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Friday, 2 October 2015

The end of the road for diesel?

Smoggy day in Bristol

The Volkswagen (VW) emissions scandal is now into its second week, and with each day the enormity of the deception seems to increase. What started off as a few hundred thousand cars in the US has now become an astonishing 11 million cars worldwide that VW says may have to be recalled. In addition to the VW brand, diesel models of Audi, Skoda and SEAT cars have all been affected, with 1.2 million in the UK alone.

At the heart of this deception is the use of software, designed to be able to detect when a car was under test conditions, in order to reduce the emissions of a group of nitrogen and oxygen compounds, commonly referred to as NOx.  However, these emissions controls would not be switched on during normal driving.

Given that the cars were clearly built with the potential to emit less NOx, it’s not immediately clear why the emissions controls were applied only under test conditions.  Although VW have admitted they “screwed up”, they don’t seem to have said why. However, it’s a fair assumption that the emissions controls would affect the performance of the car, both in terms of drive and fuel economy. Since fuel economy is probably the main selling point of a diesel car, anything detrimentally affecting it, could easily lead to a decline in sales.

In addition to the flouting of the rules by VW, the wider issue is the NOx emissions themselves, which are a seemingly inevitable product of diesel powered vehicles.

The use of diesel as a fuel in cars has been on the up (in Europe at least) over the last couple of decades, with a supposedly superior fuel economy and hence lower CO2 emissions, meaning they have been incentivised in Britain with lower tax. However, this policy failed to take into account other pollutant emissions such as NOx and particulate matter that have been linked with thousands of premature deaths. Indeed, this push to diesel was labelled in a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year “the great car con” and just this week former science minister Lord Drayson called this policy a mistake.

Due in part to this push for more diesel vehicles on the roads in the UK and Europe, Bristol is just one of many cities which fail to meet the 40 μg/m3 annual mean WHO guideline level for NO2 (one of the collection of NOx gases). NOx levels in the UK have seen only a very small decline over the last decade or so, despite vehicle manufacturers telling us they make the cleanest cars yet. This contrasts with petrol vehicles, which have seen a dramatic decrease in NOx emissions over this time.

Why is NOx bad?

The presence of NOx in the lowermost part of our atmosphere, along with other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) promotes the formation of ozone. Not to be confused with the protective ozone layer which is much higher up in the atmosphere, ozone near the surface has detrimental health effects, mostly involving the respiratory system, in addition to being a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, NO2 has itself been linked with certain respiratory health problems

Is there a simple solution?

Well, technologies exist to reduce NOx emissions from diesel vehicles, such as urea injection, only it seems that the VW group chose to cheat the system rather than use it, since it would add cost and weight to the car. If these technologies are implemented manufacturers claim to be able to filter out particulate emissions and greatly reduce NOx emissions. But, given the current furore, why on earth should we believe them?

In addition, a recent report from the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) said that the real-world CO2 emissions of diesel (and petrol) cars are well above those in tests. There go the supposed CO2 savings of diesel then. Again you can’t help but question why diesel cars continue to enjoy a tax break in this country.

The death knell tolls for diesel…

…Ok, maybe not. Given the massive investment that the automobile industry has put into diesel over the last 20 years or so, they’re unlikely to suddenly jack it all in. What will probably follow is a splurge of marketing diarrhoea about how each new car is the ‘greenest yet’, all the while completely ignoring the fact that the simplest way to cut emissions would be to have fewer cars not more. Nevertheless, the current news story highlights how frivolously pollutant regulations, and the health implications, are taken when set against generating a profit. It also serves to impress the need for independent verification of emissions, such as those that uncovered VW’s fraudulent behaviour. The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group here at Bristol, performs similar verification at the national level for greenhouse gases. It has been said that not taking the time to verify emissions statistics is like dieting without weighing oneself. Well, in this case I guess they did make it to the scales, but no one bothered to check they’d been calibrated properly. 

This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Mark Lunt, from the University of Bristol's Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group.
Mark Lunt

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Is nuclear green?

It may not be surprising to you that printing the question “Is nuclear green?” on two large banners at the Bristol Harbour Festival in July caused a bit of a stir, but this is exactly what Dr Tom Scott (reader in Nuclear Materials and member of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol) and his group of volunteers wanted to do.  I joined the group at their stall next to the MShed to listen to their conversations with the public ignited by this thought provoking question.

The volunteers largely comprised of Bristol members of the South West Nuclear Hub (a joint research partnership - which Dr Scott co-directs - with Oxford University), University of Bristol physics undergraduates and some employees of Magnox Ltd a nuclear company in the South West. Together, they rolled out a wide range of activities at their marquee that invited everyone to join in and voice their opinions without judgement.

A live opinion poll with green and red plastic tokens (to vote “yes” and “no” respectively) was placed amongst the crowds along the harbour side to encourage participation and, in general, people were happy to vote publicly. We asked people to explain why they thought that way as they voted: “The sooner that they build Hinkley C the better!” one man announced as he dropped in his green token. (Hinkley C is the name of the new nuclear power station scheduled to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset.) A red token voter proclaimed “We should go back to coal!” as he dropped his token in. Some members of the public even pretended to scoop up large numbers of tokens to demonstrate the intensity of their view.
Yes/No board to take note of people's thoughts and feelings about nuclear energy.
The juxtaposition of the words “nuclear” and “green” in the question “Is Nuclear Green?” suggests that there is no straight-forward answer, but yet intense opinions on the matter persist. Nuclear energy, in general, suffers from a negative public opinion and there are three key reasons for this:

  1. the perceived risk of the waste product 
  2. the potential for disasters like Chernobyl to happen again 
  3. the historical link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. 

Dr Scott and his volunteers set about to change public opinion on nuclear energy by presenting the facts on their activities in a neutral light, such that the public would feel free to make up their own minds.

One of the activities at the stall, popular with children, had a Scalextric set (a slot car racing set) connected to a pedal generator – demonstrating how much human power was required to drive the toy cars. Further inside the marquee, you’d see a bucket of coal, 16kg of which is required to meet the electrical demands of one person per day. Many were impressed when they were then presented with a dummy pellet of nuclear waste the size of the end of their thumb that would produce enough energy for their entire lifetime.
This dummy pellet of nuclear waste shows how much nuclear material
would be needed to produce enough energy for your entire lifetime.
Meeting the energy demands of today is a pressing global issue and nuclear power provides a virtually carbon-free way of producing a large quantity of electrical power. Festival-goers were also surprised to learn that due to the large amounts of cement used to install solar and offshore wind power stations, the amount of carbon dioxide released is greater per unit of energy produced than nuclear over the lifetime of the power station.

