Smart City Collaboration [Cities and their Universities]

In previous blogs I have suggested the role that universities might play within their cities to forward the ‘smart’ agenda. Indeed, it was a feature of both the recent conferences organised by The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges and the International Sustainable Campus Network.

Without doubt urbanisation is the perfect platform to encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration within universities. Those UK universities who have identified this as an opportunity to promote this through an emphasis on urbanisation are creating think tanks, centres of excellence and institutes to address them.

Now overlay that with ‘smart’ urbanisation and recognise the inherent willingness to experiment, to try out new ideas, that are encouraged in universities but frowned upon in risk-averse (and resource depleted) local authorities who act as proxy for ‘the city’.

Cities are recognising the need to engage with their universities to forward the smart city agenda. In essence, to help make their cities work better through a greater understanding of human behaviour, infrastructure capability and capacity, societal norms and observation. If you’re going to make informed decisions and change things you might want to consider how data can underpin that process.

This week President Obama launched a $160m initiative for smart cities in the USA. One of the initiative’s programs is the MetroLab Network, aimed at improving American cities through university-city partnerships. More than 20 cities participating in major new multi-city collaborations that will help city leaders effectively collaborate with universities and industry. The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, in Atlanta, are four of the universities on board. The whole programme will provide a platform for:

  • Creating test beds for “Internet of Things” applications and developing new multi-sector collaborative models: Technological advancements and the diminishing cost of IT infrastructure have created the potential for an “Internet of Things,” a ubiquitous network of connected devices, smart sensors, and big data analytics. The United States has the opportunity to be a global leader in this field, and cities represent strong potential test beds for development and deployment of Internet of Things applications. Successfully deploying these and other new approaches often depends on new regional collaborations among a diverse array of public and private actors, including industry, academia, and various public entities.
  • Collaborating with the civic tech movement and forging intercity collaborations: There is a growing community of individuals, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits interested in harnessing IT to tackle local problems and work directly with city governments. These efforts can help cities leverage their data to develop new capabilities. Collaborations across communities are likewise indispensable for replicating what works in new places.
  • Leveraging existing Federal activity: From research on sensor networks and cybersecurity to investments in broadband infrastructure and intelligent transportation systems, the Federal government has an existing portfolio of activities that can provide a strong foundation for a Smart Cities effort.
  • Pursuing international collaboration: Fifty-four percent of the world’s population live in urban areas. Continued population growth and urbanization will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. The associated climate and resource challenges demand innovative approaches. Products and services associated with this market present a significant export opportunity for the U.S., since almost 90 percent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia.

It’s great to see Obama’s modest investment ($160m wont get you far but it will kick-start your smart city in to action) incentivising cities to work with their native and other universities. In the UK the Innovate UK/ Catapult approach has attempted to do a similar thing although it has got somewhat tied up redtape. As a result UK cities such as Glasgow (who benefitted most from the smart city / Future Cities call for funding on the back of its Commonwealth Games bid), Bristol, London, Birmingham and Manchester have developed ever closer links with their universities to develop governance, technology, data and behaviour insight to rethink energy, transport, waste, services. Other cities, such as Liverpool (read by previous blog here), have clear recommendations from the work of their commissions to engage with their universities to make this happen: The Mayor must task the universities and colleges to develop a joint International Research Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Cities was one recommendation in the Mayor’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability. Leeds and Sheffield universities are beginning to work with their city councils with the former recognising the opportunity for collaborative, shared, posts to take the agenda forward. I hope, in due course, the city I work in, Nottingham, will do likewise to utilise the expertise that exists within both Nottingham universities.

