Monthly Archives: May 2014

Why is London so dominant in the UK?

BBC reporter and economist Evan Davis came to the university as part of the SEE Talks; a student run organisation to bring speakers to the university. BSci Maths and Finance student Alex Crosby was there…

SEE Talks are a series of talks about macroeconomic issues and their wider influence in the world. As part of this, BBC presenter and Economist Evan Davis came to the University of Exeter to discuss “Why is London so dominant in the UK?

Evan Davis is an economist, journalist and presenter

It seems London’s size is unique in the UK and growing every year; its size draws in new workers, increasing the size and bringing in more workers. This cycle has encouraged a vast amount of investment into London, both domestic and foreign, bringing about new infrastructures and projects within the city. Yet some worry that whilst London is thriving other areas of the UK are being neglected and that in fact we should halt investment in London and use it in other parts of the country. But is this efficient?


Hours worked in London are 29 per cent higher than the UK average and their productivity is the highest out of all UK cities. This highlights the benefits that London, as a glomeration, has on the UK’s economy. Glomerations are the idea that taking 15 per cent of the population and squeezing it into a small area makes them more productive. It explores the benefits gained from condensing people together such as information overspill from neighbours, collaboration and competition, increasing overall output. The idea that neighbours help is widely held, and so we see many businesses locating themselves next to companies they believe will help their productivity. This can be seen in Silicon Valley, Canary Warf and Salford Quays, to name a few.

This ignites the idea that we should focus on a second city in the UK, whilst London specialises in Financial Services the other could specialise in another sector. Evan then brought up the idea of connecting the larger cities in the north to create this ‘second city’. Yet to achieve this we would need a lot of time and investment into their infrastructure. It would also involve many businesses having to relocate and merge to eliminate the spread and create specialised hubs. He explores this idea more in his mini series ‘Mind The Gap’.


In the Q&A portion of the talk Evan was asked who he believed would need to lead this change. The government could implement rules and restriction, as they did when they restricted office builds in Birmingham, but businesses may not relocate to where the government aimed them. All in all, it is investment which will spark this process and so we either need to encourage foreign investment into other locations, or relocate investment from London.

He was also asked if our continental colleagues experience the same issue. France experiences the same issue with Paris, but Germany has many large cities all specialising in different areas. However, this is due to each of the countries history. When Germany was split up, each sector had a dominant city which produce most of their output, so when Germany was unified it already had the infrastructure to lay way for  the economy they have today.

To summarise, Evan believed that although London’s success can be addictive we must ensure that we offer choices. That people can choose to live in the hustle and bustle of a city or in the quaint splendor of the countryside.

Transformational Climate Science

The Transformational Climate Science conference, held at the University of Exeter on 15/16 May, provided an opportunity for key delegates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) community to summarise important findings from the recent Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The conference consisted of individual panel discussions for each working group of the IPCC, with keynote speeches made by the co-chair of that respective group, plus a further three panel discussions on climate-policy.

The first panel discussion focussed on the scientific developments made over the last five years. The co-chair of Working Group I , Thomas Stocker, lead discussions with a summary of various projections of future climate change. Key findings included that global surface temperature change by the end of the 21st century is now projected to exceed 2oC in all but the most mitigation-intensive scenario . Atmospheric carbon dioxide is currently at an unprecedented level compared with the last 800,000 years, and to achieve the regularly-touted objective of stability at 2oC warming future global emissions of carbon dioxide must total no more than 250 gigatonnes.

Far from being proactive in the face of these projections, global emissions currently total 10 gigatonnes per year and were shown to be rising. Individual extreme climate events, such as the European heatwave observed in 2003, can only be explained by including anthropogenic factors in global climate model simulations, stated Peter Stott of the Met Office. Therefore, the need to integrate climate with society in order to protect our environment becomes all the more urgent, said Corinne Le Quere of the University of East Anglia, with the general theme of urgency prominent throughout the discussion.

The second panel discussion, which focussed on the impacts of climate change and adaptation measures, again noted that certain observed climate changes are directly attributable to human influence. Despite the current implementation of adaptation measures, said the keynote speaker Chris Fields (co-chair of Working Group II), dealing effectively with climate change requires the introduction of ‘smart policies’ which must result from effective engagement between scientists and policy-makers.

