Sustainable Cities

This conference 17-18 March 2009, Cambridge, England, described –

how we are a long way from meeting the required “curves” of emissions that the IPCC models believe will keep global warming below 5C by 2100, which we were told, would make “most” of the world’s land uninhabitable and require a reduction in population; someone reported that at a conference in Copenhagen it was reported that scientists believed there was a 50% chance of our emissions performance keeping said global warming below that 5C level by that time (2100) (when we expect our children’s children will be living);

that we are far from being able to design a building and get the exact results and performance expected;

slums and favelas being turned into nicer places as a result of land rights being taken by those who live in them;

we can grow food crops in cities;

off-grid passive + solar houses are not easy to construct (at least by student teams);

how people have emissions that increase linearly with wealth but that this can be avoided (Japan) and planned against (China);

how we animals are in a tiny minority of species on the planet, and that the majority are plants (and bacteria) (some people strongly believe for example that trees have rights and we read that there are now lawyers who represent natural things like rivers);

how BREEAM and LEED lead to somewhat differing behaviours by developers;

the view that scientists, technologists and engineers should lead the way in our path away from the industrial model and toward sustainability and biomimicry, etc(!);

how we shall need to move to the “ecological age” by 2050, defined as less than 20% of our current emissions levels and less than 20% of our land area need per person;

how there is an increasing frequency of the “meme” (I’m not a Dawkinsian, but a Hawkingite) that we should aim for economic stability rather than growth;

that GDP growth should be replaced by improvements in the HDI or Human Development Index (which I understand is topped by Iceland at the moment!);

that the President of China has announced that China should become an “Eco Civilisation” and develop the “Circular (closed loop/self-resource-sufficient) economy”;

that McKinsey have offered an ‘abatement strategy’ summarised in a now-well-known chart, in which a list of things which give an ‘immediate’ return (left hand side of x axis) and a list of actions which cost a bit with a later payback, and that the requirement they suggest of Euro 150 billion a year for 20 years is small compared to the financial crisis bail-outs we’ve seen offered recently;

that pension funds can obtain good guaranteed returns from deals involving development work to move to a low carbon economy;

that resource efficient goods and services would be the highest growth sector for a long time.

The above is a report of a few random things that were said at the Engineering Department at the Sustainable Cities Conference 17-18 March 2009 by a range of speakers.

Personal Reflections on Entrepreneurship for a Zero Carbon Society

This conference, a forerunner of Solar Smart HEAT08 in Cambridge on 28 November, came when there were great ructions in the financial markets; one wondered if this would overshadow proceedings. It did not. It was clear that the financial problems were less important and would be more quickly acted upon than those of climate and environment, and indeed things like water and other resource scarcity and poverty. The rich will move quickly to help the rich, but not to help the poor. Terry Barker predicted the scale of the financial problem and showed how the two issues were similar and different. Some mused on to what extent they were correlated or were as cause and effect. Perhaps the huge ‘created-monies’ from credit cards, mortgages and other debt, leads to the higher levels of spending; and marketing and a desire for cheap things leads to globalisation and pollution. Then you have scarce resources in the production zones and end up moving not only products but raw materials in great amounts and over large distances. So there may be links.

The summary of the conference threads seemed to be:

