Ask not what Drones can do for you, but what can you do for a Drone.

Musing over the idea that drones (and by this I mean the little ones, usually small quadcopters, not multi-million pound aerial weapons flown by remote) will have a major role to play in modern urban societies, I concluded that it would be both fun and instructive to work through just what their role might be. 

Both Google and Amazon are experimenting with drone delivery systems and I can see the appeal of this immediately. Instead of having to wait a whole day for gratification, the lengthy gap between ordering online and when our newly purchased parcel arrives, we can have our gratification almost immediately if we can organise a drone to deliver the purchase instead. We see that thing online that will make our lives either complete or a bit less incomplete, we buy the thing, and a drone delivers it to our door a mere hour later. 

Lets just take it as read that this will happen in any case, because if for no other reason, there are a lot of pizzas that need delivering every day, and this would take a lot of maniacs on scooters off our roads, and thats the thin end of the wedge. With the growth of online shopping I have heard a TFL* representative say that 30% of Londons traffic is delivery vehicles. Even if we took 50% of the vans off the road, we would reduce congestion a lot, reduce emissions a lot as most vans are diesel powered, and the streets would be quieter and safer. Apart from the hum of drones that is. Perhaps the pigeons would disappear too, perhaps there would be too much aerial traffic for them to feel comfortable, one can hope.

But there are a lot of problems to be solved and barriers to that future. 

Legality

They’re illegal, and cannot be flown near to people, which is a bit of a problem when you want them to get close to people to deliver goods to them. I think this will go away presently as the software systems running on the drones enables them to be more or less autonomous and able to avoid crashing into things or people. If cars can be considered safe as driverless objects, then drones shouldn’t present much of a challenge, being much smaller and lighter, and posing much less risk to human life. Lets assume that that challenge is surmountable.

Location

Drones don’t currently have much of a range from the signal that controls them, which means that if you are a kilometer away from their controller they aren’t much use. I think that this can be dealt with by allowing the drone to control itself and by having a distributed network of guidance, like cellular telephone masts, that provide locations to the drone as it comes close to the mast. We use these masts to locate ourselves with smartphones, so why not drones too? To get it to deliver to our houses we just need a way to broadcast a signal to it that it can recognise, perhaps like the one created by our WiFi routers?

Distance

Being battery powered the current quadcopter drone designs are limited in terms of the distance they can travel and the loads they can carry. Battery technology is getting better, so distance will grow over time. The location masts or beacons used above to tell them their location could also provide charging points, so a tired worn-out drone could stop off for a quick gulp of electrons on the way home after delivering your pizza, book, fresh coffee,..whatever. To take on heavier loads drones could cooperate. This video by ETH shows a group of drones constructing a rope bridge, and this one shows another team creating a structure using bricks. The relatively straightforward task of delivering a parcel looks rather easy in comparison.

Identity

One of the major problems with drones is privacy. People don’t like the idea of a machine equipped with a powerful camera flying over their heads on a daily basis. This seems a bit Luddish to me, after all, in our cities we are surrounded by cameras in the hands of everyone we pass as well as those on the streets and buildings. But lets address the problem anyway. Imagine a scenario where the drone is autonomous, and not under control by any external agent, as it winds its way from depot to you. It doesn’t even need to go to your house, if you are in the park having a coffee, it could deliver the pizza directly to you. What the drone needs is autonomy, and a way of getting an anonymous set of directions to you. It need never know who you are, or where you live, and even better, it need not know what it has delivered to you. This will help to avoid the problem of Amazon and Google knowing everything you ever bought so that they can try and sell you a duplicate of everything you own. (why don’t they try and sell you something you haven’t bought?)

Delivery

Lets take a scenario where you order a pizza and its awaiting delivery at the ‘restaurant’. A signal is sent out that a delivery needs to be made, and the nearest drone accepts the job in the same way that a Uber car would. The shortest distance to pick up the pizza would offer the cheapest transaction cost. The drone collects the pizza, and is given an electronic token at the same time. This was created by you when you ordered the pizza. Half the token goes to you, and half to the drone. You broadcast the token from your location and the token is passed from one point on the network to the next, every time the token is passed on it gets a bit added by every node on the network. The network propagates the token from one node to the next indiscriminately. This enables the drone to follow the trail back to you by seeking a broadcast token that is shorter than the one it has picked up from the network and which matches the other half of the token it already has. It will find its way to you without knowing who you are, or where you are. 
 

