Category Archives: Sustainability Leadership (M.St. course blog)

Talking to robots in Otaniemi at sunset

This evening on my way home against a lovely near midsummer Finnish sunset, a robot politely asked me to help it cross the road.  Our campus area at Otaniemi is host to a pilot of food delivery robots by Starship, they are modest, oblongs on wheels, probably deliberately not made too humanoid or science fictiony, more like a shopping trolley on wheels.  They even have a little orange flag on a pole sticking up at the back, like the child carrier fixed to my bike, to be seen by traffic.

They have become a normal part of life in Otaniemi already.  At first they were a novelty: students would stop to inspect them, children would shout “ROBOT” and gather round. When I took my son around the mall at the campus centre, he would try to interact with them, and so “don’t bother the robots, they’re working”  became part of our family chatter.  I accosted the product manager at a demo at the local supermarket and demanded to know if the robots would back down if they met someone in a wheelchair or with a pram in a narrow street (“ye-es” he said warily, and for now at least they are not a presence to resent if you have limited mobility, unlike abandoned e-scooters).   

At first they got stuck at the traffic lights: white boxes on wheels with a twinkly orange flag and an AI paid for by millions of Silicon Valley dollars, but no arms to press traffic light buttons.  In Otaniemi after 10pm, both human and road traffic quietens down a lot, so some robots got stuck for half an hour.  They made it into the news.  Silly robots. 

It is quite sweet to watch our local humans interact with the robots.  I have seen a young man cycling to a lecture stopping to press the traffic light button to help out a stuck robot, I have seen a pair of young women stopping to help one stuck in the grit that was left covering the streets after the winter ice had melted away.  I saw a robot this evening – possibly the same one that asked me for help later – riding tilting along the curb, wheels of one side on the pavement, other wheels along the road.  I watched it, it’s little orange traffic flag twinkling in the evening sun, half on the road, and I wanted to help but I stopped myself.  “It will never learn unless you let it work it out itself,” my mother voice sighed.  “And it is more on the pavement than the road, it’s quite safe.”

I was cynical when I first heard about these robots.  My husband showed me a picture of a robot and my London self said that’s going to get facking nicked, mate.But so far they seem not nicked, not vandalised, just a new robot on the block.  Overall, humans want to help the robots. 

The robot this evening asked me politely in Finnish to press the traffic light button for it, and I did, narrating what I was doing because I wasn’t sure what it could see.  Then I realised this was one of the new traffic lights put up in the roadworks, it probably exists in the map that the robot’s programmer was given, but it doesn’t actually work yet.  So I said “look, you’re just going to have to go across the road, there are no lights.”  And I didn’t know if there was a human listening who had taken control, or if it sensed and processed my language, or it just took an algorithmically determined chance, but off it trolleyed across the road.  I was left with so many questions. Did you hear me?  Did a human hear me?  Did you use a Finnish woman’s voice because a lens looked at me and a computer saw a Finnish woman, what would you have sounded like to my husband?  Would you have asked my children for help?  But the robot had its job to do, and its interaction with me was over.  I watched it roll away into the sunset, until it veered slightly off the path and got stuck in some grit.   I can’t help it,  I said to myself.  It’ll never learn about grit until it works it out itself. 




I haven’t wanted in the past to write a blog about personal resilience, as it seemed self-indulgent.  Yes, lining up the pace of the course against client demands and life with a toddler can be hard, but it’s a choice I made.

But this morning, for the first time in my life, I had writer’s block.  I thought writing up the dissertation report would be the easy bit.  I’ve written and re-written hundreds of documents at speed, to demanding standards, throughout my working life.  But this one is different, because it signifies the end of the course.  It doesn’t quite, actually, as there is still an e-module to go, but in terms of the self-directed piece of the course, the bit where I have tried to find the subjects that would put rocket boosters under my career, this is the end.

It’s a perfect early summer Sunday  in London and my husband is taking our daughter to an outdoor swimming pool.  I am looking forward to having my life back.

The wordcount looms over me.  I have no trouble spinning words like yarn, but identifying the 15 – 20  key statements that form the core of the dissertation, that will be hard.  I gave that a go last weekend – I used Anthony Haines’s report planning  tool to force myself to say in one page of boxes and arrows what it is that my dissertation is about.  I have a catch up call on Wednesday with someone from the industry whom I interviewed, and wishes to hear how I’ve got on.  The timeline, and the world is urging me to more specificity.

But to be specific requires acres of background.  I am sitting with my 30 pages of extracted quotes from the literature review, with my transcripts floating ethereally over my head, with notes on methodology.  I have to catch sentences from the air and truncate them, squeeze them til their meaning comes out in one short gasp, not several long, flowing lines.

I proofread my husband’s latest blog last night and he admitted that his punctuation can be baroque.  He’s lucky though, he’s a scientist.  He has been trained for clarity.  The last time I was in academia I was studying Creative Writing, and before that, English Literature.  I trained my mind through work to be precise and concrete, to spout clichés to staff like ‘what we need this document to do is tell our donors WHAT we are going to do and HOW we are going to do.’

I was foolish in the process of my dissertation. I let myself enjoy exploring a new world.  But that is not what study is for, that is what life is for.  Study is for the disciplined pursuit of a well-reasoned methodology, in the interests of finding an answer to a tightly defined question that should be useful to a well defined group of people.

This is only for a few more months.  A few years ago, after 10 years of physical inertia, a friend persuaded me to run a half-marathon.  I did not do well. But I finished.  I can draw on my Finnishness, on the Finnish ‘Sisu’ – the ability simply to persist.

The writers’ block should have gone now.  I need to write down one of my sentences and squeeze it till the meaning pops out in one gasp.

What should I do after Britain’s EU referendum?