1. CO2 and PPM
Noting the requirement not to go much higher than the current levels of CO2 in ‘parts per million’ – ever.
Indeed, some suggested we’d already reached ‘risky levels’. Some repeated the need to keep within certain very stringent levels (<450ppm) to keep the total warming to less than 2 degrees centigrade. But this was seen as unlikely, and higher, more dangerous levels of CO2 and warming were expected. Democracies and selfish individuals couldn’t ‘sort it out’. Hence a great deal of ‘doom and gloom’.
2. Electricity
This was seen as the way forward and the way the future would look. You get the electricity from renewables. Cars help grids (see below).
3. Scale
The scale of the needed rapid move toward renewables was hammered home time and time again. People talked of ‘country-sized’ (e.g. Wales) or ‘10%-coastline-long’ arrays of solar panels, wind farms and tidal barrages.
4. Tides
These were seen as a strong for the UK, but not necessarily everywhere else. They work like clockwork unlike many other renewables and can serve base load requirements for the grid.
5. Numbers adding up
This is the hobby horse of Professor David Mackay, who’s writing a book (, a horse I support 100%. He advocates the “kWHr per person per day” as a standard unit to compare all sources with, and that all calculations should be correct and logical without the puff: imprecise adjectival and metaphorical references. He warns against adding up trivial savings, like “phone chargers off”, as this will always be a small fraction of usage even if we all do it.
6. Education
This was shown by the same professor to be done by all of us teaching and by interaction rather than in lecture theatres and with PPT presentations…and certainly not with newspapers.
7. Solar
Solar energy was seen as the leading and most direct way to generate renewable energy or heat.
8. Nasty sources
Nuclear and carbon capture were generally rejected, as were biofuels (but see below). Nuclear because it is just a displacement of the problem (Peak Uranium, half-life), but it was included in the short-term models removing energy gaps. It also has large moral issues (genocide) and big risks (wrong hands). Carbon capture: this was too little too late (technology and implementation 20 years off), said also to be risky against large earth tremors, etc; and generally also suffers from running out.
9. The City
The City was said to reject nuclear and carbon capture too, for reasons around high risks and long lead times. Any (bio)fuels which pitted land-use for fuels against food was totally rejected; the city being the think-tank that it is, albeit an amoral one, can easily calculate greater losses and issues from such a strategy, outweighing any benefits.
10. Variety of Solar
Solar was split in various ways. Large-scale, country-sized or industrial projects we mentioned above. And micro residential or street-type projects. Commercial use. The main issue was that such huge numbers of panels or collectors are needed that we’d have to scale up manufacturing and sourcing ‘enormously’ (sorry for another adjective here). Then it was split into PV panels, transparent PV materials replacing windows, concentrated solar power, which is a large-scale matter where heat is generated and stored in large salt vats to be reconverted to electricity. Solar collectors for micro-heating were mentioned.
11. Large Solar
The large scale solar projects were promising. Concentrated solar and solar PV on a grand scale. Many of the areas where one would like to put them were in relatively local and uninhabited places, such as Northern Africa for Europe and within the US itself and Central America for North America.
12. Small Solar
The small scale projects, solar hot water was said to be a “no-brainer” even now for many millions of people. The total cost is around £4,000 and most of ones heating and hot water needed can be covered with this investment. PV installations cost much more in the UK at around £10,000 for 2kW. Off-grid solutions of both of these may become much more attractive with new technologies coming online. In many European countries the equation becomes profitable with high ‘feed-in tariffs’.
13. Wind
As for wind, we may need enormous areas of land. Truly beautiful, tree-like vertical axis turbines were shown off. This form of energy, unlike tidal, and indeed solar in some parts of the world, is not reliable, but storage makes it valuable. But in the UK, like the more reliable tidal power, we have lots of potential room for on and offshore wind power stations or areas.
14. Battery cars
Battery cars could become prevalent and non-battery vehicles old-fashioned. These battery vehicles could smooth grid-use variability, and indeed act as storage vessels for energy, sending power back to the grid or property. There are lower investments in infrastructure for battery vehicles than alternatives (such as hydrogen cars), very high recyclability of metals for batteries, poor performance and risk of such technologies as hydrogen fuel cells. All forms of hybrid, except perhaps the serial, last-resort hybrid were seen as rejectable. Today’s cars were seen not to be fit-for-purpose. People were keen to buy the battery cars touted by a speaker. Those battery cars were said to be programmable with downloads and upgrades to software, rather than by reliance on the specialised garage and costly software diagnostic kits, which again boded well for simpler times driving. It was also noted that in the urban space, the battery car performed much better, and cost ten times less than running a petrol driven car. Not only this, they are far quieter. The battery cars were designed to be at least as safe as petrol cars; the use of composites makes them lighter and the myth of safety of large “us-versus-the-rest” cars was touted.
15. Peer pressure
As hinted above, this could come in massively when neighbours start vying for the best and most complete renewable and low carbon solutions and wasting energy becomes embarrassing and quaint. The idea of presentations by individuals, whether poor, middling or rich, on what they have been doing for zero-carbon in their own personal cases was seen as something that would be very interesting to share.

