Strategy, communication, sustainability, community & society

How resilient is your city?


The terrible destruction wielded by Typhoon Haiyan last week has left much tragedy in its wake, with whole villages destroyed and over 10,000 people feared dead. This is the worst storm to hit the Philippines and while there is much debate as to whether climate change has anything to do with it, there is considerable evidence that natural disasters like this will rise in number in coming years. According to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, there are now more than 800 natural disasters worldwide annually, double the number from 20 years ago.

So how will we cope? Resilience is apparently the key. It is the new buzzword, replacing “mitigation” and “adaptation” in the (serious) climate change debate. In September this year, President Bill Clinton made an urgent call for governments and city leaders to plan for climate resilience, he said: 

“Every five days, a million people move from rural to urban areas. Cities around the world are struggling to confront the interrelated challenges of urbanization, globalization, and climate change. As natural and manmade shocks continue to intensify in both size and frequency, they must build for resilience. The need to do that has never been more clear.”

And this need is as great in the West as it is in Asia.  It will be the coastal urban populations that will bear the brunt of climate change. Cities like New York City, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo that currently hold great economic and political power, will face unprecedented risks from cyclones, earthquakes and hurricanes, and a lack of resilience will threaten their global position. Just look at Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. They caused more than $100 billion in damage. 

In a Reuters blog from August this year, Parag Khanna  and Greg Lindsay explored the resilience of global cities to natural disasters. They said: “The most frequent natural disaster, flooding, regularly devastates the urban poor in such Asian megacities as Bangkok, Manila and Dhaka. The population exposed to flooding could triple by 2070, according to a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study of 136 rapidly expanding coastal cities. The portion of the U.S. prone to floods is expected to increase by as much as 45 percent by 2100, according to a first-of-its-kind report published in June by the Federal Emergency Management Agency… Some of the world’s most densely populated and economically significant cities already fall within the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects’ category of exposure to “3+” (meaning three or more) major risks — ranging from droughts to earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. The list includes New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and San Francisco.”

In recent times, city leaders have begun to come together to discuss ways to improve the resilience of their cities around the world and it is initiatives like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Rockerfeller Foundation Resilient Cities programme that are helping leaders to understand how to proactively manage the risks brought about by climate change.

Investors around the world are also seeing cities in a new light, developing risk management frameworks to help them understand the impacts of investing in different places. The World Bank also has a new department devoted to promoting “urban resilience” focusing on water, energy and transportation systems as critical infrastructure. So while the climate skeptics rage on, the serious work of dealing with climate change is beginning to happen behind closed doors. Let’s hope we see some positive results in the near future.

In the meantime, please donate to the Philippines emergency fund at



Smartphones – a silent destroyer of real social connectedness

Today I discovered this brilliant film from Films For Action, – a community-powered learning library for people who want to change the world.

The film shows just how silently destructive mobile phones are on those around you – particularly your friends and family. It challenges you to put down that mobile phone while you are with those you love – or even when you are interacting with the woman at the supermarket checkout – for the sake of humanity!

The future is what you make it

People often ask about the future. But the reality is that our desire to know the future far outweighs our ability to predict it. Far better to start building it says Regina Dugan.

Some say that the key to sustainable economic future will be for developed economies to learn how to make things again. To “build what we believe in”. And this is echoed in this film by Dugan (recently voted NPR’s “Number 1 Nerd to Watch in 2013”). In this presentation, Dugan, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a self styled technogeek who has been widely recognised for her leadership in innovation and technology development, takes us through a brief history of the 20th century’s most extraordinary inventions and passionately outlines the case for a new “maker revolution”.

She says that while we can’t predict the future, we can choose to build it. The film blew my mind for the first 10 minutes, but then it got quite maker-centric and I got a bit lost.

