JISC INF11 Programme Meeting: From unprojects to services

I’m going to the JISC Information Programme Meeting on Thursday and have been asked to join a panel where I’ll talk about our work at Lincoln under the heading ‘from unprojects to services’. Here are my notes.

Over the last couple of years, staff in CERD, The Library and ICT have worked closely together on a number of ‘rapid innovation’ projects, which have sometimes later attracted JISC funding.  Much of our work has been undertaken at the initiative of individual staff, who have benefited from a supportive ICT environment that allows us the freedom to develop and test our ideas without running into bureaucratic walls. ICT – in particular the head of the department, Mike Day, and head of the Online Services Team, Tim Simmonds – recognised the benefits of employing undergraduate students and recent graduates, and established a post which Nick Jackson and Alex Bilbie share. Alongside this, I have been applying for JISC funding and successful bids have allowed us to employ Nick and Alex full-time rather than part-time. In recent months, this has worked very well and currently much of their time is spent working on JISC-funded projects which bring value to the University. Below, are a list of the services that this culture of innovation has allowed us to work on over the last year or so. Click on the links to go to the services.

The Common Web Design: Distributed HTML5/CSS3 template for internal services

Posters: A repository for visual communications

lncn.eu: The official URL shortner for the university. Provides real-time stats, API and acts as branded/trusted proxy for other services.

Single Sign On: OAuth/SAML/Shibboleth/NTML/Eduroam integration

Zen Desk: University Help Desk

My Calendar: An aggregation of space-time data into a flexible web service. JISC-funded.

Nucleus: Datastore for People, Events, Bibliographic and Location data (and more to follow). Provides (open) APIs to all other services. MongoDB.

James Docherty, a third year student, used the nucleus datastore as a source of data for his final year project: Situated Displays for buildings, showing room booking information, posters and announcements.

Staff Directory: Fast, versatile people-focused search engine

Jerome: Fast, modern, personalised library search portal aggregating books, journals and EPrints data. JISC-funded.

Mobile: A directory of university services for mobile devices

Online Server Monitoring: A simple dashboard for anyone to check whether a service is working

QR Codes: Will be used for asset tags and already being used in rooms to create Help Desk tickets.

  • Most of these services push and pull data to Nucleus, the central, open datastore built on MongoDB. e.g. Zen Desk=People + Locations, My Calendar=Events, Jerome=Bibliographic
  • We’re currently looking at how Nucleus can also be a source for Linked Data. It has open(ish) APIs.
  • CWD sites transparently sign the person in to the site, if they are signed in elsewhere.
  • We like Open Source. SSO is mostly open source software. Alex has released his OAuth 2.0 code. CWD likely to be open source; MongoDB, bits and pieces from Jerome and My Calendar.
  • As we build these services, they are being integrated, too. e.g. lncn.eu will be a URL resolver for Jerome offering realtime monitoring; posters will show up in My Calendar events; CWD is the design framework for My Calendar.
  • Most of these services are for official launch in September. They will be included in the new ICT Handbook, included in brochures and other announcements.
  • We’re working with the Student Union to develop the use of FourSquare around the university.
  • Now that we know we can develop this way and that it works and we enjoy it, we’re hoping to expand from two to four student/graduate developers and have our own budget for hardware/software/conferences and to give to staff and students that want to join us.
  • Our approach links into the University’s Teaching and Learning Strategy: Student as Producer. We want to work with students and staff across disciplines to create useful, innovative and enjoyable online services that make the University of Lincoln a great place to work and study at. It’s not about a team that works on ‘educational technology’, but rather a network of people who develop and support technologies that make Lincoln a productive environment for research, teaching and learning. It’s inclusive, with students (and therefore learning) at its core.

Non-profit media and Life after capitalism: Two talks by American activist and social critic, Michael Albert, at University of Lincoln

Michael Albert is visiting the university later this month. Below are details of his class and public seminar. I’m looking forward to meeting him. I doubt he’ll remember the few months I spent volunteering as an editor of one of Z-Net’s web pages, back in 2000. I tried to impose standards-based XHTML onto their then, M$ FrontPage ‘driven’ website and lost the battle ;-)

Journalism Research Seminar Series, Lincoln School of Journalism

Basics of independent media organisation and production

Seminar room MC 0024, Ground floor MHAC-Building, Brayford Pool Campus, 4-6pm on 27 October, 2010

School of Social Sciences Seminar Series

PARECON – Life After Capitalism

Jackson Lecture Theatre, Ground floor, Main Building, Brayford Pool Campus, 7.30-9.30pm on 27 October, 2010 Talk is open to the public

For further info and speaking dates of Michael Albert in the UK see: http://www.ppsuk.org.uk/matour/

Michael Albert is a longtime political and media activist with a tremendous record. He has authored 15 books and published widely on topics such as radical politics, economics, social change, peace and media. Furthermore, he is known for developing participatory economics (PARECON), an alternative model to capitalism and socialism. He cofounded the Boston (USA) based book publisher South End Press and the independent media platform ZCommunications. Until today, South End Press and Z have published works from renowned authors including Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Amy Goodman, Dahr Jamail, Robert Fisk, Vandana Shiva, Edward S. Herman and Howard Zinn.

