Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Airport expansion: how the Greens could convince me

The question of airport capacity around London is complicated because it's about so much more than just transport. It's about hopes and fears for the future - as well as noise over people's houses. And nothing seems right.

Consider the most radical plan: a brand new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow.

It sounds crazily grandiose. But to reject it on the grounds that 'enough is enough', that Heathrow, however unpleasant its impact on London, will be the capitol's main airport for ever, is a kind of giving up. It's like an elderly person deciding never to buy another car because they've done most of their driving, and that the old one will probably do, and will certainly save some money and bother.

Shouldn't we, instead, be confident about the future and press on boldly, even if we're not sure how we'll pay for this massive project - just because to do otherwise is a blatant vote of no confidence in the lives of our children and grandchildren. After all, planes are already quieter and more fuel-efficient than they were, and no doubt scientists will come up with ways to deal with the other environmental problems in time.

Of course an estuary airport will be even more expensive than anyone thinks now. But if it gets built, nobody will really mind: it'll create work for thousands, support British companies, and be a symbol of a new, dynamic Britain, one fully intending to be the life and soul of the global community for the rest of this century, as it was in the last. The Channel Tunnel hasn't been a resounding financial success, but nobody now says it would have been better to have saved the money and forfeited its advantages.

As for a third runway at Heathrow, well, I'm in at least two minds about that. Living just south of the flightpath to Heathrow's existing southern runway, I don't appreciate the landings in the early hours. Nor do I like having to raise my voice to talk to friends in the garden on a summer afternoon.

But if a third runway was built, it would be north of the current northern runway, pretty much outside earshot to me. Perhaps it would spread the aircraft noise more thinly over a wider area. So from a purely selfish point of view, it might actually have advantages in my neighbourhood (a fact that never features in the campaigning of our local Lib Dems.) Of course, the idea is for more flights to use the airport, so things might not change much.

And it's quite handy to be able to drive to Heathrow in around 30 minutes (on a good day). And it probably brings prosperity to West London and the Thames Valley.

But all that's parochial stuff. We need to make the decision on the big picture - one beyond 'my backyard', beyond party politics, and even beyond the borders of our country.

I think I just might be persuaded by a more imaginative, more positive line by the Greens. They'd need someone with real character and conviction. If I were their speechwriter, this would be my suggestion:

"We all know that economic growth and commercial expansion cannot go on for ever: we live on a planet of limited size and resources. The mystery is why that isn't yet acknowledged by politicians. 

It might make sense to spend £50 billion on a new airport, transferring Heathrow's business to the East of London if you believed that air transport will inevitably expand, and that if we don't do it, the Netherlands or France will jump in and become a more important international hub, and that that would be terrible for London and Britain as a whole.

But air travel can't expand for ever. Its relative cheapness today is the consequence of some peculiarities of taxation (where no country wants to deter airlines by taxing them more than its competitors). The costs we pay certainly don't reflect the real price in terms of noise, pollution and global warming.

But we don't need to be negative about this. As politicians, we should be brave enough to say that in the future, our ambitions should be not just for more things, but for different things. That in this country we are lucky that most people already have homes to live in, food to eat, healthcare, education, and even holidays. That justice is administered without much corruption and that elections are for the most part fair. That politicians leave office without an argument if they are voted out.

But that all these achievements, which many other countries are still striving for, give us a responsibility to set a new course that others may also follow if they choose. And that course takes us off the road of consumerism and materialism onto one in which other values are our priorities, values which are independent of economic growth and which take for granted - because we have actually reached that point - a degree of satisfaction with our material situation, and move us gently forward to thinking about the quality of life. 

If we stopped buying, or made more expensive, a lot of the stuff we don't need - from mineral water to disposable furniture and outsized conservatories - and didn't waste so much - on food, energy and packaging - and didn't go to so many places in such a hurry that we haven't got time to think about the experience for longer than it takes to get back from the airport, what could we do with the time and money we'd liberate? We could learn more, exercise, celebrate, communicate, create, grow things. We could teach, help those who need helping, spend time on things we are too rushed to do properly and on doing not much at all - like our hunter gatherer ancestors did before the work ethic made doing nothing look like sponging off other people.

