Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

Take yourself back to the beginning of the last decade, Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister, the term Brexit has yet to be coined, and the Nokia 1280 was the world’s best-selling phone. In the ten years that followed it’s no understatement to say that the world is almost an unrecognisably different place. And that’s before we even discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consider the widespread roll-out of high-speed internet and the adoption of smartphones: the development of both of these technologies has massively expanded the locations in which we can learn, work, shop, and consume and produce media. In 2010, 28% of the UK population actively used a smartphone, by 2019, it had almost trebled to 82%.

Developing the digital economy

The widespread adoption of devices that provide users with the ability to easily access the internet and download applications has created an entirely new sector of the economy. Apple estimates that the iOS App Store in the UK alone has generated more than £3.6 billion in total earnings and supports up to 330,000 jobs. Analysis by Vodafone has estimated that the UK internet economy is now worth £82 billion – that’s 5.7% of the UK’s GDP.

Put simply, in the space of a decade, technological advancements have enabled the development of an almost entirely new sector of the economy and changed the way we all interact with each other.

Unfortunately, not everyone experienced the benefits of the digital age, as can be seen by the numerous closures of big-name high-street retailers. Many of these failed to anticipate the pace and extent to which consumers would embrace e-commerce and online-only retailers, such as Asos and Amazon. The failure to anticipate the speed at which people would begin to use smartphones, gain access to high-speed internet, and shop online is a prime example of the need for futures thinking.

Embracing uncertainty

Futures thinking (sometimes known as strategic foresight) is an approach that can help identify the drivers of change that will shape the world in the future. Crucially, futures thinking is not about predicting the future, rather, it’s about considering how the numerous plausible potential futures may have an impact on today’s decisions or policymaking. A key element of futures thinking is the need to embrace uncertainty, and accept that our future is not predetermined and can be altered at any time, by any number of factors.

Techniques that are commonly used within futures thinking include:

–       Horizon scanning

–       Axes of uncertainty

–       SWOT analysis

–       Backcasting

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no set approach to futures thinking; it’s flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of any organisation. This flexibility is something that the Government Office for Science highlights as a key benefit, as it actively encourages “creative approaches” and supports a high level of customisation.

If we apply this to the previously mentioned example of the widespread adoption of smartphones in the 2010s, you can see how futures thinking may have been a useful approach to help decide how much focus traditional retailers placed on developing their online stores. For example, most of the evidence at the time concurred that the use of smartphones and e-commerce would gradually grow. However, the pace at which they would grow was relatively unpredictable.

Therefore, a futures thinking approach may have considered how different paces of smartphone adoption may impact the number of people shopping online. This may have been useful to determine the level of investment required to develop an online platform that would meet the demands of an ever-increasing number of online shoppers.

Creating a futures culture

Taking a long view and considering how future events may impact the decisions you make today can have several benefits. One of these is the development of more resilient policies which can take advantage of changing circumstances, and mitigate against potential risks. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (New Zealand) contends that this approach allows for the creation of “policy that helps shape the future to promote your desired outcomes and prevent undesirable events”.

Additionally, the Government Office for Science, argues that even just by undertaking futures thinking exercises, an organisation’s focus can be shifted towards a more long-term outlook. In turn, this can generate new ideas and approaches, which can lead to innovative solutions to potential future challenges.

In short, futures thinking can facilitate an entire culture change, and create organisations that are more responsive and proactive in addressing emerging opportunities and challenges.

Limitations

Naturally, futures thinking does have its limitations. It’s not always an appropriate approach and it cannot anticipate every possible eventuality.

For futures thinking to be successful, it’s important to recognise that it provides the best results in situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty. As a result, in scenarios where there is relative certainty surrounding changes that may affect a policy, there is little benefit to adopting a futures thinking approach.

Futures thinking can also be complex, trying to envision and anticipate numerous eventualities can be difficult and requires an element of trial-and-error to explore the tools and approaches that will be useful for each organisation. In particular, it’s important to consider the scope and objectives of any futures thinking exercise, as there is potential to take too wide a view of an issue and over-extrapolate data. This runs the risk of ignoring the context of an issue, which may highlight that certain scenarios won’t conform to typical linear prediction models.

Final thoughts

Amid a global pandemic, where certainty is regularly sought after but rarely found, a futures thinking approach may be useful to help those who make decisions and create policy.

Lockdowns, vaccines, and other public health mitigations do look like they will provide us with a chance to live with the virus , and get back to something that resembles normality. However, the potential for new variants of concern to develop and spread around the world creates a level of uncertainty. Futures thinking provides the framework in which to consider how each of these potential eventualities, may impact the decisions and policies made today.

In short, in a world where certainly is hard to come by, futures thinking may provide us with a way in which to continue to create policy and make decisions that can continue to be advanced no matter what the future brings. However, for this to happen, it’s important to remember that no one can truly predict the future.


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Cities on the edge: edge computing and the development of smart cities

From Barcelona to Glasgow, across the world, a trend towards making our cities “smart” has been accelerating in line with demands for cities to become more responsive to the needs of residents. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a newfound urgency to ensure that the places where we live are more resilient and are able to respond to changes in behaviour. For example, the need to keep a two-metre distance from people outside of your household required cities to take action to widen pavements and deploy pop-up active transport infrastructure to prevent overcrowding on public transport.

Over the past twelve months, cities across the world have taken a variety of different actions in order to support the almost overnight transition to what has been described as the “new-normal”. In the year ahead, it’s likely we will see further changes in resident behaviour, as the vaccine roll-out enables a transition out of the public health emergency and allows for the gradual reopening of society. Cities once again will have to be ready to react to changes in how people interact with their environment. However, the extent to which people will go back to pre-pandemic behaviours is not yet clear.