In his first talk, eminent US social critic Michael Albert will reflect on more than 30-years experience working in non-profit, alternative media organisations. The talk will focus on issues such as how to finance non-profit media in a capitalist/market system, how to develop online media and how to structure an organisation to be truly participatory and democratic. Albert will do examine ways of how to cope with economic and political challenges and how students and non-professionals can produce and distribute independent media. The talk will be followed by Q&As.

His second talk (followed by Q&As) will be particularly interesting for everyone seeking a more just and peaceful world. This is what you can expect:

PARECON – Life After Capitalism

Today’s capitalist system has brought with it war, economic crisis, ecological decay, massive wealth inequality, alienation, authoritarianism and social breakdown. Are these problems inevitable, or could they be overcome in a different system? And if so, how? These issues, perhaps for the first time in history, have become a matter of survival.

Michael Albert, co-author of ‘ParEcon: Life After Capitalism’, co-founder of ZCommunications and leading US social activist will present ‘Participatory Economics’, a Vision for a type of democratic economy based on equitable co-operation that is put forward as an alternative to capitalism and also to other 20th century systems that have gone under the label ‘socialism’. It includes new institutions that seek to foster self-management, equity, diversity and solidarity. Parecon is a direct and natural outgrowth of hundreds of years of struggle for economic justice as well as contemporary efforts with their accumulated wisdom and lessons.

The Economic Impact of Peak Oil. Where do we begin?

Throughout the last few months of my research into the implications of an energy crisis on Higher Education, one of my main weaknesses was knowing where to start when considering the impact that a Peak Oil energy crisis would have on our economy and therefore on the economic input and output of the HE sector. When considering an energy crisis scenario in the context of Higher Education, it seems to me that we can broadly divide the impacts into 1) Economic; and 2) Infrastructural. By this, I mean that we should be asking ourselves questions that relate to how we operate in an economy with significantly declining GDP and how we operate under circumstances where our energy infrastructure itself declines  (both transport and coal and gas dependent electricity are, in a sense, underwritten by oil production).1 Simply put, what happens to universities when there is a lot less money in the economy and energy in the form of electricity and petrol is rationed in one way or another? This was my original question and, I think, still remains valid.

I think that Educational Technologists should be thinking hard about the second part of the question, which implies that the provision of educational technology will be disrupted for decades. What is HE’s educational provision under a scenario of disrupted ICT?

The first part of the question should be of wider interest to people working in the HE sector (in fact, people in all parts of society, but this is where we work so let’s concentrate on HE). There has been some useful research done on the possible economic impact of Peak Oil. It cannot be conclusive, but it does provide us with the basis for our scenario planning. I would recommend these two recent papers which examine the likely short-term (i.e. 20 yrs) economic and social consequences of Peak Oil.

Hirsch, Robert L., 2008. “Mitigation of maximum world oil production: Shortage scenarios,” Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 2, Pages 881-889

Jörg Friedrichs, 2010. “Global energy crunch: How different parts of the world would react to a peak oil scenario,” Energy Policy, Volume 38, Issue 8, Pages 4562-4569

In summary, Hirsch’s paper shows that we can work on the assumption that global GDP will decline at about the same rate as global oil production, which is anticipated to be around %2-5/yr. The minority of oil exporting countries will fare better than the greater number of oil importing countries. Friedrichs’ paper, based on an analysis of historical examples, suggests that this will result in North America resorting to greater military coercion until a crippled economy forces the administration into ‘coercive diplomacy’. Western Europe, reluctant to engage in ‘predatory militarism’, “could hardly avoid a transition to a more community-based lifestyle. Despite the present affluence of Western European societies (or precisely because of it), this would be extremely painful and last for several generations.”

These papers, and their references, provide a good starting point for modelling the economic and social impacts on all aspects of society, including the UK Higher Education sector: Less money, more re-localisation.

On a related note, here are a few graphs which nicely illustrate the correlation between oil, money and debt. What they suggest is that oil production closely correlates with GDP and that since oil production plateaued in 2005, debt has been the driver of GDP where oil has been lacking.