Esch bubble represents a location beacon, such as a wi-fi router., the routers broadcast the destination to the drone, and the drone follows this to you, wherever you are. The box at the top left is the warehouse sending in the message, the box on the right is you waiting for the delivery. Drones already in the network pick up the message signal, follow it to the warehouse, pick up the package and deliver it to you.

 

Security

In the same way that BitCoin has developed a security system that is distributed, and every bitcoin node knows how many bitcoins there are, and who owns them, without being controlled by a central source, drones could carry out the physical transactions managed by a similar system to the electronic transaction. In a nice parallel where BitCoins enable Payer A to use currency B to pay C, the drone can carry the package from C back to A using the network B. Read this article on blockchains and BitCoins and you will see what I mean. This method would prevent anyone knowing which drone was carrying which package, and who it was intended for. The only way someone could steal your pizza would be to follow you home and steal it from the drone as it delivered it to you. Of course there will always be people who will snare a drone for whatever it happens to be carrying, but at least they won’t be able to steal on demand. 

Physical Implications

A drone needs somewhere to land a drop off its parcel. It needs a flat surface to land, and if the person for whom the delivery is intended isn’t there, it needs an electronically linked drop box where it can leave your parcel. It could lock the box with its half of the electronic delivery token, and you can unlock it with your matching half when you get home from work. But the box needs to be big enough to accept your pizza, post, packages and needs to be somewhere that the drone can get at but where other people cannot. For apartment buildings this would ideally be the roof, where a landing platform and a set of drop boxes could be located without too much difficulty in many flat-roofed apartment buildings. 

Perhaps one day drones will be able to post letters through your letterbox, if you still get any, any that you actually want to read that is.
*Transport for London

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The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.


Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.

END

If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

Housing Standards Review Chaos (Updated)

The response from DCLG has been published here. This was published under the title, ‘Government sets higher standards for homes’ which wasn’t true, as the annoucement sets no new standards, and gets rid of quite a few, including the Code for Sustainable Homes. The title has been changed to ‘Government plans will make it easier and cheaper to build homes to a high standard’ which at least is accurate. It will be easier and cheaper to build homes to a less high standard than before. There is no mention of an exception for London, so the status of the London Housing Standards is unknown.

Previous blog starts here:

The Housing Standards Review is due to report back to the industry in march. My guess is that at the moment the DCLG is in a difficult position. London probably doesn’t want to give up on its Housing Standards, having spent years and millions developing them. Who can blame them? So I am guessing that London wants to be an exception to the dropping of the Code and any change to its powers as an authority. This is likely too put DCLG in an awkward position to put it mildly. Having proposed a raft of changes to the way housing is delivered across the UK, it now may end up having to restrict the changes to those parts of England outside of London. This highlights the fact that we have an increasingly two-tier economy. The South East and the rest. The economics of the South East means that there is little or no economic impact of any imposition of standards. The standards could be substantially higher and it still wouldn’t affect the business case for development.

For the Midlands and the North, the case is very different. There are many sites that are still marginal and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Companies that bought land there at the height of the market are unlikely to make a good return on them any time soon. You could say that the problem of overpaying for land is a problem for the overpayers and not for the rest of us. Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work? But at the same time, wherever there is a housing need it is unfortunate that those who need good quality housing aren’t able to get it.

The position is the opposite in the South East. Values are rocketing in London in particular, and this is spreading to some unlikely areas of the capital, where developers are marketing their products to less than knowledgeable buyers in the Far East, who only need to hear the words ‘London’ to open their cheque books. I hope those agents are quoting sensible rental income figures. (Who am I kidding?).

The other issue facing the Housing Standards Review is that many LA’s have recently rewritten their Core Strategies to cope with the changes in the NPPF. Having to change their Core Strategies to take on a further set of changes will be very expensive, right at a time when they are having to manage deep cuts to their budgets. How willing will they be to take this on?

It will be fascinating to see how this all works out in the end, but my guess is that the Dept has bitten off more than it can chew on this issue, and having taken on swingeing cuts itself when the coalition came to power, it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with it.

