Friday, 6 March 2020

The Challenge of Being Green in a Global Economy

Since the Court of Appeal ruled that the third runway at Heathrow was illegal, as it failed to meet the government’s own commitment to zero carbon by 2050. Other infrastructure projects have come under increasing scrutiny with the campaigner and TV presenter Chris Packham launching a legal challenge to the HS2 rail project.  This problem has been further exacerbated by the collapse of budget airline Flybe and the loss of its regional connections, especially from the cities of Southampton and Exeter.

This produces the problem of how to deal with the need for new transport links, housing and infrastructure while meeting the challenge of climate change. Indeed, as this blog asks, can we be Green at all in a global economy?

First the need. Britain is already densely populated by international standards. At 430 people per square kilometre, it is nearly twice as crowded as Germany (227) people per sq./km) and more than three times as crowded as France (117 people per sq./km). However, this problem is much worse in London, which is 18 times more overcrowded than the rest of the UK.  The need to decentralise and move people away from the capital has never been greater, but London is still the financial capital and fast, reliable transport links are an essential part in minimalising the impact of decentralisation.  

The social impact of overcrowding, particularly in London, is largely to the detriment of our young people.  A study, commissioned by the National Housing Federation shows that 3.6 million people are living in overcrowded homes, 2.5 million cannot properly afford where they live and the same number again are living with parents or relatives against their wishes. Add to this the 1.4 million living in poor or substandard conditions and the lives of one in eight people in England are now negatively affected by years of fast-rising prices and missed house-building targets.

In fact, those building targets are already unachievable, according to the Journal of Housing Economics - July 2019. One home will have to be built every six minutes, night and day, just to cope with the current level of net immigration to England (ONS projections).  At the same time the UK’s countryside, so necessary as the demand for home grown produce and bio-fuel intensifies, will continue to be swallowed up by construction of the extra housing required.

So, the challenge is to meet the desire for a global, expanding economy, with free movement of labour, while maintaining our commitment to be carbon zero by 2050. The impact of this is going to be huge and many, large sacrifices are going to have to be made. The arguments to slash net immigration to ease the pressure on housing and other infrastructure, would still require new transport links to ease social and environmental pressures on our capital and encourage investment in provincial cities.

This is too big a topic for one blog and so, over the coming blogs, I want to explore the options moving forward, learning as I go. My own opinion is that we must accept the need, that is we cannot continue squeezing ever increasing numbers into our cities, The question should be which transport schemes have the best net impact? Not do we need to build this.

One thing I do know is that environmental calculations, like all statistics, are not always as they seem and that sometimes a short term carbon hit can prove hugely beneficial in the longer term, not only for the environment but also to ease the social impact of overcrowding. The UK is far too London centric but making it less so requires investment in our transport network and that will come at a short to medium term cost, both financial and environmental. What we must do, is build robust models, around a commonly agreed standard, that can accurately and credibly predict the longer-term impacts both positive and negative. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

Our Relationship with Technology

Some time ago, I attended an event where the topic was the rapid development of technology. The argument was presented that as technology begins to replace so many routine tasks it is actually becoming more human. There was considerable debate around this and I was shocked by the people who feel that the interactions they have with apps and websites, replicate human interaction. The overwhelming sense I left with was not that technology is becoming more human, but rather that we are becoming less-so.

Since this event I have been considering my own interactions with technology and people around me. There are certainly times when I actually prefer dealing with tech; at the supermarket checkout for example, when I find the rushed interaction with a human operative far more difficult than the more functional, but patient, self-service alternative. However, there are times when the rather binary functionality of a machine cannot provide the understanding of my problem and something that could have been solved quickly with a short conversation becomes a seemingly never-ending stream of emails, text messages, automated option choices, or chat-bot conversations. I wonder if it is not the nature of the technology that is the problem, but our over dependency upon it.

In recent times we have certainly seen significant cultural change in the insistence upon email, usually to preserve an “audit trail”, rather than a short phone call or brief meeting, which wastes time, our most precious human resource, and subsequently increases stress and reduces our productivity.

However, the affects are so much wider and I realise that over the past couple of years I have used social media, in particular Facebook, to stay in touch with friends or colleagues I would otherwise have lost touch with. I’ve always thought this to be a very good thing, however, on meeting a group of friends recently, I realised how much we hadn’t shared. A couple of these friends didn’t really feel like friends at all because, in truth, we had shared very little with one another and that which we had shared lacked emotion and valuable human elements. This raised questions for me about the impact technology has on those things which are most valuable, ie relationships, and the missing human interactions such as body language, which allow us to truly relate to a friend on a deeper level.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we have all abandoned our friends and now only communicate through social media, but I feel it is important that we stop and ask ourselves what it is to be human and could we actually be more connected by considering the added value of off-line connections. I can’t remember the last card I sent anyone, I simply send wishes on Facebook. It is true that I am staying in touch but I’m not truly connecting and these sense of belonging is missing. I need to make more effort to maintain those elements of relationship which bring me joy: to write, to call and to visit, while still availing myself of the wonderful opportunities which social media presents us with in continuing those relationships online. In short, I’m going to make greater effort to show friends the real value of our friendship and not simply be distracted by technology.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

International Aid and our relationship with Africa

As I put the finishing touches to a book that looks at the differing impacts of social enterprise and charity on our society. I have begun to reflect on the many months of research and how my opinions have changed during my journey to uncover the truth about the real impact of charity both in the UK and in terms of International Aid.

