Go West, Young Man!
08 September 2021 by David Bott
My well-known devotion to the “start the week” meeting meant that leaving my house 24 hours earlier and knowing that I would be 5308 miles from my beloved Swindon at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning was a true wrench! But I knew it was to be in a good cause. Julia King had arranged for me to be invited me to speak at the biennial Asilomar Conference on Transportation and Energy, organized under the auspices of the Energy and Alternative Fuels Committees of the Transportation Research Board. It turns out to be quite an honour, with people vying to get invited to spend a few days at the ex-YWCA conference centre just outside Monterey. On the way, I had offered to visit with the UKTI/SIN contingent at the San Francisco Consulate – because I didn’t think that driving down 115 miles after an 11 hour flight was complying with our Health and Safety Policy and that a night in a San Francisco hotel was in order. I was therefore awake early and down to the consulate on the Monday morning – first to give a short talk to the relevant staff about our work and then to meet a few people they thought might be useful for us to know. Since the people I knew had (coincidentally) left the state or country, I started by meeting my hosts. I then gave a jazz version of the “not the corporate presentation” to 20 or more people in the room and an unknown number on the phone, answered some really good questions and hopefully laid some myths to rest. When you think that there are over 30 people in the Bay Area who are supposed to be helping UK companies to thrive and they mostly know squat about us, it is quite saddening. Hopefully they know a bit more now!
Next I met with Steve Mello of The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society(CITRIS) (see – http://citris-uc.org/) – it was ostensibly because they were interested in our efforts in Assisted Living, but once we started talking it became clear that CITRIS is an early form of American TIC, with all the political problems – it is shared between 4 US universities, it cannot decide if it’s about research or implementation and it has no meaningful metrics on its activities. Meanwhile, back at Assisted Living, Steve was obviously a bit of a stalker of our Innovation Platform and was very complimentary about what the team has done. I offered a “if you’re ever in the UK” invitation and left it at that.
Then I convoyed down to Palo Alto with one of my new friends from UKTI to visit IDEO (see – http://www.ideo.com/). The last WebMission had visited them and both MD and Technology Woman had mentioned their (favourable) impressions. Also, Mat Hunter and David Tonge had worked there and Tom Hulme still does, so I was intrigued. I spent a fascinating hour with Tim Brown, their CEO, and we kicked around how to address some of the “technology uptake” questions, I described what we had done over the last 4 years (appreciative noises from my host!) and he averred that we did the same sorts of things and the only real difference was that we had a government budget and that they had to charge for their services. When I discovered that he would be in London in October I invited him to take part in the design panel at Innovate. When I told him who he would be on with, he rapidly accepted! I then bid adieu to my new friends and headed off down US101 to the Monterey Peninsula.
I arrived at Asilomar (“refuge by the sea”) Conference Grounds too late for dinner, but in time for the cocktails (only in America do they think this means beer) and was seized upon by Julia and Colin, who had recognised that this global event was decidedly American, and wanted to have a meaningful conversation. From observing the crowd, this 13th version of the biennial conference was more of a club than a conference, with people obviously renewing acquaintances and a (very small) number of “newbies” all waiting to be included. Luckily, jet-lag and beer made it easy to gate-crash conversations and my “odd accent” made it difficult for them to throw me out afterwards, so I met a few people I will never see again.
The next morning, breakfast didn’t start until 7.30 but I was awake and ready by 6 o’clock, so I went for a walk on the beach. It was in the 70’s but foggy and felt chilly, so the walk was brisk. The meeting started at 9 but we discovered the only functional Wi-Fi in the facility was in the conference hall, so everyone was in early and focusing on the outside world. The conference was opened by Dan Sperling, but the first real talk was by Joschka Fischer, the ex-Foreign Minister of Germany and a noted “green”. It was what Obi-Wan would call a courageous speech, pointing out that the US was a major obstacle to the resolution of the climate change “challenge”, that their approach to the automotive and oil lobbies was woefully inadequate and that high energy prices had driven innovation in the rest of the world, but the US desire for low energy prices was distorting both their energy market and that of the planet. It was fascinating to watch the audience during his talk – alternatively thrilled by the challenge and appalled by his insulting their way of life. The following session was designed to explain some of the conundrums he had exposed. First up was Connie Roser-Rentouf of George Mason University, who had segmented the US public into 6 categories based on their response to climate change. She was doing okay until she gave them cutesy, alliterative names and selected pictures for each category! (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%201/asilomar_aug_2011.pptx ). The next speaker had been delayed by Hurricane Irene, so it was up to David Greene to continue the debate in a meaningful way. He failed (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%201/GreeneAsilomar2011.pptx). The panel then convened to answer questions – joined by Joschka Fischer. Perhaps the most interesting part of the debate was when Fischer mentioned that the European Christian movements were uniformly aligned with green issues – explain that they seemed to see themselves as “stewards of God’s creation”, to which Roser-Rentouf responded that American Christians were mostly opposed to climate change, assuming “God would sort it out”. It was beginning to become apparent that there were 3 segments at the conference. Those who thought that climate change was real but that the 15% reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2030 would fix it, those who thought that their jobs depended on climate change being disproved and those (from Europe) who thought that America was missing the whole point.