However, people are generally fearful of the toxicity of waste that nuclear power reactors produce and how it is dealt with. By mimicking Bruce Forsyth’s TV show, Play Your Cards Right, people could learn about the relative radioactivity from different sources. For example, if you went on three transatlantic flights in a year, you would exceed the average annual occupational exposure of a nuclear power station worker.

What gives off the most radioactivity?
“But what if it all goes wrong?” said one lady from Bristol. This fear is understandable given disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima and it has resulted in publicly driven change. In Germany, for example, large anti-nuclear protests occurred in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 caused by a tsunami. Partly in response to these protests, the German government have scheduled all nuclear power stations in Germany to be shut down by 2022.

It would be foolish to suggest that the effects of the Fukushima disaster are innocuous and that nothing went wrong. However, it surprised people to learn that despite the large number of fatalities caused by the tsunami directly, there were no recorded fatalities due to short term overexposure of radiation at Fukushima. Of course, the long term effects are unknown and it would be surprising if there were not any future health risks from the disaster.

Many older members of the public were concerned about the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. It is a fact that the idea of using nuclear energy to generate electricity was borne out of the nuclear arms race that started during the Second World War. Nowadays though, the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy is unfounded in the UK because the plutonium required to make the weapons is not extracted from nuclear waste reprocessing.
The University of Bristol nuclear research group talking to
the public about nuclear energy at the Bristol Harbour Festival.
The physics of nuclear fission is very well understood by the scientists and engineers working in nuclear energy, and the risks of using this process to generate electricity are met with very strict safety standards. Despite these rigorous safety measures, nuclear power gets a bad press because the evidence for its potential to harm is clearly visible: the waste has to be specially treated before it is buried and the mass evacuations are put into place following a disaster. Nuclear power station disasters are etched into people’s memories because of their scale but the actual risk posed by a nuclear incident is much lower than maintained by the public.

On the other hand, large quantities of greenhouse gases are continuing to be released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and although there is also visible evidence for climate change, the serious threat it poses to our planet it is diluted by politics. This plight is encapsulated by the most solemn of quotes from the event;
“I suppose the truth of it is, that the thing that isn’t green is humanity.” 
Perhaps nuclear fission could be a necessary interim energy source before cleaner nuclear fusion takes over in 50-100 years time.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member and PhD student Lewis Roberts.

Read more about nuclear research at the University of Bristol by visiting the Interface Analysis Centre website.

Good Mooring!

Since the late 1990s, scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) have conducted annual cruises across the Fram Strait: the widest, deepest and most important exit point for sea ice in the Arctic. One of the main aims of the Fram Strait cruise (FS2015) is to recover, service and redeploy a sprinkling of oceanographic moorings- current profiling instruments and buoys tethered to hundreds of meters of cable, anchored to the seafloor. These have been continuously measuring the velocities of water masses within the East Greenland Current at preset depths. With continuous data over decadal timescales, the NPI are hoping to understand how the nature of the Arctic freshwater budget changes in an increasingly warming climate, how this will impact biological processes, and how it will affect other water masses on a broader scale as they interact in new ways.

1 of 6 oceanographic moorings being recovered for
servicing on FS2015.  Image credit: Laura de Steur /
Norwegian Polar Institute
I was lucky enough to lend a helping hand this September; my second cruise with the NPI after having had a blast working on the Norwegian Young Sea ICE 2015 (N-ICE2015) cruise for a month back in April 2015. After flying into Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and seeing the Research Vessel Lance waiting in the harbour for a second time, it felt very odd not seeing the ship surrounded by 1.3m thick pack-ice, which is how I’d left it after N-ICE2015. It wasn’t until I dropped my bag off in my cosy cabin and heard the familiar roar of the engines warming up (and having my room located right at the back of the ship I really mean roar…) that it felt like I was returning to my home away from home.

The mooring aspect of the cruise this time introduced a different dimension of risks that had to be accommodated: namely by the presence of sea ice above many of the moorings that needed to be recovered. This gave us an occupational risk that obviously only presents itself at the poles! On the N-ICE2015 cruise the engine didn’t have a huge part to play as we were passively drifting with the Arctic pack ice. This time round, whilst navigating the ice floes across Fram Strait towards Eastern Greenland, the Lance was actively smashing through and breaking up the ice above mooring sites to ensure that the mooring returned to the surface without being blocked on its ascent. As ice coverage can alter rapidly, it’s up to chance whether or not these moorings will be readily accessible. In the best case, there will be little to no coverage, so one only has to send a command to the mooring via radio signaling and the cable is released and brought to the surface- buoys and instruments attached. In a moderate case, ice will be extensive enough that the ship will have to meander round, breaking up the ice floes as best it can. For this reason underlying current speed and ascent rate of the mooring has to be considered carefully. It’s always a tense minute or two waiting for the buoys and expensive instrumentation to reach the surface, knowing it may never arrive if it gets stuck on an unfortunately located ice floe! In the worst case, the floes will be so thick and expansive that the mooring recovery process may have to be abandoned all together. For this reason, daily satellite images of ice extent were a very valuable necessity.

As well as observing the physical properties of the Atlantic and Polar Waters spilling southward into the Atlantic, extensive tracer sampling took place at and around the mooring locations by way of collecting water at standard depths. While it is common practice for oceanographers to measure parameters like salinity soon after the water is collected (the on-board salinometer quickly became a very close friend of mine, with 528 samples needing to be analysed during the cruise!) other tracers such as coloured dissolved organic matter (CDOM), nutrients, and 18Oxygen isotope will be analysed ashore. These tracers can tell us something about the source of this water, and by looking at its isotopic composition whether it comes from melted sea ice or from other meteoric sources- that is, water derived from precipitation and runoff. Precipitated water at high latitudes is strongly depleted in 18O, while sea ice meltwater is slightly enriched in it. By looking at the mass of ice loss in the Arctic and how much of it is flowing through the Fram Strait year after year, we’re able to gauge how much is entering the Atlantic or staying in the Arctic basin [1].