Stop no right turn

I cannot remember a darker week for British public life than this last one.  This blog is not directly about Jo Cox, the brilliant MP and passionate campaigner, who was murdered in the course of her duties by a man who gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. But of course it has shaken me deeply.  A politician was targeted and killed in the course of her duties: this is shaking Britain.   I never met Jo Cox, but have worked for the same charities, and read with admiration her writing and speeches: she was someone I saw as a leader on issues I care about.  My first thought when I woke on Friday morning was of her family, and what waking up that morning would mean to them.

A piece I admired a lot was one that Jo Cox wrote on Syria together with Conservative Andrew Mitchell.  As I have got older, I am less attached to party loyalties. What I have seen is that where something really matters, the best chance of a lasting result is in cross-party political consensus.  Here, in Jo Cox and Andrew Mitchell, were politicians showing that they cared more about what happened in Syria than they cared about scoring points off each other.

Jo Cox also said:  ‘What surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’.

I tried to get more involved in the Remain campaign but was defeated by the weight of work, study and my pregnancy.  My body shut down every time I tried to push myself to do more.   But the death of Jo Cox has made me feel that there is more I should do, soon.  I have not tried to challenge and comfort the cynicism and despair when friends on social media said politicians are corrupt,  all in someone’s pocket.  I could have found examples of politicians who are trying to make it better.  I have not been encouraging enough when friends have found ways to act out their values, and make our places and relationships better.

Part of what holds me back is feeling vulnerable.  I have a young child and am pregnant, I feel alarmed out campaigning when a big man towers over me and shouts ‘I’m voting OUT, come to your senses!’ I’m a dual national, and one of my oldest friends voiced her discomfort with the idea, saying that dual nationals were looking at both sides to see where to get the best deal.  I’m easily intimidated and get confused if I feel personally drawn in.  But I have to say this anyway.

It may be that next Friday, June 24th, it will fall to those of us on the Remain side to accept a result we have been dreading, to swallow our bitterness, and to search internally for the strength to get on with helping to build the future.  This does not mean that we should accept that all the things we fear must come to pass. I will definitely need the NHS in the next 6 months and my daughter will start school in a year.   As someone who depends on public services working, the economic shock will impact on me and my family.  So it will fall to people like me on both sides, to try to make the system work under the new, unwelcome, dispensation.  As my husband said last night: ‘The job is, always, to try to make things better.’   We will continue to believe in democracy but we will also be clear that we think the Leave campaign, if it wins, will have won largely on the back of misleading statements about money and on a terrible platform of fear about immmigration. A Comres poll showed that Leavers are more likely to believe that man-made climate change is a made up scare story, and to distrust scientists. We will need to argue the case for science and for a better direction of travel for the climate, among many other tasks.  It will be unwelcome work but we don’t have a choice.

On the other hand, if our side wins, what then?  We will be hugely relieved, but we should not over-celebrate.  We should not use that phrase ‘this is a victory for democracy’ when, vilely, we mean only that ‘our side won.’  (Equally we should not call a Leave vote ‘a sad day for democracy.’  Democracy’s sadness or happiness is not tied to a particular result).  It should fall to us who voted Remain, if we win the vote, to hear the many voices on Leave which were not racist, but which worried about housing, jobs, services, about the health of our democracy.  Many Leavers have the same worries that I do.  I cannot share their conclusion but I can share their concerns.

For all our sakes, let’s not exhaust ourselves with bitterness before the 24th.  Let those of us who believe in democratic process, dialogue, civility, citizenship education, on all sides, find the strength to help each other continue to believe in those things, even when, especially when, we have had our hearts broken.

Community orchard


Using personas as a research tool

I was discussing the challenges of interviewing people as part of a course on ‘sustainability leadership’ with my supervisor, Dr Jonathan Chapman, Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Brighton. I told him how my experience was that conversations get locked down in a certain way by being framed within sustainability, and I felt that people became more concerned with giving ‘good’ or ‘ethically correct’ answers rather than just saying what they think. I also told him how I would like to ‘give something back’ as part of the interview process, even if that was only a case of making the half hour interesting rather than boring. Dr Chapman suggested using personas as the basis for the interviews.

I thought that using personas was a great idea. It would provide the necessary evidential underpinning to allow the interview to be quite unstructured, which I felt, given my intended participant group (leaders and UX designers in energy monitoring businesses) would provide a much more rich output.  I read what Martin Maguire said about the use of personas in human-centred design and inclusive design (Maguire, 2001 and Marshall et al 2013). I reflected more on the framework for understanding energy cultures articulated by (Stephenson et al., 2010) as ‘patterns of norms, practices and/or material culture.’ Then I re-read my collected literature, reviewed my analysis of the public data on energy and technology use (broken down by housing tenure, or by age and sex). Finally I took myself off to the National Theatre to be in a creative environment and wrote my personas: the ‘unusual users’ who were thinking about buying energy monitors: Tamsin, David, Rebecca and their respective households.

The ‘unusual users’ I created were based on: older people who are not highly technology literate (Tamsin); young people who are technology literate but live in a complex household energy culture (David), and a family with young children (Rebecca).

Each of those cases could represent an opportunity for energy monitor providers to increase market share or create deeper and richer use experiences.  It will be interesting to see at the end which user case is of widest interest.

I was quite concerned that I had not based the personas on my own research with real users. However the Marshall (2013) paper discussed the value of using datasets as a proxy for real users because of the shortness of time of much research and recognised the value of using existing research.  Further my main focus for the study was (in line with the CISL focus on business leadership) on finding out how the businesses producing energy monitoring systems would react to ‘unusual users’. I was also very fortunate to build on amazingly rich research such as the ethnographic study on energy use carried out by Lockton, (2014) which described the voices of real people talking about energy monitors. Other studies that helped enormously were by Hargreaves et al., (2010) looking at householders in East Anglia and their energy usage, and Fell and Chiu, (2014) who studied children and parents interacting around energy use. Further, it would be complicated to identify and access householders who might potentially be interested in energy usage. I tried to piggy back on a few locally organised energy events (an energy efficiency advice session), and a focus group being carried out by a not-for-profit group by my local council. These organisations were willing to let me come along and promote my research, in the hope of attracting participants, but the numbers interested were too small to enable me to have anything like a representative sample of users in my interest groups.  So after a lot of swithering, I felt it was more valid to have based on my personas on the work of researchers who have gone down this road before, and draw these to the attention of the energy monitor businesses.