16. Personally
I’m happy to change behaviour, and reduce carbon emissions and energy use as best I can. Copenhagen Consensus and reasonable people say that solving the problems of poverty and injustice comes in ahead of reducing emissions. I believe we must move to sustainable consumerism and more equal prosperity as we outlaw, restrict and eliminate environmental damage. I note that Terry Barker said that the markets created as we rush to sustainability are large, larger than what we have now. I believe the net zero-carbon opportunity for sectors like manufacturing, technology business, investment and finance, and indeed the general economy are enormous, and positive (oops, two more adjectives!)

I support a move from GDP as now defined, to a GDP that is never ‘negative’. We can’t build casinos and prisons, add their products to GDP and be glad when it goes up. We need a ‘GDP’ only of healthy positive inputs. That is the GDP that we aim to grow. If what we measure is right, perhaps this will help guide us.

Making Clusters Attractive and Accessible Websites

Review of the GCP Annual Conference on 22 May 2008 at Hinxton Hall

A very well attended event, humorous Chairing, good set of briefing talks, excellent summary of how to rate clusters and how GC is doing. A nice summary of the general financial markets situation and mood in the City.

It was nice to hear that detailed, connected, accessible websites were seen as a ‘ranking’ strength or enabler for clusters. Our marker map at is free, open, linked to from the key sites of Cambridge Network and Cambridge University, lists all 750 high tech tier-one companies in the cluster, their position on the map, their sector (one of 9 key ones), their profile description, all of which is searchable.

So that particular thing is done. It just remains to find sufficient support in the tech cluster to keep it updated…

HVM (Closed Loops) 2008 Conference Summary

Summary of HVM Closed Loops Conference Discussions

The conference began by stating that the overall aim was to increase prosperity of a net positive kind, while reducing net use of finite natural resources. This tends to equate to an improved quality of life.

We saw that the ‘anthrosphere’ was in a ‘closed loop’ with the ‘ecosphere’. This is the statement that man is inexorably connected with nature, and that to all intents and purposes the ‘natural world’ is finite, as we are disconnected by great distances from other mineral resources in the universe. We are working in a closed system fed by the sun’s energy. Delegates were shown a diagram showing resources taken out of the ground in one place, ending with a picture of a landfill site somewhere else. This system was patently based on ‘open loop’ principles, and in contrast to the obvious global ‘closed loop’ that had been shown immediately prior.

The concept that ‘closed loops’ could preserve the capital or value in materials and products was then laid before delegates. Two speakers separately made the point that the tighter and shorter those closed loops, the better, but with stipulations that we shall mention below. Clearly, if we tend to close loops at the level of finished products, this tends to be preferable to closing loops, for example, by mining landfill sites at the end of the usage chain.

It was noted that closed loops within plants and factories were highly desirable, such as in the use and reuse of water. Water flows within closed loops for decades within domestic central heating systems, for example, and this principle can be applied with great effect to industrial situations. The anecdote of Edward de Bono was given, where he suggested to an industrialist that if they sent water output from the plant into the river upstream of the plant, then this would ensure incentives for processes to clean up the water being used. In Austria, it is common for management and staff to live slightly downstream of their factory outputs on the river. It was noted that regulations tend to force more reuse of materials within plants.

In the packaging sector, re-use was described as working well in closed loop shipping, especially for bulky, high value items and when suppliers and customers are grouped near to each other. Similarly to the ideas presented in the automotive ‘sale of service’ talk, more costly packaging which lasts much longer was shown to be more economic, whilst clearly more sustainable.

A long list of benefits of reusable packaging were presented. But the speakers covering this suggested that savings and benefits must be carefully and ‘holistically’ assessed, case-by-case, ideally modelled for all estimable parameters and tested in practice.

The example of the decline in doorstep delivery in electric floats of milk and other goods was given. Bottles made of glass used to be taken back and multiply reused; now, we use and throw away polythene cartons whose production is resource costly. The price of delivered milk was shown to have diverged from supermarket carton milk in the years from 1995 to 2004.