My prediction is that the Housing Standards Review will be a set of recommendations for further studies and reports and a promise to tackle it all if the Tories elected for a second term. Now is the time for the industry to get together and tell the parties what they want to see in the next set of election manifestoes.

Meanwhile the Code for Sustainable Homes will become out-of-date from the first of April because it refers to 2010 Building Regulations. What happens then? We need to know now, not after the 1st April. We are all working on development projects that need to be planned years into the future, and at the moment, the housing Standards Review is sowing uncertainty and confusion, which is exactly the opposite of what it was intended to achieve.

Cities 2.0 TEDx London

I was lucky enough to attend TEDx London last week on the subject of Future cities. 13 speakers from a wide variety of professions and interests talked about what is wrong with our cities today and how we could make them better tomorrow.

Michael Batty from CASA talked about connected networks and demonstrated that there are about ten large-scale well-connected areas in the UK that can reasonably be called cities. He discussed population growth and posited that we are likely to stabilise population around the 10 billion mark as developed economies halt population growth and stabilise or reduce. We are going to hit the point of being 75% urban around 2050, which will add a further 2.5 billion people to urban environments, almost as much as we currently have.

Katherine Harborne, a Conservative Councillor for Richmond, talked about how cycling can contribute to the future of healthy happy cities by allowing citizens to commute quickly, safely and cheaply. I don’t think there was any dissent there, she was preaching to the converted. She pointed out that the more cyclists there are the lower the death statistics are on average. This is a nicety that only a scientist would think was positive. To the rest of us a death is a death is a death.

Tom Wright from the Regional Plan Association in NYC had a lot of interesting experience in the US to talk about. The US is moving back towards an urban model and away from the suburban one. The rate of car use peaked in 2005 and is continuing to drop annually. NYC has just brought in a cycle hire scheme and it has already surpassed the number of daily trips taken in London. (But we don’t care about that because we are not competitive, Yank) He discussed the way that cities lever taxation to build infrastructure, something that we don’t seem to have a grip on in this country. It is commonplace in the US to use local taxation to pay for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, tunnels etc., by using the cheap finance that a city can buy. He discussed the uplift in local values that can come from improved infrastructure and wheter that increase in value should be used in part to pay for infrastructure, a type of local Value Added Tax, or Stamp duty land Tax.

Jonathan Keeling from Pavegen showed us his company’s clever paving system that generates electricity. The memorable fact from him was that if 100m of Oxford Street was paved with his technology, the power generated in a day would keep the Oxford Street lights on for a week. Now if he had said that shoppers would also be less tired, happier and less stressed as a result, then he would have had our attention.

Michael Pawlyn, formerly of Grimshaw’s and a major influence on the Eden Project talked about biomimicry, and how learning from nature can help us to make the best uses of scarce resources. I love his presentation technique where he films himself drawing diagrams and talks over it. He showed a beautiful office building which encapsulated many of his ideas on how to design well-lit, enjoyable spaces. I’d like to see him take his ideas direct to manufacturers and get them to design some new products based on them, rather than trying to encapsulate all of them into a single building.

Vanessa Harden talked with passion and humour on the subject of engaging with communities through guerilla gardening. Her apparently casual performance belied a serious purpose to help people to engage with their communities through nature using faux spy technology.Her gardening tools for busy professionals are particularly good.

Mischa Dohler won the prize for entertainment, if there had been such a prize. His conflation of sexual mores and data gathering was very polished and wouldn’t have been out of place in a comedy club. His debunking of the myths around ‘Big Data’ possibly made more sense to him than to most of the audience who haven’t been exposed to those myths yet. I daresay that is what happens when you are close to the leading edge, no-one gets your jokes. His most memorable section was showing how difficult it is to ask Londoners about their city and how they engage with it. No-one would stop to answer the question!

Suzanne Holt Ballard talked about a near future city where we are going to be able to control systems and link to them through brain-to-brain (B2B) interfaces. She wondered what a city would be if we could connect to it without actually being there. We nodded and applauded as though we had understood anything she had said.

Roma Agrawal, spoke convincingly about the need to encourage young people to become engineers. Like scientists there is a lack of role models for a younger generation to make them want to join the engineering and design professions.

