Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!


Where is the backbench opposition to Green cuts?

When the Tories won the election, I asked myself, and some colleagues, ‘who will keep them in check’? The answer from one particularly wise colleague was: ‘they will, they will keep themselves in check’. So it has proved to be. The response to the tax credit cuts from backbenchers and from Tories in the Lords has been decisive. (I was particularly surprised by the appearance of Lord Lawson voting against the Govt, I had long since dismissed him as a climate-change denying basket case, but it appears I might have been wrong about him, climate-change denier apart, he isn’t a basket case). Why then has there not been a similar response to the Tory dismantling of environmental legislation? In case you need a reminder of the damage, Here is a handy list, I suggest that you cut it out and keep it. Has there been any response from the Lords or the backbenches? No there hasn’t. Labour have been too busy deciding whether to elect Corbyn, and having elected him, whether they have consigned themselves to the opposition for a decade. [It is notable that the time when an opposition is most needed in modern politics is in the first year of a new term, so the policy of losing party leaders throwing themselves on their swords is exactly the wrong approach for an electorate that needs a strong opposition at the beginning of the new term. We don’t need a strong opposition leader to turn up when most of the policy changes have been made].

In the end, politicians across the spectrum don’t see these cuts to environmental legislation as a vote loser. The damage this is going to do to the renewables industry or to the climate is perceived to be either too small or too distant for them to worry about it. Whatever negative impact these cuts will have are too distant for politicians to worry about. What is startling about this is that the outcome is more similar to the impact of tax credits than they think. But since most of the people affected don’t have a vote in the UK they are not being considered in quite the same way.

The outcome of climate change on those affected will be much, much worse than any tax credit cuts. Instead of being a bit worse off, millions of people will be displaced. This article mentions some of the countries where a lot of people are likely to be displaced by sea level rises, picture the problems in East Africa if Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are strongly affected by climate change, as is predicted, and how an influx of refugees from those countries would affect Sudan, Uganda and the Congo? Given how much impact a mere two million refugees from Syria is having on the EU, how do we think the worlds politics, industries and economies would be affected by the movement of 150 million people?

Somehow we haven’t managed to couch the message about the dangers of runaway climate change in the right way. It is too much about energy, and too much about what needs to happen in the UK. We need to reinforce the message that the position of the UK on the world stage is at stake here, not as a Trident wielding superpower, but as a compassionate nation full of sympathy for those victimised by circumstances, through no fault of their own, impoverished by their history and at risk from our thoughtlessness.

2 Billion Cars

2 Billion Cars, a book by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

This book is a very interesting read, particularly at this moment, with the backdrop of the VW emissions scandal in the media. The book covers the recent history of both the oil industry and the car industry, in the context of regulation, efficiency and the drive to reduce emissions.

In particular, the part where the book describes how European and Japanese manufacturers made progress in the US market when they offered more fuel-efficient cars with lower exhaust emissions makes for painful reading. American manufacturers fought tooth and nail against higher efficiency and emission standards for decades, and watched with surprise when they were blindsided by foreign manufacturers who saw this demand coming. Those manufacturers must be feeling a little schadenfreude at the moment as they watch VW and other manufacturers admit that they were cheating on their emissions scores.

There are good chapters on the oil industry and how it works, on the growing demand for cars in Asian economies, and on the regulatory regime in California. The book is a really useful reference on the development of fuel-efficient cars including hybrids, the introductions of regulations worldwide and the resistance of the US-based car industry to improving fuel efficiency.  I expect that the book will appeal most to people interested in transport and sustainability problems (which ought to be most of us!)
Some of the points made in the book

1. Since growth in car usage in developed countries has flatlined, or started to decrease, all the growth in vehicles will come from developing countries, with annual growth rates in vehicles about 7-8 percent annually. Whatever India and China do will have the biggest effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The recent pictures of Beijing and Shanghai smog are testament to the growth in those cities of the number of cars but equally their failure to control emissions. (to be fair, not all of it is from cars)

2. There are large parts of the world where infrastructure costs mean that people will continue to use their cars and will not have public transport available to them in the foreseeable future.