Not so smart cities

The ability to monitor and analyse the ways in which people interact with cities has been heralded as a key benefit of the development of smart cities, and as highlighted above, in some ways it has never been more important. However, the way in which smart city infrastructure currently collects and analyses data tends to be relatively “dumb”, in the sense that data is sent to a separate location to be analysed, rather than occurring on the device that’s collecting it.

Due to the sheer amount of data being transferred for analysis, this process can be relatively slow and is entirely dependent on the reliability and speed of a city’s overall network infrastructure. As a result, the ability to take real-time action, for example, to change traffic management systems in order to reduce congestion, is potentially limited.  

A good example of a device that acts in this way is a smart speaker, which is capable of listening out for a predetermined wake-word but is relatively incapable of doing anything else without a network connection. All other speech after a user has said the wake-word tends to be processed at a central server, Therefore, any disruption to the smart speaker’s ability to communicate with a server in the cloud will prevent it from completing the simplest of tasks.

This is why Barclays have argued that the future of smart city development will heavily rely upon a technology known as “edge computing”, which enables data analysis to be conducted closer to smart city infrastructure, rather than being sent to a distant central server.

What is edge computing?

Put simply, the concept of edge computing refers to computation that is conducted on or near a device that’s collecting data, for example, a smart traffic light. Data collected by the device is processed locally, rather than transmitted to a central server in the cloud, and decisions can be made in real-time locally on the device. Removing the need to transmit data before any action is taken facilitates real-time autonomous decision-making, which some experts argue could potentially make our cities operate more efficiently.

Additionally, as edge computing is not reliant upon a connection to a central server, there are enhanced security and data privacy protections, which will reassure citizens that collected data is safe and makes smart city infrastructure less vulnerable to attack. However, if an attacker were to breach one part of the edge computing network, it would be easy isolate affected parts of the network without comprising the entire network.

In the near future, smart city infrastructure will be vital to enabling autonomous vehicles to navigate our cities, making security of these technologies all the more important.

Cities on the edge

An example of the application of edge computing in smart city infrastructure can be seen in the development of smart CCTV cameras. According to the British Security Industry Association, there are an estimated 4 to 5.9 million CCTV cameras across the UK, one of the largest totals in the world. Each of these cameras is recording and storing a huge amount of data each day, and for the most part, this footage is largely unused and creates the need for an extensive amount of expensive storage.

Edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras could provide a solution to this issue through on-device image analytics, which are able to monitor an area in real-time and only begin recording when a pre-determined event occurs, for example, a vehicle collision. This significantly reduces the amount of footage that needs to be stored, and acts as an additional layer of privacy protection, as residents can be reassured that CCTV footage will only be stored when an incident occurs.

Additionally, edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras can also be used to identify empty parking spaces, highlight pedestrian/vehicle congestion, and help emergency services to identify the fastest route to an ongoing incident. Through the ability to identify problems in real-time, cities can become more resilient, and provide residents with information that can allow them to make better decisions.

For example, if an increased level of congestion is detected at a train station, nearby residents could be advised to select an alternative means of transport, or asked to change their journey time. This could help prevent the build-up of unnecessary congestion, and may be helpful to those who may wish to continue to avoid crowded spaces beyond the pandemic.

Final thoughts

Over the past year, the need for resilience has never been more apparent, and the way we interact with the world around us may never be the same again. The ability for cities to monitor and respond to situations in real-time will be increasingly important, as it’s not necessarily clear the extent to which residents will return to pre-pandemic behaviours.

As a result, smart city infrastructure may be more important than ever before in helping to develop resilient cities which can easily respond to resident needs. Edge computing will act as the backbone of the smart city infrastructure of the future, and enable new and exciting ways for cities to become more responsive.


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Heating Clydebank via the Clyde: renewable heat in the COP26 host city

Image: West Dunbartonshire Council

In less than ten months’ time, the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow, as the city plays host to the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26). Leaders from across the world will come together to discuss enhanced ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take steps to mitigate the effects of climate change. This is a process known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’, which envisions signatories of the Paris Agreement, stepping up their commitments to reduce carbon emissions every five years. This year’s conference in Glasgow is the first time that this mechanism will be in play, and expectations surrounding a significant acceleration of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are high.

With an eye on climate change and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries are already discussing how they can take advantage of the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality. A key element of this transition will be the decarbonisation of the housing stock, and the Climate Change Committee has highlighted the significant role that the implementation of renewable forms of heating will play in reducing the amount of carbon emitted by our homes.

Queens Quay, Clydebank

An example of a project which will take advantage of a variety of modern renewable technologies to create the “greenest town in Scotland” is the Queens Quay development in Clydebank, a site which is only five miles from the Scottish Event Campus where COP26 will take place.

Queens Quay is a £250 million regeneration of the former John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. Designed to take advantage of its waterfront location, the development will feature a variety of mixed-use spaces and a pioneering district heating system. This system will utilise Scotland’s first major and the UK’s largest water-sourced heat pump. The heat pump will extract heat from the River Clyde, and after a process of compression, the heat will be pumped into the development using a buried modular district heating system. It is estimated that this innovative combination of heat pump and district heating technology will cut more than 4,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.

But just how do these technologies work? In this blog, we will take a look at how heat pumps and district heating systems operate, and their application in the Queens Quay development in Clydebank.

Heat pump

In simple terms, a heat pump is a form of renewable heating system that is able to move thermal energy from one location to another. There are a number of different types of heat pump which can extract thermal energy from different locations. At the Queens Quay development, a water-sourced heat pump will be used to extract thermal energy from the River Clyde.

Water-sourced heat pumps use a network of submerged pipes which contain a working fluid that absorbs the heat within the body of water. This working fluid then undergoes a process of conversion that increases the temperature of the heat generated. Once at an appropriate temperature, it can then be used to provide heating and hot water. 