The Obama Administration has, rather prescriptively, made some clear commitments in its announcements this week including:

Building a Research Infrastructure for Smart Cities

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is announcing over $35 million in Smart Cities-related grants and planning new investments in FY16. With a new foundation-wide effort devoted to Smart and Connected Communities, NSF will bring academic researchers and community stakeholders together to unlock transformational progress on important challenges — including health and wellness, energy efficiency, building automation, transportation, and public safety — through research to integrate new digital tools and engineering solutions into the physical world. NSF announcements in support of this agenda include:

  • $11.5 million in new awards to develop and scale next-generation Internet application prototypes that leverage gigabit speeds to achieve transformative impact in areas ranging from health care to public safety. These investments include new awards to US Ignite, Inc., and the Mozilla Foundation to create “Living Labs,” or communities of practice that facilitate the participation of citizens and community organizations, as well as idea and application sharing, across cities and regions. US Ignite is a public-private collaboration spanning over 40 cities and communities across the Nation. The Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting openness, innovation, and participation on the Internet.
  • $10 million in new Cyber-Physical Systems Program research awards focused on Smart and Connected Communities. These awards support research in the integration of computing, networking, and physical systems, such as in self-driving cars and smart buildings. The research awards being announced today help to establish the foundation for Smart Cities and the “Internet of Things.” One such award, to Kansas State University, will fund research on novel approaches to integrate distributed power sources, such as rooftop solar panels and storage batteries, with the existing electric power grid.
  • $7.5 million in proposed FY16 spending for urban science that will support research that integrates advanced digital tools with the physical world to improve quality of life, health and wellbeing, and learning in communities.
  • $4 million to support academic-industry collaborations to translate innovative research and emerging technologies into smart service systems, such as smart energy services and on-demand transportation.
  • $3 million for the University of Chicago to support the creation of the Array of Things in Chicago, the first such network to serve as an infrastructure for researchers to rapidly deploy sensors, embedded systems, computing, and communications systems at scale in an urban environment. Comprised of 500 nodes deployed throughout the city of Chicago, each with power, Internet, and a base set of sensing and embedded information systems capabilities, the Array of Things will continuously measure the physical environment of urban areas at the city block scale and unlock promising new research trajectories.
  • $2.5 million for researchers to participate in the 2015 NIST Global City Teams Challenge, which supports “high-risk, high-reward” research on the effective integration of networked computing systems and physical systems to meet community challenges.
  • $2.5 million in new research awards to support improvements in the design and operation of interdependent critical infrastructure, such as electrical power and transportation systems, ensuring they are resilient to disruptions and failures from any cause.
  • $2 million in new Smart and Connected Health research awards with a focus on Smart and Connected Communities. The awards being announced today will support the development of next-generation health care solutions that leverage sensor technology, information and machine learning technology, decision support systems, modeling of behavioral and cognitive processes, and more.
  • A new Dear Colleague Letter encouraging Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research proposals, as well as supplemental proposals to existing grants, to grow a Smart and Connected Communities research community and pilot early-stage efforts.
  • Advancing outreach and collaboration on connected and automated vehicles. On November 4-5, 2015, the University Transportation Centers (UTC) research program will host a conference on the impact of connected and automated vehicles on transportation – to include, planning, policy, land use, design as well as smart cities areas of interest: operations, freight movements, and transit.New Multi-City Collaborations to Support Smart CitiesMore than 20 city-university collaborations are launching the MetroLab Network, with more than 60 Smart City projects in the next year. Supported by a newly announced grant of $1 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the MetroLab Network will leverage university expertise to address challenges facing cities and regions across the country.  The Network will provide a platform upon which established and emerging city-university relationships can share successful projects, coordinate multi-city, multi-university research efforts, and compete for research and project funding.  The founding members have collectively committed to undertaking more than 60 projects over the next year, which will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and services in our cities and communities and increase the productivity and competitiveness of our regional economies.  Communities and their university counterparts signing onto the network with a joint letter to the President include:
    • Atlanta, with Georgia State University and Georgia Tech
    • Boston, with Boston Area Research Initiative
    • Chicago, with the University of Chicago
    • Cuyahoga County, with Case Western University
    • Dallas, with Texas Research Alliance
    • Detroit, with Wayne State University
    • Houston, with Rice University
    • Madison, with University of Wisconsin-Madison
    • Memphis, with University of Memphis
    • Minneapolis & St. Paul, with University of Minnesota
    • Montgomery County, with University of Maryland and Universities at Shady Grove
    • New York City, with New York University
    • Philadelphia, with Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania
    • Pittsburgh, with Carnegie Mellon University
    • Portland, with Portland State University
    • Providence, with Brown University, College Unbound, and Rhode Island School of Design
    • San Diego, with University of California San Diego
    • San Jose, with San Jose State University
    • Seattle, with University of Washington
    • South Bend, with University of Notre Dame
    • Washington, DC, with Howard University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University