3. The chapter on oil is particularly interesting, and how the oil ‘market’ is really not a market, but is in fact carefully managed supply by the oil producers, many of who are using oil to prop up their economies, and often they are among the few non-democracies (or failed democracies) on the planet. When you think of the success of the developed economies that based their success on ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ you wonder at the current level of success being enjoyed by places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela and how they are going to make use of it. The signs so far is that they are going to waste the opportunity. Therefore, making the personal passenger vehicle more environmentally-friendly is key if the rest of us are to stop this haemorraging of wealth into corrupt nations that aren’t going to use it wisely.

4. The chapter on the oil industry also highlighted that we are nowhere near peak oil. The amount of unconventional sources such as fracked gas and tar sands is large enough to blow any chance of staying within the 2 Degrees target. So gas and oil usage will have to be further regulated if we have any chance of managing climate change risks to acceptable levels. (is there such a thing?)

5. The authors are very clear that the best way to promote energy independence and reduce emissions is to impose very high fuel performance standards. Government, they say, should never “bet on a technology winner”, but should instead make performance-based goals the only measure of success, both for fuel performance standards, and exhaust standards. (there are interesting parallels here between the support for nuclear energy by some governments and coal by others)

6. The chapter on California was particularly interesting, highlighting why it is in a unique position to influence national policy on sustainable transportation, and how it can therefore influence policy globally. There are parallels with the role of London in the UK, setting higher standards for buildings and cars, and trialling new technologies before other cities. Sadly, the book was published before Tesla really got going, and I hope that the authors do a revised edition soon to cover the meteoric rise of the electric car worldwide in the last five years.

7. The chapters on the history of the American car manufacturers are instructive for a number of reasons. It is an object lesson on how large corporations lose contact with their customers and focus on doing what they have always done instead of being innovative and market-facing. (The idea that markets are always alive to the demands of the market is an over-simplification of reality)I am reminded of the behaviour of UK housebuilders here as they avoid regulation by complaining that the market doesn’t demand energy efficient homes, and that that adding efficiency increases costs.

8. The way that the US manufacturers used perverse incentives to create gas-guzzling vehicles at the point where they should have been investing in R&D of more fuel efficient engines and vehicles tells you a lot about the behaviour of corporates. What well-run company would have bought Hummer? General Motors, thats who.

9. The authors felt that one of the best hopes to increase fuel efficiency when the book was written was to use plug-in hybrids, like the unexpectedly successful Prius. They rightly point out that hydrogen-powered fuel cells remain a laboratory project.

My only quibble with the book is that its already a little out of date, the authors failed to mention the potential for renewable energy and battery storage to play a major role in energy management and the use of smart grids, but since these ideas are relatively recent perhaps its forgivable. Another reason for a new edition.


Amber Rudd Green?

If the Tories want to achieve any progress on climate emission reductions, and its not clear that they do want to, despite the Rt Hon Amber Rudd’s speech last week, then they have to set out clear market signals that they mean to do so and that they will do so in a way that supports a market which lasts beyond this Parliament. This is too serious an issue to be left to individual Governments to deal with and to be subject to political whims. If ever there was an issue that needed cross-party agreement, this is it.

Clouds over the Capital

Clouds over the Capital

Amber Rudd’s speech on climate change at Aviva sets out some important pointers for how the Government plans to deal with a low carbon economy over the next decade. Having wiped the slate clean of environmental legislation over the last month, their plans appear to be based on a fairly simple idea, that the markets can solve the problem. Given that the environmental problems that we face have arisen because of what Lord Stern called ‘the largest market failure the world has ever seen’, it seems optimistic to me to believe that this approach will work.  That the markets can actually do the work that is required without some significant action by the Government through legislation and policy seems to me to be both unproven and naïve. It is unfortunate that the regulations that the Government has recently abandoned were all sending the right signals to the market; that this Government supports concerted action on climate change mitigation and would use a series of long-term initiatives to achieve that.  In contrast to this, large numbers of the companies who should be lining up to enter this new ‘market’ have objected in the strongest terms to the recent dropping of ambitious environmental targets. It is hard to believe that Amber Rudd has the backing of the Cabinet when she said. ‘We are committed to taking action on climate change and we are clear that our long-term economic plan goes hand in hand with a long-term plan for climate action.’

