Category Archives: business

My Industrial Placement at Microsoft UK

Final year Business School student, Ben Kosky, has been named Intern of the Year by Microsoft UK; in this blog post, he talks about his internship experience, why it helped him plan for life after graduation and why he would encourage new students to consider the the With Industrial Experience scheme.

Learn more about Ben’s award.

Ben Kosky (left) with Michel Van Der Bel of Microsoft

Ben Kosky (left) with Michel Van Der Bel of Microsoft

 

When deciding on my degree and University the opportunity to take a placement year was essential. The University of Exeter stood out, with an exceptional ‘With Industrial Experience’ (WIE) programme.

I was excited by the opportunity to take a year out of studying to get stuck into the workplace. My ultimate aim being to challenge myself further to learn and develop, whilst also applying the key principles and theories I had studied during my degree.

After a tough interview process, I managed to secure 1 of 125 Internship places at Microsoft UK as a Sales Solution Professional within their Cloud and Mobility divisions of the business, selling to their largest 313 enterprise customers.

To begin with, it was very daunting and I found it completely different to the familiar environment of studying that I was accustomed to. However, by not being afraid to challenge and push myself to learn and develop, whilst also not shying away from sometimes failing, it was truly amazing how much I grasped during my year, in order to grow as an individual and team member, whilst developing into a more rounded business student.

Some of you may be asking yourselves should you do a year in industry? Personally, I cannot recommend it enough! It is a fantastic opportunity to really push yourself, to apply what you have studied and finally to have a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Microsoft, we had an amazing intern community, with a huge array of opportunities and activities to get involved with.

Further, a year in industry really develops your ability to manage your time effectively and improve your work ethic, which will be imperative in having a strong final year. It is known that WIE students secure excellent grades in their final year as they are able to apply the theories they study into practice using their personal experiences, whilst building and utilising the work ethic and time management competencies they developed from the workplace into their studies.

My industrial placement at Microsoft was truly unforgettable and was rounded off with their most prestigious award. Through the contributions I had made to Microsoft’s Sales and to areas outside my actual job specifications, I was named their ‘Intern of the Year’ against 125 other interns across the UK.

Reflecting on WIE

Upon reflection, the award highlights to me that if you’re willing to work hard, apply yourself and if you love what you do, if that is towards your sport, studying or whatever hobby you have, then you have the ability to succeed and excel.

The support I received during my year from my team, manager and WIE programme tutors and directors was incredible and without them, I would not have had such a successful and enjoyable year.

Looking forwards I am excited about coming back to Exeter to finish my final year Business Management with Marketing degree. I truly believe that my ability now to really relate to the theoretical concepts I will study, through drawing on my personal experiences will be imperative to me having a successful final year.

I am also looking at graduate jobs with the aim to start in September 2016. I will definitely be applying back to Microsoft as I cannot recommend the company enough. The time and effort they put into their programmes is truly remarkable and the responsibility and authority you are given, even as an intern, is amazing!

Without these components, I truly don’t believe I would have had such an amazing year and would have learnt and developed as much as I did. However, there are a vast array of companies out there so I would definitely recommend, and have been recommended by others, to apply to other companies.

One final thing I would say is that even if your industrial placement highlights to you an area of a business or industry that you may not want to continue your career in, this is still a key and a vital learning point in your career development and therefore is hugely valuable.

In light of my year I cannot recommend the WIE programme enough and truly recommend everyone to at least consider the opportunity and possibility of taking a placement year. I do hope this brief insight into my experiences has been useful and I would be happy to help with anyone looking for further information or who has any questions I will leave my details below. Thanks and good luck!

Ben Kosky – 4th Year Business Management Student

A political economy of Twitter data? Conducting research with proprietary data is neither easy nor free.

Cultural geographer Dr Sam Kinsley, lecturer in Human Geography and Co-Investigator on the ESRC-funded Contagion project writes about the difficulties you might encounter when you use social media research.

This post originally appeared on the Contagion research project blog; it has also appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Science blog.

Dr Sam Kinsley is a lecturer in Human Geography

 

Social media research is on the rise but researchers are increasingly at the mercy of the changing limits and access policies of social media platforms. API and third party access to platforms can be unreliable and costly. 

Sam Kinsley outlines the limitations and stumbling blocks when researchers gather social media data. Should researchers be using data sources (however potentially interesting/valuable) that restrict the capability of reproducing our research results?