It’s wise, smart even, to facilitate and incentivise collaboration between city governments and universities. Both in the US and in the UK this has been happening but perhaps ad hoc and now the bigger carrots Obama is dangling is encouraging more to step up to the plate in the US. It helps prove the concept works and more cities in Europe, South America, North America, the Middle East, Far East, Russia, China, India et al should embrace this approach. It could be the single biggest contribution any university could gift the city that allowed it to grow and succeed.

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Sidewalk Labs is Google’s new urban startup for Smart Cities

On Tuesday, Google unveiled a new independent startup called Sidewalk Labs with the goal of making technology that can fix difficult urban problems like making transportation run more smoothly, cutting energy use and lowering the cost of living. The company will be based in New York City and run by Dan Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg and former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for New York City. 

There is no shortage of innovation in Google products but they recognise it’s how these products and services are integrated that will accelerate the speed at which we transition from ‘dumb’ to ‘smart’. Of course, Google aren’t the only player in this space – but they are a key one. I would like to see cities utilising these tools but also working with their home universities to deliver smarter cities which tackle issues of governance, democracy and transparency as well as tech-savvy IT.

City / University Dialogue for Urban Living in 21st Century

This afternoon at the ISCN conference in Hong Kong there is a focus on the way in which universities and cities can form effective, collaborative alliances to contribute towards meeting the challenge of urban living in the 21st Century. It’s a response to the World Economic Forum Global Risks 2015 report which flags up climate change, urbanisation and growing population and aspirations within them.

Without doubt urbanisation is the perfect platform to encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration within universities. Those UK universities who have identified this as an opportunity to promote this through an emphasis on urbanisation are creating think tanks, centres of excellence and institutes to address them.


Hong Kong – a city blessed with top universities and some significant urban challenges. 

K.S.Wong, the Secretary for Environment, Hong Kong, spoke at the conference as a graduate of Hong Kong University and has led the policy development of green building standards building on his training as an architect.

Despite the obvious urbanisation of Hong Kong, the island remains green, but liveability and its eco footprint is central to its planning. Policies around green spaces, sprawl, natural assets, connectivity and isolation are in place to preserve these attributes. By maintaining high levels of density it is clearly possible to protect natural assets but also achieve impressive performance in energy intensity.

To that end, HK is:

  • developing a green neighbourhood on the site of the former city airport and using a district cooling system;
  • It’s also committing all public buildings to meet green building standards;
  • Developing a waste to energy plant from sewage sludge to power the islands needs;
  • Developing an exemplar zero carbon building.

The climate in Hong Kong presents a significant challenge with high temperatures and humidity driving demand for cooling and dehumidification systems to maintain comfort in buildings. Sharing the knowledge and learning from Hong Kong with the developing world is central to its mission.

Again, air quality remains a high priority and by law low sulphur fuels will be required to address this problem. Shipping remains an important contributor to poor air quality in Hong Kong.

Air, waste and energy are central to its strategy, with a strategy of tackling the causes at source and, encouragingly, the focus isn’t just on the hardware but also on the software – working to promote behaviour change through social marketing.

There is a clear expectation from KS Wong that the University of Hong Kong has the opportunity to out perform the HK average in terms of waste, energy and air quality. The Air Quality Health Index is the first in Asia to adopt this approach to share health data to those vulnerable to air pollutant. Similar schemes exist in the UK.

Following the keynote from KS Wong it was great to hear from Mayor Park Won Soon from Seouol via video. As a renowned proponent of sustainability and has committed to its principles in the development of Seoul. He explicitly made the point that cities and universities must work together to achieve their collective goals both in terms of infrastructure and the development of its communities. Seoul has worked with many universities in South Korea to further these aims.