After lunch, it was the session organised by Julia, which I kicked off. I had bastardised Transport Man’s presentation about the initial report on the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator programme, setting the demonstrator in the context of the whole Low Carbon Vehicle Innovation Platform, shamelessly plugging our iconic status as the UK’s Innovation Agency and generally pointing out that the UK had addressed the potential of climate change and the consequent need for extreme carbon dioxide reductions as a business opportunity and that they were just “getting on with it”. I also pulled out some of the behaviour changes that the Oxford Brookes analysis had revealed, which proved to be a prescient action! I was followed by Paul Nieuwenhuis (a Welsh Dutchman) who went through more of the “it’s driven by carbon dioxide reductions, not energy security or price” logic (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%202/Nieuwenhuis_Asilomar2011.pptx). Then it got weird. The talk by Mike Tamor of Ford was a complex statistical analysis of journey histories – splitting the data into a normal distribution of regular commuting and a long tail or “random” journeys. Using this analysis and a series of algorithms that he couldn’t tell us about because they were commercially sensitive, he proved that battery electric would satisfy no-one. No honest, the guy from Ford doesn’t think we need electric cars! (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%202/Asilomar%20Tamor%202011.ppt). Finally in our session came Ken Kurani from UC Davis, who presented a fascinating approach to the problem by saying that people adapt to circumstances and that past behaviour was no guide to future behaviour. This fitted neatly, with the data from our demonstrator. His “zen” approach to philosophy had the man from Ford cussing “communist” behind me but he made some interesting points which we ought to follow up.
After a break for coffee (necessary to keep out the Pacific chill) we went back into an almost identical session but driven by the automotive manufacturers. Chaired with disgustingly upbeat bonhomie by another man from Ford, it contained a great presentation from BMW (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%203/Draft_TB_20110830_Asilomar.pptx) which contrasted their experience with the Mini E, the all electric Rolls-Royce (best joke of the conference – “Roll-Royce owners are the perfect electric car drivers. They never drive more that 40 miles. Anything longer, they take their helicopter!”) and their new babies – the i3 and i8. The guy from Nissan was similarly impressive, bigging up the Leaf as the first “real electric car” (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%203/LDominiqueNissanAsilomar.pptx). As if to confirm the feeling that the real US guys don’t get it, the presentation from General Motors on the Chevy Volt was a fairly vacuous puff (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%203/Asilomar%20-%20Gross%20GM%20slides.pptx), the next presentation, from the Electric Power Research Institute was a meandering mess (but praised by the Ford session chair as amazing that people can talk without slides!) and then the guy from the Natural Resources Defense Council was a waste of his 7 slides (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%203/RHwang-Asilomar%20Draft%20v2.pptx). Since the next session was billed as tribute to 2 members of the organising committee who had died recently, and I have been to conference wakes before, Julia, Colin and I went down to Monterey to discuss the differences between the Americans and Europeans over a local fish!
The following morning, I was in the room early dealing with e-mails but dreading the session “Smart Growth and VMT Reduction”. I needn’t have been. It turned out to be a discussion on what we would call “Future Cities”. It was opened with style by Chris Leinberger, who turns out to be a bit of a “urban living” pundit. The presentation was notable for the use of video clips from “I Love Lucy” (where the 50’s angst was to move out of the city so the kids could live safely), “Back to the Future” (with contrasting views of Hill Valley town centre in the 50’s and 80’s) and Seinfield (a wonderful shot with him walking down a street in central New York past shops selling “produce”) (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%204/new%20place%20making%20slides.pptx). He was followed by a drier presentation by another of the UC Davis faculty (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%204/Handy_Asilomar_prez.pptx), a rather interesting plug for a research project that sought to disprove the US belief that wealth scales with driving (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%204/Growing%20Wealthier%20for%20Asilomar%20(S.%20Winkelman,%208.31.11).pdf) and 2 presentations from Portland and Sacramento on what real towns had done in real situations using planning and regulation (see – http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%204/Asilomar2011Portland.ppt and http://www.its-davis.com/asilomar2011/session%204/MM_asilomarfinal.ppt). In discussion it emerged that Las Vegas has done as well as Portland because it is geographically constrained and it is planning sprawl that does the most damage – forcing people to drive more to activities!
Lunch signalled a return to the more introspective approach and the freight session was so dire I decided to leave and catch a plane out of there! Julia tells me the “adaptation” session breathed some life back into the meeting but that she was vaguely sorry she’d invited me and wasted my time!
And then it was holiday!!!