The madness of the mausoleum of dead gold

My latest academic crush is Martyn Poliakoff, materials scientist at Nottingham University. It could be the hair – which is really rather fantastic – but I have been totally sucked in by his brilliant video series that explore the different elements of the periodic table on youtube. In this one – his most popular video – he ventures into the gold bullion vault in London which houses £197 billion worth of gold. As a materials expert, Martyn laments the waste of all this gold held in such a “mausoleum for dead gold” when it could be “alive doing exciting reactions”.

I’m with him on this. In my recent “what’s in your mobile phone” post I despaired of how many raw elements in electronic waste are non-recoverable, and this despair was compounded when I heard a recent radio programme called “Crossing Continents” on Radio 4 that starkly described the volatility of gold mining in Indonesia.

BBC broadcaster, Linda Pressly said in the show: “Up to 20% of the world’s gold is produced by informal mining, with millions of people in the developing world relying on it for a living. The quickest and easiest way for them to extract gold is by mixing finely ground rock with mercury, a highly toxic metal, and burning it off. In Indonesia, [we found] gold workers and communities who are already showing signs of mercury poisoning. There are paddy fields with the highest concentration of mercury ever tested in rice. Experts say this is a slow-burn disaster, which could lead to irreversible harm to the health of people across the globe”.

And for all that it either goes in to a mobile phone that ends up in someone’s drawer in a year’s time or locked up in a big vault never to be used again. Doesn’t that make our financial value system and “the mausoleum of dead gold” seem just a bit pointless?

On a brighter note – a great initiative called FairPhone was launched today. Their mantra is “By making a phone, we are creating a movement to build a fair economy.” Take a look at

What exactly is in your mobile phone?

My good buddy @tmsophie has been doing some extraordinary work on her “Great Recovery” project for the RSA and Technology Strategy Board in the UK. Focused on designing out waste and improving the recoverability of materials, the results from the first phase of the project have now been published in a short but hard-hitting report. Her research highlights some real humdingers about e-waste and how poorly mobile phones in particular are designed for recovery of their materials, which in many cases are rare minerals and precious metals.

Sophie’s report sheds a much needed spotlight on the inherent inefficiency of a product design system that uses valuable raw materials in products with a one or two year lifespan as if they were infinite. The report states: “Like many developed countries, the UK economy is highly dependent on several finite materials, and resource security is a growing concern. Nearly a third of profit warnings issued by FTSE 350 companies in 2011 were attributed to rising resource prices.”

There are many eye-opening facts about waste from consumer products, but the most startling one for me was the following:

“Every mobile phone is made from approximately 40 different elements, including copper in the wiring, indium in the touchscreen and gold in the circuit boards. It is estimated there is five times more gold in a tonne of electronic waste than there is in a tonne of mined ore from a gold mine.”

And this video proves that quote to be true – it shows materials scientist and jeweller Maria Hanson from the Materials and Engineering Research Institute at Sheffield Hallam University creatively demonstrating just how many irretrievable precious metals have gone in to every iPhone.

It got me thinking about my back bedroom drawers with ever growing piles of e-waste and how I could be a part of changing this system… hmmm.

So, while I try to find an answer to my e-waste crisis, why not take a look at Sophie’s work on or check out the youtube channel. Sophie will also be talking about the Great Recovery project at next weekend’s 100% Design exhibition at Earls Court in London (check it out at and I would strongly recommend a visit if you are in town on the 18-20th September.