People who are not in the habit of using internet-enabled technology

This persona is significant because of early mapping and conversations with the energy monitoring and smart meter industry, and their emphasis on using internet enabled devices (desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones) as the user-interface, as well as or instead of a standalone display unit. Early conversations and media monitoring showed that accessing the energy data via an app was seen as the direction of travel in the industry.

This led to a concern for whether design would facilitate use for people who are less likely to use the internet. Government and other publicly available data demonstrated that these people were likely to be older people, or people who lived in social housing (the social housing group also had lower incomes than other tenure types).


Children and parents together

Reviewing how people access the internet, or receive data more broadly also led me to two other ways of accessing data, of which computer games, smart TVs and wearables such as the Fitbit were important for some consumers.  The population accessing the internet via computer games and smart TVs skews to the younger age group. The Fell and Chiu (2014) study made it clear that children could grasp the concept of the energy monitor (they could observe a spike in the numbers, even if – probably like many adults – they did not know what units the numbers signified). So I became interested in the unusual use case of the children and young people for whom apps may only be one way of acquiring information, and sensory signals (such as the buzz of the Fitbit or a computer game console) provide a possible design opportunity, as well as social media and gamification principles.

Sharers of a home who are not related to each other

Reviewing how people access the internet, or receive data more broadly also led me to two other ways of accessing data, of which computer games, smart TVs and wearables such as the Fitbit were important for some consumers.  The population accessing the internet via computer games and smart TVs skews to the younger age group.

Building on the Stephenson work in energy cultures, I was interested in the difference between households where this a presumed bill-payer and decision-maker, and houses with more complex cultures where there is no such authority. Some tech companies have emerged to serve such markets, eg who make an ‘app that’s the best way to split bills and track costs with your housemates!’ and whose slogan is ‘we build stuff to make life a little more awesome at home’. They don’t make energy monitors but the app does split utility bills.

Giving my personas a material context

I gave my personas a physical environment, i.e. a home and a social and technological environment depending on what the public data indicated was a statistically likely tenure type and income bracket.

Reviewing the literature on energy usage, I could see that studies of people living in rented housing (whether privately rented at market rates, or rented from a local authority or social landlord) were also relatively scarce. These property types have different energy efficiency characteristics. Private rented households are over-represented amongst the most energy inefficient households compared to other housing types, but renters may have little control over the fabric of the house.

Social housing is in fact disproportionately more energy efficient, and several social housing providers are carrying out interesting experiments with ‘connected homes’ using internet of things technology. This is partly to renew their own business model: providing opportunities to help their tenants (e.g. to manage energy bills) but potentially to protect vulnerable tenants. I heard Property Tectonics speak at a conference about the possibility of spotting that an elderly tenant had not used any energy in cold weather, and being able to go in and check that they are okay.

I layered these different factors into the personas. I did not have one all-singing all-dancing dataset underpinning the personas but each sentence represented a data-point.  I felt confident that they were ‘data-rich’ as opposed to ‘assumption-based’, to use the terminology from Marshall (2013).  My expectation is that different energy monitor makers will have different angles, and not every persona will be equally interesting to every company. For instance, some might see their product as having something particular to say to the technology use angle, the child/parent dynamics angle, or the non-family household angle.

Incidentally my one area where I diverged from Maguire on the use of personas was that I have not provided a visual picture.  This was due to my ethical concern about widely sharing pictures of real children in the Rebecca persona, as it would have taken another chunk of time to explain to the children and parents how the picture would be used and to get their permission.

Hopefully the personas will produce some creative findings and lead to renewed interest in unusual users – in my dreamworld one firm will be inspired to co-design a product with children, and we’ll see children being really engaged as active and conscious consumers in their own homes. But that’s another whole study….



Energy, demand reduction, and who is going to get me some nice lightbulbs?

Green energy people in the UK didn’t have a comfortable summer despite the sunny days, with unpleasant surprises like cuts in Government financial support for solar energy generation.

The new direction from the UK Government is to help people reduce their domestic energy costs (and maybe carbon), without costing the Government any money.  At the same time policies must keep businesses on board, and win public acceptance. Enough of a challenge to keep anybody busy.  Energy efficiency as a strategy to resolve that cluster of problems is therefore, in policy land, the site of big hopes.

I heard some great policy ideas recently to help people consume energy more efficiently. One I liked a lot came from Simon Roberts OBE at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, pitched at a ‘Dragon’s Den’ event at the Policy Exchange thinktank in London. The idea stood the idea of supply and demand on its head.

Simon proposed a ‘Demand Reduction Obligation’ (DRO) to be put onto energy suppliers, i.e. the Government would set targets for energy suppliers to reduce the demand from their customer base. The idea has the beauty of being both simple and radical. It is simple because it sets a desired outcome without being prescriptive about the means. It is radical because it sets businesses free to build new types of service, new types of customer relationship, and new types of management system. It could free up demand for technical innovation in energy efficient products, social innovation (social marketing of energy efficiency) or most excitingly, business model innovation. That’s why it stands the idea of supply on its head, because it is mandating businesses to sell less of their product – with the implication that they need to find something else to sell.  Perhaps most businesses will not welcome an obligation to sell less of their product. But a few business leaders may see it as an opportunity to give their business a new direction, perhaps carving out a niche within circular economy principles or taking up a service model.

The implications for consumers become interesting. If you are a low energy user, you could find yourself courted with great deals as energy companies seek to entice you over to keep their portfolio balanced. There might need to be some smart profiling – for example, private rented housing is likely to be much less energy efficient than owner occupied or social housing, but the data is there to create fair DROs for suppliers. And you would need to make sure there were no dwellings that nobody would serve.  But the idea could be really exciting for sustainability leaders in the energy supply business, and for  consumers.  Maybe some particularly energy efficient consumers could become entrepreneurs themselves, trading their abilty to avoid using energy at peak times with people who have to feed the whole family and put the washing on between 6-8 pm.

