SOME CLOCKWORK THOUGHTS

By David Garnett

Coghead

Major technologies are embedded in archaeological epochs. Stone Age tools were gradually abandoned once our ancestors entered the Bronze Age and functional bronze artefacts were themselves largely replaced by other metal products in the Age of Iron. In shorter time periods, changing patterns in production and consumption have tended to be associated with advances in energy technology rather than with developments in the use of materials. Gas mantle manufacture replaced candle making in the nineteenth century and, with the evolving use of electrical power in the twentieth century, gas mantle manufacturing itself became a marginal activity (along with the production of an enormous range of manual and clockwork devices). When major discoveries and inventions occur, the established technology becomes more or less obsolete: or so it is usually argued.

In developed economies in recent years, candle making has experienced a resurgence. The output of this reinvigorated industry has, of course, a different focus than that of its historical predecessor. Most people purchasing candles these days are seeking to generate smell rather than light. Candles have become luxury gift items for scenting the bathroom rather than being basic domestic consumables lighting all living rooms. It may well be that the current shift towards digital communications will result in a similar shift in our uses for printed paper. The next generation of readers may see printed books, journals and newspapers as occupying a niche corner of the ‘heritage landscape’ rather than as playing a central part in educational, commercial and leisure communications.

One strong characteristic of technological progress is engineering’s ability to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of existing useful artefacts. Motor vehicles, refrigerators, televisions, computers, etc. have been with us some time. Although they have maintained their basic technological integrity, their functionality has been, and continues to be, transformed by engineering and design advancements. We don’t only invent new things (exogenous improvements) – we discover new and better ways of producing old things (endogenous improvements).

Throughout history, those with personal pecuniary concerns or large capital investment interests in existing manufacturing arrangements have sometimes resisted the introduction of radically new ways of producing goods. Perhaps most famously, in the early nineteenth century, skilled textile workers in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire responded to the threat to their livelihoods and communities by smashing up the new automated machines that were replacing their established ‘cottage’ spinning and weaving production methods. It is sometimes argued that in our own time, large-scale corporate interests have slowed down the introduction of developments in such areas as electric cars, wind power generation and new house-building methods.

Where ‘luddite’ resistance to certain technological changes occur, they are usually driven by vested interests. Other forms of resistance to change are more unconsciously psychological than consciously economic.

Looking back to old technologies to see whether new modern methods can be applied to them is seen, in the developed world at least, to be non-progressive and a backward step. Up-graded traditional technologies have been applied with much success in developing economies where twenty-first century technologies are seen to be difficult, impossible or inappropriate. Indeed the term ‘appropriate technology’ is now an established term that is applied to technical developments that are judged to be suited to local social and economic conditions.

In the developed world, if past inventions are seen to have commercial potential at all, it is in terms of their contributions to the ‘heritage industry’. There is an instinctive unwillingness to consider the past as a source of inspiration for the present and a disinclination to reapply old ideas to contemporary needs. This resistance to reinventing past technologies may well be causing us to miss opportunities to provide modern sustainable solutions to current problems.

If we could reconceive existing clockwork technology in the light of modern materials, engineering techniques, needs and lifestyles, some minor industrial revolution might be possible. Our ancestors invested much time, money, effort and talent in producing clockwork machines that provided exceedingly accurate timepieces and intriguingly elaborate appliances and toys. Our failure to build on this established technology is surprising.

Not all old ideas are worthy of modern investment – but those that have already been developed to high levels of sophistication and shown to have improved lives in the past, might have the potential to enhance the wellbeing of present and future generations. Clockwork technology has that potential.

duckhunt2

Not all old ideas are worthy of modern investment

The concept of clockwork technology is disarmingly simply: it has two key design elements.
1. Some sort of spring to store and release energy.
2. A system of cams, cogs and gears to transmit the energy to achieve some sort of function.

To date, a spring’s energy storage potential is mostly limited to small-scale, low-energy uses such as traditional clocks and watches, windup radios and torches. For a ‘wind-up’ technology to have a significant impact on modern life four things are required: (1) technological developments; (2) a commitment to invest; (3) design applications that bring together (1) and (2) in ways that achieve societal objectives, and (4) the universalization of the new technology.