The thickness of the ice flowing through Fram Strait has decreased by about 1/3 since 1990 [2]. Part of this melting is related to inflowing, relatively warm Atlantic waters travelling northwards via the West Spitsbergen Current. However, the amount of melt-water that is exported through Fram Strait hasn’t changed very significantly in the past decade. Evidence suggests that the melt water is being stored in the Beaufort gyre- a clockwise-rotating mass of water in the Arctic [3]. While the flux of melt-water into the Arctic Basin has increased in the past couple of decades, tracer analyses tell us the main mechanisms by which fresh water is supplied is by runoff from North American and Eurasian rivers, and by relatively fresh Pacific inflow through the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska [1].
The large-scale circulation around the Arctic Ocean.
Figure: Paul Dodd / Norwegian Polar Institute.
It is possible that with inter-annual changes in Arctic wind forcing this growing reservoir of cold, fresh water could be directed southwards across Fram Strait, where it could disrupt the thermohaline circulation of the Atlantic.
Routine sea ice stations were also carried out on suitable ice floes, giving us the chance to stretch our legs and take some ice cores for further tracer sampling. Once analysed, these will allow us to see how the chemical compositions compare with that of the underlying waters. Working 6-hours on, 6-hours off could get pretty exhausting, so it was nice to unwind with the occasional sled race across the floe or by sharpening our ‘selfie skills’ to let the world of social media know how our research was going. All in the name of science…

The FS2015 team and I (centre), exploring an ice floe.

This blog is by Adam Cooper, Earth Sciences graduate at the University of Bristol.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Uncertain World: Understanding past and future sea level rise

A recent study published in Science Advances suggests that if we burn all attainable fossil fuels (up to 12,000 gigatonnes of carbon), the Antarctic ice sheet is likely to become almost ice-free within 10,000 years. However, what does this mean in terms of sea level rise? To illustrate this we have designed an infographic which shows the likely extent of sea level rise under a range of different scenarios. We have chosen to use the Wills Memorial Building as an example and assume, for the purpose of this exercise, that it resides at sea level (Figure 1).

1) Sea level rise over the next century:

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR5) indicates that if we continue emitting greenhouse gases under business-as-usual scenarios (i.e. no reduction in emissions), it is likely that global mean sea level will rise between 0.52 and 0.98 m by the year 2100. If we are more optimistic, and we allow greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2040 and decline thereafter, the range of likely global mean sea level rise is lower, but not insignificant (0.36 to 0.71 m). Both of these estimates are illustrated below and shown alongside the Wills Memorial Building. 

Figure 1: An infographic showing the approximate height of sea level rise depending upon a range of different scenarios (Fretwell et al., 2013; IPCC AR5). This assumes the Wills Memorial Building resides at sea level

Although ~30 to 100 cm of sea level rise may seem insignificant, it is worth considering what this means for other regions. For example, "...since 80% of its 1,200 islands are no more than 1m above sea level", sea level rise has the potential to impact up to 360,000 citizens and lead to widespread migration.

The reason that scientists provide a range of values for sea level rise is that the climate system is very complex. For example, under low emissions scenarios, there is expected to be an increase in moisture content around Antarctica, leading to increased snowfall along the ice sheet margins. However, under higher emissions scenarios, ice sheet discharge overcompensates for an increase in snowfall, leading to a net sea level rise.

2) Sea level rise over 10,000 years:

The variations between these two emission scenarios are less important when looking over longer timescales. Winklemann et al. (2015) have recently simulated changes in the Antarctic ice sheet over the next 10,000 years using a combination of climate and ice sheet models. From these experiments, it is clear that ice loss is driven by two key feedback mechanisms. The first begins with warming and subsequent retreat of the grounding line (Figure 2). The grounding line is the region where ice transitions from a grounded ice sheet to a freely-floating ice shelf. When the grounding line retreats to a point where the ice sheet falls below sea level, then ice sheets can become unstable.

Figure 2: A schematic of an ice sheet showing the position of the grounding line (bottom right). Image credit:

Winklemann et al. (2015) argue that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) becomes unstable when cumulative carbon emissions reach 600 to 800 gigatonnes of carbon (this is equivalent to a 2 degree rise in temperature by 2100). If this part of the Antarctic Ice Sheet becomes unstable, we can expect ~4 m of global sea level rise (Figure 1).Once a specific temperature is reached, a second feedback then kicks in. This destabilises the rest of the Antarctic ice sheet via the so-called surface elevation feedback. On the timescale of 10,000 years this will eventually lead to an almost ice-free Antarctica (Winklemann et al. 2015).

Figure 3: Predicted ice-sheet loss on Antarctica under different carbon emission pathways (Winkelmann et al., 2015: Science Advances).

3) Sea level rise over millions of years:

Palaeoclimatologists can provide insights into the fate of ice sheets over longer timescales. For example, the last time Antarctica was ice-free was during the early Eocene (~56 to 48 million years ago). During this interval, carbon dioxide concentrations were much higher and allowed the development of lush, tropical rainforests along the ancient coastline (Figure 4). Gradual cooling over millions of years eventually culminated in the sudden and rapid establishment of ice-sheets on Antarctica. This occurred ~34 million years ago and was likely driven by a reduction in carbon dioxide (and perhaps some other feedback mechanisms). Although Antarctica has fluctuated in size since then, it has never been completely ice-free since the Eocene. However, under rising carbon emissions, we are rapidly returning to a world that has not been seen for at least 34 million years.

Figure 4: This may be what the East Antarctic coastline looked like during the early Eocene (Pross et al., 2012). 

Further reading:
  • Fretwell et al. 2013. Bedmap2: improved ice bed, surface and thickness datasets for Antarctica. The Cryosphere. v. 7.
  • Winkelmann et al. 2015 Combustion of available fossil fuel resources sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science Advances, v.1. 
  • Bamber et al., 2009. Reassessment of the Potential Sea-Level Rise from a Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science. v. 324
  • Church et al. 2013.  Sea Level Change. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA (see Chapter 13; Table 13.5, p. 1182 for 21st Century sea-level rise estimates).
  • Pross et al., 2012. Persistent near-tropical warmth on the Antarctic continent during the early Eocene epoch. Nature. v. 488.
n.b. As with the IPCC, we occasionally use the following terms to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result. These are noted in italics: Virtually certain 99–100% probability, Very likely 90–100%, Likely 66–100%, About as likely as not 33–66%, Unlikely 0–33%, Very unlikely 0–10%, Exceptionally unlikely 0–1%.


Correction: the original post incorrectly stated that "... more than 80% of the Maldives lie one metre below sea level". This has since been amended. Thanks to @radicalrodent for spotting this.