 

 

 

Many of the research articles and blogs concerning conducting research with social media data, and in particular with Twitter data, offer overviews of their methods for harvesting data through an API. An Application Programming Interface is a set of software components that allow third parties to connect to a given application or system and utilise its capacities using their own code. Most of these research accounts tend to make this process seem rather straight forward. Researchers can either write a programme themselves, such as, or can utilise one of several tools that have emerged that provide a WYSIWYG interface for undertaking the connection to the social networking platform, such as implementing yourTwapperKeeperCOSMOS or using a service such as ScraperWiki (to which I will return). However, what is little commented upon is the restrictions put on access to data through many of the social networking platform APIs, in particular Twitter. The aim of this blog post is to address some of the issues around access to data and what we are permitted to do with it.

Restrictions to ‘free’ access to Twitter data

The restrictions imposed on access to data and their possible uses have a direct effect upon the kinds of questions one can ask of the data, and indeed the kind of research we can conduct. What are these restrictions? In the case of Twitter, there are two particular API access points of interest:

These both come with particular kinds of restrictions, which have the potential to effect the amounts of data one can access. The streaming API effectively filters the full stream of all of the tweets being posted at any given time (named the ‘firehose’) down to one  per cent of the total (colloquially referred to as the ‘spritzer’) and the sampling method is not explained to users. As there are over 500,000,000 tweets per day, with an average in 2013 of 5,700 per second, one per cent  remains rather a lot of data. Nevertheless, as a sample it may be seen as problematic. For example, researchers have compared the one per cent  and firehose streams to statistically investigate how proportionate the ‘spritzer’ representation is of the full data set. Morstatter et al. (2013) suggest that for large datasets, or big issues that generate lots of traffic, the one per cent  is apparently fairly ‘faithful’ to the full stream, with a common set of top keywords and hashtags. However, for smaller datasets the spritzer appears to be a less faithful representation of all activity – this would mean researchers using the API would possibly need to be selective on the issues they study. Further, they suggest there is a ‘blackboxed’ bias in the one per cent  ‘spritzer’ API stream which diverges from random one per cent samples they took from the ‘firehose’.

The search API is slightly more complicated. The data available is typically limited to the last week of activity, although for some search terms it may be slightly longer (this seems to vary). Access is governed by the number of requests to the API any given user can make in a set period (15 minutes). A user with an ‘access token’ can make 180 calls per 15 minutes fetching approximately 100 tweets per call. A user can utilise more than one access token but in their documentation Twitter allude to a limit on application-only authentication (without access tokens) of 450 calls per 15 minutes, so it might be reasonable to assume this is an absolute limit (I don’t have any experimental results to prove or disprove this).

As a thought experiment, if we assume that limit then the total amount of data accessible is 450 calls x 100 tweets per call, per four 15-minute periods (one hour) = 180,000 tweets fetched per hour (in which period, on 2013 averages, 20,520,000 new tweets are added). Taken the other way around, if we assume that we can use lots of access tokens and we wanted to be opportunistic and harvest all tweets related to a phenomenon that occurred in the last three days with approximately 40,000,000 tweets in the corpus – we would need to collect all of those tweets in three days, as the oldest data is already  three days old, and so we would need eight access tokens simultaneously gathering tweets, without any replication of data being harvested between them, for three solid days. There are two big assumptions here: first, we can use eight access tokens to harvest data at the maximum rate for 24 hours per day, without restriction; second, those accounts can be used so that only ‘fresh’ data is gathered, without replication across the eight.

In both forms of the API access to Twitter we may be forgiven for thinking there’s not much wrong, lots of data is available. However, when a researcher begins to ask questions that they would like to answer with that data particular kinds of problem can arise. By and large, to get to the maximum figures indicated for the API, above, one needs to implement a bespoke programme to ensure dedicated access in order to maximise the rate of data collection. Equally, using multiple ‘access tokens’ will, most likely, result in gathering some duplicate data, which will need to be filtered and refined.

In practice, when gathering data through the service ScraperWiki we often encountered rate limiting, which we were powerless to affect. Even with yourTwapperKeeper, for example, one needs to have better than average IT skills in order to implement an effective data collection method (see Bruns and Liang for an overview of what might be needed). This can, of course, be addressed by working with colleagues with the appropriate skills and may lead to interesting cross-disciplinary collaborations. However, should you wish to search the historical archive of tweets (for example: searching for tweets concerning the UK riots in 2011) this is not possible through the API and you will have to pay a commercial reseller of twitter data, or ‘certified partner‘ in the jargon, to get those data. Therefore, in order to have a chance at gathering data, researchers using the API need to be opportunist and set ‘scrapes’ of data running as close in time to the activities of interest as possible.