And we wouldn't need to fly so often. But it wouldn't be a negative decision: it would be part of a much bigger, positive one. 

Vote Green."

I just might if that leader appeared.

Friday, August 24, 2012

An injection of entrepreneurial energy

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your CareerThe Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman

As a genre, self-help can mean large type, lots of space between paragraphs and annoying ‘to do’ lists. But The Start-up of You is different. Its co-author is Reid Hoffman, a legend of Silicon Valley, founder of LinkedIn, co-founder of PayPal, and a big-time investor through the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Unlike most self-help authors, Hoffman has demonstrably helped himself - to almost $2bn according to Forbes - and earned the respect of some of the world’s smartest businesspeople.

The book’s premise is simple enough: the culture of Silicon Valley start-ups is the model for how everyone should think about their working life.

So you must always be ready to try something new when circumstances change (‘pivot’ in the jargon); make use of your network of contacts, both intimate and distant; and be decisive in taking risks: “‘Keeping your options open’ is frequently more of a risk than committing to a plan of action.”

The writers insist that this approach applies not just to bright young things starting tech businesses but to all of us, because employment is less stable today and the skills we need are changing faster than ever.

It certainly feels like the pace of change is accelerating - but is it? Yes, say Hoffman and his co-author Ben Casnocha: big companies simply don’t last as long as they used to. In the 1920s and 1930s, top American businesses stayed in the S&P 500 index for an average of 65 years; by the 1990s the average time in the index was down to 10 years.

Making the case for businesses needing to stay in start-up mode, they paint a vivid picture of Detroit in the 1950s. It was home of the auto industry and the pride of the country, with the highest median income of any US city - the Silicon Valley of its day. But in the following decades the car-makers stopped listening to their customers and were overtaken by Japanese competitors who responded to the demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Today, Detroit has amongst the highest unemployment in the country and “about a third of the city - an area the size of San Francisco - is deserted”.

Could that happen to Silicon Valley? The authors believe the Valley will escape the same fate because start-up culture keeps tech companies on their toes. Easy to say now, of course.

Applying the lessons of industries to individuals, the book sheds light on the careers of Hoffman and the elite circle of tech leaders he moves in.

Take Sheryl Sandberg: today she’s Facebook’s chief operating officer and on the boards of Disney and Starbucks. But we learn that her childhood holidays were spent in developing countries where her father, a doctor, provided free surgery for the poor. As a result, her first job, for the World Bank, was working in India on public health projects.

Sandberg’s path from there to Facebook is presented as a case study in using your contacts and finding the right market for your skills. Most of us aren’t in a position to call Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, to seek advice on our next career move. And if we did get through we’d be unlikely to be offered, as Sandberg was, the job of vice president of global sales and operations at Google.

But maybe the principles are applicable to all. One, interestingly, is that successful people aren’t necessarily ‘following their dream’. Sandberg admits she didn’t have a plan for her career “because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options”.

Hoffman himself began in academia, and it was only after a few false starts that he came to the conclusion that his special skill was to “think simultaneously about individual psychology and social dynamics on a massive scale”. If it sounds an unlikely formula, Hoffman’s point is that you can only discover this kind of thing by trying different jobs, just as a start-up must switch resources in a new direction based on what it learns from earlier efforts - especially if they haven’t gone well.

When it comes to networking, as you might imagine, LinkedIn is part of the suggested formula. Hoffman says he gets 50 unsolicited pitches to invest in start-ups every day, but has never done so with anyone who didn’t come via a contact.

As with all self-help books, the value is not so much in the reading as what you do when you’ve read it. Most people will probably finish this one feeling a little braver about their future. You might be encouraged to make a call to a long-neglected contact, enquire about future openings or pursue a new interest that might one day turn into a saleable asset.