Frans Berkhout, of King’s College London, further added that there are significant limitations to all forms of adaptation, which should further prioritize mitigation efforts. Sori Kovats of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, emphasised the regional disparities in risk of climate change, stating that exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes varies with location and noting that data on the socioeconomic impact of climate disasters is severely lacking. The regional effects of climate change, including effects to certain sectors within industry, noted the panel, need further quantification in order to aid policy-makers and to ensure that adaptation measures are suitable.

The Thursday afternoon session included a discussion on the science and policy interface, aided by contributions from Andrea Tilche, representing the European Commission. The inclusivity of policy-makers within the IPCC framework was an important topic of debate, as was the effectiveness of dialogue between IPCC scientific representatives and governmental delegates. The evening session was open to the public, and comprised a panel discussion on the future of climate science. The topics of future impact on society and current state of emissions were ubiquitous throughout the proceedings.

On Friday morning, a panel discussion was lead by representatives of Working Group III of AR5, focussing on the challenge of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Ottmar Edenhofer, the co-chair and keynote speaker, began by highlighting that global greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase, with the predominant driver being increases to income. Recent increases in fossil-fuel burning in Asia are comparable with the industrialization of the West, and effective mitigation efforts will require major technological and institutional changes to low-emission or zero-emission energy sources. The ethical and political dimensions of climate change were explored, including the accountability of nations for historical emissions and progress in developing sufficient political institutions to tackle climate change.

The final panel discussion, chaired by Dame Julia Slingo, Chief Scientist at the Met Office, primarily focussed on future developments to IPCC and the climate science field in general. Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter suggested that the three working groups of the IPCC could potentially merge to synthesise proceedings and provide a single publication in the future. Other topics considered in the discussion included quantification of potential public health effects within projections which is currently lacking in the discussion, according to Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in general a movement to including the regional effects of climate change within projections. The panel discussed at length various developments to climate model specifications which could be implemented to ensure that uncertainty within climate change projections continues to be reduced.

Biodiversity on islands

The University of Exeter’s Ben Toulson shares his thoughts on island biodiversity in recognition of today being the International Day for Biological Diversity and its 2014 islands theme. Ben is the director of student-led research expeditions at the Penryn Campus and spent the summer of 2013 studying the biodiversity and threats to the islands of Cambodia.

Despite covering only three per cent of our global land area, islands are home to a disparate level of the world’s biodiversity. This is a result of the unique environments that islands create, volcanic islands in particular, with their great range in height, host a variety of habitats cut off from the rest of the world.


Wildlife caught on camera during a student expedition to Cambodian islands.

The resulting isolation means that species on different islands may evolve different, despite being geographically separated by just a few miles. This results in incredibly high levels of endemism, that is, species that occur nowhere else in the world. The most well-known example of this is Darwin’s finches. Dr Frank Van Veen of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation (CEC) investigates how the components of ecological systems like these interact.

Many island regions are found within biodiversity hotspots, meaning they have at least 1,500 vascular plants as endemics and must have 30 per cent or less of its original vegetation, resulting in them being both irreplaceable and threatened. In several cases, this is due to the fact that these islands are situated within developing nations, for example, the scores of islands found in the Gulf of Thailand.

These islands have been home to small communities for some time, with both the terrestrial and aquatic coastal habitats providing them with food and income, largely through fishing. In addition, habitats, such as coral reefs, which support the highest level of marine biodiversity, act as protection against storms. Mangroves, slat marshes, and seagrass beds are key for storing blue carbon, meaning they absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it, decreasing the effects of climate change.

However, many islands are suffering overexploitation, illegal logging of forests, overfishing and trawling of seagrass beds and coral reefs, and overdevelopment as a result of the booming tourism industry. All of this is motivated by the short-term gain, which is understandable in developing nations, however, in many cases it is a result of large foreign corporations coming in to exploit resources, meaning none of the resulting profit goes to the local population. Overfishing is a key focus of the work of Dr Amber Teacher, from the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI).

Camouflaged wildlife found on the student expedition.

Regardless of this, the aforementioned destruction is completely unsustainable and will result in the loss of key habitats and irreplaceable species. In turn, this will lead to a great loss of ecosystem services, such as prevention of landslides by forests, storage of carbon dioxide, protection from extreme weather. Species that have important ecological roles, such as pest control, will be lost, changing the balance of the island ecosystem. Ultimately, this loss of habitat will result in not only the loss of coastal habitats, coral reefs, and the species that reside within, but also local livelihoods and the tourism industry with the destruction of this ‘paradise’.