Leo Hollis spoke convincingly about the nature of cities as places for people to come together and interact. He cited a study into urban manners or ‘civiity’ which compared a rural village to a suburb to part of LB Newham which found that people were more civil in Newham than in the other places, mainly because they had opportunities to do so. Little England and the suburbs are places for people to get away from each other, cities are places for us to get together.

Alexander Grunsteidl spoke convincingly about how cities evolves as places for defense initially and then for retail. He wondered what would happen to cities if we moved more of our purchasing to online shops and if this resulted in the closure of large sections of our high streets how would we react? He wondered if we all became traders again as we were in the early stages of cities, and traded and shared with each other more through technology, and bought less from distant shops, whether the city would reform itself around this?

Finally we had Roger Hartley from the Bureau of Silly Ideas. This crew bring a range of engaging interventions to streets, markets, festivals, building sites and other opportunities at the drop of a silly hat. I particularly like Roger’s plea to stop surrounding sites with enormous hoardings that turn a place into a sort of black hole while the hoardings are there. Be more creative with sites, they are often there for along time.

While We Were Sleeping

Coming out of recession is an interesting time. Companies have cut back their expenses, their marketing budgets, their overheads, we are all running lean businesses. Those that have survived. Many in the housing industry are now talking about growth rates of 20-50% per annum over the next couple of years as the industry ramps up to meet demand. But how are we going to ramp up? Are we simply going to go back to the end of the last recession when we welcomed an influx of new Europeans from the former Eastern Bloc countries, who came to the UK and provided a new workforce to supplement the industry? Will we see an influx of Greek, Italian and Spanish workers who are unable to find work in their own economies? Yes we probably will, but even with this additional workforce it is unlikely that we will be able to double output within two years, and maintain that for a substantial period. Migrant workers are just that, migrants, and while a proportion will stay for a long term, many will not, and will repatriate at the earliest opportunity.

Let’s take this opportunity and re-look at how we construct housing in the UK. let’s move a substantial amount of the output into factories where anyone can work. Safe, clean well-lit factories where women as well as men can participate in the manufacturing of housing. Places where a beer gut and foul language are as out of date as a lump hammer and a bucket of wet cement. For several months now I have been hearing stories of how difficult developers are finding it to source the bricks and blocks that they need to build the projects they have coming on stream. If trying to ramp up production from small numbers is proving problematic, what will it be like if we try to double output?

While the housing industry has been dozing, the world has been moving on.

Manufacturing is starting to turn on its head, instead of large factories producing millions of widgets, all of them the same, the future is of smarter smaller production systems making products for the needs of the individual consumer. Adidas Mi sportswear offers customers choices of colours, sizes, trims. Car manufacturers have been doing the same for years. 3D printing is promising us the ability to design and make goods in our own homes to suit our own desires, instead of having to buy what whatever someone else makes and thinks we desire.

3D Printer

3D Printer

In a recent report the Housing Forum pointed out that most other consumer facing industries have been transformed by the intervention of sophisticated Information Technology. telephones, music, computers, tablets, pads, are all industries that have changed beyond recognition in the last decade, and all of them are delivering enormous benefits to society and making profits for the companies at the forefront of manufacturing and design. Why should housing be different?

This is a moment for the housing industry to seize, we can make housing better by making it in better ways. By moving a large proportion of our output into factories we can increase production and productivity at the same time. We can create employment for new types of people who have been out of work for years by placing factories where the workers are, not where the building sites are. We can deliver more sustainable homes by reducing the amount of embodied energy that goes into them and by reducing the number of vans and trucks that need to come to site. We can speed up production to enable hew entrants to the housing market to rent and then buy the home that they desire, and not the home that we think they ought to be happy with.

We don’t need another report to tell us what we already know, Latham told us decades ago. It was true then and its still true now. We need to make this decision ourselves and help each other out. Developers and housebuilders need to acknowledge that by restricting their supply chains to traditional methods of construction they are stifling the development of smarter methods of production. Factories need certainty of demand in order to invest in equipment and training. With the current levels of demand there is no reason why this level of commitment cannot happen. It simply needs the will in the industry to make it happen. The alternative is another decade of poor quality housing, missed targets and another generation of consumers who think that a 100 year-old house is preferable to one built yesterday.