Naturally, as not all developments are located near a body of water, the use of water-sourced heat pump is relatively uncommon. However, water-sourced heat pumps are able to operate more efficiently than ground and air-sourced heat pumps, as heat transfers more efficiently due to the stability of the temperature of water.

District heating

Once heat is produced, it’s vital that it is transferred to buildings in an efficient and reliable manner that prevents heat-loss. A system of district heating is often the most reliable way to utilise energy produced by any form of heat pump, and analysis conducted by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (now the Department for Business, Energy, & Industrial Strategy) found that this combination offers “large CO2 emissions reduction potential”.

A district heating system uses a network of insulated pipes to deliver heat from a centralised energy centre direct to connected buildings. Instead of a boiler, each building will have a heating interface unit which will enable individuals to control the temperature of the heat and hot water they receive without impacting other connected properties.

On top of helping to lower overall fuel costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, district heating systems are also easily expandable and new properties can be added to the network as required. This ensures that district-heating systems are future-proofed and are able to respond to the heat requirements of developments as they evolve over time.

Queens Quay implementation

The implementation of a water-sourced air pump and district heating system in the Queens Quay development provides Clydebank with the opportunity to become the “greenest” town in Scotland, and sets an example of how new developments can be created in a way that supports Scotland’s ambition to become net-zero by 2045.

By linking each property in the development to the network, and establishing a council owned energy company as operator, residents of Queens Quay will benefit from reductions in both the cost of energy and their overall carbon footprint. The success of a renewable heating project at this scale could be a significant development in Scotland’s transition to net-zero, as it may prove that renewable heating systems are an effective means to tackle climate change and fuel poverty.

Additionally, as a key benefit of a district heating system is its modularity, there is scope for existing buildings within Clydebank to be connected to the renewable heating network. West Dunbartonshire Council have set out their desire for the nearby NHS Golden Jubilee National Hospital to be added to the network and are also considering if all future developments should be required to join the district heating system.

Final thoughts

The dual threats posed by climate change and Covid-19 have provided the world with a rare opportunity to undergo a truly revolutionary process of recovery. With expectations high that this year’s COP26 will result in countries accelerating the transition to carbon-neutrality, the development of a pioneering renewable heating system just five miles from the conference may offer us a glimpse of the way homes will be heated in the future.

Decarbonising the housing stock is vital in the battle for carbon neutrality, but concerns have previously been raised about the impact this may have on people in fuel poverty. Ensuring that the transition to renewable forms of energy does not exacerbate existing inequalities will be key to ensuring that everyone benefits from the journey to net-zero.  

As a result, the success of the roll-out of the water-sourced heat pump and district heating system in Queens Quay, and the expected reduction in overall energy costs for residents, may prove to be a major stepping stone in Scotland’s journey to becoming carbon neutral.  


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Cross-border handshakes: what’s next for digital contact tracing?

As we enter a new year, and a new phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the need to follow public health advice to stop the spread of the virus. The emergence of new variants of Covid-19, which appear to be more transmissible, has resulted in tougher restrictions across the world. Although the emergence of new variants of Covid-19 can seem frightening, we are not powerless in preventing the spread of the virus; face coverings, social distancing, regular handwashing and self-isolating remain effective.

Additionally, the development and subsequent roll-out of numerous vaccines should provide us all with hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, although vaccines appear to protect people from becoming seriously ill with the virus, there is still uncertainty regarding the impact vaccines will have on viral transmission of Covid-19.

Therefore, the need for those with symptoms to self-isolate, get tested and undergo contact tracing when a positive case is detected is likely to remain. This will become even more important in the months ahead, as we see the gradual re-opening of hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors.

Effectiveness of contact tracing

Contact tracing is a tried-and-tested public health intervention intended to identify individuals who may have been in contact with an infected person and advise them to take action that will disrupt chains of transmission. Prior to Covid-19, contact tracing was often used to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, and has been heralded as vital to the eradication of smallpox in the UK.

According to modelling, published by the Lancet Infectious Diseases, a combination of self-isolation, effective contact tracing and social distancing measures, may be the most effective and efficient way to control the spread of Covid-19.

However, for contact tracing to be at its most effective, the modelling estimates that for every 1,000 new symptomatic cases, 15,000 to 41,000 contacts would have to be asked to self-isolate. Clearly, the logistical burden of operating a manual contract tracing system is high. As a result, governments have chosen to augment existing systems through the deployment of digital contract tracing apps, which are predominantly built using software developed by Apple and Google.

Digital contact tracing

As we go about our day-to-day lives, especially as restrictions are eased, it may not be possible to name everyone you have encountered over the previous 14 days if you later contract Covid-19. Digital contact tracing provides a solution to this issue by harnessing the Bluetooth technology within our phones to help identify and remember potential close contacts. Research by the University of Glasgow has found that contact tracing apps can contribute substantially to reducing infection rates when accompanied by a sufficient testing capability.

Most countries have opted to utilise a system developed by Apple and Google, known as Exposure Notifications, as the basis for digital contact tracing. Public health authorities have the option to either provide Apple and Google with the criteria which defines when an alert should be generated or develop their own app, such as the Scottish Government’s Protect Scotland.

Exposure notification system

In order to protect privacy, the exposure notification system can only be activated by a user after they have agreed to the terms; the system cannot be unilaterally activated by public health authorities or Apple and Google. 

Once activated, the system utilises Bluetooth technology to swap anonymised IDs with other users’ devices when they come into close contact. This has been described as an anonymous handshake. Public health authorities set what is considered as a close contact (usually contact at less than a 2-metre distance for over 15 minutes), and the app calculates proximity measurements over a 24-hour period.