When asked what energy suppliers should do if not supply energy, Simon Roberts proposed that one shift would be to develop businesses such as ‘LED lightbulbs as service’. At the moment if you want low-energy lightbulbs you can’t have the pretty ones. The vintage-type ones that look like someone’s been waving a sparkler up and down inside a lightbulb, are F rated. The plain, functional, virtuous LED ones are A+ rated.

Imagine a company that not only reduces your lighting costs but offers a range of nice lightbulbs as service, maybe identifying where your family needs different kinds of light, or maybe with a winter special of warm-glow lightbulbs swapped with cool bluer bulbs in summer.  That’s the sort of thing that could make energy efficiency inspiring to people as home-dwellers, not as bill-payers.  As people at the Policy Exchange event kept saying ‘people are not spreadsheets’ and yet that’s how energy efficiency is marketed. And as a result, people for whom status and luxury is more important than cost, are one of the groups stubbornly failing to make energy efficiency savings.  Cost is a huge driver of consumer behaviour, but it is not the only one.  Making life more inspiring can go hand in hand with living more efficiently and sustainably.

A rare example of a pretty LED lightbulb, by Edison. 


Homes, wifi and energy culture

In my last blog, I described my difficulties with my home energy monitor, My Not So Wise Owl. I felt very ashamed of myself as I was writing. I thought I must be dim-witted as well as increasingly dim-watted.  But in fact I am not a corner case and smart energy monitors have not yet (as far as the literature can tell me) won hearts as well as minds.  A wonderful study: ‘Making Energy Visible’ by Hargreaves et al, 2013, (1) documented the tangle of hopeful starts and frustrated endings of smart energy technology products in the home.  Having curbed an energy bill by perhaps 5%, they lose their usefulness and appeal, and end up stuffed away in a cupboard, out of sight and out of mind.   The Financial Times summed it up this week with an article headline saying :  ‘The smart home is still too clever for its own good.’   The family roles and conflicts documented in part in Hargreaves et al, are acutely pictured by the satirical comic ‘the Daily Mash’ in their article: ‘Dads begin obsessive relationship with thermostat.’

My motivation for my research on smart energy devices in the home (2) comes in part from my fascination with the cultural significance of the home. I have for the last year wondered whether a culture of sustainability actually exists, and if so – is it something like a social movement, or more like a life-style interest (like gardening or cooking) or is it ultimately only a policy intent from various different people? It speaks often, from the perspective of the UK, about a crisis for people in other places, or at other times.  Sustainability is not yet the water we swim in.

Cultures in politics and business are readily observable. Even where our own biases blunt our sharpness, there are enough witnesses  for some consensus to be created about what is happening, and what should happen. When we discussed gender diversity on our course, nobody said that actually mothers in the workforce are a costly drag. But I’ve heard that said in actual workplaces, or rather heard that it was said, and reported to me by my mole from an all-male room. Cultural norms and peer pressure play a role in building a consensus, at least in polite (and mixed) company.

Homes are very different. People do not (and should not) feel obliged to behave as though there is external scrutiny of their actions at home.  The culture of the home is private.  The web of pressures and desires in a home is influenced by the outside, as televisions and the internet provide metaphorical gateways to the rest of the world. The life of a home now is much more like one 50 years ago than a workplace is like one 50 years ago. Can homes be sustainable, and if our private lives cannot be, what does that say about changes we can make as a society?   Part of the friction is human and social, but part of it is technological and physical. In British Victorian houses in winter, cold air flies up through the floorboards and out through the badly fitted windows and uninsulated roof.  Energy, heat, and carbon do not stay private, in fact they become physically shared.  Our habits have effects on others, and on our future selves.  (In a side note on the way in which smart energy blurs the private and public, some people are concerned about the privacy of their energy usage as smart meters transmit very granular detail about a household’s habits to their utility provider.  Smart meters themselves, small and unassuming, are  signalling rapidly and constantly from a home to the outside world).

So I wanted to look at homes, energy, technology and behaviour.  I have written this blog because I have had some anxiety about the topic which is getting in the way. My economist friend, who works in a bank, said of my topic that her first instinct would be to look at pricing signals. That instantly felt like a harder-hitting topic, one where people would instantly see relevance. I come from a world where quantitative analysis is king.  I was worried, can you ever find out anything useful about behaviour?  And through a qualitative approach?

But when I read the Hargreaves study from 2010 and the descriptions of people interacting with their energy monitors, I was gripped. The family quarrels, the frustration with the usefulness of the device, the burst of good intentions that tail away in a few months, the retreat of the energy monitor from visibility to invisibility as the owner pushes the ugly object further back into a cupboard – these are the moments when change happens, or does not.

And technology is such an odd part of our culture. Technology gets smaller, more ever-present, more personal. But there are huge gaps in understanding between the producers and the users. The home can be built to include technology, but the profuse research on the lack of usability of much ‘smart energy’ technology in the home suggests that the resident in the designers’ mind, has in many cases been a figment of their imagination, and so the product is misused or ignored.

I hope that by understanding household cultures about energy a bit better, we can, add a brick to building a sustainability culture, by designing better products that do not frustrate both their owners and their own purposes.

(1) Hargreaves, Tom, Michael Nye, and Jacquelin Burgess. “Keeping Energy Visible? Exploring How Householders Interact with Feedback from Smart Energy Monitors in the Longer Term.” Energy Policy, Special Section: Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy, 52 (January 2013): 126–34.

(2) My M.St. dissertation is on the use of smart energy devices in the home. Smart energy devices can include wireless energy monitors, programmable thermostats, anything which sends and receives information about energy inputs.