However hard it may be, I feel that there is little to be gained by complaining that this Government is heading in the wrong direction, because we simply cannot see into the future. There is no getting away from the fact that progress in achieving emission reductions through policy and regulation has been achingly slow. The Committee for Climate Change reflects that much of our current emissions reductions have come about because of the recession and less than one percent of the emissions reductions have come about through environmental improvements. In order to achieve our Carbon Budgets we will need to de-carbonise at a rate of 3% per annum. In order for this Governments plan to work, the market has to be three times more effective in delivering emission reductions than regulation has already achieved.

All of this effort could have been achieved more easily if we had kept some of the previous Governments policies going and not abandoned the ones that were working. I agree that the Green Deal was flawed, but it could have been rescued with a proper finance package, instead of abandoning it entirely. Similarly the zero-carbon housing regulations were heading in the right direction and had massive support from industry, ( with the usual exception of the housebuilders who don’t support any regulation that impacts on their bottom line) and also could have been made to work with some effort. Again this has been unceremoniously binned, sending housing regulations back to 2013, there to stay for the foreseeable future.

What the Tories don’t appear to understand, or are just ignoring, is that in order to create a functioning market you need investment. In order to attract investment, you need certainty, and in order to create certainty you need good governance that doesn’t change the rules without consultation. The stated objective of this Government, to achieve emission reductions through the market, has already been made very difficult by their wilful and short-termist treatment of the companies already active in the market. There is no way that we can achieve the emission reductions we need under the Climate Change Act, without the help of companies providing solar energy, wind farms, low-carbon energy, and insulation. But in dropping planned regulations including zero-carbon housing and the Green Deal, this Government will have alienated most of the companies in all of these sectors.

When the Green Deal closure was announced Amber Rudd MP said,: “ It’s now time for the building industry and consumer groups to work with us to make new policy and build a system that works.”

Having spent a good deal of time working on the development of the Green Deal and on the zero-carbon legislation I imagine I would be one of the people that the minister means when she says ‘building industry’. But why should I spend my time working with Government? The time I spent with the last three Governments has been wasted, as they have shilly-shallied with policy and regulation for a decade, only to bin all that effort when the colour of the party changes. I am certain that many large companies who have invested in Green Deal training and certification will think long and hard before coming back to the table for more.

Angus MacNeil, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said, commenting on the Green Deal announcement: “The government has once again slipped out another announcement about cuts to green policies after parliament has risen for the recess. The Green Deal wasn’t working as well as ministers had hoped, but removing government support without bringing forward an alternative strategy is likely to cause further concern among businesses investing in and delivering energy-efficiency measures.”

It is possible that the long-term plan to reduce emissions will be met by extracting large amounts of shale gas to replace existing coal-fired generation, and by constructing new nuclear power rather than insulating homes and building new energy efficient ones. But both of these strategies are very risky propositions, and will continue to meet opposition among voters, and neither are likely to deliver much in the way of emission reduction during the life of the current Parliament. For every Tory who supports a ban on onshore wind, there will be two Tories who would be anti-fracking. Nuclear will continue to be eye-wateringly expensive and it will be difficult to convince an electorate that you are looking after their energy bills when you spend billions on a few projects that will always cost more than budgeted, and leave an expensive radioactive mess to deal with for the next 10,000 years or so.

A long-term decarbonisation plan for the UK needs to be just that, long-term. Energy efficiency measures in the building stock will need a programme of improvements and finance that lasts from now until 2050. Regulations for new housing that meets EU targets for 2020 needs to be considered now, and once set, needs to be left alone for the industry to develop solutions to meet it. Industrial research needs time and money, time that lasts longer than the life of a parliament, and longer than the political life of most politicians.