The debt information is pretty suggestive of what is going on, and that is, the reason the world has been able to keep increasing GDP since 2005 is because it has been borrowing from the future to fund the addiction to economic growth. But this situation cannot continue without serious problems in terms of repayment. And we have imminent peak oil, with the consensus dawning that soon after 2011 oil supply is highly likely to start declining with decline rates anywhere between 2% and 8% per annum.2

Oil demand and GDP

Oil production in million barrels per day plotted against the square root of world GDP in constant (US$)

World debt from 1999 to 2010

  1. There is also the problem in the UK that many of our power stations need to be decommissioned around 2016. See this and this. []
  2. I am Perplexed: Comments on the World Financial Situation and Peak Oil []

Climate change and the language of war

A few posts I read this morning seem to complement each other by showing how inadequate the current political and economic climate (pardon the pun) is for meeting the targets set out in the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008.

It’s not unusual to find reports calling for the need to tackle climate change with the kind of national attention and effort that was mobilised around World War II. A good example is a recent report from the The Royal Academy of Engineering, Generating the Future. A report on UK energy systems fit for 2050. I’ll have more to say about the report in another post, but they join the chorus of experts referring to the Act as “a huge challenge”, arguing that nothing less than our entire manufacturing base needs to shift focus and be “on a war footing”, if we are to meet the targets set out in the Act.

Last night, Ed Milliband was challenged during the Guardian’s Climate Debate over Roger Pielke Jnr. paper which argues that to meet the Climate Change Act’s targets for decarbonisation, the equivalent of 30 nuclear power stations would have to be built before 2015. Pielke’s position is that the Climate Change Act was always doomed to fail and that Milliband or whoever succeeds him will have to face up to it sooner or later.

So given the “huge challenge” (or delusion if you agree with Pielke Jnr.), what would it mean to be “on a war footing” in order to address the targets set out in the Act?

In a post yesterday, Stuart Staniford (one of my favourite energy/environment blogger analysts), notes that in 1943, the UK was spending 55% of GDP on the war. His source, the Cambridge Economic History of Great Britain, states that UK expenditure on the war went from 7% of GDP in 1938, to 53% in 1941, to 55% in 1943. So, in economic terms, that is what being “on a war footing” means. Half of national productivity is mobilised towards a single goal.

However, again in yesterday’s news we find that the UK’s annual deficit is the highest since records began in 1946, or as Edmund Conway in The Telegraph puts it this morning, we’re already experiencing a “war-sized” annual public deficit (overdraft) of £163.4bn (or 11.5% of GDP). Perhaps we should take some comfort in the Guardian’s Data Blog which shows that public debt (the accumulation of deficits) currently stands at 63.6% of GDP, far from the 250% of 1946.

This would suggest that if we are to shift our entire manufacturing base towards decarbonisation, as The Royal Academy of Engineering thinks we should, then Ann Pettiford’s argument for mobilising (I guess that includes educating/training) a “‘carbon army’ of ‘green-collar’ jobs”, through additional borrowing would seem to fit quite nicely into this apparently necessary vision of a ‘war on carbon’ (my phrase). For people working in education, it might be a useful exercise to consider what tertiary education might look like if half of national productivity was directed towards meeting the Climate Change Act, a law that each of us in the UK is bound too, after all.

The problem I have with all of this talk of war and climate change, aside from the hot air and inaction, is along the lines of what George Monbiot, in his book, Heat, has to say on the matter. That is, the enemy is no other than ourselves.

Most environmentalists – and I include myself in this – are hypocrites … I would like to believe that the changes I suggest could be achieved by appealing to people to restrain themselves. But though some environmentalists, undismayed by the failure of the past forty years of campaigning, refuse to see it, self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time . . . I have sought to demonstrate that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions is – if difficult – technically and economically possible. I have not demonstrated that it is politically possible. There is a reason for this. It is not up to me to do so. It is up to you . . . The campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.

I would add though that the enemy is not simply ‘ourselves’ – you, me, us – but capital’s laws of motion that have been turning since the late seventeenth century. We might find some comfort in reading that there is nothing natural about these laws of motion – there are alternatives – yet in another post I read this morning, it looks like the enemy has already won.

What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?

The story of emissions

Our various drives towards efficiency in general may have multiple motivations. It may be that we want to save money (use less), increase productivity (produce more), reduce carbon emissions (lower our negative impact) or more usually, it is a combination of these and other influencing factors. For universities, a significant driving factor is the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme.