Equally, if one uses broad enough search terms it is entirely possible that the volume of tweets matching the criteria is such that it is not possible to harvest them before they drop out of the free-to-access pool of data before your search can reach them. Therefore, API-based data gathering for research is best suited to opportunistic highly specific searches (such as the UK badger cull), rather than topics that significantly trend (such as anything to do with an international celebrity).

At the beginning of the Contagion project we accessed the API through the easy-to-use third party online system ScraperWiki. With that system it was easy for us to set up ‘scrapes’ for tweets and search and order the data we retrieved, download it and analyse it in various ways. However, earlier this year, ScraperWiki had their access to the Twitter API revoked. The tools for searching and collecting Twitter data were stopped and never reactivated. We have therefore had to seek alternative means of accessing data.

A political economy of ‘big data’

ESRC-218

ESRC fund the Contagion project, which aims to investigate the various ways in which contagion is both studied and modelled within a cross-disciplinary setting.

Perhaps the more serious issue to which this situation of access to data alludes is the proprietary nature of access, and indeed the data itself. While (largely unlimited) use of Twitter as a service is free to any user that signs up, access to the data on the platform is not. Twitter is, of course, a business. Just like many other ‘social’ platforms the data Twitter receives from its users is valuable and can be packaged as a commodity. There is therefore a political economy to this kind of ‘big data’ and accordingly political economic issues for ‘big data’ research.

Access is a commodity

If a researcher relies on the free API access to a platform, with its attendant vagaries of how much data one can access and for how long, then that researcher is at the mercy of the changing limits and access policies of that API. On the other hand, if one pays for access to data, to avoid the uncertainty of access (how much data and for how long), then expect to pay handsomely. Both main ‘certified partners’ that sell access to Twitter data, Datasift and Gnip (recently bought by Twitter), render access a commodity – you not only pay for the data but also for the processing power/time it takes to extract it and the ‘enrichments’ they add, by resolving shortened URLs for you, attributing sentiment to a given tweet (positive, neutral, negative) and so on.

The costs charged by ‘resellers’ of data are not insignificant in terms of typical research budgets, with some charging through a subscription model – requiring customers to commit for a minimum of six months. Twitter themselves have advertised their own ‘data grant‘ scheme, which came into operation this year, and offered a limited number of opportunities to access data through a competitive application process, not dissimilar to funding grant calls. Of the 1300 applicants only six (or 0.5 per cent) were granted data (the numbers here come from this Fortune article).

Data are proprietary goods

The corollary to gaining access to proprietary data is that the license one agrees to abide by for access to Twitter data states that you cannot share that data. Therefore, investing in any form of data access (via the API or a ‘reseller’) through publicly funded research is problematic. For we are all asked to submit data attained in a publicly-funded project to data archives to allow other researchers to access and use it, which is prohibited by Twitter’s Terms of Service (1.4.1). As others have observed, it is possible to get around this by archiving only the unique ID code for each tweet and leaving it up to any future researchers to download the tweets using those IDs, thereby not breaching the Terms of Service. However, with the limits to the API outlined above, for a large corpus of tweets (> 1m, say) this might take a rather long time. A quick calculation suggests, using the status/lookup API, with one ‘access token’ it would take 13 hours 48 mins (at 100 tweets per request, 180 requests per 15 minutes = 72,000 tweets per hour) solid use of the API (without any hitches) to download one million tweets. Not impossible then, but perhaps significantly inconvenient – and reliant upon the system of unique IDs remaining the same for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, such restrictions may be suggested to run counter to the requirements set on research data gathered using UK research councils funds. The (UK) ESRC, who funded Contagion, have general principles in their Research Data Policy that suggest:

  • Publicly-funded research data are a public good, produced in the public interest.
  • Publicly-funded research data should be openly available to the maximum extent possible.

This asks difficult questions of us as researchers: Should we be using data sources (however potentially interesting/valuable) that restrict the capability of reproducing our research results? Should we be using public funds to pay for data that are restricted in such ways?

Not free, not easy

Some argue that conducting research using Twitter data has become something of a fad across academe, but in practice it proves neither to be easy (without non-trivial IT expertise and/or understanding of the policies of Twitter as a company), nor free: it requires investment in terms of hours of work (designing and/or operating systems to collect, store and analyse the data), it may require paid access (depending on what kind of sample of data you require), and it comes with usage restrictions.

This has led to the principal arenas of Twitter-based research occurring outside of the academy – a lot of data science, in fact, is conducted by commercial organisations. Whether or not this research is meaningful is open to interpretation. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, as others have suggested, an awful lot of (computationally-driven) social science is being done by ‘non-academic’ researchers, amongst whom there are significant numbers of people with advanced levels of relevant IT skills. However, I argue that one of the unfortunate effects of this shift in the locus of research is a lack of criticality.