“We are committed to climate action; committed to economic security; committed to decarbonising at the least cost.” A. Rudd Aviva speech.

The future of our planet is at stake, nothing less. If the market is to be the vehicle that we use to cut emissions, so be it, but it needs to be a market with solid foundations that is left to function for decades, and not moments. The Tories have started their term in office badly, and have lost the trust of many in industry within a few months. If they are going to deliver on their promises, they need to start acting on them and delivering real change that both those in industry and ordinary people can understand and support. In the year of COP21 Paris when the world expects the UK Government to lead on climate action and to sign up to a global deal, they could have hardly gotten off to a worse start.

Zero Carbon – Zero Chance

The axing of the zero-carbon housing legislation yesterday put an end to a decade of efforts to define a standard for new homes that would support the UK’s drive to reduce emissions from new housing. It was contained in a document from the Treasury, apparently now setting more UK housing policy than DCLG, entitled ‘Fixing the foundations – Creating a more Prosperous Nation’

There is much to welcome in the document, and a lot that seems eminently sensible, I say this to deflect any criticism that I am singling out a single issue to the exclusion of the rest, all 88 pages of it. But it seems to me to be entirely wrong-headed to drop this proposal now, after planning for it for such a long time, and after so much work has been done to prepare for it. I have seen no justification for the decision yet, and I await that justification with interest. The document is about planning to improve the UK’s productivity, so the assumption must be that dropping these proposals will improve productivity in the UK housing industry.

Whether this is really the case or not depends how you measure productivity.

Will removing this requirement mean that more houses get built than would otherwise be the case?

Probably not, as housing starts have more to do with sales values than build costs. The introduction of previous regulatory changes have not had any visible effect on housebuilding numbers as DCLG usually has a fairly relaxed transition period allowing housebuilders to prepare for the new standards over a long period. Housebuilders are also very skilled at passing on the costs of improved performance to their supply chain.

Will more plots receive permission with the legislation removed?

Probably not, as planning authorities will want to see evidence that new homes are sustainably developed and this would have been one way of demonstrating this.

What we will see is that the costs of occupying new homes will stay higher than it would otherwise be, as will the CO2 emissions from them. This could affect up to a million new homes if housing numbers improve towards the 200k per annum mark and this situation lasts for five years 2016-2021. (see graphic)

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The additional running costs will be in the region of £200 per annum per household, meaning a spend of £200M on energy by consumers that could be avoided and the additional CO2 will  be around 2 tonnes per dwelling, reaching a total of 2 Million tonnes of additional CO2 emissions that could otherwise be avoided.

To meet our CO2 budgets this extra 2Mt of CO2 will need to be abated elsewhere, which will come with a cost, and our energy system will need to be developed to include the additional energy supply needed.

It makes little sense to me that a nation that prides itself on its universities and innovation, and associates both of these with improving productivity,  would make this decision. Housing manufacturing in particular is a very innovative and productive industry, and can meet these higher standards already, but needs a willing market to thrive. The companies that will benefit from this are the ones looking backwards, the brick manufacturers, the housebuilders, the landowners. The ones that will suffer are the ones looking forward, the innovative manufacturers, the developers of high quality homes, the purchasers and occupiers of the homes themselves. This change in direction simply retains the status quo and extends the period within which housing can continue to be built using traditional and low productivity methods, and removes any regulatory driver for the industry to improve and innovate.

By 2020 the UK is expected to have introduced legislation to deliver Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB’s) together with all other EU partners. The proposed 2016 regulations would have been a strong stepping stone to this higher standard and made for an easy transition. The Chancellor appears to be betting on that standard either going away, or being optional for the UK to adopt come 2020.


Zero Carbon(2016) Exemption Proposals

The plan to exempt small sites from zero-carbon legislation strikes me as being a total waste of time, energy and money and I cannot fathom why DCLG are wasting their precious time (and mine if it comes to that) with it.