Last year, the UK Climate Change Act set out

A legally binding target of at least an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, to be achieved through action in the UK and abroad. Also a reduction in emissions of at least 34 percent by 2020. Both these targets are against a 1990 baseline.

The CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme will be introduced in April 2010 and is “central to the UK’s strategy for improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.” Very simply put, the CRC is a tool to encourage energy efficiency through a ‘cap and trade’ market mechanism. Central to the scheme is a League Table which will not only serve as a basis for recycling carbon credits, but will provide a publicly available ranking of energy efficiency performance. The scheme therefore creates two drivers toward energy efficiency in participating organisations: a reputational incentive in addition to an increased cost of carbon.

So, from April, measures will be enforced to ensure relatively large UK organisations (including universities) produce 80% fewer carbon emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.  The figure of 80% reflects our current, generally agreed scientific understanding of what the UK must do to help stabilise worldwide carbon emissions and ensure that the global temperature does not increase by any more than +2c by 2100.  80% is the UK and many other developed countries’ obligation to ensure that the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere does not exceed 450ppm (parts per million of C02 equivalent)1. Developing countries that already emit fewer emissions may continue to increase their emissions for a while longer in order to pursue economic growth and a better standard of living. However, by 2050, worldwide carbon emissions, we are advised, should be stabilised at 450ppm.

2050 is the deadline

80% is the necessary reduction in emissions

+2c is the maximum ‘safe’ increase in global temperature

450ppm is the maximum ‘safe’ level of carbon in the atmosphere

Last month, the Committee on Climate Change, published a progress report which showed that UK emissions have fallen at just 0.6% per year between 2003-7. This is in contrast to what the report says we should be doing (currently legislated at -1.7%) and need to be doing, which is reducing our annual emissions by 2.6% to meet our intended carbon budget.

UK reductions in emissionsThe UK reported to the UN that between 1990 and 2004, we reduced our carbon emissions by 6%2 However, the way this figure is calculated ignores the fact that the UK has ‘lowered’ its emissions almost entirely through exporting our industry. More recently, we have reported a 15% reduction to the UN, but according to Dieter Helm, government advisor and Prof. of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford, the reduction does not take into account our emissions from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism.3 When these factors are taken into account, our 15% reduction is actually a 19% increase in carbon emissions since 1990. That is, around half of our energy footprint occurs overseas so it doesn’t count. Yet despite this, only last week it was reported that thanks to the UK and a few other countries, the EU as a whole is ‘on track‘ to meet its 2012 Kyoto target commitments. Not surprisingly, this shifting of our industry and emissions to other countries has, for example, meant that “10.03–26.54% of China’s annual CO2 emissions are produced during the manufacture of export goods destined for foreign consumers.”4.

This is the first story I want to highlight. We tell ourselves that our emissions are decreasing, all the while they are increasing. Helm calls it an ‘illusion’ and that “focusing on consumption rather than production of emissions is the only intellectually and ethically sound solution.”5 If we are to focus on consumption, rather than production, there is another story to tell about energy, but I will leave that for another time.

Towards a ‘resilient education’ ?

The 2050, -80%, +2c, 450ppm scenario is increasingly seen by some scientists as conservative. In 2006, Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre, said that a 90% cut is required to stabilise at +2c, 70% of which should be achieved by 2030.6conference in September at the University of Oxford concentrated on the implications of a +4c rise in temperatures:

The immediacy and scale of the reductions necessary to avoid anything below 4°C, and indeed the human and ecosystem implications of living with 4°C, are beyond anything we have been prepared to countenance. Understanding the implications of 4°C and higher temperatures is essential if global society is to make informed choices about the balance between “extreme” rates of mitigation and “extreme” impacts and adaptation costs.

Along these lines, the Tyndall Centre recently published a paper which concluded that:

It is increasingly unlikely any global agreement will deliver the radical reversal in emission trends required for stabilization at 450 ppmv carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Similarly, the current framing of climate change cannot be reconciled with the rates of mitigation necessary to stabilize at 550 ppmv CO2e and even an optimistic interpretation suggests stabilization much below 650 ppmv CO2e is improbable.7

In a discussion of their scenarios, they state that to stabilise at 450ppm, global energy related emissions should peak in 2015 (five years earlier than the IPCC report) and rapidly decline by 6-8% per year between 2020-40, with complete decarbonisation soon after 2050.