This blog was written by Gordon Inglis (@climategordon), a palaeoclimatologist working in the Organic Geochemistry Unit within the School of Chemistry. The infographic was created by Catherine McIntyre (@cathmci), an organic geochemistry PhD student working in same group.

Delivering the ‘Future City’: collaborating with or colluding in austerity?

In Bristol’s European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have been working with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and its members to convene a series of four conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ from across public, private and civil society exploring how Bristol delivers the ‘future city’ –  what capacities it needs to be resilient, sustainable and successful and how it can start to develop these in times of changing governance and tightened finances. The conversations will be reflected in a series of four blogs (the second below) and then brought together as a policy report for the Festival of the Future City in November.  You can read other blogs from this series at the bottom of this blog.


The University of Bristol and the Green Capital Partnership have convened a series of conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ to discuss Bristol’s capacities as a future city. The second of our conversations discussed ‘austerity and service delivery’, building on the ideas emerging from the first workshop which was on governance. ‘Austerity’ impacts on the public sector and the city in many ways and it impacts unevenly on different places, sectors and social groups. It can also be used as a (short term) excuse for sidelining environmental obligations - resulting in even greater problems further into the future. It was interesting to see, in the Netherlands recently, civil society taking their government to court to demand stronger carbon cutting targets despite tight finances. The court ordered the government to cut emissions by 25% within five years rather than the planned 14-17% in order to protect citizens from climate change. What could a city like Bristol do to lead the way in challenging government?

Below are some of the ideas and thoughts emerging from our big conversation on austerity.
Words that came out of our conversation on austerity.

Our debate questioned how much of what we are seeing in austerity is really about political values and choosing not to spend money that is there or to spend it in a particular way. In the current political climate, arguably the poorest feel the effects disproportionately, exacerbating inequalities that already exist. So is austerity necessary? If we’ve been living beyond our means then something needs to change, but maybe it’s something fundamental about the system rather than under-resourcing a flawed system and hoping to manage. It was suggested that we need to ‘hospice out the old system and birth in a new one’, questioning the assumptions that underpin the apparent need for austerity and creating different narratives and cultural norms.

Whatever we think about the austerity agenda, there is a need to survive and be resilient in the face of it and to find ways of looking after the poorest communities so that they don’t suffer even more.  Solutions are starting to emerge at a local level but, as one participant said, “we can’t forget the underpinning politics; we can’t let these solutions be escape clauses for the politics that are creating bad situations”. So alternative solutions should be pursued in a way that recognises that they can be empowering, whilst also acknowledging that they are less ideal alternatives to a non-austerity agenda.

Public sector

In the public sector, many would argue that much of the scope for efficiency gains has already been used up. The further cuts that seem likely will impact not only on the ways in which the public sector provides public services but also on whether it provides some services at all.  It is under enormous pressure to maintain services despite increasingly constrained resources and staff are feeling the strain. What is the opportunity to do things differently? In some places, the ideas of ‘entrepreneurial municipalism’ and ‘municipal entrepreneurialism’ are gaining traction. How can the council be more entrepreneurial, and how can the entrepreneurs in the city be enabled to provide municipal wellbeing (services to support the wellbeing of citizens in the city) in different forms? Or how do these come together - the public sector being more entrepreneurial, the private and civic sectors being more municipal?

Bristol City Council was criticized in some areas for taking a monolithic and closed approach and for not sharing and using the expertise that exists in the city to everyone’s benefit. It was suggested that a collaborative, open and co-produced approach might have more and wider support. By contrast, in other areas as we observed in our last debate, it has maintained a hands-off approach which has allowed external innovation to flourish.

Taken from
The impacts of recent changes to the benefits system (such as capping benefits, restricting who can access them and delaying payment) were described as devastating, especially on families and young people. New ways of distributing benefits and other services which rely on digital access also impacts on those who need them most. A particular problem is in housing where private rents are rising and the caps on social rents will result in substantial deficits and a reduced ability to build more stock just at a time when, with new rights to buy, there needs to be more investment from both local authorities and housing associations.

Beneficial 'collaboration' with austerity

How do we collaborate in or co-opt the austerity agenda without colluding in it? In other words, how can we make the best of something that will happen without saying that we accept the need for it? Austerity might force new ways of doing things and if we grasp the challenge we might actually discover something new and better in the process by questioning some of the old systems and assumptions about how and by whom services are provided. In this way, a new and better system might be created in spite of the government, rather than because of it.

Communities and organisations across the country are seeking to solve the problems caused by austerity and there are many examples where a really exciting idea develops in a particular place and time. We need to both learn quickly enough to enable those successes to carry on, but also to identify why they happen and how they can be transplanted, nurtured and scaled up and out into other areas, creating something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Potentially this is “playing to a Conservative agenda around self-reliance”, but if we change the language to make it more about community empowerment and reconfiguring to bring all the assets that we’ve got in the city together in new ways, it feels much more positive. This is important not just for people who are desperate now but in order to construct a new vision and build capacity for future resilience:
“So much is not exclusive between surviving the space we’re in and articulating a new narrative and a new way of thinking and working.”

Power, short termism and rethinking

But first, there is a need to better understand the current direction of travel and powers held by different players in the city in order to gain clarity over what will happen if we just continue on the present path.  What social and environmental services will be lost and with what results? Once those implications are clear, a new vision can take form, one that reflects what is needed for the long term and not just to solve immediate problems, a vision that says ‘what do we do about this in a more proactive way?’  Some of the cuts made now will be false economies, a short term approach leaving bigger problems to solve in the long term. It was suggested that the impacts of the Thatcher government in ‘decimating’ the North of England took perhaps 30 years to regenerate and create a new future for those communities.

This agenda could be an opportunity to rethink ‘prosperity’ and to challenge the GDP growth paradigm to bring long term planetary and social justice benefits. We can see in so many ways that the current economic system isn't working, so what are the opportunities for change? In the past, ambitions to get people to consume less have failed where people have resisted any infringing on their personal freedoms but, in the interests of their own communities and if, as one participant contributed, it is framed as a way of avoiding ‘stuffocation’ to lead more fulfilled lives, could it be better received?

Image taken from

Who has the power in the city or neighbourhood to make changes, who can authorize something being done differently? At a local level, are there low hanging fruit that could be grasped to start making smaller changes leading to bigger new systems in the long term? Is this the ‘big disruption’ that we need to force beneficial change to a more sustainable future?