Sustainia 100 launch

I attended the launch of the Sustainia 100 today. This is the publication of 100 projects from around the world that meet the Sustainia criteria. This criteria says that projects must contribute to a sustainable bottom line as well as being readily available and scalable. Several excellent speakers underlined the core message of the Sustainia project, which is to demonstrate that the sustainable future we all desire is achieveable and within our grasp and companies that make sustainable solutions available to global markets are already reaping the rewards for doing so.
Erik Rasmussen: CEO Monday Morning and founder of Sustainia described how it grew out of the failure of Copenhagen #COP15 and was conceived as a solution to the poor communication between politicians, environmentalists and scientists that led to the failure. Without a compelling vision for the future that we can all understand and share, how can we hope to reach agreement on the path to that future?
Dr. Ioannis Ioannou presented research on companies that adopted sustainable business models in 1992 and compared their profitability with a basket of other companies who didn’t and found that today  sustainability centred companies are worth substantially more than their less sustainable traditionally run competition. Companies in the future will need to manage their social and environmental impact in the same way that they manage their financial impact.
Dr. Kim Tan was particularly compelling in his argument that in order to help developing countries we need to help them to move from an informal economy (where less than half pay taxes) to a formal one(where most people do). Give developing countries jobs, not aid, he said. He demonstrated a number of start-up businesses that are operating in Africa and thriving, not on aid, but on sound business models based on tourism, recycling and energy.
Previous winners such as Azuri, Terracycle and GravityLight demonstrated why they were winners in the previous years list. Each one has its own unique story, and this is the engaging element of Sustainaia, that it is a collection of stories about how sustainability works in different places around the globe for different people, and that each story has its place in the book about how to be more sustainable. Download it today and be inspired.

The Race for Resources – “Winner Takes All” – Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo’s book, “Winner Takes All” is an important book that should be read by everyone interested in sustainability. The subject of the book, the growing need for resources and the failure of our current political and economic structures to react to this need, is an important one that goes to the heart of what sustainability is. Her time horizon is measured in decades, not years, and the relevance of her subject is as much for the next generation as it is for this one. The subtitle to the book ‘China’s race for resources and what it means for us’ is a canny one, and will have garnered her many readers for whom books on global economics or commodity shortages are rarely on their reading lists. The decades-old fear of China is hard to shake off and some readers will have bought this book in the hope of having their worst fears confirmed. The Chinese are coming!

Except that they’re not, at least not in that way. They are coming to resource-rich and money-poor countries, though. China has a different political and economic structure to the rest of us, and that means that they look at resource shortages in a different way too. For China, it is important to keep the population happy in the long term, because without that their entire political and economic structure is at risk. For most democracies, the focus is on the need to keep the population happy in the short term, because that is what keeps the current party in power. China’s longer term outlook has led them to sign multi-billion deals with Africa, Asian, and South American countries that deliver infrastructure and other benefits to the host country and deliver long-term resource flows for China. These resources range from copper, oil, and coal to keep the hungry Chinese industrial machine fed, and cotton, chicken and beef to keep the increasingly demanding consumer society clothed and fed. As these resources become scarcer, China is taking steps to keep them flowing to their people.

The interesting question that she raises is this, by signing these deals over the last decade, China appears to have stolen a march on other developing and developed nations and paid over the odds for these resources. Is this really the case? It’s akin to paying too much in today’s market for houses in a neighbourhood that isn’t much in demand now, but is a good prospect in two decades time. China’s strategy might work out in economic terms, and it might not. Between 2005 and 2012 China invested $400 billion overseas. This is not small change. What is concerning is that China appears to be the only major economy doing deals on this scale. China is able to do so because we have outsourced so much of our manufacturing there over the last few decades and they have a huge trade surplus that enables these deals. China is betting that it will need these resources, and all indicators are that they are correct. Other countries, including the developed nations will need them too, but don’t appear to be as interested, or if they are they seem to be unable to organise themselves to act. The recent GOP/Democratic squabbles are a good example of this. Dambisa contrasts the US foreign policy behaviour with that of China over the last decade, one the US side its a litany of failure, aggression, naked self-interest, paternalism and division. On the Chinese side its a different story of political disinterest, commercial goodwill, win-win agreements, and a long list of happy partners. The contrast could hardly be greater.

I commend this book to you, it covers a complex topic well, and the subject matter is very relevant to anyone interested in working towards a sustainable future.