(1) Technological developments
The key constraining limitation of traditional metal spring technology is its inability to store enough energy to carry out a reasonable range of work over an extended period. To have a transformational effect on modern life, the powers of traditional springs need to be massively multiplied. With this objective in mind, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are exploring the possibility of using molecular-scale nanotubes of pure carbon to create miniature springs that can be bundled together to create a larger high-density compound spring capable of powering relatively large devices. [ refer MIT’s newsroom ].

(2) A commitment to Invest
We live in a world of movement. In the whole of human history there has never been a time when people have travelled such distances on a regular basis. According to The Information Centre For and About The Global Auto Industry (Ward’s Auto), the number of cars on the world’s roads surpassed one billion in 2010. It is estimated that there are over 100 million bicycles in the US alone and well over a billion in the world (Will Dennis, Co-founder Hollerback). In 2010 it was estimated that people living in the developed world took between 5,000 and 10,000 walking steps a day as part of their normal routines (with the US being the most sedentary) . If this everyday social movement could be harvested, it would provide an astonishing volume of cheap and sustainable energy.
Piezoelectricity is the term given to electrical energy that is produced from mechanical pressure (including motions such as driving over pressure points or walking on especially engineered sensor pads). When pressure is applied to an object, a negative charge is produced on the expanded side and a positive charge on the compressed side. Once the pressure is relieved, electrical current flows across the material. Piezo materials (usually in the form of crystals or ceramics) can be used to capture this electrical discharge. To be of use, the charge needs to be captured and stored so that it can be released when needed.
Early research at MIT aimed at harvesting ‘human motion’, is looking at the possibility of installing piezoelectric flooring in urban areas where there is a constant and heavy footfall such as shopping centres, railway stations and tourist facilities. This idea of “crowd farming” as it is being termed, is based on the notion of there being a critical point at which piezoelectric generation becomes viable. It is estimated (MIT) that one footstep will provide enough energy to light a single 60 watt bulb for just over a second. It could be possible that approximately 28,500 footsteps could power a train for one second (Christian Science Monitor).
Elsewhere (e.g. Israeli University) engineers are exploring the potential for generating piezoelectricity from moving vehicles by means of Piezo Electric Generators (IPEG™) embedded in roads, railways and runways. It is hoped that eventually energy will be harvested from weight, motion, vibration and temperature changes from within urban transport structures. Israeli University’s spin-out company Innowattech is already developing the commercial application of this pioneering technology. A prototype road system is expected to produce up to 400 kilowatts from a 1-kilometre stretch of dual carriageway.
If this technology is adopted, it is probable that its initial introduction will occur in a municipal context and be introduced into new local transport investments, including major infrastructure refurbishment projects. This means that the potential energy of busy roads, railroads and runways near population centres might be converted into electrical energy that can run nearby public facilities such as street lighting, or fed back into the grid.

walkby

The question then arises – if we harnessed nanotube and piezoelectric technologies to ‘crowd farming’ and transport networks could we generate enough energy to create a ‘clockwork revolution’ that would go some way to providing sustainable energy on an industrial scale for our children and their descendants?

(3) Designing a clockwork society
The principles of piezoelectricity have been understood since the 19th century but a number of things combined to discourage its development. Foremost amongst these inhibiting factors were the limitations of traditional spring capacities to store and release any generated energy and the general availability of relatively cheap fossil fuels throughout the 20th century. It might be argued that today things are now in place for piezoelectricity’s eventual development and use.
The emerging new technologies described above are taking place at a time when there exists both an understanding of the non-renewable nature of fossil fuels and increasing concerns about the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. These issues have raised the spectre of continuously rising energy prices coupled with damaging changes to the world’s climate. These concerns have, in turn, raised the profile of alternative sources of energy and produced an economic and political mood that is responsive to new ways of thinking about energy production and distribution.

As indicated above, the applications of the new technologies being discussed in this paper are most likely to be applied, initially at least, in local settings and in the form of specific (and limited) corporate or municipal investment projects. For a ‘technological revolution’ to take place, we would need to universalise the use of the new technology and use it in day-to-day employment and domestic settings.

