s a competitive world out there now and finding efficiencies whilst meeting ‘customer’ expectations is challenging – as Andrew Bryers rightly acknowledges. The challenge here is to think longer term so that universities do the right thing, not the easy thing. That means a combination of investment in infrastructure (new build, refurbishment, utilities and energy generation, transport, waste, etc) and behavioural change programmes. In tandem the gap between expectation and delivery can be closed.

Energy Services – energy as a service, not a commodity

There is a really great piece written by Elizabeth Shove and Matt Watson (No more meters? Let’s make energy a service, not a commodity.) that neatly summarises the concept of energy as a service, not a commodity published on The Conversation website today. Those of you that have ready previous blogs I have written will know that I have eluded to this in my thoughts on district heating and I find it interesting that the concept appears to be less attractive here in the UK whereas elsewhere, particularly the USA, it has greater traction and a stronger marketplace.

The authors rightly say We all pay energy bills and we understand that energy is delivered through wires and pipes into boilers, TVs, kettles and so forth. However, it is not the energy, as such, that consumers’ value. In paying energy bills, people are really paying for the services that energy makes possible: for thermal comfort, for entertainment or for a cooked meal. In other words, it is the ability to watch a favourite TV soap (while consuming a favourite TV dinner) and the cosiness of the home that really matters.”

It’s not just the home of course. Businesses now recognise the concept of the energy service more readily than energy purchase and the opportunity to spread capital investment costs over 10, or even 20, years is appealing in a resource constrained world. Public sector organisations like NHS Trusts and local authorities are well positioned given their relatively stable property portfolios (even with the purge of unwanted buildings under the Government’s austerity measures) giving them a long term view of investment. But others too, such as colleges, schools and universities share those same characteristics. If you’ve been where you are for 100 years, why not take a punt on being there in 30 or 40 years time and taking a longer term view of your property portfolio?

It’s those organisations with aging building stock that can benefit most from ESCO and energy performance contracting. But there are significant opportunities in investing in energy systems, energy centres and grids that support a whole range of existing and new buildings where the real money and opportunity is. If you can generate and use energy you have generated on site you can build in not just carbon and cost savings, but resilience to failures of grids outside your control. You can start to achieve standards ahead of the Government’s own energy strategies.

As the authors say “We are already seeing the emergence of Energy Service Companies (ESCos) which guarantee a fixed energy bill as long as the company can install efficiency measures in your home or office. Other providers offer multi-utility tariffs, bundling together rent, water and energy into a single bill. At the moment it is unclear whether these novel forms of “energy-plus” provision are forerunners of arrangements that are set to become the norm, of if they will remain niche solutions for a few. Whatever else, these moments of flux remind us that energy and energy services are never set in stone.”

Is this the greenest public sector ever in the UK?

In a blog published today by The Carbon Trust, Tim Pryce, Head of the Public Sector at the CT asked “Is this the greenest public sector ever in the UK?”.

“Over the past five years it has often been repeated that the current government is aiming to be the UK’s greenest government ever. Over the same period we have seen a focus on austerity result in cuts to public sector budgets and jobs, which has directly impacted on the amount of resource and support available for improving environmental performance. So where has this left the public sector in its own drive for sustainability? And are they playing their part in helping to meet the UK’s ambitions on reducing carbon emissions, tackling climate change, and addressing the challenges of resource scarcity?”

Without doubt Tim has taken a very positive, but guarded, perspective. Having attended the conference in London to which Tim refers, it was well attended and yes, the public sector has made strides forward in reducing its carbon footprint. I would suggest that those in the room had probably contributed more than average and that Tim was speaking, by his own admission, to the committed and the converted.

In the coalition’s period of Government we have seen a number of commitments to deliver the objective of the ‘greenest government ever’. Off the top of my head I would refer to the introduction of the feed-in-tariff, the renewable heat incentive, the creation of the Heat Network Development Unit and the sustained commitment to low emission vehicles through OLEV. However, we have also seen the culling of the CERT and CESP mechanisms for funding energy efficiency in domestic properties throwing the insulation industry in to meltdown and the outright failure of the laudable, but unimplementable, Green Deal. Only a handful of organisations of local authorities have had the will, clout or funding to really make it a success.