One might convincingly argue, for example, that there is an awful lot of data visualisation for its own sake. It doesn’t necessarily argue anything, instead it describes an impressive amount of data in a visually appealing manner. Equally, there is tendency in some technically-led social research to assume that the context of data, or even the hypotheses one might pose and use that data to address, are secondary to its formatting or scale. For example, in a conversation with a sales person for a data provider I was advised that as a geographer I ought to study the picture sharing platform Instagram because that had the highest take-up of geo-located content. What that content represents, or what kinds of questions we can or might ask of it is therefore of secondary importance to the fact that there is geo-location metadata.

This is not to suggest that valuable ‘theory building’ research cannot be conducted through forms of data mining. We might not know the questions we can ask of the kinds (and scales) of data we are being faced with without performing exploratory analyses. Nevertheless, if we want to be surprised by the data (which may include concluding it is not particularly interesting for various reasons), as others have suggested, we surely need to implement critical forms of inquiry.

The point of this blog post is that to study social media data, and in particular Twitter data, is to concern oneself with emerging economies of data and their attendant politics. Rather than considering platforms like commercial social networking systems as easy and plentiful sources of research data, they require hard work: it is hard to gain access to that data (as non-technical and non-wealthy academic researchers); and: some hard critical epistemological reflection is required upon what can and cannot be asked and/or concluded given the specificities of each kind of dataset and data source we use. The means of access, the APIs and other elements necessary to access the data, are important interlocutors in the stories we tell with these data.

It remains possible to do particular kinds of research with the Twitter data one can access through the APIs, but we have to think pretty carefully about what kinds of questions we can and should ask of these data, and the system from which they are derived.

Workshop on grid infrastructure and public acceptance in London

Participants from across Europe met to discuss the challenges of gaining public consent for grid infrastructure during the workshop hosted by the University of Exeter and CEDREN in London last week.

Several countries have major plans to upgrade their grids, for a range of reasons including connecting new, climate neutral energy production as well as needs related to maintain and increase security of supply. However, in many countries, plans for new high voltage power lines have often been met with strong opposition and there is general agreement that grid companies as well as responsible authorities need to address the challenges related to public engagement and participation to better reconcile these conflicts.

This week nearly 50 interested people from several European countries met to discuss challenges of improved public involvement in high voltage grid planning processes. Representatives from grid companies and transmission system (TSO) operators in Norway and the UK, as well as energy authorities, NGOs, researchers and other stakeholders from across Europe attended the workshop, which was hosted by the project SusGrid and the University of Exeter.

The workshop presented key findings from the SusGrid project, a four year interdisciplinary project with primary funding from the Norwegian Research Council. The project has included international research cooperation, primarily between the Norwegian research center CEDREN, and two UK universities; University of Exeter and University of Durham. The project started in the aftermaths of highly controversial projects such as Beauly-Denny in the UK and the Hardanger (Sima-Samnanger) project in Norway. The workshop offered opportunities for grid companies and authorities to share their experiences and their recent efforts to enhance dialogue and participation as well as providing input from stakeholder groups both concerning climate and landscape conservation challenges. Obviously, the challenges raised in the workshop are often similar across countries and regions.

Delegates at the workshop.

Delegates at the workshop. Image by Pete Hodges, University of Exeter.

The SusGrid project provides significant knowledge input to develop more sustainable grid regimes and to foster understanding of public acceptance of new power lines. Findings suggest that the key factors promoting acceptance of power lines include trust in the TSO, fair and meaningful planning procedures that involve local residents, mitigation of visual and other environmental impacts and the adoption of a sustainability approach to environmental benefits.

Read more about results from the Susgrid project.

Presentations from the workshop.

More info: Project leader , SINTEF energy research or

Towards an all-electric future?

Dr Martin Elliott from EDF Energy discusses the electric vehicles’ rise in popularity, the different types of vehicle available and what the future holds for  their popularity.

This blog post first appeared on Climate & Us– a collaboration between University of Exeter, Met Office and EDF Energy that provides a place to talk about the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change.

We take a look at some exciting developments in electric vehicles, and whether they can really offer a sustainable long-term alternative to the petrol/diesel ones.

You’ve been working on electric vehicles (EVs) for a few years now. How do progress and innovation compare to the expectations you had when you started?

When I joined the team about three years ago, despite being a keen car enthusiast, I didn’t know much about electric vehicles. The thing that struck me straight away was how good they are to drive. They use regenerative braking, which harnesses energy that would otherwise be lost and uses it to increase the range of the car. It is really impressive, and together with the instant power from the electric motor, it adds to the pleasurable and relaxed driving feel.