Hunting for energy with my OWL

I’m looking at the ways people interact with energy monitoring devices.  Research shows that smart meters and energy monitors help people reduce their energy usage (a bit) but the user experience is often not that great, people can find them complicated and sometimes the experience is not that enjoyable, e.g. if it causes tension in the household.

There is great hope for smart meters on the part of the UK government and various green nerds who buy the idea that smart meters will help people reduce energy usage and save money. I tend to be on the side that thinks that behaviour and technology rather than new technology alone will save the planet. People have to want to USE the good stuff.    And you have to get into some fairly intimate bits of behaviour and people’s lifestyles to find out why people don’t naturally do things which on the surface, appear to be so rational.  Because people are not spreadsheets.

Picture of an Owl energy monitor.
  The OWL.

Here is my Owl. Why is it called an Owl? I have no idea. It doesn’t hunt mice at night, I wish it did. It’s not beautiful or strokeable like an owl I once met at a country fair. It is however rather enigmatic, which I suppose is like an owl.

From the front it’s a visual display with a thick white border. There are buttons on the back, which let you move between various depressing facts such as your current energy usage, its cost and your total CO2 tonnage since it began keeping records, and various less depressing information such as the current date and time.

One of my problems is that I keep not knowing what I’m looking at. When we first got it, the Gentle Giant talked enthusiastically about doing graphs and excel outputs so we could track our energy better. But we have a Ten Ton Toddler to feed, entertain, and keep away from live electricity and deep water. DIY data visualisations aren’t going to happen for the next few years.

I spent some time two evenings ago wandering round the house trying to figure out what appliance we might have left on as the readings seemed unfeasibly high. I have no idea. I tried switching almost everything off, throwing the Gentle Giant into darkness while he was peaceably doing some late night coding on his computer. It all made no difference. I think the wretched mice are siphoning off our electricity and having heated spas, discos and home cinemas in the cellar.

This evening, I resent my Owl. I don’t understand why it’s not working.

I know that if I logged onto our Owl’s website and looked at our energy readings I could probably identify what is causing this hideous spike in our energy usage, or find out that I’m looking at the wrong settings.  I am procrastinating about fixing the problem because gadgets are outside my comfort zone.  Perhaps aesthetics would make a difference – a tactile wooden casing instead of a plastic one to remind me what all this is for, the love of life.    It could be designed to offer some element of reward, e.g. a Finnish study at Aalto University tried displaying more brightly glowing numbers when people had been ‘good’ and saved energy.  (“Light is History” – Acharya, Mikkonen and Bhowmik, 2013).  If I was missing having it in my life and functional, I would be more likely to fix it.  That was one of the core messages I took away from Dr Jonathan Chapman’s book ‘Emotionally Durable Design’, which brought the ideas of the circular economy to life for me.

Above all, something that helped me see the puzzle factor in a more positive light would be enough to prolong the time I interact with it – something to make it feel like a puzzle with a key – a maze or a Rubik’s cube rather than being reminded of struggling with Maths at school. I would like the OWL to court me even though I’m dumb – in other words I am a Twit To Woo.

owl with grandparents

If we can find good and low-cost design solutions that make people feel more inclined to play and explore, we can get more people saving energy, money and carbon.


Keeping children safe – what can business do to help?

No-one should want to spend a long time on the topic of child abuse.  So I am going to get through this as quickly as possible: talking about how businesses can help stop child abuse. I will cover some quick wins, some  structural solutions in specific sectors, and then look at the big challenge –  how to create a culture that prevents child abuse before it happens.

Picture of dolls used in anti-exploitation game.
Anti-exploitation campaign in the tourism industry in Nicaragua: The dollies’ badge says ‘No excuses! We are children!’

There are corporate leaders in this area such as Visa Europe or the anti-exploitation campaign I saw at every tourist spot across Nicaragua (pictured) – so this is definitely a subject where business can make a difference.  I’ve kicked off the Q and A here, but please join in and share your ideas for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. NSPCC analysis indicates that one in five children in the UK have experienced abuse.  As a society, do we want to live with that?

Q: This is awful stuff for sure, but it doesn’t seem like the job of business?  Shouldn’t someone else be responsible for this, like the government, or someone like the UN?

A:  There was a grim news report last week that the UN had sacked a whistleblower who leaked the allegations that French peacekeepers had abused children in CAR. It’s not the first time that such abuse will have taken place and won’t be the last but the UN should be throwing their resources at better safeguarding, not at sacking the whistleblower.

The UK government appears to be unable to resolve the ever-growing allegations that people with power in the British establishment abused children in systematically organised rings. It appears that politicians who abused children were aided by the police turning a blind eye. Important files were ‘lost’. The UK government failed for too long to find someone to head their inquiry into child abuse who was not related to or friends with some of the principal participants in the inquiry.    The high-ranking political and legal elite of the establishment should be drawn from a nation of 60 million but you’d be forgiven for thinking they all come from one remote village, given the inter-relationships.

Some charities are doing a good job – although many of them could be more transparent about where things go wrong, and what their limitations are.  But charities are not enough on their own to bring about a cultural shift.  Businesses are everywhere, aren’t they?  Why shouldn’t they have a go at fixing a problem that no-one can fix alone?

Q.  I don’t know, this seems like cultural stuff, not business.  Can’t we leave this to the Church?  

A:  Have you been living under a rock for the last ten years?

Q:  Still, it’s pretty sensitive stuff right?  You don’t want to just wade in feet first or you could make things a whole lot worse.

A:  Acutally, I agree with that in some cases.  But then there are other times that you just have to get on and do it. There are lots of charities who can offer good advice and there are lots of things that companies could do straight away that are low risk, cheap and simple.

Many firms have a code of conduct or statement of values. Inserting some language in there about safeguarding children and other vulnerable members of our community would start to send a signal.  Firms could include clauses in contracts specifying that if a staff member was found guilty of child abuse their contract would instantly be terminated. They could state that employees who whistleblow will be supported. They would do it for fraud, or for dangerous work on a construction site. If they want to, they can do it for child abuse. It would be easier if it was part of a broad campaign to help everyone understand why it was happening now, but anyone could do this any time they want to.  It could be an opportunity for staff engagement – everyone who has seen the news in the last few years will know this is a problem and might appreciate their firm taking a positive stance on it.