Anonymised IDs are not associated with a user’s identity, change every 10-20 minutes and collected anonymised IDs are securely stored locally on user devices for a 14-day period (incubation period of Covid-19) before being deleted.

If a user tests positive for Covid-19, the public health authority will provide them with a code that confirms their positive diagnosis. This will then provide users with an option to upload collected anonymous IDs to a secure public health authority server. At least once a day, the user’s phone will check-in with this server to check if any of the anonymised IDs collected in the previous 14-days match up with a positive case. If there is a match, and the proximity criteria has been met, a user may receive a notification informing them of the need to self-isolate.

Analysis conducted by the National Institute for Health Research highlights that the use of contact tracing apps, in combination with manual contact tracing, could lead to a reduction in the number of secondary Covid-19 infections. Additionally, the analysis revealed that contact tracing apps identified more possible close contacts and reduced the amount of time it took to complete contact tracing. The analysis concluded that the benefits of digital contact tracing include the ability to trace contacts who may not be known to the infected individual and the overall reliability and security of digitally stored data, rather than an individual’s memory or diary.

Therefore, it could be said that digital contract tracing apps will be most effective when restrictions ease and we are more likely to be in settings where we may be in close contact with people we may not know, for example, when we’re on holiday or in a restaurant.

Cross-border handshakes

Covid-19 naturally does not respect any form of border, and as restrictions on domestic and international travel are relaxed, opportunities will arise for Coivd-19 to spread. In order to facilitate the reopening of the tourism sector, there have been calls for countries which have utilised the Exposure Notification system to enable these systems to interact.

Examples of interoperability already exist internally within the UK, as an agreement exists between Scotland, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, (plus Jersey, Guernsey and Gibraltar), that enables users to continue to receive exposure notifications when they visit an area they do not live in, without the need to download the local public health authority app.

EU Exposure Notification system interoperability, European Commission, 2020

Additionally, the European Union has also developed interoperability of the Exposure Notification system between member states, with a commitment to link 18 national contact tracing apps, establishing the world’s largest bloc of digital contact tracing. The EU views the deployment of linked apps as vital to re-establishing safe free movement of people between member states, for work as well as tourism.

Over the next few months, it is likely that links will be created across jurisdictions. For example, the Scottish Government has committed to investigating how interoperability can be achieved between the Scottish and EU systems. The interoperability of Northern Ireland and Ireland’s contact tracing app highlights that on a technical level there appears to be no barrier for this form of cross-jurisdiction interaction.  

Therefore, as restrictions ease, the interoperability of digital contact tracing apps may become a vital way in which to ensure safe travel, as we learn to live with the ongoing threat of Covid-19.

Final thoughts

Covid-19 has proven itself to be a persistent threat to our everyday lives. However, the deployment of effective vaccines provides us with hope that the threat will be minimized soon. Until then, the need to utilise contact tracing is likely to remain.

As the roll-out of mass-vaccination programmes accelerates, and restrictions are relaxed, we are likely to be in more situations where we will be in contact with more people, not all of whom we may necessarily know. This will be especially true as domestic and international tourism begins to re-open. In these scenarios, the Exposure Notification system, and interoperability between public health authority apps, will become increasingly vital to the operation of an effective contact tracing system.

In short, digital contact tracing may prove to be key to the safe re-opening of the tourism sector and enable users to easily and securely be contact traced across borders.


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Further reading: articles on COVID-19 and digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Skilling up: the case for digital literacy

As technology has advanced, and it has become harder to name simple tasks that have not become digitised in some form, the need for everyone in society to have a basic level of digital skills has markedly increased. From applying for jobs to ordering a coffee via an app, digital technology has undoubtedly changed the way we all go about our day-to-day lives. For those with the appropriate digital skillset, these advances may be viewed as a positive transition to more efficiently operated services. However, for those without the necessary digital skills, there is a risk that they will struggle to access even the most basic of essential services, such as opening a bank account.

Therefore, it is of no surprise that the issue of the digital skills gap is a concern for governments and businesses alike, with a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee highlighting that the UK could be missing out on £63 billion in lost GDP each year, due to a general lack of digital skills.

The issue of the digital skills gap has never been more pronounced, as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, where various restrictions have required us all to embrace digital technology, in order to work, learn and socialise with our friends and family.

Digital skills at work

The extent to which technology has changed the world of work cannot be overstated, with a recent CBI report stating that the UK is the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, spurred on by advancements in automation, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Research conducted by the CBI found that 57% of businesses say that they will need significantly more digital skills in the next five years. Therefore, the workforce of the future will need to be supported to gain these digital skills, in order to gain employment and enable British business to benefit from the digital revolution.

Concerns have been raised regarding the ability of young people to access opportunities that will support them in developing transferable digital skills. Grasping key digital skills, such as the ability to navigate Microsoft Office, is undoubtedly necessary, but is no longer enough to meet the needs of employers.  

Digital literacy: the bedrock for a fourth industrial revolution

The ability to not just be able to use digital technology, but to truly understand how it works, is known as digital literacy. A report from the House of Commons Education Select Committee sets out how crucial digital literacy will be to the success of the fourth industrial revolution. The speed with which technology is advancing and changing ensures that within just a few years, digital platforms that we use today may become outdated. Therefore, it is unwise to focus on using a single platform when developing digital skills, as inevitably the platform will either gain new functionalities or become obsolete. Instead, digital skills should be developed in a way that ensures they are future-proofed and will not go to waste when the inescapable next big technological or societal change occurs.

Why do we need digital literacy?