What are the mechanisms available to make changes? For example how can we raise financing locally? At the moment, we have little control or revenue raising powers locally because of the centralised way that budgets are controlled. But there are opportunities such as the Social Value Act which could be used to benefit local communities through the supply chain. Or are there ways to harness the resources of the businesses in the city to deliver social benefit? It is in their interest to invest in a more equal, cohesive city where their employees will want to live and where they can do business.

There could also be a role for the major institutions in the city too - for example the NHS through the Bristol Royal Infirmary and Southmead complexes account for about 10% of all travel in the city through staff, patients and visitors. It also has a civic function in addressing the ‘wellness’ of its patients and citizens more widely – developing links with communities to address chronic health problems – but can we / should we seek to change the rules on health spending to address causes before they become illnesses and if so, how do we account for the lag that will result whilst historical ill health works its way through the system? What is within local powers and what should be if we want to take a longer term view?

One of the car parks at Southmead Hospital (6763761). Image taken from
Devolution is also an opportunity – can the power to raise finance for particular things be devolved? Could we manage NHS spending locally, allowing a more holistic view to be taken? Or does devolution just mean that the same decisions will be taken at a more local level? Although Bristol’s politics is left-leaning, the surrounding areas are blue and more likely to reflect the politics and values of central government.

Another way, within the city, is for all employers to commit to the living wage or to have a city that was “proud to have a maximum wage”, with voluntary contributions to a city-wide fund.

Where to now?

Our austerity debate talked about ‘solidarity’ across the city and collaborating or co-opting rather than colluding in an austerity agenda to get the least worst outcome. The phrase ‘being ahead of the curve’ came up but it needs to be the right curve or we need to ‘create a different curve’ or new system. Communities are developing resilience through new partnerships and new ways of doing things, sharing their experiences and learning, to start to develop a new narrative and a more equitable, sustainable and resilient locally owned system. These new partnerships are reframing the debates; for example to tackle transport issues through reducing obesity, tackling air pollution and changing the way people think about moving around the city. Universities have a role too in supporting the sharing of learning and new systems, finding good examples from elsewhere and producing collaborative research into what works and why.

This blog is written by Caroline Bird, Future Cities and Communities Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Cabot Institute.
Caroline Bird

Other blogs in this series
Blog 1: Delivering the ‘Future City’: does Bristol have the governance capacities it needs?

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A shower of change with gusts of discontent

“This is 2LO calling, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company calling. This is 2LO calling”
Such was the first broadcast ever issued by the BBC on 14th November 1922 from the organisation’s 2LO Office in London. The message was received by any radio within a 30 mile radius and was the inaugeration of the British Broadcasting Corporation.  Integrated in the announcement was a weather bulletin prepared by the Met Office which marked the beginning of a partnership which has supplied the British public’s appetite for weather-related conversation for 93 years.

Despite the longevity of this relationship, it was not immune to the BBC’s ever-tightening pockets and last month it was announced the Met Office is to become the latest casualty of the corporation’s modernisation. The BBC blames the split on the Met Office’s uncompetitive price, while rumours suggest that the problem runs deeper with a difference of opinion over the way the forecast should be communicated to the public. Those who are hoping the Met Office will be in the running for the re-tendering process are likely to be disappointed. The early rejection of the Met Office’s offer implies that more was at stake than just the money and any hope of a renewal is a low probability.

Whatever the outcome, the BBC weather forecast, which spans local news to the world service, is estimated to reach a quarter of a billion people weekly and the changes are certain to have an impact on how the world watches the weather. The Met Office is ranked as the world’s most accurate forecasting body, so is the BBC sacrificing it’s credibility on the alter of austerity? Or could there be a sunny outlook?

There are plenty of alternatives to the Met Office, with Dutch and New Zealand firms rumoured to be in the running for the £35.2 million contract. This, it seems, is adding insult to injury for some disgruntled members of the British public with cries of discontent along the lines of ‘Heaven forbid a foreign firm should predict the British weather; how could they possibly understand it’s temperamental disposition?’ (the fact that the majority of the UK’s weather is governed by global climate systems seems to be irrelevant in this). Even if the BBC resolves to look closer to home, there is a reasonable list of UK alternatives; The Weather Channel, Net Weather and The Weather Outlook to name a few although whether they have the capability to handling the BBCs expansive demands is a different matter altogether.

As the storm clouds gather over BBC HQ, the new provider will be announced next year after the tendering process. In short, it is uncertain who will be giving Britons their daily weather-fix although there is no doubt the BBC will be battening down the hatches to endure yet another tornado of discontent from license payers when the replacement made. Personally, I’ve never felt the weather pays much attention to the forecast regardless of the provider: In fact, the element of surprise is what makes being caught in the rain in my flip flops and snowed on in my swimsuit part of the paradoxical joy of inhabiting this country. Long may it continue I say.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Friday, 18 September 2015

Resilience: The power of being bored...together

Louise and Eva belong to a London-based arts programme called Fourthland, which they describe as “A movement. An idea. A place. The handheld. A way of working. A history of projects”.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with them since Tessa Fitzjohn, a local curator, and Aldo Rinaldi, the Senior Arts Officer at Bristol City Council offered us the opportunity to host Fourthland as artists in residence. Together, Aldo and Tessa launched the ‘Resilience Laboratory’ in light of Bristol’s ‘Green Capital’ award – a project that aimed to explore the meaning of resilience from multiple disciplines and create a space to share learning.

Whenever I meet with Louise and Eva it feels like something profound has just happened, and is about to happen again, if I can only grasp the thoughts for long enough. They have provided a place and a time for us to stop. Think. And dwell on what it means to be resilient. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to capture just one of the many themes I found surprising and interesting at Fourthland’s most recent resilience workshop at the Cabot Institute – boredom (the good kind).

Louise and Eva from Fourthland. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
I have never (ever) considered boredom as a precursor to resilience, but yesterday I did. When you consider the amount of work we need to do to mitigate the effects of climate change, or tackle inequality and hunger, it’s difficult to argue that we should ever move so slowly that there’s time to be bored. The scale of the challenge is so vast that those who truly engage in the topic can almost be consumed by a constant need for progress.