(4) Universalising the technology
The principle of using ‘people motion’ to wind up springs is already well established in watch technology. Automatic watches operate by winding themselves by means of an oscillating or rotating weight inside the instrument. The weight moves while the watch is worn and this motion turns a winding mechanism inside the timepiece that energises the mainspring. If this principle of capturing energy could be universalised so that individual people, vehicles, garden and roof-top wind turbines, etc. could used to generate a storable charge, we would not only have created a new (and boundless) source of clean and renewable electricity, but also a new form of society that would open up opportunities for both developed and developing economies to enhance living standards in affordable ways and with limited damage to the local and global environments.

To move to this vision of a ‘modern clockwork society’ would involve the incorporation of the new technologies into a form of daily living that automatically captured the micro-generations produced by walking the dog, vacuuming the carpet, driving to work, being at work, etc. The overarching enabling design principles are straightforward.
• The use of efficient mini plug-ins (MPIs) in the form of nanotube springs attached to moving objects (arms, legs, wheels, roof windmills,, etc.).
• The incorporation of mini sockets to receive the MPIs.
• The development of a control panel to:
o transfer the energy generated by the MPIs to a larger nanotube mainspring;
o transfer accumulated energy stored in the mainspring to household tasks (operating appliances, generating light, etc.);
o measure and record and analyse the flows of generated energy.

The enabling design
The design concept is simple but will require imaginative design and a great deal of research and development funding and effort (see Appendix 1).

The concept:
Mini plug-ins (MPIs) from bicycles, cars, pedometers, etc. capture energy from everyday motion that is then transferred to a storage mainspring. The stored energy is then drawn down when required (see Appendix 1).

Concluding Question
Is clockwork technology dead or alive?

Coghead2

 

Further reading and information

MEASURING AND DECLARING SOCIAL DIVIDENDS – A PLEA FOR SIMPLIITY

 

Abstract

As politicians push for comparative measures of value-for-money outcomes from public funds and a consulting industry emerges around the topic of how to value social returns, there is a danger that some form of standardised method of measurement will be imposed on agencies. The particular danger is that such a model would be expensive and unnecessarily complex to manage. What is needed is an appropriate and proportionate approach that focuses on corporate objectives rather than on generalised economic theory. There is no issue about the need to declare a social dividend: the case for every major service provider doing so is overwhelming – the problem centres on questions of proportionality and conformity.

 

 

In the public and voluntary sectors statistics relating to the direct economic costs and outputs of service providers are easy enough to find and understand but information regarding the social returns generated by such agencies is more opaque. Perceived difficulties in measuring intangible benefits have led many such agencies to avoid the ‘problem’ of declaring a social dividend.

 

Embedded in the notions of ‘public service’ and ‘not-for-profit’ is an implied assumption that generating a social return is an integral aspect of the organisation’s mission. Although many agencies such as those providing health care, environmental protection and housing services, make it clear that the generation of social returns is a key aspect of their business function, practitioners in these fields remain ambivalent about the issue of measurement. In particular, they fear the introduction of an expensive and unnecessarily bureaucratic approach that prioritises conformity of practice between agencies at the expense of internal managerial coherence.

 

 

The background

At the heart of the measurement ‘problem’ is the fact that although many social returns are real, they are intangible, difficult to measure and their receipt is directed at external interests (such as the wider community). Furthermore, many of the benefits are not received quickly but spread over the economic life of the debt generated to create them. By contrast, the investment needed to generate them is usually front-loaded, comes from one identifiable source, is tangible and can be measured precisely. This contrast between clear measurable costs and uncertain intangible benefits has resulted in a poor understanding of the social benefits of investment. This in turn has acted as a disincentive to invest in socially beneficial activities: as the old management adage has it – “What counts is what gets counted”.

 

A significant amount of work has already been produced by credible consultancy organisations and a number of service providers are in the process of piloting methods of calculating the social returns generated by their investments of time, talent and money. The issue is not “whether or not” service providers should measure the social value they create, but “how to do it”.

