Mar 31 2014

Towards sustainable public procurement

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Jon EmmettLSE won an award last week for buying Fairtrade cotton uniforms for its Estates staff and contractors.  Attending an EU ethical procurement conference to collect the trophy, Jon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, had the opportunity to learn from how others are addressing this issue around the world. 

The European Fair Cotton Procurement Awards

LSE was delighted to win a European Fair Cotton Procurement Award on 28 March.  The School was recognised for its sector-leading role in buying Fairtrade cotton uniforms for its Estates staff and contractors, whilst explicitly linking this with its commitment to being a London Living Wage employer.  Fairtrade cotton goods are also stocked in the SU shop.

This was great news for LSE, and especially the Estates Division.  But what was most interesting from a personal perspective was the opportunity to find out more about what people around Europe and across the world are doing to tackle the many challenges of ethical buying in the public sector.

Fair Cotton awards - Mar 2014

Award winners

The French Postal Service won an award for sourcing 100% of their T-shirts and 40% of work-wear from Fairtrade cotton.  But more importantly, they have also established a direct and mutually beneficial partnership with the cotton growers in Mali, who have been on exchange visits to France;  likewise, French posties have visited Mali where they met the local cotton growing co-op, and helped build a school there.  In fact it was the Solobamady Keita, the General Secretary of the National Union of Cotton Producers’ Cooperative Societies of Mali, who presented the awards.

Other award winners included the City of Paris, for providing one third of its uniformed workers with Fairtrade cotton uniforms.  (Click here for a case study.)  The French region of Brittany was highly commended for its framework of decentralised cooperation with the producers and suppliers from the West African Economic and Monetary Union.

Bremen

The awards ceremony was the finale of a one-day conference held in Bremen, Germany, on “Moving Towards Socially Responsible Public Procurement”.  Bremen was an apt location for the event.  Not merely a Fairtrade city, it’s known as the ‘Capital of Fairtrade’.  It has well-established renewable energy networks, and while the broad streets of the city centre bustled with people, trams and bikes, there wasn’t a car in sight.

Bremen street

Look mum, no cars!

Wandering around the town in the evening after the conference, I was struck by how beautiful it was:  centuries-old eccentric architecture, the peculiar statues, winding cobbled alleys.  The quaint serenity of bikes outnumbering motor vehicles.  But it was also intriguing to see how the city has adapted to thrive in modern times.  The building hosting the conference appeared ancient on the outside, but the interior had been refurbished to accommodate a modern, light and airy venue.

Science Museum:  Where does our energy come from?

Science Museum: Where does our energy come from?

The ground floor housed a science museum – the ‘Haus der Wissenschaft’ – which was dedicated to presenting a hopeful vision of what science can offer the future, with displays on renewable energy, efficient waste disposal, and designing green cities.  (A far cry from the ‘bombs and oil’ version of science and engineering that often seems to dominate mainstream UK discourse.)

 

Science Museum:  Interactive waste disposal game

Science Museum: Interactive waste disposal game

The four musicians, and singing from the same hymn sheet

Bremen is also known for the ‘Four Musicians of Bremen’ folk tale.  Long story short:  a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster – pictured below – are near the end of their productive lives on their respective farms.   Each leaves to find a better life as a musician.  They all meet by chance, and stumble across some burglars ransacking a house.  The four animals stand on top of each other outside the window, and sing for the burglars in the hope of earning some supper.  Instead, the burglars are terrified by the strange monster they see (part donkey, part dog, etc), and flee.  Having foiled the burglars, the animals live happily ever after in the house.

Although the humour in this story derives from the accidental nature of the ‘cooperation’ between the four ‘musicians’, I propose a (possibly tenuous) connection between the collaboration among the four animals in the story, and the collaboration needed to address ethical procurement, which I noticed was a strand running throughout the day.

The four musicians of Bremen

The four musicians of Bremen

The conference

The conference itself was held in partnership between two EU-funded projects:  Landmark, which advocates ethical public purchasing, and ‘Cotton On to Fairtrade Procurement’, a Fairtrade cotton campaign by the EU Fairtrade Advocacy Office.  Below are some of my highlights.

An inspiring session was presented jointly by the French Postal Service and the Mali National Union of Cotton Producers’ Cooperative Societies.  They spoke about the partnership mentioned above which saw the exchange of goods, services, visits and respect between workers in France and Mali.

UK student campaign group People and Planet spoke about their new Electronics Watch project, which researches the often poor working conditions in the manufacture of IT equipment.  A leader from the Bremen municipality responded by explaining a partnership between Bremen, Hamburg and other German regional authorities who have created a joint ICT procurement contract worth €millions, which is big enough to place demands on even major suppliers that they abide by labour welfare standards.

An ethics auditor from Bangalore gave a fascinating insight into the challenges faced on the ground by those monitoring workers’ rights in the cotton supply chain in India.  Dr Binay Choudhury discussed the difficulties of ensuring transparency, and the need to understand the cultural context of who and what you’re auditing.  He also addressed the risk that even audits aren’t fool-proof, noting that a Bangladeshi garment factory was destroyed by fire in 2012 killing over 100 workers, only days after (possibly bribed) auditors said it was safe.

A Swiss procurement expert introduced a dizzyingly rich resource that maps different tools to assess ethical footprint of goods and services.  An informative but somewhat dry session from an expert on EU procurement law was immediately followed, without introduction or explanation, by a dance performance by an interpretive mime duo.  I don’t know what their short play symbolised, and I suspect I never shall – though I guess it had something to do with ethical manufacturing… maybe.

Group discussions on the barriers to sustainable procurement revealed some interesting findings.  For example, devolved and convoluted procurement processes, coupled with a lack of joined-up management, are a key scourge facing green procurement right across the UK public sector.  But when I mentioned this, colleagues from Germany and Lithuania looked at me in disbelief – how could it be that UK local government isn’t a model of well-coordinated efficiency?  Meanwhile, their main challenge was a general lack of awareness and skills among public procurement staff – which is far less of an issue in the UK, though still relevant.

Barriers and solutions to ethical buying

Throughout the conference, it emerged that many attendees shared very similar barriers to implementing ethical procurement – despite our diverse institutions, backgrounds, geographical locations and cultural contexts.  Chief among these were:

  • time
  • expertise
  • cost
  • reliable supplier monitoring info
  • supplier and product availability.

Busy procurement teams rarely have sufficient time and resources to research the green credentials of individual suppliers, let alone the whole supply chains for each product / service they buy.  This could be alleviated by the growing availability of mapping and comparison tools, but will nevertheless be a slow process.  On the bright side, the slowness of this journey presents the opportunity to foster improved supply chain relationships over long periods of time, perhaps boosting cooperation to navigate the demands of the burgeoning green economy.

Many procurement professionals said they lack sufficient specialist knowledge to make well-informed decisions on buying sustainably.  This can be resolved with training, which thankfully is becoming increasingly widely available.  However the cost of training staff is an investment that many institutions struggle to afford in the current economic climate, despite the potential long-term financial benefits of doing so.

Ethically sourced goods often come with a higher price tag, through paying employees a decent wage, verification schemes and other factors.  However, the long-term inter-linked impacts on human rights, international security, the global economy and the environment, and hence ultimately institutional finances, must surely start to make a case that this short-termist thinking will not be viable forever.  In the meantime though, it’s still tough to make this case.

