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December 07, 2006

Re-designing the game

(The following is the text of my lecture at today's Competitiveness Summit in London.

"I have been asked to address two questions this morning.

The first: Is UK competitiveness imperilled by developing countries catching up and overtaking us?

And question two: How best shall we use our creativity and innovation to stay ahead in the game?

My answer to question 1 is that it is the wrong question, as I shall explain in a moment.

But I will answer Question 2 - by telling you about a project in North East England, called, Designs of the time, or Dott. I will explain the ways in which Dott reframes competition as a race for energy and resource efficiency in our everyday lives.

I will conclude with suggestions on how the lessons of Dott might usefully inform the ways we think about competitiveness at a national level.


Question 1: Is our competitiveness imperilled by developing countries catching up with us?

My answer is No, because, in so-called developing countries, but also here in the north, the rules of competition are changing – profoundly, and irrevocably.

We are all emerging economies now.

The publication of the Stern Review of climate change economics, by a former World Bank chief economist, marks a radical change in the rules by which we compete.

Before Stern, we measured our competitiveness against bizarre criteria. The country with the highest growth, and productivity, went to the top of the league.

But the application of bizarre criteria leads to bizarre - and unsustainable - results.

High growth, as an abstract measure of success, meant that last year a new product was launched every 3.5 minutes.

Companies all over the world innovated like crazy, and competed like mad, to bring out some new ….thing….at ever increasing rates.

Did we need a new product every 3.5 minutes?

I don’t think so.

On the contrary: survey after survey demonstrates that we are in despair at the flood of often pointless products we are told will make us happy.

What beckons in an era of perpetual growth? New product simultaneity? Reality that will contain only new products?

Measuring competitveness against the yardstick of productivity leads to other forms of strangeness.

You must have heard the story: the highest degree of productivity is exhibited by a cancer patient going through a divorce.

Very smart.

What’s especially mad about productivity, as a measure of success, is that so-called “external” costs – energy, water, minerals, the biosphere as a whole - are not properly counted as part of the game.

The theory of productivity is that we produce more with less.

But we don’t. We use energy to exploit resources; and we don’t pay the full price of the energy or the resources we use to do so.

Excluding external costs from the score sheet means we completely ignore the impact of our game on the playing surface. And guess what. The playing surface has become worn. And the ball has started to bounce in alarming ways.

(A laboured cricketing metaphor is pretty much a requirement in any speech made in England).

This is what is important about Stern. He is paves the way for a new scoring system.

Under new rules, which the UK Chancellor’s pre-budget statement yesterday started tentatively to portend, will be introduced progressively faster as cultural and poiitcal pressure for action builds.

One of the few things a government can do, when the people demand that it does something, is use fiscal measures to make these so-called “external” costs internal costs, payable by the producer.

This is the heart of what a “high value, knowledge-based economy” means.

It’s when matter and energy, flowing through the economic system, have to be paid for at full price - rather than taken for granted as a freebie.

Who will be competitive then?


Some commentators responded quickly to Stern. They proclaimed lists of the crucial actions that government must…. take…. now.

What governments must, or can do, top-down, is a modest part of the story.

There are limits to any government’s power to tell people how to behave. Especially, if these edicts boil down to the command: consume less!

This leads me to Designs of the time – Dott 07 – and the second question I was asked to address: How best shall we use our creativity and innovation to stay ahead in the game?

Dott 07 is about creating demand for new and more sustainable ways to live.

(Dott is an initiative of the Design Council and a joint venture with the Regional Development Agency, One North East).

Next year, throughout the North East of England, different communities have been challenged to address the question, “how do we want to live?”

Grass roots communities are taking the lead in experiments to change the ways they deal with daily-life issues.

These issues range from energy use in the home; to how we move around; how we look after older people; how we can grow food in cities.

One Dott project is called LOW CARB LANE.

More and more of us would like to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, especially at home. To save money, if not to save the planet.

But how to do it?

Wind turbines? Fuel cells? Solar panels? Nano-gell insulation? Wood-chip boilers? There are so many competing technologies claimed to be the magic cure-all solution.

It’s imposible to decide what to do.

It’s also hard to pay. Most people cannot afford to shell out thousands of pounds just to be good.

