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15 May 2017

Digitisation, smart grids and cyberwarfare

digital clock

One of the basic principles of pragmatic environmentalism is to embrace digitisation as a way of managing resources much more efficiently and dealing with the intermittency of some renewable energy sources via the smart grid. Another trope of the green movement is the inherent safety of renewables – flying a plane into a wind farm isn't going to have the impact of flying a plane into a nuclear power station.

However, last week's cyber-attack on the UK's National Health Service is a harsh reminder that warfare, terrorism and crime have also embraced digitisation for nefarious purposes. While this attack was designed for financial gain, what would happen if a foreign power or terrorist group aimed an attack at an intelligent energy grid? After all, Iran's nuclear programme was targeted via the Stuxnet virus in 2010, destroying 20% of the country's centrifuges.

We cannot shy away from this threat, but on the other hand, we cannot afford to keep our energy, industrial and commercial systems in the 20th century while we are fighting climate change. In the same way the internet was originally designed to be inherently robust to a physical attack, all our digital systems need to have sufficient protection, firewalls and redundancy that if one link in the chain fails, the rest continues on regardless, working around the damage.

That's some challenge, and, of course, a massive business opportunity for somebody.


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10 February 2014



I took the picture above this time last year as I crossed the Somerset Levels to run a workshop for a major client based in Taunton. You'd have to be living on Mars not to have heard it's even worse this year - and the storm warnings keep rolling in. As the initial shock and awe has subsided, politicians and the media have got into a bun fight over who is to blame for what - and even who turned up to witness it, when and for how long.

I am pleased, however, that there is a move away from the 'pour more concrete' approach to flood management. The problem here is the confluence of several man-made problems - fast run off in the upper reaches due to land use changes*, building on floodplains and the weather-on-steroids effect we have been expecting from climate change. Many people are realising that the solution to these problems are subtle, long term - and I hope the blame-throwing media and the blame-dodging politicos will start to pay attention to the voices of reason.

The bottom line is that we have to start thinking in eco-system terms - to be in tune with those natural cycles instead of trying to disrupt them. As someone once said, if you push nature out the door, she comes back through your window with a pitchfork.

* when I was in Somerset, the River Tone was running chocolate brown from the silt washed off the surrounding land, indicating something was very wrong upstream.


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26 November 2012

If it keeps on rainin'...

If it keeps on rainin', levee's gonna break...

So sang Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy back in 1929 about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but you may be more familiar with Led Zeppelin's epic 1971 interpretation with its grinding apocalyptic groove. The words and the nagging sense of impending disaster strike a chord as I write this while trundling across England  by train - almost every low lying field is a lake and rivers have burst their banks. I'm on my way to Taunton for a client meeting, but I fear that Somerset may be completely submerged - the train is stopping at Bristol.

Mark my words, the ducks will inherit the earth.

The floods will inevitably, and rightly, lead to calls for more flood defences, compensation and for them to "do something". And it is clear that, if this is the climatic path we are now locked into, we have got to act. How vulnerable are our homes, offices, warehouses, factories and farms? What damage can unpredictable weather cause to our operations, logistics and communications? What will it cost individuals, organisations and the economy?

Sustainability is not just about trying to do less damage, but about adapting to the new realities - whether it's resilience to extreme weather or the erosion of the resource base we depend upon. Those are big threats, but of course they are business opportunities too. That might sound cynical, but if enough entrepreneurial business identify and exploit these openings, it will help us all in the long term.

Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.


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12 March 2012

Have you got a Plan B?

Phew! I'm back on line. Last Wednesday morning Sod's Law kicked in big time - the one day of the month I need uninterrupted internet access for the two Green Academy webinars, it won't respond. Dead.

I spent an hour panicking calmly working my way through pages of geekorrhea before giving up and using my fall back system - my 3G laptop dongle. Apart from one glitch, it worked fine, although I found out afterwards that it ran perilously close to my monthly limit.

Virgin Media were great - they immediately tested my system remotely, found my ancient modem had transmitted its last, and put another one in the post for me immediately. I plugged it in, rang a number to authenticate it and bingo, here I am!