Reliable monitoring is a challenge, as mentioned above by Dr Choudhury.  Labelling schemes with their attendant auditing regimes are a good start, but can’t be expected to be perfect.  Nor can any single label give assurances about every area of sustainability – workers’ rights, environmental impact, etc.  Improved transparency combined with thorough engagement throughout the supply chain are key to addressing this issue, but this again will be a slow process.

Good news:  one barrier that will soon cease to exist is legal.  EU law currently bans public sector organisations from specifying Fairtrade and ‘eco’ products in tenders, and several public bodies have been successfully sued for doing so, notably including the Dutch province of North Holland.  (Apparently it’s deemed ‘anti-competitive’.)  Happily this law has now been changed, and public contracts will be allowed to feature sustainability requirements from late 2014.

Availability, flexibility and the case of the Polish mice

Many institutions have found it difficult to source suppliers and contractors that have the sustainability expertise, or the availability of ethical products, to meet the needs of large public sector contracts.  ‘Green’ suppliers are frequently SMEs offering niche products.  This can mean that they are not well established, which can present a continuity risk for public service providers that need to rely on stable long-term contracts.  It can also mean that ‘eco’ goods are available in small quantities, or in limited ranges.  (For example, LSE’s Fairtrade cotton uniform supplier can provide us with polo shirts, but not overalls.)  This in turn can lead to erratic or poor product quality, which often engenders the false belief that ethical and sustainable goods are inherently of inferior quality.

I had a thought-provoking conversation with someone called Grzegorz from a Polish NGO advocating ethical procurement, Centrum CSR Foundation.  He works with People & Planet on their Electronic Watch campaign (see above), and told me he can source computer mice from 90% ethical sources.  Did I want to sample them, or recommend them to the relevant IT procurement manager back at LSE?  Despite having spent a whole day discussing how to overcome challenges, and despite my personal convictions, my response was full of the reasons it wouldn’t work.

“The IT team buy using big framework contracts.  They only use suppliers approved by the London Universities Purchasing Consortium.  They won’t want to fiddle around using up valuable staff time to buy a small number of niche accessories, they’ll want to buy all machines and accessories on a single contract.  How do we know this new product is reliable, if no other large consumers tested it over several years?”  And so on.  Grzegorz didn’t get it – why had I bothered coming to this conference if I was just going to tell him that I wanted to carry on using the same unsustainable suppliers, processes and excuses?

There are good reasons that large public bodies have robust rules about how they buy stuff.  It can maximise efficiency, helps prevent corruption, and more.  This can make them frustratingly inflexible at times.  But maybe we can use the root causes of this inflexibility – long-term thinking and high volumes of consumption – to our advantage.

Public sector institutions should collaborate to incorporate ethical and sustainability criteria into large framework contracts, to stimulate demand and build up resilient, ethical supply chains, that continue to deliver the goods and services we need over the uncertain decades ahead.  A lot of excellent work is already going on with public purchasing consortia, and sustainability and procurement professionals must work together to build on this.

Conclusions

I took away a huge amount from the Landmark conference, and feel privileged to have participated and shared insights and possibilities with colleagues from across the globe.

But things aren’t ideal.  The Swiss procurement tool, which most in institutions I know aren’t yet advance enough to utilise, revealed how far behind we are in the UK.  Costs, lack of available supply and other organisational factors continue to inhibit uptake of ethical products among buyers.

Many would even question whether changing what we buy is missing the point altogether, arguing that the global economic system always drives down production costs at the expense of people, communities and the environment, meaning that ethical purchasing can only ever be a niche sop to an anomalous minority of those who can afford to care.

But I still think there are reasons to be optimistic.  The change in EU law to allow ‘eco’ tenders demonstrates that sufficient demand for ethical practices can move beyond business contracts into the cultural arena, and ultimately effect legal and policy changes.  The case of the French Postal Service partnership with the Malian cotton farmers is living proof of the possibility for trade relationships that are built on that mutual benefits and respect, instead of exploitation.  The collaboration of buying consortia from London to Hamburg shows the power to successfully demand better practice from even major manufacturers.

 

Although the purchases of a single university may be a drop in the ocean of the global supply chain, there are signs that if we work together – and talk about it while we do so – we can build the growing and urgent global demand for ethical and sustainable economy, in the supply chain and beyond.

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Mar 5 2014

Inspiring student innovation: can you take on the Mayor’s carbon challenge?

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Kat Eames 3The Mayor of London is running a competition to find a student who will become his Low Carbon Entrepreneur 2014.  Top prize is a £20,000 development fund to turn a student carbon-reduction idea into a viable business.  But are schemes like this enough to get young people involved in the debate about carbon and building the green economy?  Project leaders Kat Eames (pictured) and Sally Dagli investigate.

Low-carbon innovation

Everyone’s talking about carbon, or at least more than we did 5 years ago.  With annual international conferences pulling together politicians, environmental groups and business leaders to discuss carbon caps, trading and improved measurement in an effort to reduce the impacts of climate change, it is perhaps not a surprise that local governments are also taking carbon more seriously.

In fact the UK’s carbon reduction targets are one of the most ambitious in the world and as its capital city London has followed with ambitious targets of its own to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60% from the amount emitted in 1990 by 2025.  To achieve these reductions, new, innovative ways of doing just about everything in our daily lives are needed.

However investment in new business ideas can be hard to come by especially for those just starting their careers or re-specialising into a new field.

Green graduates

Students in universities across the country are learning about these issues often for the first time and these fresh viewpoints are often the best placed to see how things could and should be done better.  However turning an idea developed in class, on the tube, on a restaurant serviette or down the pub into a viable business can seem daunting.

Where do you start? Who can help? How will we pay for it?  Luckily new ways to finance these start-ups are being developed, including a range of prizes rewarding innovation and providing support to new businesses.  These have become an important part of supporting new entrepreneurs.

A new generation of graduates choosing to become green entrepreneurs won’t just be helping the environment – they’ll also unlock many additional benefits.

They get to move immediately from graduation into their ideal career, and even if the company itself does not take off to the level of other graduate start-up super successes like Innocent drinks then the budding entrepreneurs have gained invaluable experience of every element of a business.  This experience, knowledge and understanding of the responsibilities of enterprises in the 21st century can only be of benefit to any future employer.

With national recent graduate employment rates struggling over the last few years, (LSE has one of the best rates of employment nationally with 2013 data showing 82% of students in employment 6 months after graduating) the entrepreneurial route is also an increasingly important option for UK students.

Still not convinced?  Take a look at the big picture.

Building the green economy

These micro-businesses are also vital to the overall UK economy.  House of Commons statistics from December 2013 state that 4.7 million or 95% of all UK businesses only employ 0-9 people, putting them in the micro-business category.  The stats go on to say that these businesses account for 32% of UK employment and 18% of turnover.