You can’t really bottle and sell the spirit of Silicon Valley, but this is a credible attempt. And the authors are practicing what they preach: you’ve always got try new things, right?

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Charting a course through the digital world

How to Thrive in the Digital AgeHow to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom Chatfield

How should we adapt our personal and professional lives to the new tools of digital communication? Answers tend to polarise between hopes that the digital revolution is the answer to all our problems and fears that it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.

How to Thrive in the Digital Age is an attempt to answer the question by Tom Chatfield, in a slim volume from a series edited by Alain de Botton and published by The School of Life. (You might prefer How to Worry Less about Money or, de Botton's own contribution, How to Think More about Sex.)

As an online games enthusiast and consultant to the likes of Google, Chatfield might be expected to be a digital cheerleader, but his view is more nuanced. He advocates time away from all digital devices in order to reassert our individuality. He tells us he prefers to draft his writing using - shock, horror - a pen and paper. And he sympathises with the worries of Jaron Lanier whose You Are Not a Gadget is another essay by someone from the techy world with serious reservations about how the revolution is playing out.

The strength of Chatfield’s thesis is its range, taking in classical thinkers, the history of computing and his own anecdotal experience. He urges us to think about the psychology of how we navigate the digital world:

“Veiled behind ever greater complexities, we perpetually risk distancing ourselves from fully committed relationships with each other, and from fully introspective relationships with ourselves.”

He may be right - and someone needs to start the conversation. It’s hard to shrug off some of the evidence: can it really not matter that surveys of US teenagers in 1999 and 2009 found that their average daily use of media had risen from six hours and 20 minutes to seven hours and 40 minutes?

Chatfield points out that the default position now is for media to be available. ‘Quiet carriages’, for instance, designate media-free zones, but their very existence highlights what we think of as normal. It is only by cutting ourselves off from media that we can accentuate what is most characteristic of ourselves, he argues. In writing, for instance, a degree of isolation and a little serendipity to let the mind wander produces “something that both has rigour and belongs to me alone”.

The worry is that no person or institution is in a position to monitor and control the balance between technology’s advantages and its excesses. While individuals fumble for the best way to behave (and to try to get their children to behave), the companies at the centre of the revolution are driven both by profits and - to give them the benefit of the doubt - a desire to improve and expand their services. As they are always happy to remind us, we are only using them because we choose to.

The metaphor for tech adoption that springs to mind most readily is that of addiction. Digital services and devices ‘hook’ us and we are powerless to resist, most obviously in the world of gaming. One study found that the unemployed who used the virtual world Second Life found it almost as satisfying as getting a job. A dangerous case of escaping into a fantasy world created by software?

But the line between the real and the virtual isn’t as clear as it might seem. When real money is used to buy virtual goods in an online game, is that so different from real money buying an ordinary pair of jeans with a fancy label for a much higher price? What is sport but life lived in a codified and relatively consequence-free setting? And what is money but a token of invented value based on collective belief?

It’s a complex picture, and Chatfield is far from a Jeremiah. For instance, he sees some of the biggest beneficiaries of the new communications technologies being the elderly and the socially disadvantaged. But, as he concludes, the subject begs questions about the very nature of our humanity and social ties.

As I finished the book, I was on holiday in France. One evening we went to an outdoor concert in the local village. A choir of elderly men sang traditional songs to an audience of a couple of hundred people of all ages, sitting on benches, drinking (in moderation), tapping and singing along. It was the very picture of a strong community. Then it struck me: there were no mobile devices to be seen. Nobody was taking pictures, texting, checking Facebook or tweeting. I looked out for any signs of modern technology. All I saw, all evening, was one girl using her mobile - to speak to someone.

Chatfield notes that many of the most popular virtual worlds have pastoral settings. Was my imagined picture of rural contentment just another example of an urban mind in search of a simpler life? Maybe, but the balance between the virtues of direct, physical communication and those of multiple online relationships is surely worth considering. We shouldn’t just accept mindlessly, in the words of Kevin Kelly’s influential book about all this, What Technology Wants.

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