 

SROI (Social Returns on Investment) is an analytic tool developed by the New Economics Foundation to account for (and measure) a broader area of value outcomes than is captured by traditional economic calculations. In particular, it seeks to take into account the social, economic and environmental consequences of economic activity. Its key feature is that it values outcomes by using financial proxies so that value-for-money decisions can be made using monetary measures. Its application can demonstrate to potential funders and internal decision-makers that when social returns are taken into account, a proposed investment can have a multiplier effect on economic growth, generate welfare improvements and in many cases, bring about future cost savings for the organisation.

 

The measurement of social returns will always largely be a matter of judgement. Current techniques are designed to provide a transparent, clearly targeted and reasoned case for the calculation that does not make exaggerated claims. With the help of consultants, various economistic methods for identifying and quantifying social returns are currently being developed by a number of health and housing agencies. The Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT), for example, is currently experimenting with a model similar to that of the New Economics Foundation. This approach is more closely focused on quantifying the social impact of community investment and seeks to measure social returns in terms of enhancements in ‘wellbeing’

 

How best to take account of social value is now a real issue across Europe and is a topic of concern in all sectors of the economy. Commercial, public, voluntary and charitable organisations of all kinds and sizes are seeking appropriate methods of measuring the social impact of their activities as a means of building or maintaining competitive advantage in terms of market positioning, customer loyalty, government support, and public opinion. However, the social value debate throws up yet-to-be-resolved questions about the nature and scope of how to monitor and measure such returns at the level of the individual organisation.

 

The problem

In the context of the current debate, a real and present danger now exists. This danger stems from the existence of forces that could place unnecessary administrative burdens on organisations already struggling to respond to changes in economic conditions, client expectations and legal obligations. In short, there is a danger that the requirement to identify and quantify social returns will result in new monitoring and reporting obligations that are unnecessarily complicated and disproportionately expensive to administer.

 

Four linked forces are currently pushing organisations towards what might turn out to be inappropriate practices: (i) the desire to extend regulation; (ii) the assumed benefits of conformity; (iii) the desire to monetise outcomes; (iv) the interests of consultants.

 

One of the great hypocrisies of public life is the tendency of governments to extend central control over regulated service providers whilst at the same time declaring a commitment to deregulate, reduce the burden of red tape and embrace the principle of subsidiarity[1]. Experience indicates that the desire of central authorities to influence the behaviour of publicly funded agencies is deep-seated. This tendency stems partly from a perceived need to control public spending and to guarantee value-for-money from such spending, and partly from a desire to direct the work of social agencies to achieve political ends.

 

The general trend towards increasing central control has brought in its wake particular attitudes towards the question of “how” social returns should be measured. Two questionable ideas have emerged. The first is that there is a need to establish a high degree of conformity of practice between agencies. The second, linked to the first, is that outcome values should be monetised. These two requirements are rationalised by referencing the need for regulators to make performance comparisons between service providers.

 

Current accounting consistency across any particular economic sector or industry is managed by reference to a Statement of Recommended Practice (SORP). To ensure a degree of consistency across national barriers, the SORPs take some account of international practices – but their intention is to provide recommendations for how accounts should be kept, how financial reports should be presented and how to account for nationally focused, sector specific transactions.

 

Across the European Union, momentum is building for increased legislative and regulatory requirements with regards to the identification and measurement of social value. As there does not yet exist an agreed approach to the measurement of social returns that is equivalent to those used by the International Accounting Standards Board, the question arises about whether an equivalent ‘hard’ standard is necessary or advisable. It is perhaps understandable that “the Establishment” (in the form of politicians, regulators, civil servants and the accountancy profession) see the need to look to the IASB approach as a model for social accounting arrangements.

 

Current trends

Currently, within the four national regions of the UK, there is a diversity of approaches to the legal and regulatory requirements in this field. All four arrangements, however, operate within an emerging European framework. This framework currently centres on the EU’s Single Market Act II 43 that places an emphasis on the ‘social economy’ of the Union. In his report for HouseMark, Professor Richard Tomlins comments that, “There is a clear message from the European Commission that voluntary approaches to accounting for social value have not had significant success and housing providers should expect further legislation if its appetite for the generation of social value is not satisfied” (p.14).