The consultation document can be read here. The main elements are
– The proposal is to exempt small sites from the Allowable Solutions element of the Zero Carbon(2016) proposals. That is, the CO2 offset payment for that CO2 not mitigated on site by the development multiplied by 30 years multiplied by the agreed cost of CO2 per tonne.
– The consultation seeks views on the proposals including
The definition of small sites
Whether the exemption should relate to developers who are small or to any developer developing small sites
Whether the exemption should relate to Allowable Solutions only or whether the exemption should relate to Carbon Compliance as well
How long a time-frame the exemption should last for.

The problem I have with this is: where is the evidence that this is going to promote development? I haven’t seen any. Figures from the consultation document point out that 10% of planning applications in the UK measured by unit number were for single dwellings. That amounted to 24,000 units. So that tells me that there is a lot of activity in this sector and we can expect that to continue.
The Allowable Solutions impact of about £2-3k per plot will act as a small disincentive to development, but since many of those applications (my conjecture) are for the people who will actually live in those homes, the additional costs can be weighed against a lower cost of living for the occupants. The savings in fuel bills over the lifetime of the dwelling will pay for the relatively small additional cost. This is a calculation that many people will be able to do, and probably will realise that if they increase the build specification slightly they will reduce the Allowable Solutions costs and save themselves even more money. This seems to me to be a virtuous circle. People build more efficient homes for themselves, and they save money over and lifetime and there is less CO2 produced. This sounds like a market actually working. So why does the Government think that this is a market they need to interfere in before they actually have it in place?
The likely time frame would be from 2016 until the next issue of the Building Regulations, around 2020. This would allow the costs of the Zero Carbon (2016) to drop and the costs of Allowable Solutions to be absorbed. Again this seems to me to be counter productive. The way to reduce the costs of the Zero Carbon (2016) standard is to have everyone use it as soon as possible. This will bring down the cost of the insulation and window products that are needed to reach the standard, and then they will be available to all and not just the large housebuilders with very cost-effective supply chains. This proposal risks creating a two tier industry with higher costs of smaller builders and lower costs to larger builders.
The problem lies with the speculative nature of so much of our housebuilding. The builder of some of these small plots doesn’t know who the buyer has, and therefore has no interest in how that buyer lives in the home. There is no way for the lower costs of living in a more efficient home to be passed on to the developer in a beneficial way. A developer cannot build a more efficient home and offer it on the market for a small premium, this benefit is simply not recognised in the valuation of a property.
So, can I suggest that a more effective way for the Department to spend its time and mine, would be to investigate ways of making the speculative housing market function as a better market instead of trying to undermine those elements of future legislation that are likely to help it to function as a better market. But in an election year, perhaps that is too much to hope for.

Is There a Need for a Right to Energy?

We have had a Right to Light for a very long time, and good access to daylight in residential buildings is seen as a central issue when designing buildings in many parts of the world. The benefits to well-being and health are well-recognised, even though this can be difficult to assess when it comes to designing buildings in an urban location where it is nearly impossible to build without affecting someones daylight.

But now that we are designing buildings that can be self-sufficient in terms of energy, achieved by using very energy efficient building fabric, passive solar gains and an energy balance achieved with some roof mounted or facade mounted renewable energy production: Do we need a right to the solar energy that such a building is dependent on?

Under Rights to Light legislation a home that suffers a low threshold of light loss has no right to prevent the construction of a building nearby. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, successive buildings can be built around the affected building, each one diminishing the available daylight by a small amount, until the affected building sits in darkness. Call it ‘Darkness by a Thousand Blinds’ instead of ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’.

In the same way, a self-sustaining building can end up losing its access to solar energy through a gradual encroachment on its surroundings by neighbouring buildings, gradually eroding its access to renewable energy either by casting shade on its solar panels, by preventing solar gains, or by stealing the wind from the blades of a wind turbine.