Low Carb Lane tackles tackles these challenges head-on, in a real street: Castle Terrace, in Ashington.
The community will explore the potential to achieve warm and comfortable homes in ways that reduces their carbon footprint - and also save them money.

Helped by an an innovation and design team from Dott, they will look at ways to modify everyday patterns of activity; choose more efficient appliances; add insulation; generate their own power.

Everything from energy saving lightbulbs, to high-tech meters; solar hot water; and off-grid generation; will be considered as a whole.

We’ll see if Personal Energy Passports might work for the citizens of Castle Terrace.

We’ll explore the idea of a Green Concierge Service to help citizens choose which solutions, if any, are best for them.

Seventy five schools across North East England are also tackling the energy issue head-on.

Year eight students have been given a tool by Dott to help them map the carbon footprint of their "school as an ecosystem".

Once they have identified which aspects of their school’s energy and resource life are wasteful, they will propose re-designs to make their school more resource and energy efficient.

The 50 best schools will progress these plans the help of professional designers. The best designs will be put forward for awards at the Dott Festival next October.

Low Carb Lane, and our schools project, both respond to the big energy picture.

But these projects must deliver practical improvements to the daily lives of real people in real places.

What’s key is that these small actions just might, as tipping points, have big consequences.

Another Dott project, called Move Me!, tackles the need for mobility and access in a rural community.

The question posed by Move Me! is this: How can we improve peoples mobility, and access to services, without adding more cars or building new roads?

Scremerston County First School, in Northumberland, is the focus for this project.

The Move Me! project will look at the school community’s total mobility needs – including un-met ones - and explore how they can be better served by combining existing services, in smarter ways.

In policy terms, our subject is transport intensity, rural access, and resource efficiency.

In Dott terms, we are seeking practical ways to improve daily life for one community, in one place.

The idea is that if we can improve things for real people, in one school - the tools, methods and services we develop for Scremerston can be scaled up and multiplied.

This is why we say Dott is in the acorns business,

A third Dott 07 project is called Urban Farming or: “I grew it my way”.

Food is a huge energy challenge.

From farm to plate, depending on the degree to which it has been processed, a typical food item may embody input energy between four and several hundred times the food energy that enters our bodies.

As much fat from fast food outlets is clogging up the sewers of our cities -- as is clogging up the arteries of our citizens.

Or take an iceberg lettuce in Harvey Nicholls food hall: for every calory that we eat, it takes 120 calories to grow it, pack it, fly it over the Atlantic, and display it under bright flattering lights in an open-fronted refrigerator.

Totally mad.

In Dott, we decided to take practical steps to slash the distance between what we eat, and where it is grown.

Based in Middlesborough, our Urban Farming project is helping local citizens grow their own food in small, medium, and large urban growing spaces.

These will range from window boxes, to larger planter boxes, and low-sided skips.

A Meal Assembly Centre will be established where growers will be helped to prepare their produce in a week’s worth of meals.

The project will culminate next September, in a ‘Meal for Middlesbrough.’

All the individuals, schools, businesses, farms and communities will take part.

A fourth Dott 07 project is called ALZHEIMER 100.

It asks: What practical steps are needed to improve daily life for people with dementia and their carers?

Dementia affects 750,000 people currently in the UK. This is expected to rise to 810,00 by 2010 and 1.8m by 2050. Two million sufferers means five million people directly affected.

It’s a huge - but largely hidden - issue.

As with the other Dot projects, we will investigate every day problems experienced by particular Alzheimer’s patients and carers in real situations.

Dott has teamed up with Alzheimers Society branches throughout the North East to find out what new products and services might be needed tackle these specific problems.

We will enable people with Alzheimers and their carers to document a “day in our life”. These day-in-my-life presentations wlil become opportunity maps that mark practical things to be fixed.

Where new with support systems, or devices, are needed, we will make design proposals.

We don’t yet know what the outcomes will be, but early meetings have considered concierge or “porterage” service; a time sharing system for carers and volunteers; and a buddy system for people with Alzheimer’s enabled by GIS technology and wearable computing.


The first public events of Dott 07 are not until next March. But Dott 07 has been in preparation for over a year, and a number of lessons pertinent to today’s discussion are already evident.