Other recent reports have shown that the “Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services Sector” is currently worth approximately £25.4 billion to London’s economy alone and has grown by more than 5% over each of the last 2 years.  Therefore kick-starting and supporting current students and recent graduates to start up their own green business really is a case of win-win-win-win………

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If you think you can take on the carbon challenge, one of the potential sources of start-up funding and support is The Mayor of London’s Low Carbon Entrepreneur 2014 competition, now in its third year.  The deadline for applications is the 28th March 2014 and entry is free.  For more information and to apply go to www.london.gov.uk/lowcarbon

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Feb 26 2014

Urban green spaces as socially sustainable places

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Meredith WhittenMeredith Whitten, LSE PhD candidate in Regional and Urban Planning, compares two very different urban parks – London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and Gezi Park in Istanbul – to make the case that publicly accessible green space is vital to sustain the livability of our increasingly dense cities. 

The opportunity to get out in nature alongside other people is one of the strongest aspects that publicly accessible urban green spaces contribute to a sustainable city. While green spaces provide opportunities to participate in sport and leisure activities, to commune with nature and wildlife, and to increase property values and investment, they also have a significant impact on the social sustainability of cities. However, the social dimension of green spaces – particularly in dense urban environments – is largely overlooked.

Research that does address social aspects of green spaces has focused on the role urban green spaces play in social interaction and inclusion, cultural identity, and community development. Such social purposes are essential for the livability of cities, as Chiesura (2004) notes that “developing more sustainable cities is not just about improving the abiotic and biotic aspects of urban life, it is also about the social aspects of city life…” (see “The role of urban parks for the sustainable city” in Landscape and Urban Planning, 68).

Two green spaces that have been in the news recently illustrate urban green spaces’ contributions to the sustainable city. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London is a newly created urban park, while Gezi Park in Istanbul is a well-established urban green space. The two spaces may differ in many ways, but they both show the importance of green spaces for the social fabric of a city.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London  

Winning an Olympic bid depends, in part, on what a host city envisions as a legacy. At the time London secured the Olympics in 2005, the parkland at the proposed Olympic site in East London was derelict and had become a dumping ground for domestic and industrial waste. Potential habitat was polluted. The local area experienced the highest concentration of socioeconomic disadvantage in the UK and local people had a much lower quality of life than an average Londoner. Before creation of the park, a quarter of the land (1,464 ha) within 3.2 km of the park was deficient in access to nature, which is a key indicator of quality of life. Social conditions such as poverty and social exclusion can have a serious effect on people’s health.

The creation of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP), located where the Olympic village and several venues once stood, is key to London’s Olympic legacy. The park has more than 100 hectares of metropolitan open land and 45 hectares of biodiverse parkland. It will help reduce the area that is deficient in access to nature and will be accessible to the more than 10,000 housing units planned to be built over the next 20 years.

Transforming the Olympic site into the park is meant to be the catalyst for regenerating the area. This includes promoting equality and inclusion in the long-term. As the London Legacy Development Corporation (LDC) notes in its Equality and Inclusion policy for QEOP: “For the Park to become a sustainable and successful neighbourhood, that supports the economic development of the surrounding boroughs, it must offer opportunities and benefits to people of all backgrounds and mixed incomes.”

While QEOP will likely be a destination park in the same vein as the Royal Parks – an estimated 9 million visitors from well beyond London’s and the UK’s borders will visit the park each year – its impact on social sustainability will be more significantly felt on local residents and workers.

Research by Dunnett, Swanwick and Woolley (2002) found that local residents often identify green spaces as the centre of their community (see Improving Urban Parks, Play Areas and Green Spaces). By using outdoor spaces to formally and informally bring together people from a variety of cultures, ages, ethnicities and classes, urban green spaces increase social integration and interaction among local residents. Such spaces encourage a diverse range of uses – some of which stem from culture – and serve as “neutral ground,” according to Swanwick, Dunnett and Woolley (see “Nature, Role and Value of Green Space in Towns and Cities: An Overview,” in Built Environment, 2002, 29(2)). Open, accessible green spaces are essential for local people to maintain cultural identity and build social ties. As the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers maintained, “[open space] plays a significant role in the development of a community and in the creation of community pride and so helps reduce the inherent tension and conflict in deprived parts of urban areas” (see recommendation (86) 11 on urban open space).

While the impact of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on local social sustainability has yet to be proven, the well-established Gezi Park inside Taksim Square in Istanbul demonstrates how urban green space provides a centre for community space.

Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul

As a rare urban green space in the city centre of Istanbul, the nine-acre Gezi Park was created in the 1940s, a result of French urban planner Henri Prost’s master plan for Istanbul. Before that, the site had a long history that included military barracks, football matches and rebellions. Filled with sycamore trees, the urban green space that has existed for 70 years – albeit with some changes – has provided Istanbul residents and visitors with a respite from a densely developed urban core.

The unassuming green space was thrust into global news in May 2013, when a group of environmental protestors sought to save Gezi Park from government-backed plans to redevelop the park with a shopping mall and residences. The protests quickly escalated, turning violent and resulting in several deaths.

While the initial protest may have been sparked by the loss of public green space, it ignited intense demonstrations that spanned much broader issues than the physical loss of green infrastructure. Ultimately, the protests were about broader issues, including authoritarian government, urban development, war in Syria and even a ban on kissing in public. The Guardian quoted Ugur Tanyeli, an architecture historian, as saying, “The real problem is not Taksim, and not the park, but the lack of any form of democratic decision-making process and the utter lack of consensus” (see www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/31/istanbul-protesters-violent-clashes-police). Meanwhile, an Al Jazeera reporter in Istanbul noted that “The protesters are saying that this is not about trees anymore” (see www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/06/20136162539347599.html).

Yet, although the protests may have grown larger than efforts to save a park, the importance of that park from a social sustainability purpose should not be lost. Gezi Park, like other green spaces in cities around the world, serves as a social space for the community. The protests themselves demonstrate the use of such spaces as communal places. Green spaces do not just occupy a physical space that we can measure in hectares, number of trees or number of users. More significantly, publicly accessible urban green spaces provide a social sphere, where people can gather and interact. This is magnified in a dense, urban environment. To me, that the protests about larger societal, environmental and political issues played out in an urban green space is symbolic.

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Of course, a green space is not a panacea. Simply building a green space does not mean that people will use the space or that it will erase divisiveness and unequivocally create harmony. Indeed, despite the ability of urban green spaces to promote a multicultural society, green spaces are more abundant in wealthier suburbs than in urban centres and, thus, they actually can reflect segregation that exists within a city. Issues surrounding gentrification, displacement and regeneration can arise. These and other potentially negative ramifications of urban green space will be addressed in an upcoming post.

Yet, as cities, from London to Istanbul and beyond become more urbanised and densely developed, the presence of publicly accessible green space in the urban core grows more vital in providing people opportunities to interact in a common space. We are richer – and our urban areas more socially sustainable – for it.

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Feb 5 2014

Sustainability in universities: where next?

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Jon EmmettA major consultation on how universities should be tackling sustainability closes on Friday. It’s held by HEFCE, the government funding body for universities in England.  But will it create real impact?  Jon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, argues that there’s room for optimism at the appetite for change, but that HEFCE must use its voice more loudly if we want to push the sustainability agenda forwards in the sector.