Fostering synergies between universities and cities is key to addressing climate change, urbanisation, water stress and working together to identify solutions for cities. Seoul recognises energy is a key issue and is taking a strategic approach to reduce dependency on nuclear through moves to reduce demand for electricity through efficiency drive and localised renewable investment. This has also created a surge in the growth for more sustainable energy services such as LED lighting creating wealth and employment. In Seoul, universities and hospitals are amongst the most energy intensive buildings in South Korea. The Government has invested in the universities themselves with a $40m to demonstrate leadership and to drive down consumption.

Throughout his address there was continued emphasis on the opportunity to stimulate and engage young people with innovative approaches to tackling urban challenges with an emphasis on civic responsibility. Again, financial incentives from the government have catalysed this engagement.

Civic engagement has been supported through a series of Town Hall meetings – inviting opinion and input to macro issues like energy. An association for 35 universities have combined to promote and develop green campuses. An energy cooperative has been formed to provide finance and reinvestment in renewable energy generation projects across Seoul.

Following those two plenary speeches a panel of experts presented and discussed the role of universities and cities in the 21st century.

Healthy high density cities is becoming an increasingly important factor for fast growing cities and a new research centre has been formed at HKU to address this very specific challenge between engineering and architecture and health professionals.

Aalto University is consolidating after the merger of 5 universities giving the opportunity to create an integrated campus/science park to work closer with business and industry. The design of the new campus is designed to positively encourage collaboration to support the strategic aim of integrated academic activities.


Aalto is working with Tangjin University in furthering its relationship with Asia.

The University aims at energy self-sufficiency by 2030 through energy generation on site and changing consumer behaviour. They are developing the most powerful geothermal system in the world with a 7km geothermal well to produce 10% of the city’s energy needs.

Sandy Burgoyne, Director Future Cities Collaborative, from The University of Sydney, spoke about how the research underway to inspire city leaders to develop sustainable cities. Policy, practice and people are at the heart of the programme and engage Mayors in developing their own understanding of sustainability. The model builds on the Mayors Institute in the USA and encourages Mayors to bring challenges forward and to work collaboratively with universities to solve these challenges. The programme is working at city scale – eg Paramatta and looking to identify solutions that are right for that city.

The universities involved in these kind of programmes can bring thought leadership, collaboration across government, industry, commerce and academia to show what is possible. The model works well for ‘real time’ responses to challenges at scale. 

The Chief Excecutive of MTR Corporation in Hong Kong, Lincoln Leong, gave an overview of the way in which the MTR system in HK has transformed the island. In an impressive and enthusiastic presentation he showed how Metro systems play an important role in urbanisation across the world.

In HK there are 221km of track, 5.4m passengers and provides almost half of all public transport journeys.

As a result of success in HK over the past 40 years they are now expanding into Australia, mainland China and Sweden. By providing this infrastructure can transform cities, connecting communities and creating opportunities to enhance communities – retail, business and industry.

The 3km extension of the network to the west of HK at the end of 2014 connected Hong Kong University into the whole island enabling greater access from east to west. Significant investment in lifts and escalators to service stations gave additional benefits to all communities to assist movement around the hilly terrain of the island.

Further expansion of the MTR is planned in HK to provide greater connectivity.

Edward Ng, Chinese University of Hong Kong, espoused the virtues of the intellectual contribution of the university to policy development in Hong Kong. As an example, the assessment of urban heat islands has helped shape thinking on energy and urban planning.

The opportunity to deliver sustainable energy solutions and reduce demand through improved behaviours. By installing values of sustainability into university education and encouraging sustainable values such that ‘convenience’ is recognised as costly.

Each speaker throughout their short sessions and in the discussion session supported the concept of universities and cities working much more effectively together at all scales – at the city scale, at the district/campus scale, at the organisational scale and with individuals and their communities.

So why doesn’t it happen more often? I suspect it is largely because the one to one relationships between leaders of both cities and universities haven’t invested enough in building an effective relationship on which to build this approach.

It’s good then that universities and cities are beginning to rebuild those relationships. Let’s not pretend it’s altruistic and philanthropic. Much of it in the UK, at least, is borne out of a restructured public sector that no longer has the intellectual capacity to develop and design policy in an era of ever increasing complexity and risk. Evidence, data and informed policy will maintain sustainable urban living.