After 2016 when the zero carbon legislation is enacted, (note I say when, not if) then the use of solar panels will be built into regulation under the Carbon Compliance element of the regulation, and the performance of panels or even solar gains will be an integral element of the performance of the building. Buyers of the building can rightly expect the building to perform in accordance with its energy certificate, and if it doesn’t they have a right to know why not.

How long will it be before neighbours are suing each other for loss of income due to encroachment on one another’s solar gains?

I foresee planning arguments, neighbour disputes and legislation ahead.

Do we need Sustainability Rating Tools?

The Housing Standards Review is expected to deliver a response to the consultation on housing standards in the Spring. If the Prime Ministers recent speech is anything to go by, it will be a victory for those in the industry who want Building Regulations and no more, and a defeat for everyone else. His speech included the following…

The Prime Minister plans to help house builders by cutting down 100 overlapping and confusing standards applied to new homes to less than 10 – these reforms are estimated to save around £60 million per year for home builders, equivalent to around £500 for every new home built.

Until the papers are published we don’t know what those 100 overlapping and confusing standards are, but I am pretty sure that the Code for Sustainable Homes is going to be one of them. So the question is, what does the industry feel should happen next? My view is that the Code is generally beneficial, and has helped the industry to build higher quality and more environmentally friendly homes than would otherwise have been the case. It is also my view that it is too detail focussed, too bureaucratic, and has no post handover feedback built into it to test whether its features were helping or hindering people from achieving a more sustainable lifestyle. We need to learn quickly from mistakes and apply standards in a forensic way to achieve the results we want. installing features that residents won’t use or welcome is not sustainable, however well-meant it is.

I would be interested to hear what you think, do we need a replacement to the Code? Take the poll!


Government V Industry 2-0

Every Government has to forge relationships between its officials and industry. Some Governments are more successful at it than others. Some parts of industry are better at maintaining this relationship than others. These relationships depend on the same trust that all relationships depend upon. The trust that one side won’t let the other one down, that one side is listening to the other, even if not always agreeing, etc.. There is always some give and take in every relationship.

The message I get when talking to people now, particularly in the refurbishment part of the industry is that this relationship between industry and Government has broken down and isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon. The reason for this is money. Many companies have invested heavily in preparing for the Green Deal and the ECO legislation, and in the last Autumn it looked as though their investments were going to pay off. Orders were flowing in, the energy companies were starting to sign contracts, and the future was starting to look interesting, if not rosy.

Then Ed Milliband dropped his bombshell by saying that a Labour Government would freeze energy bills, and that this Government didn’t care about consumers pain in the face of high energy bills. I doubt if he or his advisers could have expected what happened next, because if they had, I don’t think they would have done it. The energy companies wailed that green taxes were putting up energy prices and with the help of certain newspapers and some willing bean counters in the Treasury, the Coalition bought that message. The result is that we all save £50 on our annual energy bills and the ECO legislation spending is extended over a much longer period.

The results are almost all negative in the medium and long term, but the short term gain for the Coalition is that it appears to be doing something. A poorly informed electorate will probably accept this and the world moves on. What it leaves behind is a wreckage of wasted time, lost earnings, cold homes, winter deaths, and higher CO2 emissions. I don’t see any vote winners in there, do you?

This is the second time that this Government has done this, with the FiTs changes carried out almost as soon as they came into power. For a group that you would expect to understand the rules of investment and business they seem to have missed some key classes. Investors like long-term programs, and they like to have some certainty. No industry likes uncertainty.

DECC are already talking about Green Deal 2.0, and hoping to engage the industry in discussions about how to improve the legislation to increase takeup. What do you do when a lover cheats on you and then asks you out on a date?

I’ll be washing my hair.

Cities 2.0 RE:WORK

I attended an event at the Tobacco dock last week on the subject of Future Cities/Smart Cities/Cities 2.0. You wait years for this type of thing and then two of them turn up at once. The event format was dominated by speaker sessions with little time for questions. I think that with hindsight the organisers could have left some speakers out and extended the time for discussion. Tobacco dock is also a questionable venue in the middle of winter, it was very cold. It would have been better to put everyone into an auditorium where conversation would have been easier between sessions.