In yesterday’s workshop we were set a task to work with simple materials – wax, hay, string, and eggshell – in silence. We weren’t given strict instructions on how to use the materials; just that they were ours, and we had twenty minutes to work together using silent gestures. What we learnt is that each group started the task politely – exploring the materials and gently negotiating how they might be used. We were delicate, patient, and searching for rules that might guide our behaviour. We all seemed to feel that there might be actions that weren’t ‘allowed’. After what must have been around 10 minutes there was a surge of creativity. People had become bored with their ‘safe’ tasks and began to be more provocative – breaking materials, tying furniture together, making meaningful products, or reading aloud. In this space, boredom became a catalyst for a change greater than we originally felt comfortable with. We stopped searching for rules and broke the ones we thought existed. Colleagues overcame their discomfort of physical contact, and began to share materials across their workspace. Boredom forced us to create and connect.

In the Cabot Institute workshop, academics from social sciences, arts, engineering
and science worked with simple materials from hay to wax, string to eggshells.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy
In the post-event analysis, Louise, Eva and I discussed the possible importance of boredom in resilience and I was taken aback by their ideas. They suggest; “when we are bored, we are seeking something – something stimulating, something interesting. In this state, we become more receptive to learning.” Shima Beiji has previously argued that in order for an agent to become resilient, it must undergo a continuous process of knowledge acquisition and learning. Is boredom a condition that makes us more receptive to learning?

Perhaps, but it’s possible that we’re also open to a different kind of learning. It's not the reductionist type of analysis that takes place after a disaster (where did the issue originate, what specifically could we have done to make it better, how can we be more resilient next time?) It's a far more emergent way of creating understanding that intuitively feels more innovative and preventative.
If we took more time to be bored and engage in mindless repetitive tasks, could we actually be far more mindful in the present, more creative, and more resilient in the future?

In the scientific and engineering literature, it is clear that a degree of ‘redundancy’ in a system is critical for resilience. This means having additional resources or capacity that allow you to absorb shocks without compromising productivity or safety (e.g. having a store cupboard full of beans in a food shortage will mean you can avoid hunger). It seems to me that there’s a link between boredom and redundancy.

If boredom arises (in part) from repeating a task beyond the point that we can learn more from it, or enjoy it, then is boredom a form of mental ‘redundancy’? Does it give us time to absorb the mental ‘shock’ of constantly receiving new information every day?

I repeatedly hear people say they crave ‘time to really think’ away from the daily slog of tasks, but have realised that when we create this space it’s often for a defined purpose: “Think through new paper ideas – 2 hours”, or “send thoughts on strategy document to Rich – 30 mins”. Very rarely do we schedule time for unadulterated, unstructured and exploratory learning.

So what did I learn from playing with a bowl of wax this afternoon? That in order for people and communities to become resilient, we need time to be unproductive, together. That boredom can be a precursor, maybe even a catalyst, to a different kind of creation, connection and learning. That we need to trust that the use of this time will surpass our initial expectations. And that I want to work with more artists like Eva and Louise.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute Manager Hayley Shaw.
Hayley Shaw

Images from the Fourthland workshop at the Cabot Institute

Fourthland workshop

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Change Agents UK: Empowering people to have a positive impact on the world

One of our more exciting and inspirational collaborations this year has been with a fantastic charity called Change Agents UK.  This group works on developing a network of change agents; people empowered to live and work in a way that makes a positive impact on the world around them.  During the European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute has collaborated with Change Agents UK to support an EU programme called the Green Capital European Voluntary Service.

Change Agents UK coordinated the programme to host 30 young volunteers from across Europe to volunteer on activities related to Bristol European Green Capital 2015 for two months in the summer of 2015.  Cabot Institute Manager Hayley Shaw helped to form the programme around their visit during which we connected volunteers to:

  • Naomi Oreskes, a prominent climate change scientist. The Change Agents went to see her film ‘Merchants of Doubt’ and met with her beforehand.
  • Andrew Garrad, Chair of Bristol 2015 and Cabot Institute Advisory Board member with a special meeting before his Cabot Institute lecture on renewable energy.
  • Cabot Institute's Withdrawn art event by the famous artist Luke Jerram.

By helping them to connect to local activity and intellectually interesting events, the volunteers were taking part in valuable experiences to earn their Change Agents Certificate of Achievement. The Cabot Institute also sponsored Change Agents final event which celebrated their fantastic achievements with their host organisations, host families and others from the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.

This project has been really successful and has helped to contribute to the objectives of the Bristol Green Capital programme by providing enthusiastic and capable volunteers to act as Bristol Green Capital ‘change agents’ in projects across Bristol.  This has increased capacity and raised the profile of local projects that are making a positive impact on sustainability in the city.  You can find out more about the positive experiences of Change Agents in Bristol in the brilliant video made by one of the project partners, Chouette Films, below.

The programme is now over for this year and everyone has taken their wisdom earned to their home countries. The organisations are currently exploring funding opportunities to run similar programmes in the future.

If you would like to find out more about Change Agents UK, please visit their website.

Follow on Twitter @changeagentsuk

This blog has been written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Communications Officer at the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute.  Follow @cabotinstitute and @Enviro_Mand.
Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Monday, 14 September 2015

If we burned all fossil fuels, would any of Antarctica's ice survive?

Andy Ridgwell, University of California, Riverside

Here is a great “what-if”: if we (the human race) were to burn all available fossil fuels, could we melt the largest and most stable ice sheet on the planet – Antarctica? Could our collective industrial impacts on the planet possibly have that far a reach?

The spoiler is: “yes,” although in our recent computer modeling-based study, we find that it would require all of our fossil fuel resources to do it, and to see the very last of the ice melt, we might have to wait as long as 10,000 years.

Before we get any further, let’s consider this as a thought experiment in ice sheet dynamics and the global carbon cycle response to CO2 emissions to test our understanding of the long-term effects that extreme perturbations could have on the Earth system.

What I have in mind is a socioeconomic carbon use scenario that I hope personally would never come to fruition, but equally one that is not intended to be an implausible scare story or a “sky is-falling-in” simulation of doom and gloom and future global environmental catastrophe. (And also, to be completely honest, it was not my thought experiment in the first place, but instead comes from the head of Ken Caldeira at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, who was very ably assisted in bringing it to fruition by a brace of ice-sheets modelers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany – Ricarda Winkelmann and Anders Levermann.)

However, given unrestrained burning of fossil fuels, our study does show that the largest mass of ice in the world, including both the East and West Antarctica ice sheets, ultimately is vulnerable to irreversible melting – and dramatic sea-level rise.

Lessons from the past?