When I talk of International Aid, I am not referring to Emergency Relief where the world, quite rightly gathers its resources to help people recover from natural disaster.  I am really focusing on the continuous annual sums given in aid to the developing world, largely in Africa and what really motivates successive UK governments to continue protecting Aid budgets in a time of unprecedented austerity at home.

What I have found has reformed my understanding of the developing world and the people who are seeking to change it.  As an average Joe I am not presented with an accurate picture of our financial relationship with Africa. We view ourselves as benefactors, giving a handsome sum in charity to people far worse off than ourselves. This is useful for governments as we really shouldn’t be moaning about our hard times in austerity when so many are dying from disease and malnutrition across Africa. The media portrays a nation of selfless altruism and charities continue to show images of horrific poverty and hopelessness.

So why doesn’t it get any better? The truth is that our giving is dwarfed by the amount we take out of Africa.  According to a paper produced by Oxfam for the World Economic Forum, African nations lost around $11 billion in just one tax scheme employed by foreign multinational companies, this is exacerbated by the brain drain and the difficulty in adapting to climate change caused by deforestation, logging and industrial pollution

In 2014, the IMF estimated that Ethiopia was the world's fastest growing economy with growth of more than 10% and many other countries including the Ivory Coast. Tanzania and Mozambique report growth of 7% or more. Uganda’s real GDP growth is expected to reach 5.1% in 2016 but these achievements do not trickle down to most the people owing to the stranglehold many of the country’s political elite.

Africa is beginning to rise from the ashes of its’ tumultuous past but the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development is still firmly around the necks of many entrepreneurs, who are sandwiched between their historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence. To affect change, they must fight for their voices to be respected as well as heard. By failing to accurately portray our true relationship with Africa development organisations prevent the public from determining which political party has the better plan, beyond aid commitments, for tackling the real causes of poverty. 

Outrage against injustice rather than pity for the needy, will give us a better chance of keeping long-term support for the fight against poverty, partly through personal donations, which so many organisations rely on, but also through their pressure on governments to tackle the structural causes of poverty.

In this country, we have seen a huge shift in attitude of multi-national businesses who are now taking their ethical and environmental duty far more seriously because of public pressure.  There is still a very long way to go as the controversy over tax avoidance shows, but it does demonstrate the power of people to effect change through their spending and in this case giving patterns. If we can begin to influence the real struggles of Africa to work in partnership rather than benevolence, we can genuinely claim to be working in solidarity with the people of Africa to support their continent’s struggle against poverty.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Why I am blogging: - My belief in the Social Economy

Well, I have finally made it into the digital world and so I guess it is only right to say something about myself, my business and why I have decided to blog. 

Well it certainly isn't because I consider myself to be a writer, far from it. It is commonly accepted that most people have “one good book in them” but I’m not sure I even have one blog, which is why I have been putting this off for so long. My reason is that I have a fundamental belief that it is possible to make money AND enrich society, I am a slightly eccentric, obsessive analyst who wishes to extend the many conversations I have with people who share this belief and recognise it to be more relevant today than ever, as the social economy struggles to deal with the sheer scale of the problems it faces. The problem isn't with the profit model but the uses to which that profit is put and how it is acquired.

I accept that this is a controversial approach and that currently the social economy occupies a separate camp to the traditional for profit business world. This separation is caused by the different business models used and in particular the reluctance of many social entrepreneurs to use business models without asset locks as a tool for locking in the social purpose.

There desperately needs to be a radical rethinking of how we define, manage and measure social businesses. To quote Cliff Prior, CEO of Unltd, a charity that supports social entrepreneurs in the UK.

"However good charities and social enterprises are, there is a big gap between the available solutions and the scale of problems in society. If we can find another set of people and methods by which that gap can be closed, that's massively important."

We need to develop ways to allow entrepreneurs who want to commit their businesses to the social economy to do so using a business model which can accept equity investment and allow for distribution of profit.  I am passionately committed to the development of systems which enable them to lock in their social purpose by other forms of commitment and their reporting systems.

I hope this blog will also reflect my thirst for learning and continued investment in achieving a greater understanding of the need for this triple bottom line, which demonstrates consideration for the impact of an organisation’s activities on both the environment and wider society. It seems common sense to me that by embracing all stakeholders, the business will improve public perception of the its activities and products, increasing both profitability and sustainability.  

I am keen to connect with anyone who shares this passion for a more sustainable and social approach to business and is actively helping organisations quantify and value their reputation and the social and environmental capital they create.