[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.

Stirling Efforts Among Universities 

I attended my first conference convened by The Association of University Directors of Estates this week hosted in the wonderful grounds of Stirling University. Sat in the carved valley of the Forth surrounded by white capped hills and mountains it made for a spectacular setting.

But it wasn’t all about appearances. There was some really good substance to the conference too. Ian Diamond attended to give a timely insight in to his recently published report to universities. There was honesty and inspiration in spades too – some fabulous ‘lessons learned’ sessions in open plenary with both The University of Birmingham and Glasgow School of Arts sharing their stories of recovery from fires which had devastating impacts on their operations spreading over days in the case of the former and months in the case of the latter.

There were sessions that inspired too. I attended a workshop session led by Atelier Ten who gave an overview of the work they have been doing to ‘Green the Ivy League’ with long term strategic planning in the estates of Yale and Harvard Business School where they have developed plans, standards, policies and solutions that will get them to their carbon reduction targets. They are doing this through ensuring new build projects meet the highest standards possible, by identifying how they can invest in larger scale energy infrastructure and, crucially, how they will improve the existing building stock. We know that universities all over the world are well motivated to invest in inspirational, complex, low carbon buildings. It’s equally recognised how challenging it can be to keep older existing stock performing well. The nature of capital rich and revenue poor businesses. The challenge hasn’t gone away but the case study presented at Yale was an excellent example of a deep refurb that creates better, healthier, more productive working environments for staff and students alike. Who wouldn’t want that?

There was some lively debate about the future of sustainability metrics and reporting performance within the sector. AUDE has shown some real leadership on this and is working with Arup to develop ideas in partnership with the EAUC and People and Planet over the coming months. The session was a scene setter for forthcoming regional workshops AUDE are running to which Directors of Estates and sustainability professionals are invited to attend to help shape this further.

On the final day after an fantastically hospitable and enjoyable evening in the setting of Stirling Castle, complete with pipers, haggis and a wee dram, it was left to Philip Ross of Unwork to share his insights into how technology is changing the very nature of society, communities and interaction. It’s profound impact on the type of spaces we require and desire in the future is clear. Generation Z just don’t work generations before them. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) really is just the start. The level of interactivity is only going to increase.

With insight from the current Union of Student President at Stirling and one its more famous alumni, Lord Reid of Cardowan, it was a fitting end it a thought provoking conference, reminding us to take the longer term view, to remain optimistic and resilient and to Kiss with Confidence.

Smart Cities – What role for local authorities?

It’s self evident isn’t it? How can a city set an agenda to become smarter without its local authority on board? At the very least there are issues of governance, public space, licensing, enforcement, regulations that a council would need to oversee.

In the space of a few days we have seen the UK Government both identify real weaknesses in the capacity of local authorities (by DCLG) whilst another Government department applauds sixteen local and regional authorities that are setting the standard in open data and transparency by the Cabinet Office’s, Francis Maude (Local authorities setting standards as Open Data Champions).

Is this just a case of un-joined up messaging from two departments who claim to be working hand-in-glove or, in fact, reality? Of course there are some local authorities who have embraced this approach. Bristol, Glasgow and London have all been funded heavily by both the Future Cities Catapult and private sector investment whilst other sizeable cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham have taken a lead in this area too – because they see it’s the right direction to be travelling. You’d expect, of course Cambridgeshire to be in the mix simply because of its world class university presence but who would have thought Sunderland and Devon would be included? Well deserved recognition in the face of adversity in the case of the former I would suggest.

But what do cities (and other urban and rural authorities) need to have in their armoury? “Without the right skills to innovate, the public sector will be unable to take full advantage of the cost efficiencies available from better – and smarter – ways of delivering modern services,” the report, Smart Places Today, finds.

As local authorities are further cut by budget cuts will they have sufficient gravitas to attract the forward thinking expertise needed to regenerate their cities – not with bricks and mortar but clicks of an app. The research, which aimed to assess the benefits and potential for ‘smart’ places, not just ‘smart cities’, found that the capacity to implement smart technologies is only in place in 15.2% of local public service bodies, though 45.7% have plans to address the gap.

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.