If you are in a real hurry… this event looked at many of the issues that future cities will need to address and what design ideas and technologies are available that may help them to do that.

If you are in less of a hurry… this event selected a number of interesting people from around the world with ideas relevant to future cities and asked them to present them to an audience of data analysists, transport specialists, infrastructure designers and masterplanners. The sessions were split into Urban Mobility, Cities of Tomorrow, Prototyping and Smart Citizens, Sustainable Cities, the Internet of Things & the Socially Driven City, synthetic Biology and the Living City, and Digital Fabrication.

If you are in no hurry, here is a synopsis.

Urban Mobility

  • Frauke Behrendt from the University of Brighton showed some results of a study where she gave e-bikes to a number of people who didn’t currently cycle and studied what happened. A great piece of work that demonstrates how cycling can transform urban mobility quickly and relatively painlessly without needing new and expensive infrastructure.
  • Erik Schlangen, from Delft University showed off a system for repairing concrete and one for repairing roads, the concrete system uses bacteria which are put into the concrete mix but stay ‘asleep’ and then activate when the concrete leaks to plug the crack. Then they go back to sleep again! The road system uses steel wool embedded in tarmac, when the tarmac loses its grip on the aggregate a machine goes over the road surface and using induction heats the wire wool, melts the ashphalt and it regains its grip on the aggregate. They think it needs to be done every three years or so to keep roads in good condition.
  • Fahim Kawsar from Bell labs, showed some research on urban mobility using TFL anonymised data to track movement in and out of intersections, transport nodes and major routes in London. This research showed that there are distinct patterns of use of London’s infrastructure, and I suggested to him that this could be used to identify places where there was good infrastructure but low levels of use, hinting at opportunities for development.
  • Nick Bromley from iCity Smart Cities showed that using mobile phone usage data a similar level of detail can be achieved but which continues to actual destinations and doesn’t stop at transport nodes. This is done using the MAC address of phones, so no-one is tracking actual people, just the hardware, and there is no link between the hardware address and the person. (unless the NSA/MI6 are involved, in which case all bets are off).

Cities of Tomorrow

  • Andrew Hudson Smith talked about the work of CASA at the Bartlett, UCL. He talked about developing a new science of cities to help us to understand how urban mobility, health, transport and economics works and how to help it to work better. He suggested that we are going to see a new transport layer made up of drones delivering goods and services for us in the next decade. See this article about a certain well-known company testing their use for deliveries.
  • Paul Hirst of Disruptive Urbanism wondered what we were trying to achieve in cities. Are these efforts aimed at helping people to be happier or more productive, using less energy or being more comfortable?
  • Manu Fernandez of Human Scale City was clear that technology on its own is not enough. He wondered what cities would be like if we changed pedestrian crossings to always be on, and cars had to press the button to cross? He suggested that a use of technology to control infrastructure would fail, but one which hands control to citizens would succeed.
  • Lean Doody of ARUP suggested that technical integration is the easy part, its more difficult for us to cooperate in an urban environment than technological integration would suggest. The fact that we can talk to anyone in the world easily doesn’t mean that we talk to our neighbours more than we used to.
  • Scott Cain of Future Cities Catapult described the job of the Catapult in joining together expertise in future cities. There is an investment programme of 10 Trillion dollars planned in global cities over the next decade to meet rising levels of urbanisation. The job of the Catapult is to bring expertise together to help meet this global demand.