An example of why digital literacy is important can be seen in the way in which many of us have adapted to work from home, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on face-to-face meetings forced us to consider new ways to work collaboratively and explore the myriad of platforms that facilitate video-calling, file sharing and instant messaging. Whilst we may have already had experience using existing video-conferencing platforms, such as Skype, it was clear that each organisation had to consider using new software, such as Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Many of us would never have used these software packages before and were expected to rapidly get to grips with it in real-time, and without the usual in-person back-up networks of colleagues and IT support. This highlights the importance of digital literacy: the ability to take insight gained from interacting with one digital platform and apply it to another was vital for business continuity during the initial lockdown. The ability to transfer knowledge gained from one platform to another, is vital to ensure that we harness the opportunities of digital advancements as they occur, and without the need for lengthy additional training.

Developing digital literacy

Developing digital literacy can be difficult. Research conducted by the Nuffield Foundation found that providing access to computers in schools was not enough to encourage the development of digital literacy. Instead, FutureLab advises that computers should be embedded and used across the curriculum. Ideas put forward within FutureLab’s Digital Literacy handbook, include:

  • Support children to make mistakes when using technology, allow them to create content that may not be to the high-standard we would expect and enable them to consider how they can improve the quality of their output.
  • Provide opportunities for children to work collaboratively online, e.g create a wiki or real-time document creation via Google Docs. Use this experience to highlight how anyone can make changes online, and develop critical understanding of how what we see online may not always be entirely trustworthy.
  • Harness the power of technology by going beyond the basics. Most children will be able to conduct a simple online search, then highlight ways this can be improved and advanced through Boolean search terms. Incorporate this into a lesson that discusses the value of critically assessing the value of information.

Final thoughts

Since the widespread adoption of the internet, the way we use technology has changed at an almost frightening pace. Therefore, the digital skills we all need to interact with technology must keep up if we are to truly harness the power and potential of these new advancements.

Ensuring that we are all digitally literate will enable us to take advantage of new digital platforms effectively and could potentially lead to future economic prosperity. Developing digital literacy, will not be easy, but it will be vital to ensure the future workforce have the skills they need to gain employment and play their part within the fourth industrial revolution.



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Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 2

A window of opportunity

In policymaking, there is a concept known as the “Overton Window”, which describes the range of policies that politicians can propose without being considered too extreme by the population at large. This window of opportunity can be shifted and can allow for policies that in the past may have been considered unthinkable and radical to become mainstream and even sensible.

The impact of Covid-19 and the public health measures that have been required to suppress the virus, have undoubtedly resulted in a shift in the “Overton Window”. Policy interventions, such as the Job Retention Scheme and national lockdown, which involved massive amounts of government spending and restrictions to every aspect of our day-to-day lives, suddenly became normal and were largely approved of by the public.

In these circumstances, the concept of the Green New Deal, a policy package which involves large amounts of government spending, designed to create green jobs, develop green infrastructure and modernise the economy, may no longer be such an unfeasible idea.

Build back better: a green recovery

The economic impact of Covid-19 is expected to result in a 5.2% contraction of global GDP, amounting to the deepest global depression since 1945. In order to recover from this contraction, governments are formulating unprecedentedly large economic stimulus packages, designed to mitigate the economic and social damage created by the pandemic. Already there are numerous examples of governments utilising aspects of the Green New Deal within their economic recovery plans.

European Union

Next Generation EU – A European Green Deal

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission was already working on creating a European Green Deal, which would support the EU transition to climate neutrality by 2050. After the onset of the pandemic, the European Commission moved to position the Green Deal as a key pillar of the EU’s €750 billion recovery package, known as Next Generation EU. 25% of the recovery package has been dedicated to funding climate action, whilst the entire package features a commitment that any money spent as part of the EU’s economic recovery must “do no harm” to the EU’s climate neutrality goal. The recovery package includes policies that are similar in nature to other Green Deals, including:

  • a €40 billion ‘Just Transition Fund’, to alleviate the socio-economic impacts of the green transition and diversify economic activity;
  • a €91 billion a year fund to improve home energy efficiency and develop low carbon heating;
  • the introduction of an EU-wide border tax on carbon-intensive industrial imports with the potential to raise €14 billion.

French Government

France Relaunch

The French government’s recently announced €100 billion stimulus package, includes a €30 billion package of measures designed to aid France’s transition to carbon neutrality. The measures set out within the package incorporate core elements from Green New Deals, such as developing cleaner forms of transport and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. The package includes the following green measures:

  • a €11 billion investment in developing and encouraging the use of green transport methods, nearly €5 billion of which will be used to upgrade rail lines to encourage freight traffic from road to rail;
  • a €6 billion investment to help improve the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings;
  • A €2 billion investment to help develop the hydrogen sector.

Scottish Government

Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland

Within this year’s Scottish Government Programme, it is evident from the first page that it views the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to create a  “fairer, greener and wealthier country”. The programme explicitly describes the measures contained as “the next tranche of our Green New Deal” and borrows extensively from existing Green New Deals, with policies including:

  • a £100 million green Job Creation Fund;
  • a £1.6 billion investment to decarbonise the heating of homes and other buildings;
  • a £62 million Energy Transition Fund to support businesses in the oil, gas and energy sectors over the next five years to grow and diversify;
  • capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank with £2 billion over ten years, with a primary mission to support the transition to net zero emissions.

UK Government

A Plan for Jobs

A key element of the UK Government’s plans to support and develop the labour market is the creation of green jobs, through investment in infrastructure, decarbonisation and maintenance projects. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a principle which is at the core of the Green New Deal. The Plan for Jobs includes similar proposals, such as:

  • a £2 billion Green Homes Grant scheme that will provide homeowners and landlords with vouchers to spend on improving the energy efficiency of homes across the UK;
  • a £1 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme that will offer grants to public sector bodies, including schools and hospitals, to fund both energy efficiency and low carbon heat upgrades;
  • a £40 million Green Jobs Challenge Fund for environmental charities and public authorities to create and protect 5,000 jobs in England.