Back in the halcyon days of 2008-09, things were looking up for sustainability in universities.  There was a growing consensus that institutions should be tackling carbon and other areas of sustainability.  HEFCE set ambitious carbon reduction targets for the sector, launched a range of funding mechanisms to encourage energy efficiency investment, and launched a bold vision for how universities should become the beating heart of UK green growth, particularly through teaching future generations of citizens and leaders.

Back in the present day, funding cuts, uncertainty, and talk of ‘green crap’ have created environmental inertia.  Against this backdrop, HEFCE has been holding a consultation on how to update its sustainability 2008-09 vision for 2015.  I attended an all-day session last week, along with around 150 colleagues from the sector, to feed into what this vision might look like.  Reflecting on the day’s discussions, there are reasons to be positive about the future of sustainability in universities.  But we must step up our efforts to work together to demonstrate the possibilities of what we can achieve.

Consultation

David Pencheon, Director of the NHS Sustainability Unit, gave us an inspirational view from outside the sector.  He brought some fascinating insights into his experiences of what does and doesn’t work in trying to drive institutional change.  Dom Anderson, the NUS Vice President for Society and Citizenship, spoke about the role students have to play.  (It was notable that there were only about 4 students in the room;  we as a sector need to get better at creating spaces for student voices to be heard in debates such as these.)

The Vice Chancellor of University of the Arts London provided a view from the top, and spoke about some pretty cool eco-fashion projects at UAL, not least Catalytic Clothing.  But why is it still so rare to see our leaders attending these events, let along speaking?  It created quite a frisson that there was VC in the room.  And this remains a problem for how sustainability is perceived, and how seriously it’s taken – in all sectors, not just higher education.  Although I strongly believe that truly transformational change must come from the bottom up, we also need those in visible positions of authority to get on board too.

We also played some rather charming storytelling games, and swapped inspirational eco-anecdotes with each other.    (Apparently, ‘great sustainability leaders are great storytellers’.  I can actually go along with that sentiment, though I’m usually a bit sceptical about this kind of stuff.)

Opinions

Things started to get a little livelier when we got to the part of the day where we were actually invited to give feedback on the HEFCE strategy document.

Leadership emerged as a major issue.  Where HEFCE had previously been a vocal advocate of the sector’s role in sustainability progress, many felt that this has been muted in recent years.  This has partly been due to HEFCE’s reduced ability to deploy funding as an incentive for change, but perhaps also reflects a more timid attitude to tackling environmental issues.  HEFCE were criticised for their reluctance to directly engage Vice Chancellors and Finance Directors, thereby allowing sustainability to be ignored.  Their response was that sustainability staff within individual institutions should approach their own senior management themselves, and that HEFCE “Can’t do your job for you”.

Although the broad nature of HEFCE’s strategy framework was praised by some for not being too prescriptive, there was also concern that it required stronger targets and action commitments in order to deliver results.  This is always going to be a difficult balance to achieve – although the pragmatist in me errs on the side of creating specific objectives, the diversity of universities makes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach impossible, so flexibility is also needed.

A number of suggestions were made for possible specific approaches.  There was one call to align the sustainability agenda with the controversial ‘impact’ metric of the Research Excellence Framework.  A number of academics made the case for greater emphasis on student involvement in the strategy, echoing Dom Anderson’s earlier comments.

There was an argument for scarce resources to be better directed at high-impact focus areas, such as the S-Labs project – apparently the labs of 30 universities alone account for 25% of the carbon emissions of the entire HE sector.  It will be interesting to see over the next five years how the post-cuts role of HEFCE develops, and which funding mechanisms are prioritised to deliver carbon reductions and other outcomes.  The Student Green Fund in particular was praised for its collaborative approach, empowering message for students, and excellent projects.

There were several comments surrounding how the new strategy is framed and communicated.  Who is it aimed at, and how can it create an inspiring message for what sustainability can deliver?  Do we even want a separate ‘sustainability strategy’, or should its goals be mainstreamed by incorporating them into existing plans?  Why is this consultation a one-off event, instead of a deeper, iterative process of engagement with the sector?

Where next? 

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but I do hope we’ll see further discussion on them in the near future.  All parties involved clearly have a real desire to create meaningful progress for universities and society as a whole.  And there’s a wealth of expertise and imagination on how we might go about doing this.  But to avoid the HE sustainability strategy becoming just another piece of paper, we must all work together – HEFCE, universities, students and others – to create a powerful voice that articulates the benefits, the means, and the direction of our actions.

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Jan 29 2014

The ethics of sustainability ‘nudges’

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Jon EmmettJon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, argues that ‘nudges’ might be an effective way to encourage small personal actions for sustainability – but only if we’re transparent and careful in how we use them, and avoid substituting individualism for social policy. 

I went to a fascinating LSE public lecture on Monday called “The Ethics of ‘Nudge’”.  A ‘nudge’ is a technique to shape people’s behaviour, using psychology to create small interventions that influence the way people make decisions.  So:  is ‘nudging’ an evil government mind-control plot, or a cost-effective way to achieve small improvements to social outcomes?  Or is it more complicated?

I initially found it rather sinister that there’s a special government Nudge Unit (aka the Behavioural Insight Team) thinking up clever tricks to influence our decisions – especially after their recent involvement in a controversial test administered to benefits claimants – but I was also intrigued by their work, and especially how it relates to environmental behaviours.  I found during the lecture that the ethics of ‘nudging’ are a lot more complex than I’d first imagined.

When are nudges ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and who benefits? 

Sam Nguyen, Senior Economist at the Nudge Unit, argued it’s a no-brainer that we should be using nudges to create public benefit.  For example, if we can get people to cycle more by making it easier to do, what’s wrong with that?  But what about (hypothetical), more controversial nudges?  For example, is it ever OK to use subliminal messaging?

The Chair (Prof Luc Bovens, Head of the LSE Philosophy Dept), asked Nguyen (in the manner of a true philosopher) to construct a theoretical principle to reliably distinguish ‘legitimate’ nudges from ‘unacceptable’ ones.  Nguyen responded – correctly in my view – that such an exercise would be impossible, because subjective, complex and ever-changing cultural factors determine what government policies are socially acceptable:  not hard-and-fast logic.

Prof George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon University) agreed, noting that policies to regulate gun possession, smoking and alcohol play out very differently in Britain, Germany and the US – with very divergent views on whether it’s repressive or progressive to impose controls on these activities.

I’d also suggest that what counts as a public benefit is never straightforward.  Conflicting interests often compete, and whose interests get prioritised can be highly controversial.

Prof Drazen Prelec (MIT) made the related point that nudge measures often manifest in formats that aren’t well suited to being democratically debated, and frequently lend themselves to being the domain of a shadowy technical elite operating with little public scrutiny.  For example, a common nudge is to flip ‘opt-in’ clauses to ‘opt-out’, or vice versa. But would it be possible for parliament to agree a catch-all principle to decide when it’s OK to change these clauses, or feasible for them to debate these minutiae for every case?  (See the recent debates on opting in/out of organ donation, and the centralisation of NHS medical records for why this is important.)

Isn’t ‘nudge’ just a fancy word for propaganda? 

My main unease about nudging was previously that it sounds a little bit like propaganda.  But this was countered by Sam Nguyen, who argued that propaganda is all about giving people information to persuade them to act in a certain way.  Nudging on the other hand is about creating choice architecture that makes it easier for people to make the right decision.