While this analysis suggests stabilizing at 450 ppmv is theoretically possible, in the absence of an unprecedented step change in the global economic model and the rapid deployment of successful CO2 scrubbing technologies, 450 ppmv is no longer a viable stabilization concentration. The implications of this for climate change policy, particularly adaptation, are profound. The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2C (Meinshausen 2006). As a consequence, any further delay in global society beginning down a pathway towards 450 ppmv leaves 2C as an inappropriate and dangerously misleading mitigation and adaptation target.8

A peak in emissions by 2015, even 2020, has profound implications not only on the way we use energy, but also our economic model of growth, both of which I intend to address in future blog posts. Personally, as an individual whose glass is usually half-full, I am deeply affected by the literature on energy and climate change. I wonder if there has ever been an equivalent body of research that details the possible decline of civilisation within just a few generations. As I read the reports, I am reminded that we are discussing a date that my two-year old daughter may live to experience and certainly my grandchildren will. Indeed, I hope that I will live past the threshold of 2050, all of which makes me realise that this is something I have a responsibility towards. It is within my grasp to effect change, in whatever small and possibly inconsequential way.

The Tyndall paper states that

Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emission trends and a commitment to ‘limiting average global temperature increases to below 4C above pre-industrial levels’, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society.9

I am reminded of the quote below by George Monbiot, where he reflects on the power of individual action versus group action. It suggests to me that those of us working within Further and Higher Education are better positioned than many people to influence radical change. Many of you are academics and teachers who can draw this into your work. Many of us work closely with Snr. Management in large institutions and there are opportunities for both informal and formal discussion.  Most of us are able to advertise, to potentially thousands of people, ad hoc seminars and meetings where these issues can be discussed and campaigns co-ordinated. All of us, especially within the EdTech community, can begin to think about how to develop ‘resilient education’. That is, a pedagogy and curriculum that both encourages and fosters the radical change that is necessary as well as ensuring that the present depth, breadth and quality of education is sustainable in a future where there may be less abundance and freedom than we have become accustomed to.

Most environmentalists – and I include myself in this – are hypocrites … I would like to believe that the changes I suggest could be achieved by appealing to people to restrain themselves. But though some environmentalists, undismayed by the failure of the past forty years of campaigning, refuse to see it, self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time . . . I have sought to demonstrate that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions is – if difficult – technically and economically possible. I have not demonstrated that it is politically possible. There is a reason for this. It is not up to me to do so. It is up to you . . . The campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.10

What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?

  1. I recognise that the 450ppm figure is a political compromise and that Hansen et al. are advising a reduction to 350ppm. I use 450ppm here because that is the figure the CRC Scheme is using. For more information on 350 vs. 450, see 350 vs. 450: The Heart of the Matter []
  2. Prosperity without Growth? – The transition to a sustainable economy, p.51 []
  3. UK’s official CO2 figures an illusion – study. Source: Too Good to be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record [PDF] []
  4. Yan, Y.F., Yang, L.K., China’s foreign trade and climate change: A case study of CO2 emissions. Energy Policy (2009), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2009.09.025 []
  5. West blamed for China’s rapid increase in CO2 []
  6. Living Within a Carbon Budget, 2006 []
  7. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends, Anderson, K & Bows, A, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2008) 366, 3863–3882 doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138 Published online 29 August 2008 []
  8. ibid p. 3877 []
  9. ibid. 3880 []
  10. Heat: How to stop the planet from burning, Monbiot, G. 2007 []

An energy crisis reading list

In the course of writing our GreenICT proposal, 2020 Vision: Thinking the unthinkable, I’ve read a large number of recent, good quality reports which provide ample research for the casual reader into Peak Oil and a related energy crisis. Perhaps some readers of this blog might be interested in learning more about this topic, so here are a few good places to start. If you know of other essential reports that I should include, please leave a comment.

Global Witness. Heads in the Sand (2009)

Bristol City Council. Building a Positive Future for Bristol After Peak Oil (2009)

Ofgem. Project Discovery – Energy Market Scenarios (2009)

Sustainable Development Commission. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy (2009)

UK Energy Research Centre. Global Oil Depletion – An assessment of the evidence for a near-term peak in global oil production (2009)

Welsh Local Government Association. Peak Oil and Energy Uncertainty (2009)

Chatham House. The Coming Oil Supply Crunch (2008)

David MacKay. Sustainable Energy – Without the hot air (2008)

The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre. Preparing for Peak Oil: Local Authorities and the Energy Crisis Report (2008)

Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security. The Oil Crunch: Securing the UK’s Energy Future (2008)

National Assembly for Wales. Peak Oil (2008)

International Energy Agency. World Energy Outlook – Executive Summary (2008)

Local Government Association. Volatile Times – Transport, Climate Change and the Price of Oil (2008)

Robert L. Hirsch. Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management (2005) + [Summary article]

Further resources (ODAC)

UPDATE: I’ve bundled these as a reading list which you can subscribe to by RSS. As I find more reports which are worth including, the reading list will be updated. You can grab the OPML file and the Atom feed, too. The source for the reading list is on delicious.