Final thoughts

The concept of the Green New Deal is one that appears to evolve and shift as time goes on. This is unfortunately to be expected as time runs out for governments to take meaningful action to avert rising global temperatures. The transition to carbon neutrality is one that will undoubtedly result in massive changes to almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and therefore it is not surprising that the journey to reach this point may require bold and unprecedented action.

However, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, it would have been unimaginable to consider the levels of spending and intervention that governments would be required to take in order to implement a Green New Deal. The shift to carbon neutrality involves a complete reimagining of the economy and requires a great deal of public support, in particular when the energy transition may threaten the jobs of those who work in carbon-intensive industries.

In a post-Covid era, the concept of governments spending huge sums of money and making unprecedented interventions is now our everyday reality. The economic consequences of the pandemic will require an extraordinary response to ensure that its legacy is not one of increasing levels of unemployment, inequality and stagnation. In this new world, the ambition and wide-ranging nature of the Green New Deal may no longer be seen as unfeasible. In fact, as can be seen in the UK and Europe, governments are already looking to implement various elements of the Green New Deal as part of their economic recovery packages. Perhaps the Green New Deal is about to have its time.


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Part one of this blog post was published on Monday 14 September.

Read some of our other blogs on climate change and the impacts of Covid-19:

Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 1

From the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement to the pressure placed on governments by worldwide school strikes, the issue of climate change and its effects on the world around us has increasingly risen to the top of the political agenda. Across the world, governments have begun to take various forms of action in an attempt to prevent further rises in global temperatures.

In particular, the concept of a package of measures designed to address climate change and economic inequality, known as the Green New Deal, has gained particular prominence in the past few years.

This two-part blog looks at the concept of the Green New Deal, how it has influenced global policy and its relevance as a means of economic recovery in a post-Covid world.

What is the Green New Deal?

The original concept of a Green New Deal was proposed in a report published by the New Economics Foundation in 2008. The report set out a range of policy proposals that would allow the UK to recover from the global financial crisis, whilst tackling the threat posed by climate change. The scale and ambition of the Green New Deal was largely inspired by the wide-ranging New Deal package of reforms and investment carried out by President Roosevelt, that enabled the United States to recover from the Great Depression.

In a similar vein, the report made recommendations that addressed a wide range of policy areas,  these included:

  • a £50 billion per year programme to create a low-carbon energy system that will involve making “every building a power station” by maximising energy efficiency and renewable energy generation;
  • creating and training a “carbon army” of workers to provide the human resources required for a vast environmental restructuring programme;
  • re-regulating the domestic financial system to ensure that the creation of money at low rates of interest is consistent with democratic aims, financial stability, social justice and environmental sustainability;
  • minimising corporate tax evasion by clamping down on tax havens and corporate financial reporting.

Green New Deal: 2.0

Over time the Green New Deal has evolved and has spread internationally. Following the 2018 US Elections, the concept gained increasing prominence in the United States. Advanced by newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the Green New Deal set out a vision for the United States to transition to become carbon neutral in just ten years.

In a similar vein to the ambition of both the New Deal and the original Green New Deal, the package proposed included a variety of measures that crossed a range of policy areas, including:

  • meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources;
  • upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification;
  • providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature;
  • guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.

Criticism of Green New Deals

The concept of the Green New Deal is often criticised for being too expensive to be implemented. Opponents of the US Green New Deal believe the timeline for the United States to become carbon neutral in just ten years is unrealistic, and the estimated cost of  $12.3 trillion is too high. Critics also argue that the proposals are too vague and often fail to consider the seismic changes the measures may have on wider society, particularly for those who work in industries directly impacted by the energy transition.

In short, critics of a Green New Deal believe that as a package it is simply too large, both in ambition and price, to be implemented successfully. The level of government action required to implement such wide-scale reform would be unprecedented in peacetime and could potentially require citizens to make substantial changes to the way they live their lives. Until wider society is willing to accept a substantial increase in government spending and changes to their way of life, it is unlikely that a Green New Deal will be able to be effectively implemented.


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Part two of this blog post is available now.

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Connecting the future: what is 5G?

By Scott Faulds

Over the years, as technology has evolved, the way in which we all use and access the internet has changed dramatically. The devices that can access the internet have shrunk and become portable, from laptops that allow us to work anywhere to smartwatches that we can use to play music from our wrists.

At the same time, as more devices have gained the ability to easily connect to the internet, our usage has changed massively; we now consume a great deal of audio and video online. This has become even more apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us turning to video conferencing tools to work from home and keep in contact with our friends and family.

Additionally, in recent years, we have begun to see our homes, cars and cities become ‘smart’ via the power of the internet, enabling a whole new generation of devices that can connect and exchange data.

In response to changes in the way we all use and access the internet, the mobile network infrastructure has evolved to allow for greater bandwidths, lower latency and ultimately faster connection speeds. The next generation of mobile network technology – known as 5G – will facilitate new data-driven technologies, such as, automation, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.

What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of mobile internet technology, which operates across a broad spectrum of radio waves that will allow for faster, always-on access to the internet. It’s estimated that 5G will enable internet speeds up to 600 times faster than those experienced on 4G networks today. This would allow you, for example, to download an ultra-high-definition movie in 25 seconds. The ability to transfer data at these speeds allows for technologies, such as artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, to operate effectively. Some experts claim 5G could lead to a new era of productivity and growth.

However, the physical infrastructure required to build a 5G network can be difficult to deploy. The fast speeds achieved by 5G networks rely upon what is known as millimetre waves, which operate at a higher frequency than our current mobile networks. These waves have a shorter range and can be easily disrupted by obstacles, such as buildings, people and even rainfall. Therefore, to ensure network reliability, a 5G network will have to operate across low, medium and high frequencies. Each of these frequencies will require separate network infrastructure and will have various trade-offs, in terms of speed and service area.