That said, I was also deeply impressed (and pleasantly surprised) by Nguyen’s nuanced and sensitive understanding of the issues surrounding nudging.  Far from simply banging the drum for his department’s methods and achievements, he was very thoughtful about what factors might make particular interventions more or less ethical or palatable, and when nudges may or may not be appropriate tools to manage a problem.

My sense that secretly manipulating people is inherently problematic, as it militates against personal autonomy, was also challenged by Prof Loewenstein.  He argued that we don’t live in a neutral world, so we shouldn’t oppose the principle of paternalistic interventions, which simply add to the existing web of influences already acting upon us.  Think of how supermarkets put the bread at the back of the shop to take you right the way round all the aisles.  That’s a nudge – so why not also have a nudge that places healthy foods at eye-level to encourage healthier eating habits?

In fact, don’t we use nudges all the time without even thinking about it?  Often simple improvements to services aimed at improving efficiency use ‘nudge’ logic.  For example, a few years ago, LSE’s recycling systems was a zoo of different bins of all colours, sizes and shapes imaginable.  It was inconsistent and confusing.  We replaced those bins with ones that are clearly and consistently colour-coded and labelled, making it easy for people to see how to dispose of their waste.  As a result, our recycling rates improved dramatically (though we still have more to do).  Is this an unacceptable form of manipulation, or a common-sense approach to help people make better decisions?

Furthermore not only are we already surrounded by nudges, but these existing nudges are often negative.  Society and the economy is structured so that the easiest, most culturally normal, default actions in western societies are often harmful to the environment and other people.  The way our cities are designed makes it more convenient to drive than to cycle.  Clothes, electronic goods and other items are designed and marketed to be bought and discarded on an increasingly rapid and wasteful cycle, and with little regard to the working conditions of their producers.  Local, seasonal, organic fruit and veg is harder to seek out and more expensive to buy than food that is produced by underpaid farmers in ways that damage the land, and then shipped thousands of miles to reach us.

Does nudging over-emphasise individualism?

Another key debate emerged around individualism vs social critique and policy.  Nudging is all about influencing people’s behaviour at the individual level.  If over-emphasised, this could lead to a culture where the blame for all society’s ills is pinned on the mindsets of individuals.  This might distract from broader understandings of societal problems, and the need for robust and evenly-applied policy instruments.

For example, Loewenstein pointed out that although individual people’s behaviours determine their eating habits, it can’t be a coincidence that the onset of the US obesity epidemic coincided with specific socio-economic changes:   an increase in income inequality;  more women working full-time who had previously spent more time at home preparing cooked meals;  changes in the food industry that made it cheaper and quicker to buy and prepare processed, sugary and fatty foods, than fresh fruit and veg.

For me, this is crucial for how we address sustainability.  Because I think there has to be a mutually reinforcing relationship between individual behaviours and attitudes at the micro scale, and government policy and corporate practice at the macro scale.  Without small sparks of individual empowerment and a shift in personal perceptions of sustainability, there won’t be a mandate to enact large-scale action.  We also need a critical mass of people taking small individual actions (like recycling) so that they add up to have a large cumulative impact.   But without a sea-change in international leadership on climate change and the environment, and major structural changes to our political economies, nudging localised individual actions seems doomed to insignificance.

A podcast of the Ethics of Nudge lecture, which took place at LSE on Monday 27th January 2014, is available here.  

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Jan 8 2014

The global race for green growth and technology

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MariaCarvalho-2013Maria Carvalho, PhD candidate at the LSE Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, argues that policy-makers striving to encourage green growth should consider which tactics are best suited for their nation’s economy to compete in global markets.  Innovation-intensive economies are well-placed to invent new green technologies whilst building markets for domestic green tech consumption, rather than attempt to compete with industrialising nations for the manufacturing market.

Green growth: Silver bullets and technological races

I have spent the past three years pondering the concept of ‘green growth’. This isn’t a coincidence, as it is the central concept of my PhD research. Since the start of the 2008 economic crisis, terms such as ‘green stimulus packages’ and ‘green growth’ have dominated public policy. The term ‘green’ has become synonymous with any technological, organisational or behavioural intervention that would reduce environmental impacts. This includes innovating green technologies to replace conventional ones that are more resource-intensive, or produce more pollution or waste. The economic crisis presented a green opportunity to invest a significant proportion of fiscal spending on green innovation, technologies, markets, and jobs. The aspiration was to kick start a green industrial revolution that would generate long-waves of economic growth.  Policies for green growth were thus seen as the silver bullet to solving both the economic and climate change crises.

However another interesting development happened in 2009. The Chinese supply of green technologies – such as solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies – flooded the global market. Global prices for these technologies plummeted. Leading solar PV suppliers in the USA and Europe suddenly found it increasingly difficult to compete. This prompted solar PV manufacturing firms in these economies to create coalitions to lobby their governments to impose import tariffs against Chinese solar PV products. The justification is that the Chinese solar PV industry has been over-subsidised.  The Chinese government threatened to retaliate by imposing similar tariffs against the same economies.

PV exp curve

 

The trade disputes of the solar PV industry highlight green growth’s nationalistic rhetoric, which is caused by policy-makers becoming increasingly aware of the globally competitive nature of green technologies. The best quote that captures the urgency to be globally competitive comes from President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address in 2010:

“Meanwhile China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations are not standing still. These nations are not playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

The increasingly nationalistic rhetoric surrounding green growth policies harks back to the days of other technological races, such as the space race. The globally competitive nature of technological races is to ensure that domestic technological industries can withstand global competition.

Policies involved with creating competitive technologies and industries frequently advocate early R&D efforts in order to win the technological race. This creates first-mover advantage for leading firms who can then go on to dominate global markets.  However the sudden dominance of Chinese solar PV firms in undermining their American and European competitors has raised questions surrounding traditional green growth policy approaches:

Is it worth investing early in green R&D if it is so easy to transfer successful technologies to emerging economies with lower production costs? Have emerging economies become successful in green innovation to become technological leaders?

Ultimately does latecomer advantage prevail over first-mover advantage?

 

Should creating a green manufacturing base be the litmus test for green growth?

Over the past three years, the globally competitive dynamics of the solar PV industry have played themselves out. In trying to understand these questions, I have noticed there is some confusion in concepts. Whenever commentators discuss creating ‘competitive economies’, they actually tend to be alluding to creating competitive firms.  Green growth policy focuses on spurring green innovation and developing domestic green markets. However the judgement of whether ‘green growth’ is a success is if innovation efforts and the creation of markets also translates into building domestic factories that create manufacturing jobs for local labour.  Given the public outcry of the financial troubles over many solar PV firms that manufacture technologies, there seems to be much focus on linking the success of green growth with the success of a green manufacturing base.

I suppose that concepts such as ‘economy’, ‘innovation’, and ‘markets’ are much more abstract than ‘firm’, ‘factories’, and ‘manufacturing jobs’. The latter concepts are more concrete and easier to visualise and refer to. Whenever the American media refer to the failure of green stimulus packages, they immediately point to how US government bailout money could not prevent the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a US solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt 2011.  The high-profile bankruptcy of Chinese firm Suntech, formerly the largest solar PV firm in the world, also sent shockwaves in the Chinese media. However these firms are a few of the glaring examples. The electric vehicle (EV) company Tesla also received US federal loans in 2009, and is starting to make headway in the EV market.