My suspicion is the public sector carbon emission reductions have been as a direct result of austerity on a needs-must basis which has led to the sell-off of un-needed properties or simply being more frugal in heating spaces. Whilst the outcome looks good (reduced CO2 and energy consumed) it was achieved by doing all the easy, very short payback projects leaving the harder yards to the next government’s term. To achieve more going forward will require a longer term approach, more capital investment in infrastructure, energy efficiency and process improvement. I don’t see the government handing out lots of cash for that in the near term. Already the EU carbon targets are being seen as undeliverable by some. The UK’s credibility in contributing to them is at stake.

 

Open Calls for Solutions – A Must for City Success?

Open calls for solutions is a phrase I hadn’t heard up until 12 months ago. Since then it’s become a regularly used term to describe a new approach to solving those wicked issues (and some much more mundane ones too).

As the economic recession continues to bump along the bottom and, perhaps even more importantly, public sector spending is cut, local authorities (cities in particular) are finding themselves unable to directly fund or commission services. They can now no longer pay for some of the things they might have done, or liked to have done, in the past. In many cases, this has hit the ‘nice to do’ areas of regeneration and development first in order to protect frontline services. But even they are now at serious risk and there simply isn’t enough funding to cover the very basic and important services that citizens have come to expect.

When you cant fund directly but the demand for that service remains it is time to remain fixed on the outcome you are trying to achieve. The most forward thinking cities are doing this. The ‘market’ for that service remains – there is still a value there for others to invest in provided you can demonstrate where, and who, that market is.

This is where ‘Open Calls for Solutions’ might assist.

Open Calls require you to do two things. Firstly, you must accept that your role as a city authority is going to be different in the future. You will no longer be in a position to simply agree an amount of cash you are willing to spend, define what you are going to buy, go out and procure it and then do it all again at the end of the contract. Forward thinking cities are emphasising their role as an enabler, facilitator and agent – focusing on the outcome, not the inputs.

Secondly, and importantly, city authorities need to be able to adequately define their challenges and be brave enough to admit they don’t have the solutions – but are willing to go out and find those who might. And in that process, cities will need to remain open-minded, accept that the solution might be technical, political, economic or an issue of ownership.

Like more traditional forms of procurement, there remains a need to manage the process appropriately and to identify and deal with the risks.

Rather than write lots about the process involved, because they are all nuanced and often quite different, take note of the organisations that are embracing this approach such as The City of York, Barcelona and New York. Take a look at the very interesting case study of the call from the City of Boston, who used the data collected from Boston’s Street Bump app to determine that Boston’s road bumpiness is primarily driven by metal castings that are no longer flush with the road.

These cities have all participated recently in the Living Labs Global process run by Citymart – who use a 7 step process. Others are embracing similar approaches. Closer to home in the UK, the Technology Strategy Board has designed a similar process through their SBRI approach which uses the power of government (local and national) procurement to drive innovation. It provides opportunities for innovative companies to engage with the public sector to solve specific problems.

And that is the key word: specific. The first challenge for any city (read Place) is to be able to define that challenge specifically well enough. The most successful applications of this approach have been able to specify the challenge and the outcome they are looking for. In short – they have been clear what they are looking for. That makes it a whole lot easier for the solutions providers to respond to.

Of course, my view of this is very much from the perspective of ‘commissioning city’ and not as a provider of those solutions. I would be interested in hearing from those organisations (businesses, academic institutions, entrepreneurs) who have sought to provide the solutions. What do you see as the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities afforded by this approach? And what are the pitfalls? How could cities make it easier for you to respond and provide the best solution?

You can see an early example of Sheffield’s experience of this approach in the work we have undertaken with Citymart.com and the Living Labs Global process in 2013. Sheffield has a large amount of industrial waste heat which is currently not utilised and in many cases, ejected into the atmosphere and simply wasted. Our call was to identify solutions to this and we were enthused by the large number of responses we received. Some good, some great. We’re now working with two solutions that we hope will work hand in glove to capture heat from our steel works, sports centres and other heat generators such as energy from waste plants, biomass energy centres and not emit it to atmosphere. You can read about the solutions for Sheffield and the other cities that participated in 2013 here.  

It’s still early days for the ‘open calls for solution’ approach in many cities in the UK. But early experience is promising and presents great opportunities for innovation, product and service development and the creation of new markets that will create employment opportunities and export markets because if it can work in one city the chances are, it will work in another.