As a result of the distance and obstacle limitations of 5G, there will be a need for a dramatic increase in the amount of physical infrastructure required to ensure reliable service, particularly in built-up urban environments. According to a recent report by McKinsey, a 5G network will require 15 to 20 network access points per square kilometre in densely populated areas, compared with 2 to 5 network access points required for existing mobile networks. Subsequently, the cost involved with establishing this new infrastructure ensures that in the short-term, we are unlikely to see the launch of nationwide 5G coverage anytime soon.  

The power of data

The ability to exchange large amounts of data at speed can have a significant positive effect on our economy. Research from Barclays, indicates that the deployment of 5G has the potential to increase annual UK business revenues by up to £15.7 billion by 2025. Additionally, the ability to exchange data at speed opens up new opportunities for us to improve the efficiency of the operation of our cities.

The advent of the smart city, where everything from streetlights to trains can communicate with each other, can only truly come to fruition when combined with the data speeds facilitated by 5G networks. The main benefit of establishing a fully-fledged smart city is the ability for cities to become sustainably more efficient, through the extrapolation and analysis of data. For a smart city to be at its most efficient, the collection and analysis of this data will have to occur in almost real-time and will rely heavily on artificial intelligence and automation. 

A study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that in New York City congestion could be reduced by up to 75% through the deployment of a ride-sharing algorithm built using real-time data generated by taxis and incoming requests. The system would allow drivers to work shorter shifts, create less traffic, reduce air pollution and shorten commutes (with an average wait time of 2.7 minutes).

The creation of smart cities, underpinned by 5G, could potentially allow us all to live in cities which are more efficient and responsive to changes in our behaviour. Analysis conducted by Cisco, has revealed that the efficiencies generated by smart city technology could result in cost savings of up to $2.3 trillion globally.

Therefore, it could be said that 5G technology has the potential to allow businesses and governments to make costs savings and generate new forms of revenue.

Final thoughts

The deployment of 5G networks will provide the base for the technology of the future to operate and enable innovation to thrive. It is likely that the speeds and reliability offered by a fully-fledged 5G network could generate economic benefits and allow governments to make cost savings by leveraging big data to make our cities operate in a more efficient manner.

However, the deployment of 5G will be a complex and potentially costly undertaking, and it will be a long time before we see the establishment of nationwide 5G coverage. Therefore, although there is a wide range of benefits associated with the establishment of a 5G network, it should not be seen as a silver bullet that will generate instantaneous economic benefits.

Ironically, the future of high-speed internet, will take time and will require a great deal of investment before the benefits are realised.


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How smart is your city?

Photo by Peng LIU on Pexels.com

by Scott Faulds

In recent years, cities across the UK have begun to explore how they can best capitalize on technological advances to help to create places which operate in a more efficient and sustainable way. The concept of the smart city is relatively wide-ranging; in basic terms, it can be described as an urban area that uses various forms of technology to gather data that can then be analysed to reveal insights about how citizens engage with their environment. The advent of smart city technology, and its ability to be installed in numerous forms across existing city infrastructure, means that it can often be challenging to assess and understand the success of its deployment.

A recent article published in Emerald Open Research UK smart cities present and future: An analysis of British smart cities through current and emerging technologies and practices aims to address this issue by providing an overview of the progress of 26 UK cities which are currently deploying smart city technology. The article attempts to analyse the current state of the smart city roll-out and evaluate the types of technology that are being installed. As the concept of the smart city is one that is fluid, each city’s implementation of the technology can vary, as can the success of the integration.

Designing a smart city evaluation framework

In order to understand the current state of the smart city rollout, the article employs a framework that can be used to assess what types of technology have been deployed and the current state of the deployment.

The following categories are used to classify smart city technology:

Essential services 5G, full-fibre internet, Internet of Things

Smart Transportation digital ticket booking, smart cards, electric vehicle charging points

Broad Spectrum retrofitting buildings, digital social inclusion schemes, hackathons

Business Ecosystem innovation hubs, co-spaces, tech entrepreneurial networks 

Open Data Provider urban dashboards, urban models, big data

The state of the rollout of smart technology is evaluated on the following scale:

0 – no measures underway

1 public announcement of plan

2 study in advanced stages/detailed roadmap

3 testing/trials

4 installation of technology on smaller scales

5 fully established and integrated into the city

By analysing relevant documents/news reports and applying the aforementioned framework, the article finds that the most common type of smart city infrastructure installed in cities across the UK is technology which enables the collection of open data. In particular, a group known as Smart Cities Scotland has been found to have one of the most advanced implementations of open data technology. This is due to the creation of an open source data platform which allows anyone to access the data collected and develop smart city technology that directly responds to the needs of these cities.

Approaches to deploying smart city technology

Through the application of the framework, London and Bristol were discovered to be the cities in the UK with the most advanced implementation of smart city technology; this was largely due to the widespread use of all of the categories. However, the authors also suggest that the steps taken by smaller cities, such as Dundee and Peterborough, are often of more interest, as they clearly show the two prevailing approaches to the implementation of smart city technology.  

The approach taken by Dundee is one in which cities select one or two smart city categories and focus on getting these technologies to become fully integrated and widespread. For example, Dundee has chosen to focus on the integration of open data (via Smart Cities Scotland) and smart transportation technologies, in a bid to create a fully sustainable transport network. An in-depth focus on these areas has enabled Dundee to become a leader in the switch to zero-carbon transport, through the creation of the Mobility Innovation Living Lab and the electrification of 20% of the local taxi fleet. However, whilst the implementation of open data and smart transportation technology places Dundee as a leader in these categories, their implementation of essential services or broad spectrum technology is poor when compared to other cities in the UK.