The first lesson we have learned in Dott is that creativity and innovation are all around us. People are busy - dealing innovatively with daily life - in all manner of creative ways.

Everywhere we look.

Paul Hawken reckons that worldwide, over one million organizations, populated by over 100 million people, are engaged in grassroots activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues.

"Collectively this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth, but but it flies under the radar" he writes.

Our job in Dott, we now realise, is not to create innovation it from scratch. Our job is to discover and accelerate existing grass roots innovation.

A second lesson from Dott is about networks, connections, and alliances.

Some of our public commission projects involve ten or fifteen different partners. Public ones and private ones. Big ones and small ones. Academic ones and business ones. In Dott’s public commission projects, we seem to have them all!

Bringing together new players, in new combinations, is exciting. Importing inspirational examples from other domains is dynamic. Looking “outside the tent” for new ideas has fantastic potential.

But it takes an awful lot of time and social energy to build the shared understanding, and trust, without which these new alliances and relationships would not flourish.

Our conclusion, a year into Dott: Innovation is as much a time issue as it is a money issue, or a technology one.

The third big lesson we are learning in Dott concerns leadership, and that over-used word, “vision”.

We are finding, in Dott, that posing a question - “how do we want to live?” – motivates people in ways that telling them how to live, does not.

We do not stand over people and demand: “what sacrifices will you make to save the planet?”. On the contrary, Dott is about open-ended conversations about how we want to live.

Our ambition is that out of these conversations – and others that are happening throughout the region - a shared vision of region-wide and sustainable renewal will emerge.

It’s a vision in which people take control of how they want to live. Not a vision imposed, top-down, by those with technlogies to sell, or policies to impose.


I said at the start that there are two ways to compete:

Either we run faster and faster - under existing rules - wear out the pitch, and then, whilst looking backwards, run slap into a rock. The rock of climate change.

Or we re-design the rules of the game.

The old game was all about productivity, growth and continuous acceleration. We played it – and played it well in the UK - as if resources were limitless. As if carrying capacity of the planet didn’t matter.

In the new game, resource constraints, the carrying capacity of the biosphere, are all that matter.

Given that 80 per cent resource efficiency, or the lack of it, is determined at the design stage, the new scoring system presents design with a gigantic challenge.

I’m not so starry-eyed that I expect humankind to get all lovey dovey and co-operate our way to sustainabliity.

Let’s face it: We humans are rapacious and competitive by nature.

But when new rules turn “external” costs into internal costs....

When matter and energy flowing through the economic system have to be paid for....

Well, we’ll just have to be rapacious and competitive in new ways.

Some of these new ways bare being tried out in Dott. So I look forward to seeing you at the Dott 07 Festival next October, somewhere on the bands of the River Tyne.


Some other texts and resources:



Strategies for Building New Economies From the Bottom-Up and the Inside-Out by Ethan Miller

The percentage of people in Northern countries calling themselves happy peaked in the 1950s - even though consumption has more than doubled since then. Hazel Henderson has helped develop twelve quality of life indicators - new criteria against which to make decisions about what we innovate, and how. http://www.calvert-henderson.com/update-globalboom.htm

Posted by John Thackara at December 7, 2006 08:37 AM


This is a great speech and pointer to grass roots innovation in action! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention.
You say:
"Dott is about open-ended conversations about how we want to live.
Our ambition is that out of these conversations – and others that are happening throughout the region - a shared vision of region-wide and sustainable renewal will emerge.
It’s a vision in which people take control of how they want to live. Not a vision imposed, top-down, by those with technlogies to sell, or policies to impose."

And you talk compellingly about creating a NEW game based on a new set of rules around global sustainability.

I'd like to call your attention to a similar grass roots project--the Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme. See URDT.net.

For 20 years, the people in the Kibaale district of Uganda have been practicing what you are preaching--envisioning the kind of lives they would like to have and creating them. Note that they have not built major polluting businesses. They have assembled solar panels, produced biogas, practiced organic farming, educated young girls and young women to be community leaders, launched a community radio station, installed computers and internet and are pulling themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

Pls. continue to chronicle the progress of the Dott initiative. We'll be watching eagerly!

Patty Seybold,
Author, Outside Innovation

Posted by: Patty Seybold at December 31, 2006 04:31 AM

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