In company comms and media, firms can safeguard children by not providing identifying information.  I read a Financial Times article which showed photos of children, gave their full names and the name and location of their nursery.  Do the reverse of that.  There are established guidelines on what not to do with information about children.

Some of the more complex things really make sense because brands’ products and services may be used by people who want to exploit children, and it makes sense for them to reduce that risk. I remember working with some smart people from Visa Europe  on an education project and hearing about the work they were doing with CEOP to prevent Visa cards being used to purchase material which exploits children. Other financial services could look at how they could do similar things. Internet services such as Twitter have held up their hands to say they have no powers to stop trolls from bullying. If they were a bit more switched on about it, they could find structural things to do, helping build a culture where abuse is spotted, reported and resolved. Privacy issues should be thought about too but children’s right to be safe should take priority. Adults should be able to work stuff like this out so that children can be safe.

Tourism is an industry which has a particular role in helping to end child abuse:  Some companies are going to be trying harder than others. When you book a holiday this year, tweet or send an email to the company you booked through asking them to help end child abuse.  I just tweeted AirBnB to ask them what their policy is.  They seem like a thoughtful kind of company and I’m hopeful they’ll reply.  I will update this blog if they do.

Thinking about holidays made me think about transport.  A taxi company was linked to one of the huge child abuse scandals in the UK of the last few years.  Some taxi companies prize safety, others do not.  Taxi firms that screen their employees could make that part of their sales pitch.  Of course those who do not have employees (hello Uber) are probably not in a position to do that.   See whether your favourite taxi firm takes any steps to monitor the safety of its passengers and other people in their community.

Safeguarding children in other ways, eg from injury, may provide some quicker wins and kickstart a culture of child and vulnerable adult safeguarding. I expect construction companies have had to think about how to make their sites more child-safe. If everyone in the country spent 30 minutes a year thinking about whether there was one thing we could do at work to make children safer then we might be surprised at what we can achieve.

For whatever reason, we – in the UK and globally – have not yet built a culture that safeguards children. Those who wish to harm children are hopefully a tiny minority, but as the UK and UN examples show, their actions are enabled by those people who are either incurious and unconcerned, or perhaps worried that those with power will harm them should they try to protect the vulnerable. In the case of the UN, not only did it fail to protect the vulnerable, it failed to protect a whistleblower. The case shows that although it should be unthinkable for someone to lose their job for speaking out for children, it is entirely possible. And that’s the UN, not a rogue minicab operator.

Q:  Some of these things sound like they could help.  Still, it’s government and charities, not businesses, who are responsible for how people behave.  Businesses can’t be held accountable for the fact that some people are just plain bad. 

A:  Except that some businesses make profits from the criminal justice system, and I would argue that they have a social responsibility to reduce offending – and it would also improve their reputation if society believes that such companies are not out to make a profit from human misery.

I’m talking about the operators of private prisons.  This is an unlikely partnership for me to suggest as I believe in restorative justice, and reports such as those from the Howard League do not paint a rosy picture of private prison providers.  However, it might be possible for such a private prison provider to innovate in its appproaches and find ways to prevent offenders from reoffending – or from starting to offend.  It seems unlikely and I suspect they would try to pass off the delivery and reputational risks to the not-for-profit sector.  The Quakers used to run a programme called ‘Circles of Monitoring and Support’ where they did what they said they would – monitored sex offenders but also supported them to overcome their urges to offend.  If this sounds like being soft on offenders, that’s not the point.  You may not personally believe that people can reform, but if you think it might help a child being lost, then think about whether you would support a prison provider to run such a programme.  We are always hearing about how the private sector takes risks and innovates – so go ahead, innovate and save children.  I  leave the last words to Coral and Paul Jones, who lost their daughter April when she was five years old, as reported in the Guardian on 9th April:

“Paul Jones said: “If you are thinking that way and you haven’t committed any crime, if you call out for help, that can only be a good thing.

“If you don’t call out for help you might eventually turn into a Mark Bridger yourself. Someone calling out for help deserves a chance. If you do carry on and you become a paedophile, the law should be thrown hard at you.”

Coral Jones said she hoped the book could at least “save one child, one family”. She added: “If someone says to the doctor: ‘I have these feelings, can I have help?’, it would be better to try to help them before they ruin someone else’s family.”

The Commons – tragedies, games and corporate citizens

One of the areas we discussed  in our first week in Cambridge was the challenge of  shifting business incentives from the short-term to long-term, which would line up better with sustainability.  We recognised that shifting incentives to the long-term is a major undertaking and the conclusion I felt we were nudged to is that it can only happen if  top leaders make those decisions.   One of the lecturers made a comment that stuck with me:  ‘no CEO wants to be the last’ – i.e. the one that brought the company down.   I agree that key individuals can make big changes.   But that leaves the question of how leaders represent and cooperate with their communities, and how we all look after the things we hold in common – nature and knowledge being two examples of that.  My reason for doing the course was (partly) to look for ways to bring different cultures together in an alliance against ‘global public bads’ such as climate change.    Community management is one way to preserve ‘the commons’ (see evidence for assertion below) but businesses as we know them are called  the private sector for a reason.  How could two such different things cooperate?

My one-line definition of the ‘Commons’ is that it is about how we steward the things we share, i.e. the things which are not privately held – whether that is a place of wild nature, or information on the internet. It is closely connected to the idea of ‘global public goods’, and some policy types have begun talking about ‘global public bads’.

I am not pretending that ‘business’ are the bad guys.  At the social level the challenge of coalescing motivation to tackle climate change is even bigger – I’ve heard people who have children and grandchildren say that they don’t care about climate change because it won’t take effect until after they are dead.  If people don’t care viscerally enough about those specific cute little members of future generations that they play peekaboo with, what hope is there that anyone would care for people from a different class, a different country, or  a different time in the future?