We already know that the Antarctic ice sheet has not always been there, and there is abundant geological evidence that around 50-100 million years ago, sea surface temperatures around Antarctica were pleasantly warm and vegetation on the Antarctic Peninsula was lush and warm-temperature. (And yes, prior to 65 millions years ago, there were dinosaurs living there too.) Our best reconstruction of atmosphere CO2 at the time is somewhere in the region of 556-1,112 parts per million (ppm) and higher than the almost 400 ppm we have reached today.

How Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios. GtC stands for gigatons of carbon. Ken Caldeira and Ricarda Winkelmann, Author provided

But this does not provide a particularly helpful guide to future ice sheet susceptibility. These past warm climates represent intervals of millions of years of elevated atmospheric CO2, whereas in the future, CO2 levels will start to drop back down once fossil fuel emissions cease. And this brings us to the crux of the problem, at least from my perspective: just how quickly will CO2 decay back down toward 278 ppm, the preindustrial atmospheric concentration?

The ‘long tail’ of CO2

There are a variety of processes that will act to progressively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, starting with uptake by the ocean and the terrestrial biosphere, occurring on timescales of up to 1,000 years. There are also a series of geological processes, involving first reactions of carbonic acid (CO2 dissolved in water) with calcium carbonate minerals in chalks and limestones and then ultimately, the gradual dissolution of silicate rocks such as granites and basalts over hundreds of thousands of years.
Can the ocean absorb enough CO2 before too much ice melt occurs? What about the geological processes – are these really too slow to help in time even under a much warmer climate and faster weathering rates?

This map shows the changes to coastlines if sea level rose six meters. Recent projections show that continued fossil fuel use over the next 1,000 years will lead to sea-level rise of 100 feet. NASA, CC BY

Without access to a time machine, I constructed numerical models that incorporate as many of the key processes of the global carbon and climate system as is feasible. To run a model to simulate many thousands of years, I must leave out many of the atmospheric physical processes, but the basic CO2 response is carefully tested and relatively independent of the omission of monsoons and El Ninos and all the complex short-term dynamics of the real climate system.

We then ran the model forced by a wide range of possible CO2 emissions scenarios, from 1,000 gigatons of carbon to 10,000 gigatons. To date, people have cumulatively emitted close to 600 gigatons, so we are easily on track to soon exceed the minimum assumption we tested in the study.

The tail wagging the climate dog

Even before considering the Antarctic ice sheet response, an unexpected result emerges – once enough CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere, climate almost gets “stuck” in a warm state that persists for the ~8,000 years until the end of the model experiment.

There are two things at play here: first, the more carbon we emit to the atmosphere, the less effective the ocean is in absorbing it. Basically, at some point, the main mechanism by which the ocean absorbs CO2, which is chemical reaction with carbonate ions (CO32-), gets maxed out (in other words: there are no more carbonate ions left to react with). This is also the way in which ocean acidification occurs. A warmer ocean doesn’t help, as CO2 is less soluble at higher temperatures and prefers to stay in the atmosphere. What about the geological sinks? Yes, they are working hard, and atmospheric CO2 does decline in all experiments, but just not quickly enough to avoid large-scale melting in Antarctica.

The second thing concerns the underlying nature of the relationship between climate and CO2.
Per molecule, CO2 becomes progressively less effective at trapping outgoing heat (infrared radiation) the more molecules that are already there. For society, this is a good thing: instead of each gigaton emitted having the same additional climatic impact, you have to approximately double the excess CO2 in the atmosphere to raise the surface temperature by the same amount each time – a log relationship. In our experiments, we see the flip side of this in response to the highest carbon emissions scenarios. Because we require a halving of CO2 to give us the same cooling each time, surface temperature declines even slower than CO2 concentrations.

In a nutshell: if we were to burn all fossil fuel reserves, the Antarctic ice sheet is threatened in its entirety, principally because we break the ability of the ocean and other natural mechanisms to bring atmospheric CO2 concentrations down fast enough.

Ice loss and sea-level rise

The future climate patterns we simulated then drove the ice sheet model, which is absolutely key and is as carefully tested as any of the other model components used in our study.

As expected from previous work, for low-emissions scenarios, the ice sheet actually gains mass due to increased snowfall over the coming century. However, on the long term, it is the surface warming and associated melt that dominates the mass balance.

And as the ice sheet melts, things go from bad to worse: surface temperatures get warmer as the elevation of the ice sheet falls, and sea-level rise increasingly helps to destabilize the ice sheet from below.

The rest is history. Or need not be. I hope that consuming as much as 10,000 gigatons of fossil fuel carbon is unlikely. But we also found that sea level progressively creeps up once we look beyond the end-of-century focus where much of the climate change debate is focused, for all scenarios. Even for really rather moderate carbon releases, sea level could rise 5-10 meters, or about 15-30 feet, by the end of the millennium.

Hence, a genuinely plausible scenario is that the world’s coastline in 50-100 generations' time is going to look very different. Now is the time to invest in far inland “beachfront” real estate for your great-great-great-…-great-grandchildren.

This blog was written by Andy Ridgwell, Professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Riverside and member of the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Delivering the ‘Future City’: does Bristol have the governance capacities it needs?

In Bristol’s European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have been working with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and its members to convene a series of four conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ from across public, private and civil society exploring how Bristol delivers the ‘future city’ –  what capacities it needs to be resilient, sustainable and successful and how it can start to develop these in times of changing governance and tightened finances. The conversations will be reflected in a series of four blogs (the first below) and then brought together as a policy report for the Festival of the Future City in November. You can read other blogs from this series at the bottom of this blog.


In Bristol’s European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have been exploring new ways of engaging more widely with the city and the range of organisations that make up city life and, in particular, with the Green Capital Partnership and its members. One of these forms of engagement has been to convene a series of conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ from across public, private and civil society, to try to move the discussion about Bristol’s future beyond what we already know to what it really means to be a future sustainable city and what capacities Bristol needs for the future – and how it can start to develop these in times of changing governance and tightened finances.

Our first debate took the theme of ‘Devolution and new forms of governance’ on a beautiful sunny Bristol evening when an invited group of some 30 city people came together for the first of 4 conversations on the (sustainable) future of Bristol – its capacity, opportunities, needs and blockages. What follows are some of the big issues identified and the start of what we can do to address them.