However it is misleading to measure the success of green growth in terms of the competitiveness of firms, and the existence of factories and manufacturing jobs. Economic growth refers to economic value that is captured by the local economy that is above the costs of investment. It goes beyond just building factories but also into successfully innovating and building markets.  In the long run, there is more value-added to the economy from innovation and market creation than there is in manufacturing. A good example is when looking at the global value chain of iPods. Though iPods are largely manufactured in China, the actual economic profits are captured in the US due to design and retail marketing rights.

Studying the global value chains of companies is thus important in seeing which economies capture the most value within the same global value chain. It is interesting to observe how many multinational corporations (MNCs) ensure that they control R&D, design and marketing rights. They are willing to offshore manufacturing to firms in economies with low costs.  These MNCs retain innovation, design and marketing because they recognise these activities yield the highest economic value. Manufacturing, on the other hand, eventually has diminishing returns to investment. This is because once many firms and economies begin to manufacture the same technologies, competition intensifies, which decreases profits.

 

Moving away from macho manufacturing to brainy innovation and green markets

By taking these lessons, we can start to see how in any industrial policy – including green growth policy – placing undue emphasis on manufacturing activities is risky. In an open, globally competitive economy, it is more likely that manufacturing will eventually shift to countries with lower production costs. Innovative technologies do eventually mature, and the knowledge that underlies these technologies will be transferred to economies that can create the economies-of-scale to bring technology costs down.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Cheaper technologies mean that more consumers can buy these green technologies – thus building green markets. Lower prices are especially important for green technologies that are trying to compete against conventional technologies. The decreased costs of Chinese solar PV technologies have now made residential solar PV affordable in economies that have high electricity prices. Thus economies such as Germany, Spain, Denmark, and Italy do not even need to subsidise residential solar PV markets anymore because of high electricity prices.

PV price parity

 

The increased consumption of green technologies builds out markets – thus creating market-related jobs. Markets as a whole create jobs in installation, operation, investment, consultant, marketing, financing jobs.  The sum of these ‘market-related’ jobs outnumbers those purely in manufacturing.   For example, the global automobile industry employs about 8 million people in manufacturing, but around 20 million in the sale and servicing of vehicles. Another important advantage of market-related jobs is that labour largely has to be sourced from the local economy. Manufacturing jobs, on the other hand, are vulnerable to global competition.

Innovation-intensive economies also stand to benefit from innovating early ­and then continuously innovating.  However, many industrialising economies struggle to compete in terms of innovation, as the fast pace of the development of new generations of technology makes it challenging to create innovation hubs that can keep up with the competition.  Instead, it is comparatively easier for industrialising economies to catch up technologically with innovation-intensive economies by learning from knowledge that already exists

Few places are successful at pushing knowledge and technological barriers. Though many places continue to try, no one has managed to recreate Silicon Valley. The magic of  Silicon Valley is not that it has become dominant in one industry, or that it is a manufacturing hub. The resilience and beauty of Silicon Valley’s economy is that it continuously re-invents itself – launching new technologies, businesses and industries.

This lesson is especially important for knowledge-intensive economies. Stop trying to compete on manufacturing technologies that can be produced in low cost regions. Start playing to your strengths to use your knowledge and resources to innovate.

Conclusions

Thus to encourage green growth, policy-makers need to consider how well its domestic economy is placed in order to participate in the development of a new green technology. If certain green technologies show technological promise, it may be beneficial to learn to innovate early. Though there is a risk that these green technologies can fail, the lessons learnt are invaluable to spawning other green technologies.

However if green technologies have already become globally competitive, it may be better to take advantage of these existing cheap technologies to build out domestic markets. For economies that have the comparative advantage in manufacturing, highly sophisticated technologies are well positioned to manufacture more mature technologies.

In the end, every economy in the world can potentially benefit from green growth. Policy-makers just have to understand the global dynamics of specific green technologies, and where the local economy is placed in capturing green growth.

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Dec 13 2013

How can young people’s behaviour towards sustainability be changed?

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PimPim Mekdhanasarn, MSc Management, Organisation and Governance student, describes her experience of working on an open innovation project for Futerra, a sustainability communication agency whose mission is ‘to make sustainability so desirable it becomes normal’.

Hope (or shall we say pressure) is pinned on the younger demographic to dig us out of the grave that previous generations have dug. Growing up in a world of plenty, it is not surprising that young people of today do not feel any more anxious about the future than their past ancestors. As a 22 year-old living in London, a city where everyone is always in a rush, it seems easy to get caught up in the busy city life where time and convenience is etched in your daily priority list. As we scramble on the tube like packed sardines after a day of hard work, who has the time and energy to walk those extra metres to use the recycle bin?

“How can young people’s behaviour towards sustainability be changed?”

This was the challenge given to us by Futerra. As part of the Open Innovation course at LSE, my team and I worked with Futerra to find ways to communicate to the younger generation, engage them in the sustainability movement and sustain their positive behaviour towards sustainability. The only rule we had to abide by was that in solving this challenge an open innovation approach had to be taken. This meant that we had to utilize external knowledge from outside our team to develop our solutions.

As a strong advocate of sustainability myself, this project struck close to my heart. With such a good cause, to me this assignment was more than a piece of university work but rather a valuable opportunity for me to explore ways to change, or at least have an impact on, the mindset of tomorrow’s generation in order to work towards a more sustainable future.

Our project consisted of three main steps, each involving different open innovation tools. The first step aimed to identify reasons as to why young people don’t engage in sustainability. Crowdsourcing (in the form of an online survey) was the open innovation tool selected, due to its high potential in gathering large volume of information. According to Surowiecki (2004), under the right circumstances large crowds of people are in fact ‘smarter than the smartest people in them’. Such ‘wisdom of the crowd’ often leads to more effective outcomes than what an elite few can produce.

For our project, in order to ensure that collected data reflected the specifications detailed in the research question, stipulations were made such that only responses from “young people” (i.e. those aged between 16-25) were taken into consideration. Out of the 238 respondents 189 (79%) were within this target age group. Results reveal that the most important determinants of why young people don’t engage in new activities include low appeal, high cost, and time consumption.

Having identified the barriers, a virtual workshop was then conducted for academic lead users who provided us with theoretical grounding and identified possible solutions to the barriers. The six lead users that participated in this workshop specialised in relevant academic fields including behavioural change, marketing, and sustainability. As many solutions were proposed, one academic lead user from Stanford University suggested that the different answers given by participants could in fact be easily grouped into three overarching categories:

1. Kick-starter: factors to raise awareness or remind people to engage e.g. emails, notifications, recommendations by peers, etc.