Peterborough, on the other hand, has taken an almost diametric approach and is focused on deploying a broad variety of smart city technologies, that will allow them to reach their goal of becoming a gigabit city and establishing a circular economy. The city has deployed a variety of online platforms, designed to engage citizens and business alike, to come together and share resources that will allow Peterborough to support and empower everyone in the city to minimize waste.

The future of the Smart City

As well as analysing the current state of the smart city rollout, the article also discusses the future of the smart city and sets out its expectations for the next decade. A key theme discussed is the concept of a more connected city, powered through 5G and increased network capacity, which will allow for city infrastructure to communicate and easily respond to changes in the way citizens are engaging with the urban environment. However, the article concludes that we are unlikely to see any major visual changes to our cities, apart from an increase in electric vehicles and their accompanying infrastructure. A great deal of the smart city technology currently being deployed in UK cities tends to occur behind the scenes, but, these changes will allow councils to harness the power of data to make better decisions about the future day-to-day workings of our cities.

To conclude, this article provides one of the first overviews of the state of the smart city rollout across the UK, allowing for a comparative analysis of the different approaches cities have taken to implement various forms of smart city technology. Establishing a framework of how to evaluate this progress allows those interested in smart city technology to assess which smart city technologies are most prevalent and which cities are at a more advanced stage of the rollout.

In short, this article will be extremely informative for anyone with an interest in learning more about smart city technology and its deployment in the UK.


Further reading
Articles on smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange blog

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The three keys to successful home working

wfh

by Scott Faulds

Over the past few weeks, we have all had to make massive changes to the way we live our lives in order to protect ourselves and those around us from Coronavirus. From the closure of gyms to the socially distanced queues outside of supermarkets, it really is impossible to imagine a single aspect of our daily lives that has not been altered in some way. Until a viable treatment or vaccine is found, it appears that we will need to get used to this, “new normal”, with social distancing measures likely to be in place for the foreseeable future. As a result, many of us are now coming to terms with working from our homes for an indefinite period of time.

The sudden shift from working in an office to working from home has required many of us to quickly adapt and get to grips with new ways of working, such as conducting meetings virtually via Zoom. A survey conducted, during the first two weeks of the UK’s “lockdown” by the Institute for Employment Studies, has found that workers who are new to working from home are more likely to be experiencing poor mental health and 50% of those surveyed are now no-longer happy with their work-life balance. Additionally, the survey revealed that a majority of workers are concerned that they are no longer getting enough exercise and have reported a variety of new physical health issues, such as loss of sleep; back/neck pain; eye strain and headaches. 

The issues raised in the Institute for Employment Studies survey are concerning, especially when it is not clear when we will be able to return to our places of work. Therefore, it is vital that we consider what actions we can take to ensure that we are able to successfully work from home, without compromising our physical and mental health. 

1. Routine

Although working from home can be challenging there are some benefits, such as significantly shorter commutes to the office, which allows us to have a little bit longer in bed. Even though it may be tempting to get up at a different time each day and get straight to work, this irregularity in your normal day-to-day routine may be having a negative impact on your mental wellbeing. 

Research has shown that sticking to a daily routine can help to reduce stress and alleviate anxiety. Therefore, even though we may no longer have as long a commute to the office, ensuring that you are waking up and getting ready for work at a regular time each day, can help to put you in the right mindset to have a productive day. 

Although it might seem like a good idea to stay in your pyjamas all day, getting dressed for work (even putting on informal clothes) helps us to psychologically prepare to start our working day. Consequently, getting changed back into comfy clothes at the end of the workday can have the opposite effect and help us enter a more relaxed state of mind. The simple act of changing our clothes can help to create a mental separation between work and home, which is important when our physical environment remains the same.

2. Breaks

Ensuring you have a good routine is clearly important when working from home. However, being sedentary and staring at a computer screen all day can negatively impact your physical and mental health. Taking regular breaks, even just to make a cup of tea, can help to break up the monotony of the working day. Research has shown that frequent short breaks are more beneficial than less frequent ones, and can improve your overall productivity. In particular, it is important not to eat lunch at our desks, as research by the University of Surrey has found that food eaten whilst you are distracted does not fill you up and can lead to overeating.

Although our morning commutes may sometimes be annoying, they did at least ensure that we were leaving the house once a day. Breaking-up your working day by doing some exercise, such as going for a short walk or following an online exercise class, can help to improve your mood. Regular exercise has even been proven to boost the body’s immune system.

3. Boundaries

Undoubtedly, working from home does involve some degree of boundary blurring between our places of work and our homes. For many this has translated into working longer hours and feeling less rested and more anxious throughout the day. As previously discussed, the physical act of getting ready and commuting to work allows our brains to shift from “home” to “work” mode. Setting out clear boundaries regarding when, where and how we work is vital to maintaining our wellbeing and maximising our productivity.

For example, although it may be tempting to work from your bed or couch, these areas are predominantly associated with relaxation. Blurring the lines between work and home in these spaces may reduce your productivity when you are trying to work and prevent you from relaxing when work is over.

Additionally, working from your bed or couch may cause you physical health problems. If you have to sit in front of a computer for an extended period, the NHS advises that you should be sitting in a chair which supports your lower back, your feet should be on the floor and your screen should be at eye level.

Final thoughts

Working from home for an indefinite period of time may not be ideal, however, it is vital in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. During this period of uncertainty, it is important that we look after our physical and mental health and recognise the ways in which we can improve our “new normal”.

Although it may be tempting to work from the couch in our pyjamas, research has shown that in order to maintain our wellbeing, it is vital to retain a sense of division between our home and work lives. Therefore, we can protect our wellbeing and ensure we remain productive through following a regular routine, taking frequent breaks when required and ensuring there are clear boundaries in place between home and work.

If you require any advice regarding how to work from home, you can find useful resources at ParentClub.Scot and on the NHS website.


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