Top tips for aspiring stakeholder managers

A couple of weeks ago a newbie to the world of “stakeholder engagement” (or in layman’s terms “talking to people at work”) asked for some insight into where to start with a stakeholder engagement programme to garner support for sustainability within their organisation. I found I had quite a lot to say on the subject and thought the tips I gave him might be worth sharing to the wider world, so here goes:
1. If you want to encourage dialogue about ‘sustainability’ within an organisation and/or to external stakeholders (ie: people who don’t work here), you need to be pretty clear on what your definition of sustainability is. This will be interrogated at length by the people you want to engage with, so the more ambiguous your definition is, the less “engaging” it will be. Before you do anything, sit down with the sustainability bods and really hammer out what it means to you and your organisation so you really know what you are talking about.
2. Once you know what you are talking about, you need to then ask yourself what kind of feedback you want to gather and what you are going to do with it, Set a clear intent for your engagement programme. Without a plan for what success looks like, you will most definitely get lost. It can be adaptive – in fact it must be to work, we are talking about people here, not machines – but it is useful to return to your original intent periodically to make sure you are on track or need to change tack. 
3. Ready to go, right? Nooo wait! The real work begins in identifying, listing and segmenting your stakeholders in a database so you have your “universe” mapped.
4. You’ve got your list, but you still have work to do before you kick off… now you have to interrogate it so that you make best use of your time on the road engaging with your people. Most stakeholder managers would plot their list into a interest/influence matrix like the one below and focus most of their efforts on those who sit in high interest and influence quadrant… At this point, I would strongly suggest you take time to reflect on your own judgement of influence and seek out biases to test the status quo of the power. (If you don’t have time to do this and want to put together a lovely shiny matrix like the one below, please at a minimum ensure you never use the term ‘least important’ in the bottom left quadrant. Major fail there dude.)
5. And they’re off! Now you are out there “engaging” there are some things to bear in mind. Stakeholder engagement is often linked to getting buy in and support to ‘oil the wheels’ of the roll out of a project. Never underestimate the power of being friendly and kind here. I am not in anyway encouraging fakery, rather I am suggesting that this job lends itself to a certain type of temperament – a stakeholder manager must see himself or herself as an eternal party host or pub landlord – welcoming, friendly, an inveterate listener, but hard enough to kick guests out if they behave badly.
6. Building on that, a good principle of dialogue is ‘only push what moves’ – getting buy in to things will require at least a modicum of interest in what you are engaging them about. If there are no triggers to engage stakeholders personally (a compelling business case, a personal affinity with the issue or an impact on their professional status among other things) you will find it impossible to ‘engage’ regardless of your charismatic publandordery
7. Personal bugbear…Consultation, engagement, or communication? Know the difference and don’t pretend that one is the other. Consultation means you are asking people’s views and you will do something with their answers. engagement and communication will be used differently in different companies, but one differentiator is that engagement is two way and ‘comms’ is broadcast although this has obvs changed in the wake of social media, but that’s a whole other post. I advocate that you ask the organisation to define what engagement and communication means to them,
8. Finally, never start something you can’t follow through on. Don’t ask for opinions, then do nothing with the data, then return the following year to ask more opinions. That’s how you piss people off.
Right, I’ll be off to tackle my metaphorical barflies.

Daring Greatly with Brene Brown

I was lucky enough to stumble upon this TED Talk before I went on holiday and I bought Brene Brown’s inspiring book “Daring Greatly” for my vacation reading. This book advocates a wholehearted approach to life – one where we don’t shy away from the tough stuff, we put ourselves out there and go for “good enough” rather than perfect.

Brown tackles head on the constructs that we devise to avoid feeling vulnerable – numbing our pain with everything from muffins to smartphones; creating a wall of perfection around us which leaves us exhausted and disconnected; and foreboding joy – not acting just in case disaster strikes or we end up looking like a fool.

She uses this quote from Theodore Roosevelt as her opening gambit – and what a rallying cry it is…

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I have been greatly inspired by this work and highly recommend it. As a recovering perfectionist, I am now challenging myself to be “good enough” every day. An example of this is this blog. Previously, I approached each blog post as something that needed to be print-ready for the New York Times or some such austere publication. By setting my bar so high, I have ended up with a file of unfinished posts in Word docs that never see the light of day because I do not enough time to perfect them because I have work and family commitments. From now on, I aim to regularly practice “good enough” with my blog so that I can actually be “in the arena”. It may get messy and please, feel free to critique away… at least I will know I am daring greatly!

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