2. Driver: factors that motivate them to engage e.g. rewards, recognition, personal benefit, fun.

3. Tools: factors that facilitate the process of engagement e.g. cost and time efficiency, simplicity, low effort.

These three factors formed the basis of our conceptual model (shown below), which can be used as a guideline when designing campaigns, events (or just anything at all) to change young people’s behavior towards sustainability. Put simply, kickstarter, tools and drivers must all be present in order to get people to ‘think’ about sustainability, in order to get them to ‘feel’ positively towards sustainability, and finally in order to get them to engage in (‘do’) such sustainable activities. As seen in the framework, the process is iterative and constantly reinforced by these three factors. It is sustained through social interaction and positive feedback.

iterative

In the final phase of our research we held a two-hour workshop for practitioner lead users that have successfully changed peoples’ behaviour towards sustainability in the past. We presented the practitioners with this conceptual framework and asked them to suggest interesting ways Futerra can employ such framework. Some examples are shown below:

Example 1: Green Escape Eco Travel Website

Green Esc

Green Esc 2

Example 2: Sustain-O-Matic Mobile App

Kick-Starter Tool Driver Comparative RealLife Example
Launch app through various media channels; notifications Easy to use (track spending, automatically rank spending, categorize purchases, show location of nearby stores that shelve cheaper and more sustainable alternatives) Help save money; get loyalty points; keep track of spending; gamification  (can compare with connected friends: spending, savings, and how much of the environment user has reserved by switching to more sustainable alternatives e.g. less contribution to COE emission by walking or biking) Mobile app ‘Myfitnesspal’

Phones

 

It was much fun working on this project, as not only did it allow me to exercise my creativity to a great extent (something that most of my modules did not allow me to do) but I was also given the chance to experience how a sustainability communication agency is actually run and in a way even help them. Futerra is a groovy firm that is the mastermind behind many cool sustainable events such as Swishing. To learn more about the firm and what they are up to check out http://www.futerra.co.uk/.

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Nov 27 2013

Local climate action through cycling

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Moshi 2

Alejandra López-Carbajal, Environment and Development MSc student at LSE, argues that her own Mexico City is living proof that cycling is key to creating more liveable cities and reducing urban transport emissions.       

I always find it difficult to talk about climate change.  I mean, the whole story about accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere being the driver to rising temperatures and a bunch of non-desirable consequences all over the planet is hard to digest, distant to reality and… boring!  What’s more, anti-climate change lobbyists have been very effective in spreading the word about it all being a hoax, so I often stumble upon people who simply don’t believe climate change even exists.  Sigh.

That is why I won’t talk about climate change, but about how it is worth trying to help build a better world by doing things that are closer to everybody’s mind, for example, reducing traffic congestion and yes, at the same time, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which brings me precisely to what I do want to talk about next: urban mobility and local development.

If you live in Europe – and London, indeed – you would probably have in mind an image of a city in which there are public transportation systems that combine buses, Metro, light trains and trains, and where you can cycle or walk around to get from point A to point B.

Well, where I’m from, that is the ginormous and often chaotic Mexico City, there are lots of cars, something over 2.9 million cars, because, you know, having a car is cool, is necessary, is fundamental for social status, is a must.  People want to have cars.  If you are young, you ought to have a car as soon as you get a driver’s permit (16 years old), as soon as you or your parents are able to buy one.  And if you are not so young, you need a car to get around because you have always had one, because that is how you have to move around the city.

Cars are good business and Mexico City was designed for cars, pretty much as many other cities in Mexico and as in many other countries outside Europe.  Public and private infrastructure and financing for transportation go primarily towards car users.  Better and improved car infrastructure means, in the end, more cars.  It really doesn’t matter that people spend hours and hours sitting in their beautiful cars to commute – commuting by car in Mexico City can take up to 4 hours every day, seriously, 4 hours!  It doesn’t matter either that air quality is regularly bad or that street noise is quite heavy.  Car ownership is widespread and for millions and millions, it is desirable.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t other means of transportation.  Mobilising 28 million people is hardly an easy task, and Mexico City’s extensive network of public transportation means includes 12 Metro lines, light trains, bus rapid transportation systems and buses… that are mainly used by low-income populations, meaning those who don’t have enough money to buy a car.  Cycling?  Again, for really poor people.

But wait, that last bit is now slightly changing.  In trying to redefine the paradigm of urban mobility and enhancing the idea that it is people and not cars that have to be mobilised, infrastructure has recently started being developed for non-motorised transportation means, i.e. walking and cycling.

Mexico City’s local government realised a couple of decades ago that the extensive use of cars and resultant pollution had negative consequences on health.  In response, regulation has been implemented in many forms, particularly for improving fuel quality and therefore eliminating toxic particles in the air.  However, traffic jams are still a burden, resulting in a 15 km/h average speed of a car in the city, while public transportation runs at 14.6 km/h and bicycles at 16.4 km/h.

Wait, what?  Bicycles are the fastest means of transportation? Well, for short trips that’s basically right.  And because of that fact, in the last decade there have been serious attempts to make the bicycle a viable alternate solution for urban mobility.  This has been done through a series of awareness-raising and sport activities, the establishment of cycle lanes, and a public bike-sharing system (like London’s Cycle Hire Scheme) in the city centre and its surroundings.

Moreover, these efforts are targeting a group of young middle class professionals, and individuals who know that cars are great and most probably have a car already, but who are also losing too many hours a day without traveling farther away.  And guess what?  It’s working!  Since 2010, the public system of bike-sharing has gathered over 100,000 users and has now been used for almost 10 million trips that would otherwise have been made by a mode of transport releasing large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.  Emissions that, by accumulating in the atmosphere, are driving an increase in temperatures and many other climate-related catastrophes.

But let’s not talk about climate science or its dreadful projections for the decades to come.  What really matters is that change is taking place. Several local governments, together with an increasing number of cycling constituencies around the world, are now promoting cycling.  Not just across Mexico as a country, but also in many cities in Latin America, in the US, in different countries in Asia.  Even in China – where bicycle ownership dropped in 35% in 1995, giving way to a massive increase in car ownership from 4.2 to 8.9 million – even there, cycling is recharging batteries and gaining ground as a feasible transportation means.

Moreover, cycling is not something that depends on governments or private investors to make it happen, it is about behavioural change, it is you and me, and your friends and your family.  Everyone can make a change by pedalling, cycling wherever you want to go and whenever you want to instead of using a car.  And using a bicycle is actually nice:  it reminds you of your childhood, is good for your health, it gives you freedom of movement and is a great example of local and individual climate action.

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Nov 21 2013

The sustainable university: from practising to teaching and back

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Jon EmmettJon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, gave a lecture on sustainability as part of a module on project management, and reflects on the opportunities for further collaborative projects to develop new approaches to sustainability teaching in universities.    

Last week I had the privilege of giving a lecture to a class of project management students, on how to incorporate sustainability into projects.  Hopefully they took away some new ideas to play with, and introduce into their work.  I certainly found that the students provoked me to think about my own work in a new light, and I took away some thoughts on how to improve my own team’s practice.

Planning

I was honoured to be approached during the summer break by Dr Susan Scott from the Management Department, who asked if I could contribute to a module called Business Transformation and Project Management.  Her initial idea was that I’d provide my experience of introducing sustainability halfway through a project, and how this new constraint affected project management.

Happily for LSE, we’ve actually got pretty good at incorporating sustainability at the earliest stages of projects (especially major ones like new buildings), by using robust systems processes and close working relationships between teams.