This all got me thinking about business resilience. The 50 year lag between a molecule of carbon dioxide leaving a power station chimney or a car exhaust means that no matter what we do to cut carbon now, there is a truckload of global warming already locked into the system - unless of course a geoengineering technology comes good and finds a way of stopping.

The problem with planning adaption to climate change is unpredictability. Thomas Friedman coined the apposite phrase 'global weirding' to describe what we get locally when the world warms as a whole. In the UK we got savage winters at the end of 2009 and 2010 as weather patterns got locked in a configuration which sucked arctic air down over the country for months. Local authorities who had assumed that harsh winters were a thing of the past soon ran out of road grit. In 2011, the same thing happened but the configuration was a mirror image so we got mild air from the south - the grit piles went unused. The physical difference between the two was minimal, yet the results couldn't have been more different.

I would recommend that any organisation has a Plan B for operations under different scenarios to cover data security, electronic communications, extreme weather, physical logistics and energy security. But those scenarios must be cognisant of the unpredictability of what a global trend will turn out like locally.

Be prepared!

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9 January 2012


Just this weekend, my partner and I were chatting about the UK petrol protests of 2000 (it's laugh a minute in our house sometimes...). At the time my partner was working in Poland for a week and couldn't believe my reports from home - empty petrol stations, empty roads, no fresh fruit in the supermarkets and semi-panic buying of staple foods - all within a couple of days of fuel depots getting picketed. This small action had a massive impact on business, communities and individuals. It was a graphic demonstration of how vulnerable our modern economy is to quite minor events.

As chance would have it, Chatham House has released a report today suggesting our economy has taken 'just in time' to an extreme, leaving it vulnerable to low-probability/high-impact events like the Icelandic volcano, the Japanese earthquake and the 2004 tsunami. But, the report notes, there are also concerns about the resilience to high-probability/incremental impact environmental issues like climate change, resource depletion and water pressures.

We are seeing the pressures of unsustainability across the economy with energy prices having a higher impact on the economy than Government spending cuts. The big question for individual organisations is "are we resilient to these sudden and long term events?"

The subsidiary questions are:

  • What will rising energy bills do to our business?
  • What will scarcity of resources like rare earth metals do to our business?
  • What will scarcity of water do to our business?
  • What would legislation designed to protect or ration natural resources do to our business?
  • What would the impact of more extreme weather events be on our business?
  • Are our data and other resources safe from, say, increased flood risk?
  • Do we have contingency plans in place for, say, expected lack of travel?

Of course the flip side to this is providing resilience to others as a business offering. As the effects of climate change and resource depletion ratchet up, this will be a growing market.

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19 April 2010

Eyjafjallajoekull and all that

There are two types of natural disaster - the ones that we can cause like landslides from deforestation, sea level rises from climate change, or deadly smogs from air pollution, and the big geological disasters like volcanos and earthquakes that we have no control over. The former we have to mitigate their likelihood and adapt to their impacts, the latter we can only adapt to.

The newspapers here in the UK are dominated by the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajoekull volcano and its plume of ash which has grounded flights across northern Europe - much more coverage than the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China, it should be noted. A detail that has passed many by is that while we do have a network of nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres around the world, we seem completely unprepared for how to deal with closed skies. Fruit and veg is rotting in airports rather than being freighted to Europe, manufacturers with Just In Time supply chains are tearing their hair out, and about a million Brits are stranded abroad.

Nature is famously resilient to short term shocks. Trees will survive explosions which demolish houses, by bending instead of resisting. We have the technology to build earthquake proof houses, yet continue to build rigid homes on earthquake zones around the world (often demolishing more resilient traditional constructions in the the name of progress). The only resilience we have seen in the face of the volcano has been a surge in video conferencing.

There is a story (possibly apocryphal) that the internet was designed to be resilient to nuclear strikes in the US, by automatically routing data through surviving paths. I think we need to design all our systems along similar lines rather than relying on a single route or a single style of housing working everywhere. And we need to get our adaptation to climate change started very soon.

Resilience. It's the future.

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