We acknowledged that Bristol is, on the whole, a successful city, with a thriving economy, judged to be one of the best places to live, culturally vibrant and with a reputation for doing things differently – including being the only UK city to vote for a directly elected mayor in 2012. Bristol’s leadership is more visible locally, nationally and internationally now, it is a member of the UK ‘Core Cities Group’, and business finds it easier to work with - although not all parts of the city value these changes. Bristol also has another darker side, with high levels of child poverty, lower school achievement and a lack of investment in infrastructure.

Working together

First and perhaps inevitably, the conversation was about Bristol and its neighbouring local authority areas – the ‘Counties that used to be Avon’ (or CUBA for short). There is resistance from the other unitary areas to (re-) forming something akin to Avon with Bristol’s perceived dominance – a ‘mutual loathing and distrust’ between the authorities is surely something to be addressed. The authorities involved could choose not to ‘indulge in the loathing behaviour’ but re-approach one another in a spirit of mutual collaboration and partnership – which we are now starting to see as they consider the potential of the government’s offer for devolution to metro areas.

For Bristol in particular, the current authority boundaries are a real problem with ‘stupid red lines’ cutting across the urban area, particularly to the north and east, dividing parts of the city out into other local authority’s control and creating arguments about the positioning and ownership of services. The various local government boundary changes have, over time, seen an evolution to the current four unitaries with boundaries that are historical but make little sense in 2015. We have an overall population of about a million, with people travelling to work, shop and play across the boundaries and now there is an opportunity and a need for more effective working together, that, in one participant’s words, it ‘makes total sense to be one entity’ with more devolved powers and budgets (as the Manchester metro-region is doing) which will allow longer term fiscal planning. At the moment, layers of bureaucracy get in the way of getting things done. If Bristol is the ‘capital’, it needs to show that it is working for the whole region, that it can be supportive and empowering of all the urban and rural parts. The question now is how to create mechanisms that facilitate enduring collaboration in a locally relevant way and which can withstand the buffeting of national policy changes

Moral purpose and the 'dark side'

So, how do we set up these enduring partnerships? We think it starts with finding a common moral purpose, something that everyone thinks we should be doing to help the city (and region) work better. This could be something to do with addressing the ‘dark side’ of the city and the inequalities that persist – for example there is a 10 year life expectancy gap between the richer and poorer parts of the city and that’s not ok. There’s 25% child poverty, a lack of real representation of different communities in the power and governance of the city and a segregation between and within communities (especially generationally) so that only certain voices are heard. So it’s not a very equal or well represented city, in fact less so than at the time of the St Paul’s Riots in the 1980s and this causes tensions. We need to set up governance structures locally that can address inequalities – because it’s not happening nationally – and we’re concerned with issues of social and environmental justice not just because it’s right but also because reducing inequalities will actually improve everyone’s lives. 
Police facing rioters in City Road, St Pauls. Source: Wikipedia.

Finding out what stops action and who has the power

In developing new forms of governance, the city first needs to acknowledge where the current power and blockages are. We see that there are lots of visionary people coming up with amazing ideas which then don’t make it into reality – why is that? Who blocks innovation and why? Is it mostly to do with the short term nature of government policy and funding or is there something more fundamental going on that we could work to address and allow brave ideas to flourish better and at a bigger scale? We talked about the central initiatives that have come and gone over the years and acknowledge that we need to draw on and learn from history, taking the best from the local council and encouraging risk taking in order to flourish.

The low electoral turnouts show that people don’t currently connect well with their elected representatives and that more could be done to open those lines of communication and trust and improve the democratic process – meanwhile, so much interesting stuff is going on that isn’t done by the council at all but by other people.

Innovation in spite of rules

Bristol is an innovative city and lots of the best things have happened in spite of the rules, when communities and citizens have taken the initiative and made things happen. There has always been grassroots activity in the city, taking place without waiting for permission, and the council has allowed this – there’s no big municipalism compared with some cities in the north, so the city hasn't crowded out initiative, but rather it has ceded power and allowed initiatives to emerge. The question then is whether formalising devolution within the city might kill the thing we’re trying to grow – how do we govern so that things happen because of policy rather than despite it? And how do we provide an environment where good ideas grow beyond the ‘bubbles of innovation’ that have flourished in this permissive environment? Now that the council is expected to let go of more areas of control because it has little budget, we are actually ahead of the curve and doing it – people in the city have the experience of making things happen in interesting ways.

Bristol's neighbourhood partnerships. Image source: St George Neighbourhood Partnership
A visible and much publicized example of local action is in the Stokes Croft area but it’s not the only place. The Stokes Croft ‘anti-Tesco riots’ showed that people will get up and protest against what they don’t want but, in another part of the city, a Tesco Metro would be a welcome source of decent food. So we have to acknowledge that locally relevant approaches are needed and that means community led responses – as we are now seeing in Redcliffe, Barton Hill, Southmead, Lawrence Weston and other places around the city. But not all communities currently have the capacity to take the lead, so helping to develop ‘collective action’ at different levels is key. Neighbourhood partnerships are at best a partial success, working best where there are active communities, but the potential to engage and use the resources of local business to support communities is untapped.

What next?

The people participating in these debates do not represent the spectrum of thought within Bristol but if we can start to untangle how the city is managed now and for the future then further conversation might involve different people from across the city. We might be a ‘leftie liberal’ group as one participant suggested but we've got lots of connections across the city which can be drawn on to take responsibility for doing something, whilst also recognizing that we can’t change everything all at once!

One idea was that we should start with an issue or sector of concern such as transport or housing and explore it at all the different levels, working together to see how a new governance model would play out in reality. For example, take transport, this impacts on everyone’s quality of life and has a disproportionately high impact on the poorest people and their ability to move around the city and hence has a direct impact on equalities.

So, where does all this get us? We've talked about the relationship between communities and the city, the relationship between the city and its neighbouring councils and the relationship between that collective and central government – all of which need to be negotiated in the terms of possible devolutionary structures. We've recognized the flourishing of community innovation that will stand us in good stead as we move into a new city-region future whilst also needing to understand the powers and blockages that enhance or impede risk taking. 

There are three more debates and through them we aim to develop and strengthen the relationship between the university and civil society in the city so that we can collaborate in the long term for the benefit of the city. It is also about a real concern for our city, taking advantage of the year’s Green Capital status to look at how Bristol (and other cities) can develop into the future – drawing on the knowledge and expertise galvanized in 2015 and trying to create a legacy that will live long after this year of activity and debate.

This blog is written by Caroline Bird, Future Cities and Communities Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Cabot Institute.
Caroline Bird