 

To date, in three of the four national regions, government focus has been on commissioning and procurement practices – illustrated by the provisions of The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 for England and Wales (and its subsequent review by the Young Report), the publication of the Welsh Procurement Policy documents, and the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014. These measures, together with their various ‘toolkits’, concentrate on the social value that can be achieved by developing local economic networks. It is, however, clear that more general legislation and regulatory compliance rules are under consideration. Already, as part of the drive to encourage the creation of social returns, regulators are placing greater emphasis on the notion of “best value” in their VFM assessments. Best value organisations are those that commit to achieve the optimum returns (including social returns) from their investments rather than simply those prescribed by rules and regulations.[2]

 

What both the SROI and HACT approaches have in common is an attempt to present social and wellbeing benefits in the form of cash calculations. The logic of this approach is broadly two-fold. Firstly, it reduces a wide variety of social outcomes to a common measure and this makes it easier to determine investment priorities. Secondly, it gives the appearance of concreteness and precision, thereby reassuring boards of management, potential investors, and politicians that the organisation is contributing real social value to the communities in which it operates.

 

Once a particular measurement system becomes accepted (fashionable), history tells us that it will provide opportunities for consultants to earn fees by helping anxious organisations to embrace the emerging consensus about method. History also tells us that in the welfare sector, what starts as a voluntary commitment to adopt an assumed “best practice” arrangement eventually shifts to a mandatory system. This shift is both lobbied for, and facilitated by, consultancy firms that have a vested interest in the mandatory requirements being complicated enough to require the employment of their ‘expertise’.

 

An appropriate way forward

The commitment to create and then identify a social dividend is more cultural than technical. As the creating of social value becomes seen as an aspect of the agency’s core business (i.e. not just a ‘bolt-on’ to its statutory duties or traditional functions), it will of course have to be identified, quantified and declared. This does not mean that the process needs to be complicated nor does it mean that every element of the dividend should be given a monetary value.

 

The time and effort involved in creating and operating a monetised system can be disproportionately expensive. The presentation of value judgements dressed as precise monetary measures can provide decision committees with apparently pre-assessed decisions that inhibit further strategic thinking and planning. In some instances, cash measures can be misleading or even downright inappropriate.

 

A shift away from narrow cash costing to a form of opportunity costing could have a positive effect on rational policy formation. Such an approach would avoid the necessity of operating expensive quasi-accounting systems. It could also present information in a way that is less intimidating and easier to understand. Costing investment decisions by referencing the lost opportunities of alternative investments encourages a discursive approach to policy making. Although it may still require some form of financial calculation, this remains in the background and does not present policy committees with what appears to be a scientifically determined fait accompli – this makes it easier for decision groups and other stakeholders to question executive proposals and contribute to the policy debate.

 

Practitioners should avoid being imprisoned by the desire to fill every corner of the assessment with mathematical detail or be concerned to standardise a methodology that uses an inappropriate unit of account. The SROI Network believes that the lack of a standard approach to measurement is in itself not important and that the key to being able to compare different values is “consistency in the principles”.[3] In many instances, these, rather than unnecessarily precise indicators or values, will provide more meaningful measures. Furthermore, this approach can be flexed for different levels of rigour depending on the organisation’s purposes and stage of development. It is better to measure the right thing at the right time in a rough and ready sort of way than to ignore it or measure it with the sort of impressive refinement that is unnecessary, inflexible or misleading.

 

There is a case for applying a simple ‘residual’ approach to the measurement of what cannot be quantified easily (in cash and/or opportunity cost terms). This avoids the necessity of operating quasi-accounting systems that produce dubious and contested figures for intangibles. It also presents information in a way that is easily understood. Once the measurable has been quantified, the residual method then identifies other relevant intangible costs and benefits that cannot sensibly be given a meaningful cash or opportunity cost value. These ‘residuals’ are included in the declaration of social value as ‘positives’ or ‘negatives’. They can sometimes be quantified by referencing appropriate soft units of account such as ‘tenant satisfaction’, ‘numbers of people helped or harmed’, ‘reputational risk’, ‘staff morale’, etc. This straightforward approach should be regarded as ‘cheap and effective’ rather than ‘rough and ready’. It is not only simple to administer and easier to comprehend, but is appropriate to the needs of well-managed, innovative organisations.