Reverse logistic chains were discussed, and said to be made more difficult by variability which leads to high labour inputs, inventory, poor plant use and lower recovered value.

Many categories of ownership transfer models were discussed, which provide incentives for reducing net use of resource by recycling and reusing materials and products. Examples were ‘mandatory take-backs’, ‘deposits’, ‘buy-back’, ‘lease’ and ‘service’ models. In the service model, which was discussed at various stages of the conference, ownership remains with the supplier. The customer then tends to take more care of the used items, and the supplier will tend to provide the cheapest and longest lasting way to meet the service requirement (calculations for the supplier involve ‘Total Cost of Ownership’). This way, interests are aligned so as to avoid use of resource.

The case of beer was discussed. Here, there are several ownership models extant for a single commodity: pub retained glass vs festival bought glass, kegs and bottles and so on.

Closed loops were said to be just one way to improve resource productivity. One can reduce or eliminate use, reuse, recycle or just reduce impact of disposal. Some methods had apparent tensions, such as investing more materials into products in order to extend product life. This was discussed further later in the context of plastics.

It was suggested that businesses should “systematically and persistently seek opportunities for savings”. This might involve planning, trialling, monitoring and reviewing while searching for new opportunities. Not unnaturally, it was felt that independent advice could lead to great improvements that internal thinking might miss.

In a talk on lean thinking, ‘work’ and ‘waste’ were discussed. If customer needs were met better, value was being added. Processes that did not add value, but allowed the supplier to meet regulations were a necessary other aspect of ‘work’. Any other activity is ‘waste’. An example was given where a company performing an analysis of work and waste showed that about 60% of effort being put in was “non value-added work or plain waste”.

Human factors in service-provision were seen as crucial: the interface between people, procedures, machines and the environment. With a persistent rational approach, great gains could be made.

A pivotal talk on sale of service with an example in automotive, suggested that: ‘being less bad is no good’. This refers among other examples, to the continual improvements in efficiencies of petrol and diesel driven, steel-based vehicles (which are highly technologically mature). The obvious basis to this statement is that the number of vehicles shall continue to rise, and that resources used in this manner shall eventually run out. That is, technical resource productivity is necessary but not sufficient in solving global environmental problems. We do need closed loops too, and energy efficiency will be paramount in this, which was the subject of another, electronics sector talk.

It was also argued that vehicle technology is no longer fit for purpose, nor the process by which private transport is provided for society. With sales of product, if one “makes more money from selling a car, one makes more money from selling more cars. A company that sells a (private) transport service rather than vehicles has a financial interest in reducing cost and maintenance and increasing reliability, ownership cycle and product life, as well as energy efficiency. Thus currently opposed interests of society and manufacturers are aligned by sale of service instead of product. Longevity becomes a competitive advantage and the market becomes self-regulating. Problems exist in switching, as this must involve the entire supply chain, and design becomes more crucial”.

A talk on industrial symbiosis suggested that there were projects extant which greatly reduced waste. Relatedly, waste was seen as a business opportunity that is growing. If one can reduce the cost of recycling and improve the quality of recycled output, then the opportunity grows further. Recycling was said never to be 100% efficient, and pirating of products and materials was stated later to be a real problem for closing loops. The point that reprocessed materials often had reduced strength and uses was made; environmental benefits had to be in a compromise with mechanical properties.

There is no single approach that is right for every situation. Later speakers asked the audience to make sure that they were backing approaches that, all things considered, were having the desired effect. They challenged the audience to be wary of fogs of commercials making false claims that amount to “green-washing”, the popular press offering misleading, out-of-context anecdotes, and to appealing but sometimes emotive rather than rational comments of certain other voices.

The organisers CIR hoped that the forum and future fora should provide a place for knowledge to be exchanged, that might enable us to more towards our stated goals. Please see the below link for more information about 2008 Conferences, which we hope all past delegates will attend.

Past HVM Conferences – Programme Talks and Video Podcasts

Forthcoming Conferences

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