Sharing ideas and solutions is the new agenda, says Andy Kerr
As we approach the end of an extraordinary year in Scottish history, it is important to ask: what now? The Smith Commission has laid out plans for creating a more durable and responsive settlement of powers between London and Edinburgh. Our new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has signalled a programme of legislation which, if not a change in direction, certainly provides a change of emphasis. With next year’s UK general election looming, we wait to see whether the vibrant engagement about the nature and future of this country, seen during the independence referendum, will continue.
At our most recent “Carbon Chat Room” discussion forum, members of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) were invited to explore this issue of: what next? Given our goals and remit, it is perhaps not surprising that high on the list for next steps were: better support for innovation; better sharing of knowledge of practical solutions to problems; and improving learning and skills. But they speak to the wider question in Scotland of how do we make this small, remarkable country of ours a better place to live and work? If we remember that innovation is best thought of as turning new ideas into practice, then we are in the midst of a period of unprecedented political and social innovation.
Perhaps the most powerful force that has (re)emerged in this past year is the belief that people and communities can make a difference. That while grand forces might shape the world we live in, from global politics to national economics; it is possible for local communities – including local businesses, local authorities, co-operative communities – to shape actions that deliver real local and long term benefit. In the context of energy systems, to catalyse these actions and to capture the benefits requires three things.
Firstly, we need to support better those who are trying to implement energy projects in their local area (local cooperatives, housing associations, universities, local authorities or business groups), whether the focus is on reducing demand or local generation. By support, we mean providing financial or human resources to help projects. This involves a change by those in public authorities, from seeking to implement outcomes themselves to one of convening and facilitating others to implement outcomes. In other words, it is about supporting partnerships with communities of interest. We must also remember that not all ideas will deliver expected outcomes. Government and national enterprise agencies spend far too much time focusing on a few small big projects, rather than creating a culture of innovation across the country.
The second element is much better sharing of what works and what does not. This involves knowledge “brokerage”. This is increasingly being done at city level but we are also seeing good examples at community levels, through enterprises such as Community Energy Scotland. But there remains much to be done to integrate local business insights and knowledge from our outstanding university base as well as international good practice. ECCI’s smart accelerator programme, which seeks to catalyse and improve 15 smart city and sustainable island projects across Scotland, is one example of this approach.
The final element is enhancing skills and learning. Education policy is already devolved. But we need to value vocational and professional development better if we are to provide the skillsets that will deliver radical changes in energy systems. In particular, the emerging use of local energy technologies and the opportunities to use information and communication technologies to improve energy systems and reduce demand, require a rethink in “energy skills”.
It is clear that some of this agenda can be delivered with existing devolved powers, along with those proposed by the Smith Commission. However, the elephant in the room is the divergence in energy policy between the UK and Scotland. The UK energy framework fails to incentivize the sort of innovative, local-level, energy projects Scotland needs, such as energy storage and demand management, which can reduce fuel poverty. How we manage this mismatch between the top-down UK approach and meeting local need remains a key question for the future.
• Andy Kerr is director of ECCI. For information and to participate in the debate contact email@example.com