Thinking the unthinkable

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been dipping in and out of a bid that I am writing for JISC’s Greening ICT Programme. Those of you that follow me on Twitter will have seen me drop related tweets into the stream. I’ve been a bit nervous about doing so because they seem quite unrelated to my usual topics of conversation. Also, the subject matter can be pretty depressing and I worry that it might get on people’s nerves after a while. Oh, well.1

Anyway, Peak Oil and a related energy crisis is something I’ve been interested in for a few years and is a topic I discuss regularly with friends face-to-face. Over the years, I’ve found that a lot of people aren’t interested; either because the consequences are just too depressing and/or because the the other ‘big issue’ of climate change is surely what we’re supposed to be worrying about now. (It is, but peak oil is likely to increase our consumption of alternative fossil fuels and therefore increase our carbon output). When we hear politicians questioned about an ‘energy crisis’, they say there is no crisis as long as we concentrate on a shift to the use of a mix of renewables and greater energy efficiency. I tend to disagree because…

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.2

My bid to JISC comes under their ‘Small Scale Exploration Studies of Aspects of Green ICT’. It’s basically part research project and part scenario planning for HEIs and JISC to help them consider and plan for a long-term energy crisis. In JISC’s recent Strategy Review 2010-2012, they include a section on Priority Investment Areas, under which there is a sub-section called ‘Efficient and Effective Institutions‘. This includes providing ‘leadership on Green Computing and environmental sustainability‘ and ‘guidance on sustainable business models’. The sub-section is split into the Here and Now, On the Horizon (2-5 years), and Beyond the Horizon (3-10 years).

You’ll see from my comment, that when I read this, it occurred to me that JISC’s Strategy didn’t seem to recognise the possibility of disruptions to energy supply and significant spikes in the cost of energy over the next ten years. There’s the welcome and necessary acknowledgement of ‘Green Computing’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘efficiency’, but these don’t show an awareness of the fundamental problems that JISC’s Vision, Mission and Objectives would face in the event of an energy crisis.

“But what crisis?!?” I hear some of you say.

Well, there’s a lot of good research available from very credible sources. Today, the BBC and Telegraph reported on The Global Depletion Report,  from the Government-funded UK Energy Research Council. The report, launched today, is authoritative in that it’s a review of all the available evidence and arguments around the issues to-date. You only have to read the Executive Summary to find assertions which should cause us all significant concern.

It confirms what some of us have been reading for years, that global peak oil, the point where it becomes increasingly uneconomical to supply the oil that is demanded by the world, is imminent.

On the basis of current evidence we suggest that a peak of conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.

The estimated range they give is actually between 2009 and 2031, but this doesn’t really matter because they quickly acknowledge that whether it’s already here, ten or twenty years away, the time frame is very tight when it comes to developing substitute fuels. Note that production of oil has actually plateaued since 2006.

Oil production

The report is up front in saying that it doesn’t discuss the consequences of peak oil or how we might tackle it:

The report does not investigate the potential consequences of supply shortages or the feasibility of different approaches to mitigating such shortages, although both are priorities for future research.

Which is why I hope JISC will recognise that this is a vital area of research they should be funding. I had no idea that this report was being prepared – there are plenty of others that offer the same conclusions – but it does seem very timely given JISC’s Greening ICT programme of funding. As I write in my bid outline:

As HEIs increasingly turn to ICT to enhance, support and deliver education, we ask the question: “What will happen to the provision of a technology enhanced education when the consumption of energy is restricted by recurring interruptions in supply and significant spikes in costs?”

In preparing my bid, I’ve obviously tried to pull a few key points together to convince the judges that this is worth pursuing. The first important point to get across is that oil is fundamental to the UK way of life. Pretty much every material benefit we enjoy can be traced back to the discovery, production, supply and exploitation of oil.  Not only does the supply of oil affect the supply of other forms of energy, as the graph below illustrates, it is used in the production of food, plastics, medicines, chemicals, lubricants… you name it and oil plays a part in the process somewhere.

Correlation of oil, coal and gas prices

Source: ODAC

The UK doesn’t rely on oil directly for the production of electricity. We get it from a mixture of coal (32%), gas (45%), nuclear (13%) and renewables (5.5%), importing a third of our gas requirements (this is expected to rise to around 85% of our requirements by 2020). However, we can see that when the price of oil rises, the price of other fuels and, in turn, electricity rises. We’ve all felt this over the last couple of years as we’ve seen consumer electricity prices rise.