Instead, we chose to develop a case study based on LSE’s implementation of its new recycling system.  This was a complex project, which involved not just significant capital spending on improved recycling bins, but all the work before and after the roll-out of the bins:  making the business case;  obtaining stakeholder feedback on their requirements;  collaborating with users and the manufacturer to develop many iterations of bin and poster design;  securing buy-in from users by explaining the changes; delivering training; responding to enquiries (and complaints!);  and much more.

The students were given a design brief based on the LSE bins programme, and were asked to consider how they would approach the project themselves – how they would capture stakeholder feedback, plan their budgets and timescales, etc.

‘Flipping’

The module was structured so that I gave a 20 minute video lecture, which the students watched online before attending the class, in which we had a Q&A session.  This is an innovative teaching technique known as ‘flipping’, and is aimed at frontloading the hard ‘learning’ part, to free up class time for more stimulating debate, and creating a more interactive and engaging learning environment.  My video lecture was structured by Susan Scott, who interviewed me on the implementation of the LSE bins project, as well as on my general experience of embedding sustainability into projects, and into institutions.

The lecture

The question and answer session followed a lecture by Dr Scott on the general principles of sustainability (defining it, considering its origins as a concept, its global implications, and its implications for project management and businesses).  I then took questions from the students on every issue under the sun, ranging from why sandwich boxes don’t fit in the hole in LSE’s green bins, to the effectiveness of international climate negotiations.

As someone with an academic background in sustainability, as well as experience as an environmental management practitioner, I found it interesting to engage with the students on all of those levels.  It was really stimulating to respond to questions surrounding some of the broader philosophical, political, social and historical questions, as these are areas I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about in my daily role.  It was also interesting to hear student perspectives in response to being provoked to consider the unequal global distribution of environmental risk, opposing viewpoints on policy options to manage climate change, approaches to individual vs societal management of environmental problems, and more.

On a practical note, this was an opportunity for me to reconsider my own approaches to project management.  Although LSE has robust processes in place to manage its environmental impacts as a whole (through its ISO 14001 environmental management system), and systems to ensure individual projects are carefully planned and managed, it is rare that the Sustainability Team would do so using a formal ‘project management’ strategy (such as Prince 2, which the students have been learning about in this module).  In particular, one student’s question really highlighted for me that we need to get much better at post-project evaluations to learn for the future, as it’s easy to get caught up in the next project, and then be too busy to make the time to reflect on completed work.

Reflections

Many colleagues in the HE sustainability sector frequently discuss embedding sustainability in the curriculum, and I found this collaborative approach, drawing on expertise from across the School to create new interactions and learning environments, to be extremely fruitful.  I can’t speak for the students, but from my own perspective found it to be highly professionally and personally fulfilling.  It’s certainly something I would like to participate in more at LSE, and have recently been interested to hear of many excellent examples of similar work being undertaken in universities across the country.

Dr Scott tells me that she’s planning a Masters course next year, to further develop some of the material and ideas explored in this module.  I sincerely hope to be invited back!

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Nov 14 2013

Costa Rica: a sustainable success story

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MW - profile photoMichelle Warbis, LSE Environment and Development alumnus, argues the success story of Costa Rica owes much to its approach to sustainability, which embraces environmental, economic, social and political factors synergistically.

Costa Rica’s beginnings
Columbus was forced to drop anchor off today’s Caribbean Costa Rica on his final voyage to the new world, after suffering damage to his ship. Whilst there, he ventured into nearby settlements and forest, and on return from the encounter, claimed he had seen more gold in 2 days than in 4 years in Spain. These descriptions of Costa Rica, the ‘rich coast,’ became a lasting name.  Columbus petitioned to become governor, though the prize was awarded to his rival de Nicuesa. To the disappointment of de Nicuesa Columbus’ tales of gold were lies, and locals were less than affable. Eventually the Spanish came to regard Costa Rica as the poorest and most miserable of all of the Americas.

Perhaps due to this perception of Costa Rica as having a scarcity of mineral wealth and indigenous labourers, the country never faced a permanent campaign from the Spanish.  Furthermore, largely useless swampy backwaters meant no slave based economy ever developed, and the slave trade triangle kept to South America.  This provided a backbone for rural democracy, which is still evident across Costa Rica today, based upon principles of equality, freedom and peace (which are now interestingly key cornerstones of ‘sustainable development’).  After independence from Spain, with a little help from Mexico, Costa Rica began nation-building with infrastructure and currency, returning life to normal, whilst the rest of Central America saw post-independence civil wars rage on for many more years.  To this day, Costa Rica has no national security forces.

Landscape

The country today
Costa Rica’s unique historical story without doubt has an impact on the way the country is today.  Its economic position, though not mind-blowing on a global scale, is certainly impressive compared with other countries of Latin America.  Infrastructure is solid at all levels from the bus system to hospitals, and currency is strong – it’s not a spot for backpackers on a budget.  Democracy runs through Costa Rica like blood, with corruption levels low and political participation high.  Poverty levels are manageable at less than 20%.  Tourism is of particular importance in Costa Rica, contributing to the economy more than any other industry, though solid exports of pineapples, coffee and bananas are also of importance, however a banana republic this is not.

Nowhere else in the world are so many types of habitat squeezed into such a tiny area – the country is estimated to have 615 species per 10,000 square kilometre.  This abundance of wildlife is in part due to Costa Rica’s relatively recent emergence from the ocean, but is also due to the huge protection schemes in place – no other tropical country has made such an effort to protect the environment.  The diversity of landscape is particularly significant here, with three different types of forest, two coast lines, an abundance of reefs, volcanic earth, and deep, moist valleys, all of which are kept largely pristine thanks partly to the emergence of eco-tourism.  With sustainability at its heart, this concept sees tourists pay a premium for a ‘natural’ and environmentally friendly experience, allowing operators to put much of this money back into environmental projects.

Green volcano

The sustainability model
It seems like the perfect balance – the optimality of the Environmental Kuznets Curve which is becoming the goal of development globally.  But how has Costa Rica’s sustainability really come about, and is this a template that can be followed elsewhere?

Costa Rica has a stable government which attracts investment and encourages growth. It has an advantage in terms of biodiversity, and an economy boosted by masses of tourism.  But these aspects do not work in isolation.  The tourism, which gives Costa Rica much of its income, would not be present without its pristine environments and unspoiled landscapes.  Its landscapes would not remain pristine were it not for a well-functioning and democratic political system.  The government would have very little to work with were it not for the high levels of employment, investment and sustained growth.  And that is sustainability – the three pillars of economy, society and environment, interdependent, and working seamlessly together, along with cornerstones of freedom and peace, present at Costa Rica’s conception.

Nowhere else in the world is ‘sustainability’ such a national phenomenon.  And it will be Waterfalltough to make this spread.  Costa Rica’s path of development has been unique: Its colonial path was largely untroubled, and later the country avoided the rapid industrialisation seen in many Asian, African and South American countries. On top of this, its geological features such as the abundance of volcanoes and fairly recent emergence from the ocean provides it with fertile ground and extensive life. Costa Rica’s journey to sustainability has been very much tailor-made, and though it may not fit elsewhere, the success of the tiny Central American country must be applauded. The developments have made it, in every sense, a rich coast after all.

 

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