It is clear that action is required to protect these ecosystems and manage them in a sustainable manner. The Convention on Biological Diversity has set targets to conserve at least 10 per cent of ecological island regions through effectively managed protected area networks. Such work can only be effective if the countries involved take active responsibility for their conservation, while some appear to be moving in this direction, it will be interesting to see how much action is taken before and after irreversible damage is done to these regions.

Not a smarter workplace, but a smarter worker

Craig Knight is Director of Identity Realization Limited and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter.

How would you measure productivity in an accounts office, an HR office or University Admin building? Think for a minute. How would you?

Since Identity Realisation started at the University of Exeter over a decade ago we have established specific metrics that explore well-being, psychological comfort and productivity. As far as we know this is unique.

Our commercial research uses science not heuristic. Impartiality is vital so that we can make informed comments based on evidence. This all may seem obvious written in a university context but when you consider that Mark Dixon (Regus) is one of several senior business leaders on record as saying that he hopes that a measure of productivity will be discovered in his lifetime you may just develop an inkling that it is rule of thumb and precedent — not science — that dominates office design and its management. We are hopefully making some difference.

For example, evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a minimalist, spartan ‘lean’ office is simply bad news on all measures. Lean is currently the ‘go to’ condition for the majority of low-status office workers. No animal thrives in a spartan space for long, be that a caterpillar in a five-year-old’s jam jar or a gorilla in a lifeless zoo.

Open plan office

Working in a spartan offices is like being a gorilla in a lifeless zoo.

We are no different. Every measure of performance and happiness is depressed in a flat open office where managerial systems and clean desk policies hold sway.
Published data can demonstrate how a rich design template such as those employed at Google or Microsoft has ― over the past ten years at any rate ― always been quantifiably and significantly better than a lean equivalent. However, we can also show that rich, topical design does not provide optimal working conditions.

In short, design does not live up to its promise. Companies spend considerable amounts of money installing slides between floors, planting indoor beer gardens and setting swinging ski gondolas in their canteens, but they really need not bother.
The results are bad news for designers and managers. Human beings are not rational. We prefer being given the freedom to develop our own – to the outside observer – less attractive office to any magnificent space imposed through managerial largesse.

The published evidence indicates that the best offices recognise elements of our own identity; they should not therefore reflect the stamp of the designer or commissioning director. So if we can see a few plants that we chose, a souvenir from our holiday, or a picture that means something to us, then these are the things that create spaces that are more psychologically comfortable than anything a talented designer can create.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This means that our less than perfect space will outperform the Googleplex just as surely the Googleplex outperforms the stark lean building. As a participant put it very succinctly “Well of course, I mean who wants to live in a bloody show home?”

However, we can do better still. Organisations resolutely believe in imperfect ‘design led office solutions’. Try putting the term into a search engine and check the results. However our latest research does indicate that ‘led design’ will create most interesting results. A more submissive approach to office development is paying early dividend.

This psychological application of design may bash a few egos by putting the designers’ cart behind the organisation’s horse power, namely its people. Yet in so doing we seem to be harnessing the latent talent of the design process. Thus rather than seeing aesthetically pleasing spaces as pleasant milestones passed en route to more effective working environments we are instead finding the benefits of design that have been claimed by its creators but are – as yet — unrealised.

And in closing, here is one final nugget. The Psychology Department has worked extensively with older adults in care. In the same way that better respected office workers operate in more considered workspace designed by others, so older adults live in attractively designed spaces over which they too have had little control.

We gave older adults the power to develop at least part of their own living spaces. As a consequence they not only felt better and identified more with the home and its residents, but their cognitive engagement scores increased by 19 per cent. That is they performed 19% better on intelligence tests. They were 19 per cent cleverer. It seems only right to take this work back into the workspace.

We are running a study at Clerkenwell Design Week (20th to 22nd May) where we will look to roll these factors together to see whether the psychological application of design has the potential to increase cognitive performance at work. Currently a smart space is simply one that squeezes eight people into a space originally developed for twelve; but what if it were possible to develop a space that makes people perform at a higher cognitive level; a space where they are effectively cleverer as well as happier and more productive? The initial signs are very promising. We’ll let you know.