And ultimately if people don’t care enough in their personal lives, why would they be motivated to make a difference at work – to lobby their CEO and lead in their own sphere of influence  – or to be effective as a citizen, helping their community, being clear what deals they want governments to make for the common good, and protect us from our own worst selves.  And so I sink into despair, think  – what the hell, might as well enjoy myself while I can, and leave the course and spend my free time drinking Martinis, sewing cocktail hats, throwing soirees and watching Modern Family.  Actually, I sometimes really wish I was doing that. Sigh.  There has been a Martini soiree deficit in recent months.

But.  If I was to let myself think that humanity in general is doomed to be as driven by short-term incentives as the consumer feeding frenzy of Black Friday suggests, I’d be a total jerk.  The actions of people all over the world prove that people are courageous and civil and smart and rational.  And yes, tutors,  there is academic literature to back that up.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the 1968 theory by Garret Hardin is supposed to prove that rational economic agents will inevitably over-exploit a common resource.  The logic would be irrefutable if humans were only rational economic agents and not also members of a community, and if you suppose that rationality excludes knowing that if you eat every fish in the sea today, there will be no fish tomorrow.  (Although if you’d eaten every fish in the sea you’d probably fancy something different the next day…)  There is a video explaining the theory and its flaws here by Geof Glas which also refers to fish resources as a prime example of the commons.  I’ll mention fish again later.

The Financial Times wrote an inspiring piece about Lin Ostrom, who worked on a much more positive approach to the Commons, and was the first woman to win a Nobel prize for economics.  If I could time-travel, I would love to spend a day in her Workshop .    Lin Ostrom, working with her husband Vincent, believed that common pool problems needed to be solved by a polycentric approach, i.e. that problems like climate change can be solved bottom up by communities, cities, regions:  FT article: (paywall, but free subscription for three articles a month available).

The intergenerational commons

One of the questions that interests me is the idea of intergenerational commons.  Although at the core of the Brundtland declaration:  ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, ‘ there is also a legalistic argument which says that you cannot make commitments to future generations because they are not yet people in the legal sense.  And my anecdote of people not caring about events that will happen after they die shows that this is not just a legal but a cultural issue, and perhaps an intractable one.

A brilliant piece of research ‘Cooperating with the future’ (Hauser, Rand, Peyskhovich, Nowak) created a ‘public good game’ with the intention of finding out if there are means to prevent over-extraction of resources. Their research discovered that creating a democratic system to govern extraction is effective in conserving resources in the game, but only if it is binding.  I loved this as a  fusion of citizenship and sustainability research.

What does the private sector have to do with sharing?

For my first assignment, I looked at the insurance sector and the role it can play, especially in poor countries, in helping people manage risks.  The rationale for studying this is that climate change is going to hit Asia disproportionately; where there are lots of poor people.  The insurance sector, theoretically at least, appears to be among those whose incentives are more likely to be long-term, and more likely to be aligned with sustainability goals.  There is a potential market (in line with ‘Base of the Pyramid’ thinking) and so it seems useful to find out why insurance schemes for low income people are currently not working, or at best are niche products, and to look at what can be done to overcome some of those problems.  I’ll write another blog about my findings, about the importance of non-traditional business models (at least non-traditional to us in Europe) and how co-design could overcome some of the challenges.

I think my deeper interest in this topic is what it says about ‘the Commons’ and how that concept intersects with business.   Climate change and the risks it will bring (is bringing) to millions will, if we don’t stop it, be the ultimate ‘global public bad’.  So looking at cooperation as a concept in the middle ground of ‘the Commons’ and the private sector, I thought that insurance is an example of cooperation within capitalism.  You don’t usually go to the website of a major re-insurer for an inspirational quote, but I can’t describe the concept better than the Willis Research Network did:

“How can society, at local and global level, share the costs of extreme events…?  Populations and institutions share and transfer risk by pooling resources … The principles of insurance underpin this vital function: insurance has been described as the ultimate community product; and reinsurance as the ultimate global community product. All insurance consumers participate in this global system of risk sharing and cooperation but many remain unaware of the role they are playing to support others, just as they will be supported when required. As risks increase, this global system of risk sharing will be fundamental to sustaining resilience for exposed populations and assets.”
It’s actually quite beautiful and surprising to think that through the mysterious workings of the market, we are unwittingly providing help to those who need it.  Unfortunately, this market does not yet reach the most vulnerable.
Fish, community management and the commons
In the group project I am in, we are looking at the role of eco-labels in driving sustainability in the fish and seafood sector.  I have come across several examples of community management as ‘by-catch’ of our research that provide examples of how and why community management works: i.e. for the simple reason that if the community exhausts its resource, its livelihood disappears so people are powerfully incentivised to conserve it.  Community can operate at many different spatial levels, and this article from Swiss Re (another re-insurer) asks whether increasing national responsibility for oceans could help drive sustainability as a larger unit of community.  (Sadly, the link to their earlier discussion on the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in relation to fish no longer exists).

So, to end:

Solving the temporal aspects of sharing the commons may require political action, but there is a lot of work we can do now in civil society and in business by advocating the effectiveness of community management approaches and looking more at the benefits and drawbacks of models such as cooperatives.  And there are indeed drawbacks, as the Cooperative Bank’s widely publicised disgrace in 2013 showed, creating a sense of deep betrayal among many of their loyal customers, evidenced by the number of people switching accounts.  Hybrid models that draw on business traditions and community traditions may be possible.  My open question to all sides of the private/public/community triangle is whether we can learn and be open to change, even if that change comes from points of the triangle where we might not be willing to look for partnership.  Do we care enough about the Commons to work with people with whom we might feel we have very little in common?  Can the cooperative movement and corporate citizens share their ideas?

Leadership and storytelling

I went to a workshop on ‘leadership in collectives’ last week organised by a local community group, The Field at New Cross Gate. Jacob Stringer, a local writer,  led us very effectively and inclusively through an exploration of leadership using story telling.