Prototyping and Smart Citizens

  • Alicia Asin of Libelium showed the use of sensors in urban areas to allow people better control over their lives. She showed examples of sensors being used to hlep people find a parking space, or to show people what the local air quality is like, data is there for a purpose, to remove uncertainty. She suggested that the use of open-source technology like Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards may allow future citizens to access open data themselves and to relay it back to others for the common good. See this open source Geiger counter as an example.
  • Joel Gethin Lewis of Hellicar & Lewis showed some of their work creating interactive installations that bring some joy and happiness to the urban experience.
  • Priya Prakash of Design for Social change talked about setting up, a platform for enabling change in urban environments by bringing together interested parties. This team are working with Southwark to develop the Elephant & Castle Neighbourhood Plan.
  • Sam Hill of PAN Studio talked mainly about their work with Bristol City Council to provide text addresses for inanimate objects in the city. These could then accept text messages from people and respond with some helpful and sometimes less helpful information. A charming and witty project that shows that successful engagement need not always be about purpose and outcomes, sometimes fun and humour is enough.

Creating the Sustainable City

  • Phillip Rode of LSE Cities talked about research into what control cities have over some of the critical elements of being good cities. He oberved that many cities have no food policy, the one thing that every one in a city needs every day! There is a great variety of approaches to energy policy, in some countries the energy system is owned by the city and in others the city has no control.
  • Alsion Dring of elegant embellishments talked about their development of pollution eating facade treatments and their work to turn biochar into a useful production material. Her ambition is to turn consumption into a sustainable activity rather than trying to stop it. This is an interesting approach and it turns the usual environmental message on its head. Turn biochar into a material that can be used to make furniture out of, for example, and then encourage people to buy it and then send it to landfill. The biochar will lock up carbon for centuries and stimulate a renewable materials industry.

The Internet of Things & The Socially Driven City

  • Carlo Ratti of MIT showed some work from the Senseable City Lab. He showed a brilliant project where he tagged several hundred pieces of rubbish and then tracked their progress to waste disposal sites. The result was a bewildering pattern of networks some of them criss-crossing the US as these unwanted items were delivered to their final recycling or waste disposal site. He then showed another drone related piece of work where a drone showed a Harvard student how to get around MIT.  I was left thinking that the Harvard student would have been much better left to ask MIT students how to get around MIT, since his/her purpose in coming there was to meet MIT students and learn from them, rather than following a drone around campus. Drones seem to me to be a technology in search of a solution, rather than the other way around.
  • Marc Pous, from theThings.IO talked about the use of open source software and hardware to enable citizens to do their own thing to control their destinies rather than cities thinking that they need to use control systems to make citizens lives easier.
  • Mischa Dohler talked about how difficult it is to engage with citizens in their busy lives and how you need to develop empathy before you can enable engagement.

Synthetic Biology & the Living City

This section was frankly disappointing.

  • David Benjamin of The Living demonstrated how sensor data can be tied to visual signs to quickly illustrate to urban dwellers what air or water quality is immediately without needing to go through further data processing and relay to apps.

Digital Fabrication & 3D Printing

  • Enrico Dini of D-Shape showed his technique for printing buildings using sand, and then suggested that since there was lots of sand in deserts we should build cities there. This is a leap of imagination I din’t follow as we have been moving our construction materials to where we want to live for centuries, not the other way around. His illustrations of the types of buildings that could be built from sand were attractive, and interesting, but ultimately unconvincing.
  • Gilles Retsin of SoftKill Design showed a design for a house constructed from the smallest possible amount of material made into very intricate components. The problem was that it wasn’t a house that anyone could recognise as a house or live in. It was more an exhibition of itself than a realistic architectural proposition.
  • Fabio Gramazio from ETH showed examples of robots being used at ETH to build interesting shapes that human bricklayers would have difficulty with. For example, a winery facade made from bricks that rotate a few millimeters to create a ventilated facade that is still structurally sound. He then made an intellectual leap from small structures of brick made from drones to large structures made from larger drones where the construction elements are not bricks but individual homes.

All the projects in this session made a similar intellectual leap from a fascination about the use of a particular type of manufacturing to an idea about cities. The manufacturing ideas are strng, but the ideas for scaling it up were all weak. The idea of designing places around the technology that makes them is similar to the intellectual leap that led us to Brutalism, and Plan Voisin. Places should be about the lives of people that live in them, and not about the technology that makes the places. I think that 3D printing and new construction techniques have an important role to play in future cities, but I didn’t see it here.