As you can imagine, for an organisation the size of a university, rises in the price of electricity can have pretty large financial consequences. Typically, a HEI will tender for a fixed term contract of a couple of years to protect from unforeseen spikes in prices. This is good if the price is relatively low at the time of your tender, like now, but what if your HEI had to renew its electricity contract last year when prices were very high? Our institution, small by comparison with some, is forecasting an annual electricity spend of £1.2m in 2009/2010, up 13% on 2008/9. Even with planned reductions in efficiency and consumption, we’re only likely to be able to reduce the increase from 13% to a 6% increase in spending. Gas, fuel oil and other utilities are in addition to this, too. I might add that we underwent a ‘server consolidation’ exercise last year and most of our server infrastructure is now virtualised, so we’ve already taken steps towards greater energy efficiency there. Of course, there is more we can do.

So, I’ve touched on the cost implications of a peak oil scenario. The bottom line is that it will get much more expensive to run a university, despite increased efforts to reduce energy consumption and improve efficiency. What’s also worth pointing out is that as we increase the efficiency of things that consume energy, we only counteract that by using more energy in other ways. So far, innovation, growth and progress has ultimately required more energy than it’s saved3 which is partly why we’re using 11% more energy now than we were in 1990.4 This is a global problem to which, despite our best efforts, we are not immune. The OECD European countries are slowly reducing their consumption of oil over the last few years5, yet consumption pretty much everywhere else is on the rise and so the supply and cost implications still affect us all.

It’s interesting to note that four out of five recessions since 1970 have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil6, as we saw last year when it hit $140/barrel.

Oil and Recessions

A report from Chatham House, last year (with a postscript in May 2009), concluded that a ‘crunch’ in the supply of oil (i.e. Peak Oil) is likely around 2013 with prices rising to around $200. They note that although recessions temporarily reduce demand for oil, the investment in energy efficiencies decreases during recession, too, and consumers prefer to hang on to less energy efficient appliances for longer because of income fears and unemployment, both of which contribute to an even greater demand for oil as the economy improves. In addition, investment in oil production drops during a recession, so innovation in improving oil extraction from existing reserves and discovery of new reserves is slowed. Any delay in the 2013 crunch which might have come from reduced demand is, according to Chatham House, negated.

It’s all quite complex, but happily (?), even for a lay observer like myself, there is sufficient comprehensible primary research and analysis that it’s not too difficult to get a decent picture of why an energy crisis is imminent and then consider the possible implications of such a scenario.

JISC have already funded work on Scenario Planning. They describe it as:

Scenario planning or scenario thinking is a strategic planning tool used to make flexible long-term plans. It is a method for learning about the future by understanding the nature and impact of the most uncertain and important driving forces affecting our world.

Many of the regular methods for strategy development assume that the world in three to ten years’ time will not significantly differ from that of today and that an organisation will have a large impact on its environment: they assume we can mould the future. Scenario planning however assumes that the future can differ greatly from what we know today.

Participants in Scenario Planning are encouraged to ‘think the unthinkable’ and ask the question, ‘what do we need to do (now) to be ready for all scenarios?’ This is what I propose to do, together with our Business Continuity Manager, Environmental Sustainability Manager, ICT Information Security Manager and other colleagues. We need to be thinking the unthinkable a lot right now and JISC’s Strategy for energy efficiency and sustainability needs to be informed by more than the climate change debate, important though it is.

We will seek to clarify the areas of uncertainty with respect to sustainable ICT by re-framing the provision of Higher Education within an energy crisis scenario that may arguably emerge in the next ten years – the reference period for JISC’s 2010-2012 Strategy.

While the policies to mitigate an energy crisis are often complementary to those required to combat global warming, the explicit policy-making in the UK for global ‘Peak Oil’ is nothing like as advanced as climate change, yet the threat to institutional business continuity is arguably greater in the short to medium term. The project will seek to effect attitudinal and behavioural change across the sector by developing scenarios for HEIs that examine the provision and continuity of education within the context of a long-term global energy crisis and suggest actions that JISC and the community may make to forecasts widely held by energy analysts though rarely acknowledged by government policy and strategy.

This is important to me, not least because the social implications are so great, but because increasingly I’m thinking that Educational Technologists are building a house of cards. We’re investing our occupation in developing a vision of the future which there is good evidence to suggest, won’t exist.