It was a very atmospheric space to work in. The Field have been working for some months to renovate their space, bringing the small building they are using back from a state of unloved and unused ruin. It’s very simple but beautiful – bare brick walls and stripped wooden window frames. The large table was turned into a smaller one by the simple means of taking a big board of the trestles, nudging them together, and putting a smaller board on top. It was also in the evening, and the room was lit only by a desk lamp, so I was lulled into taking off the usual professional masks I wear during the day and I probably opened up to the discussion much more than I would have done in a more conventional training room.  Leadership is such a slippery, protean topic and so personal, so storytelling was a better way to think about it for me than trying to read what some survey of 10 or 1000 leaders have in common.  Should a leader tell a story,  listen to a story, co-author a story?  Telling stories in the dark can’t nail the jellyfish of leadership to the wall, but it might have helped me dance with the jellyfish and have some fun with the idea.

I took away several ideas that I am still chewing on. The workshop made me realise how much my image of leadership is shaped by my work in international NGOs.  If done badly, NGO work can lead to serious risks and dangers, either to ourselves, or to the people we are trying to help. In an emergency, you need a chain of command which generates a specific kind of leadership, which is difficult to shake off back in the London office. Even outside an emergency there are standards that are non-negotiable in so many areas – child safeguarding, project delivery to donor rules, financial accountability, keeping the teams safe.   Getting the details of design right so that you don’t forget to send people the food they need to survive for a month.  So while you might make as much space as you can for entrepreneurship and creativity, part of the leader’s job is also to hold the boundaries and keep discipline.

The first part of the discussion centred around different types of leadership, including functional or task leadership. It struck me that this is the kind of leadership being exercised in the group project on sustainable fisheries that I am involved with. No-one person is the expert or has any externally awarded authority, so different people take on responsibility for different areas.  I deliberately held back from the project management role as I’ve done that so often and I wanted to see what new roles I could embrace.   I can’t let go of my project management training too much as that’s what earns me my income, and I’m certainly experiencing some cognitive dissonance about the group project,  but I’m trying to be more meditative about it and notice my responses to different situations and the different leadership responses that the group try out. And, I frequently remind myself, this is not NGO work. If we get this wrong, even if we get it 100% disastrously wrong, nobody will die. I am trying to relax more. I am bad at relaxing.

Earning the right to lead:

In the workshop, people talked about what had inspired them about the best leaders they had ever seen. I realised that one of the things that has inspired me most until now is bravery – either the physical bravery of our humanitarian team leaders whom we can deploy into an earthquake or a conflict zone and trust them to know what to do to save lives, or the bravery of people like LGBT campaigners in many parts of the world who risk stigma, imprisonment and violence to speak the truth about sexuality. I realised that this is part of my problem with my vision of leadership, because not all leadership involves confronting such visceral risks, and also because leaders should be allowed to have a personal life (which trauma or overwork can destroy), so it was incumbent on me to reimagine my vision of leadership.  And playing with synonyms can be helpful in translating the concept to more ordinary life in the UK.  The first thing I ever thought about the man who became my husband was ‘uh huh, bold…’   Bold is a good thing about leaders.

One of the other people at the workshop talked about being comfortable with a boss once, because he knew that they were working harder than everyone else in the team. I find that interesting because the boss who is working very long hours (visibly so, at their desk) is not necessarily a boss who I think is on top of their job and I would find a martyr-boss off-putting.   But maybe hard work is a form of bravery, or at least of the combination of resilience and self-sacrifice that you could unpack bravery as being made up of.   That train of thought led me to resilience and self-sacrifice as being more applicable than my first image of the brave leader as a hero in literally dangerous times. I toyed with the term ‘servant leadership’ but then decided it did not work for me, and neither did self-sacrifice. I have a family and I have ambitions other than work. And I want to be able to spend an afternoon in the garden without feeling guilty, watch cat videos and House of Cards and see my friends. I don’t want to take on a form of leadership that involves throwing away all the good things that make my own life worth living.

So that left me whittled down to resilience.

Then someone else talked about a person who had inspired them in the environmental movement. She described someone who had taken a negative message (the environment is being ruined and it’s all awful) to something positive (we can do transition towns). The energy and interest in her voice as she described that leaders’ ideas, and the sense that this leader was shaping a positive story about how we can reimagine our way out of the climate crisis, was a joy to hear. Futerra talk about this trait in a brilliant, charming, funny paper called ‘Sell the Sizzle.’ It resonated with the things we talked about in advocacy at international NGOs – we need to keep reminding people about the success stories like vaccines, we need to keep making the case that aid works. Positivity, encouragement, hope, saying ‘good job’ and ‘thank you’, listening, helping other people shape their story, making people feel recognised and valued.   It’s the bit that it’s too easy to let go of under racking pressure, but this woman’s story reminded me that positivity is at least as important as resilience.

Another person at the workshop talked about the ‘gift of listening’ – that sometimes it’s lovely to give someone the gift of just listening to them really intensely.   Which brought me back to my idea of the leader as someone who hears (or sees) – really hears, or really sees, each member of the group.  (I put ‘sees’ as well as hears because I’m quite an aural learner but some people I know I visual.  Tactile leaders must find it difficult not to touch and pat but they probably need to hold back.   I think we can all agree that leaders should probably not lick or sniff their team-mates).  Something I picked up at my Lean In circle a few weeks ago:  in leadership, you ask simple, powerful questions.   A leader asks questions and listens.

So there I go, my three takeaways from the workshop. My vision of what leadership looks like is a leader who is resilient and positive and who really hears/sees the members of the team. There’s quite a lot more to unpack there but it’s a start. As always, it brings me back to the words about work that I turn to often when I’m unsure:

“Work is love made visible.”  Khalil Gibran.

I can’t love every day at work, but there is always something I find I can love in the big picture of my work. And what better source for resilience and positivity and the desire to really listen and see, than love?