 

Consistency in principles not practices

Social accounts record information that is different from that found in financial accounts and statements. The notion that every social cost and benefit should be included in the assessment and be afforded a cash value feels wrong and is wrong. The single-minded pursuit of quasi-financial accounts in this field could lead to the introduction of monitoring practices that are not only expensive and burdensome to administer but are also open to misleading interpretations. More work needs to done on how ‘soft measures’ can be blended into social value calculations in ways that produce less formulaic and more appropriate management tools that are less concerned with regulatory comparability and more concerned with stimulating a diverse range of creative thinking. A key factor in this approach should be accessibility – it should include reporting mechanisms that make real sense to all stakeholders.

 

Freedom within a framework

Ways of developing such a blended approach already exists in the methodology of cost-benefit-analysis. To be clear, incorporating soft measures into the monitoring arrangements (when judged to be appropriate) would utilize and adapt (not abandon) the excellent work already produced by HACT, the New Economics Foundation and others. What is needed, however, is for leading service providers themselves to generate ideas and flexible frameworks that others can consult and draw upon when devising their own bespoke systems for capturing the nature of their particular contributions to society. The author is currently working with a small group of social and commercial entrepreneurs to develop an approach to social costing that is in line with these principles and is happy to communicate with others who share his concerns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] That argues that only those functions that cannot be provided locally should be taken on by the central authorities.

[2] See Garnett (2015) A-Z of Housing for discussion of ‘best value’, pp.202-8.

[3] SROI Network 2015: “The SROI Network response to Social Value Act Review” (published online).

 

 

Scepticism Good – Cynicism Bad

by David Garnett

Those of us who do voluntary work in the community are often confronted with scepticism about our ability to achieve what we say and occasionally even cynicism about our motives. One of the things I learned from working with professional community workers is that scepticism can be turned into a positive force. If you stay with it, refuse to react negatively to those with doubts and demonstrate that you can be deliver tangible outcomes, sceptics eventually turn round and become active friends. On a number of occasions I have seen how the professionalism and persistence of individual staff members of a housing association persuaded one-time sceptics that they are listening to people’s concerns and are sincere in their intentions. What I have learned from serving on the board of community organisations is that cynicism (unlike scepticism) is often ideologically or politically driven and can be a pernicious force that demoralises staff and frustrates the work of the organisation. My conclusion is that scepticism should be embraced and cynicism has to be confronted head on.

One of the worst mistakes that any service provider can make is to over-promise. Where you deliver what was possible and are clear about what was is not possible, sceptics (“I’ll believe it when I see it”) can be turned into fans.

Confronting cynicism
Cynicism is not the same as scepticism. The difference between the sceptic and the cynic is that, having examined the evidence, the sceptic may conclude that the proposition is correct or the promise delivered. The cynic, on the other hand, is not interested in looking at the evidence at all (or only selecting those bits of evidence that support his or her prejudices and preconceptions), and simply assumes that the proposition is wrong or the promise is bound to be broken. Scepticism is at the heart of the scientific method. The true sceptic looks for objective facts and is prepared to give credit for success. By contrast, the cynic tends to be negative and ignorant and, in my experience, often motivated by malice. The cynic tends to be disorientated by, and dismissive of, other people’s successes.

We might argue that scepticism can be a positive thing, leading to intelligent questioning and constructive argument. Cynicism, on the other hand, is a wholly negative thing that seeks for problems that do not exist and exaggerates (or even sensationalises) those that do. Cynics look for reasons not to get involved and enjoy disparaging those who do: it is wilfully dismissive and destructive. In modern civic life there is a fair degree of cynicism that has to be overcome to achieve worthwhile outcomes. Those of us in public life know only too well that the local press gleefully reports bad news stories while good news stories often get ignored. The response should be to embrace the sceptics and confound the cynics and get on and continue to pursue the possible.