Friday, November 21, 2014

Towards a new York

York Business Conference took place this week. That’s York in Yorkshire, the original one! 

What’s that got to do with sustainability? It’s about the city of the future and the way we’ll all live. Some groundwork to do first, of course.

First of all, there was a power cut which threatened to derail the whole event. Nothing to do with the scare stories in the press; apparently it was a substation fault, but it did black out some 26,000 properties across the city. It just shows how dependent we are on electricity.  Fortunately power was restored after less than an hour and we all filed in to the auditorium to talk about economic prospects for York. It's a vibrant place with a long history which everybody knows about and a lot of scientific and academic resources that very few people seem to know about. We have FERA, the Food and Environment Research Agency, a research lab with a global reputation. We have a tremendous amount of research going on in our York universities, but speakers complained that there was far too little contact between universities and business and indeed between schools and business. A number of speakers said that the the media constantly give business a bad press. In drama it’s always the businessman who is the villain, and Lord Rose said that Lord Sugar’s Apprentice was a total misrepresentation of what business was truly about. 

We had a presentation from York Core, an organisation which brings ultra high speed data connectivity to homes and businesses throughout the city. York Core is provided by City Fibre - see  - spreading high-speed data networks across the UK from key centres  in York,  Aberdeen, Peterborough and Coventry. The UK pays the penalty of leading the industrial revolution in that it has a legacy infrastructure. The copper telecommunications network which was revolutionary in its time is no longer fit for purpose, yet there is no UK fibre strategy. In terms of connectivity we are way behind Sweden, Lithuania and Latvia. 

We had a range of speakers telling us about the potential of York and the industrial expansion which could and should be achieved. They talked about devolution and decentralisation although nobody came to any conclusion as to what we should be doing about it. One point that was made most forcibly is that we should dual the outer ring road without delay. At the moment the delays on the ring road are unacceptable. I say unacceptable, but clearly many people do accept them because if they weren't sitting in traffic jams on the ring road there would not be any traffic jams on the ring road. If we are going to dual the ring road and increase its capacity - and this applies not just to York but to all the bypasses and road improvements around the country - we are assuming that as the future develops we are going to need to move more goods and more people. Is that true? One solution which could be implemented much more quickly than by building a new carriageway, would be to impose a toll on part of the ring road. I got a very negative reaction to this: “What? I'm going to have to pay to drive home?” If you had to pay in order to be able drive home at least you would find the road reasonably empty. And if the predicted growth of goods and people doesn't actually happen we won't have wasted the investment on a new carriageway.

The principal speaker at the conference was Lord Stuart Rose, formerly of Marks & Spencer. He was interviewed by Martin Vander Weyer of the Spectator magazine. I was particularly interested in Lord Rose’s views on sustainability and so submitted a question in advance. Unfortunately the interviewer decided to paraphrase it rather inelegantly and present it as one of his own. This is what I actually wrote: “You are the architect of Plan A, the M&S policy of environmental responsibility and carbon reduction. With former Environment Minister Owen Paterson saying we should suspend the Climate Change Act because the dangers of global warming are exaggerated, with George Osborne incentivising fracking to produce more fossil fuels and with David Cameron rejecting environmental concerns as green crap, isn't that now a lost cause?” I intended it to be controversial and Lord Rose rose to the bait. He said that companies had a huge responsibility and he was disappointed with the government’s attitude. Sustainable business is good business. Sustainability demands innovation and there will be serious problems if we don’t act now. The solutions are not always obvious or simple. For example, the carbon footprint of flying in vegetables from Africa could be lower than growing them in heated poly-tunnels in the UK. At the same time we need to remember our responsibilities. If we source supplies from Africa, in many cases we are building a community totally dependent on our business.

Later on Lord Rose went on to say that the high-speed rail projects HS2 and HS3, and a third runway at Heathrow were all essential if the UK wanted to compete in the 21st century. If we’d asked him he’d probably have said that we should dual the ring-road as well. Not sure how this fits in with sustainability. Are we really going to travel more and more and commute longer and longer distances? Apart from anything else, is travel what life’s all about? We’ve seen that York Core is bringing gigabit data speeds to York and to cities all over the country. Do we need to move ourselves and our goods as well? 

Data connectivity is a recurring theme in a number of events I’ve attended in the last couple of weeks. We’ve been talking about smart cities, the cities of the future. I’ll tell you what I’ve learnt about smart cities in a future episode.

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