Everything is put at risk by peak oil. The manufacture of microchips and hard drives7, the transportation of ICT equipment to consumers, the reliable supply of electricity to power equipment.8  And it’s not just the obvious things that it will affect. I was discussing this with our Business Continuity Manager recently and she pointed out that if there is no power to the fire detection and alarm system, the building has to be evacuated.9 Our UPS and backup batteries will allow for a graceful power down in some parts of the campus in the event of power cuts, but they won’t maintain business as normal. We had a three-day-week in the UK for three months in 1974, in order to conserve electricity. ‘South African style power cuts’ are forecast for the UK by 2015. What might be the government’s response to an energy crisis and how might it affect HEIs and our provision of an industrialised education? Some local authorities are beginning to take the issue into their own hands.10 I think Educational Technologists should be leading on this in our sector, too.


The bid to JISC was not funded though I quote their feedback below:

The main reason that your proposal was not approved for funding was that, although the evaluators thought the question you posed was of great importance and one that really ought to be answered, they decided that it really did not belong in a JISC funded call for projects around Green ICT.

For example, in the question of the overall fit to call, they said:

“Whilst in the general area of sustainability and a piece of useful work, its link to the specifics of the programme is a little thin. Not about Green IT but energy uses response.”


“The proposal is very left of afield (sic), it is a good idea and while I am sure it would be extremely interesting to pursue; it does not, I feel, fit within the scope of the call.”


“Think this is a very interesting bid that is likely to produce some very thought provoking outputs. It does seem to be slightly orthognonal to the issues described in the call but I think that it would be very useful despite that. It is very clearly written and makes its case well.”

Under the question of the workplan one said:

“Most of it seems well planned. However, I am concerned about only allowing a month for the survey and dissemination. The recruitment risk is significant. Dissemination is very strong.”

In terms of value for money concern was expressed at the high cost of the scenario planning exercise and it was felt overall to be not good value for money.

Overall Comments from the evaluators were:

1. A good proposal, of value to JISC but consideration needs to be given to its relationship to the programme. It appears to be out of scope.

2. Quite interesting as a proposal and possibly work that JISC might want to consider funding under a future call. However, this does not fit well within the current call.

3. An interesting and thought provoking bid that looks to be very useful I would like to give it an A but I have a number of minor concerns as discussed above.

…the evaluation panel came to the conclusion that it was too far from the scope of the programme that we could not fund it. However the panel wanted to pass on their encouragement to seek other sources of funding for this idea and keep in touch with JISC.

  1. Somewhere in this post, I just want to say thanks to Richard Hall at DMU for encouraging me to write about this. []
  2. The ‘Hirsch Report': Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management (PDF). An often cited report commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2005 []
  3. An extensive UK government-funded report that discusses this in detail is Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy []
  4. Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2008 []
  5. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2009 []
  6. What’s the Real Cause of the Global Recession? For a more detailed analysis of historical recessions, see Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08 []
  7. I ran across an article yesterday that describes how Intel Executives are trying to petition the US government to focus on the problem []
  8. See also, the report by the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security, which includes Yahoo! and Virgin, among others. []
  9. UPDATE: If they cannot be powered the Unviersity will either have to employ fire marshalls patroling buildings keeping a fire watch or when the battery power backups fail they will have to move to another building. In addition the University would have to go back to manual fire alarm e.g. bells, or an alternative manual warning system (e.g. person shouting being the last resort). []
  10. See the The Welsh Local Government Association’s Peak Oil and Energy Uncertainty,  and ODAC’s Preparing for Peak Oil: Local Authorities and the Energy Crisis []

Reading ‘The Edgeless University’ and ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ reports

I have been asked to present the recent Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report to the University’s next Teaching and Learning Committee. The report came out shortly before, and is referenced by, The Edgeless University. Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology, which was launched by David Lammy MP at the end of June. I’ve been going through both reports, pulling out significant quotes and annotating them. Here are my notes. It is not a comprehensive nor formal review of the reports, nor a statement from the University of Lincoln. Just personal reflections which I will take to my colleagues for discussion. I don’t whole-heartedly agree with every statement made in both reports or even those quoted here, but I do take government promoted reports, and the funding that accompanies them, seriously.

I include quotes from David Lammy’s speech, as it can be read as a formal statement from government on the recommendations of the ‘Edgeless’ report and a commentary on future funding priorities.

If you’ve not yet read the reports, my notes might provide a useful summary, albeit from the bias of someone charged with supporting the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning.  I am also an advocate of Open Access and Open Education on which the Edgeless report has a lot to say. Methodologically, the writing of both reports combined both current literature reviews and interviews across the sector and as I write, they are the most current documents of their kind that I am aware of.

If you have commented on either of these reports on your own blog or have something to say about the excerpts I include here, please do leave a comment and let me (and others) know.  Thanks.

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