From driving early prototype vehicles such as the MINI E back in 2012, I have seen how rapidly the technology has progressed since then. The latest production vehicles are refined, practical and desirable. Advances in battery technology and the use of heating and cooling systems on the cars has increased the efficiency of the vehicles and extended the driving range. You can also now charge them quicker and connect remotely through smart technology to switch the charging on or off and pre heat or cool the car before you even go out to the vehicle.

What have been the main triggers for progress in that area?

As more manufacturers begin to look at electric technology it increases the number of people working in this field. This increases the knowledge and skills base and also brings down the costs associated with their development and production as the products become more mass market rather than low volume niches.

Investment funding from the government in schemes relating to low carbon vehicle technology, vehicle purchase subsidies and charging infrastructure grants have all helped play a part.

Carbon emission reduction from transport is a key topic on the agenda around the world and more time and money is being spent on it. We are seeing multinational collaboration into research and development to share the knowledge and spread the cost.

Sales of electric cars are booming – registrations have more than doubled in the first half of 2014. Could you talk us through the different types of car available?

It is really encouraging to see the figures about booming sales, and even more encouraging to actually see the vehicles on the road. Driving home yesterday I saw four on my journey from Brighton to London, and that’s not including the one I was driving!

I purchased a Nissan Leaf earlier this year as my own personal car. The Leaf is a full battery EV which means that there is no petrol/diesel engine on board, and it can only be fuelled with electricity.

For those people that may need to go a little further from time to time, a range-extender may be more suitable. This type of vehicle has a petrol or diesel powered generator on board that produces more electricity to propel the vehicle until such time that it can be plugged in again.

A third type of electric vehicle is a plug-in hybrid. This type can be powered by electricity obtained by plugging into the mains, or powered by a petrol/diesel engine when the electricity has run out. They typically have a lower ‘electric only’ range than the range-extender, and the other main difference is that the petrol/diesel engine propels the vehicle when running, whereas the range-extender is always propelled by the electric motor.

Can you see electric cars ever becoming mainstream? Or do you think the future lies with other fuels?

I believe that the future of transport will be a mixture of technologies. This will certainly include electric power but it won’t be the sole fuel, and I see thing such as hydrogen also playing a part.

Electric cars are at a stage now when they are starting to become more mainstream. They are now being put together with petrol and diesel vehicles in showrooms and motor show stands, rather than being singled out as something different.

Public recognition and acceptance is also growing and I think over the next couple of years people will start to give serious consideration to them when making a new vehicle purchase decision.

Can electric vehicles achieve mainstream popularity?

Can electric vehicles achieve mainstream popularity?

What do you think will be the single most important thing needed for that to happen?

The single most important thing that I believe will increase EV sales is purchase price reduction. At the moment they are more expensive than an equivalent petrol/diesel and this really puts a lot of people off. Over the whole life of a vehicle an EV can be a lot cheaper than running a combustion engine (cheaper to fuel, no road tax, no congestion charge, lower maintenance, less BIK tax for company car drivers) but people don’t realise that and only see the higher purchase price.

However, things are starting to change on that front and a really significant milestone has been achieved recently by Mitsubishi. They have priced their new Outlander plug-in hybrid at the same price as the diesel equivalent. As a result they are seeing record sales and hopefully this could be the catalyst for other manufacturers to follow suit.

How much pressure would a wholesale adoption of electric vehicles (and the building of the necessary charging network) put on the UK electricity grid? And how much carbon savings would it actually deliver?

The ideal scenario for owning a plug-in vehicle is being able to charge it at home (for the public) or at a work location (for businesses). This way the recharging can be done overnight when there is spare capacity on the grid and generally cheaper tariff prices for using it.

Public charging such as on streets and in car parks is a good tool to give reassurance to people that they could top up while out if needed. However, research figures show that by far the majority of charging is done at home and work.

Overall carbon savings and ability to provide energy rely on a low carbon grid mix and it’s vital that the energy supplies around the world are decarbonised as much as possible to realise the benefits of electric vehicles.

You’ve been working with manufacturers, and organising quite a few test drives around EDF Energy’s offices, giving employees the opportunity to try the cars for themselves. What’s the reaction like on the whole?

Reaction to these events has been fantastic. The test drive slots were all snapped up within 24 hours of being announced and interest on the day at the sites has been great. We’ve seen crowds of people looking at the cars, asking questions, sitting in them and taking photographs. It’s been really nice for me to introduce electric vehicles to a new audience and to talk directly with people to dispel any misconceptions they may have. I have also had a couple of people say to me that they would now seriously consider an EV when buying a new car, whereas before the event they wouldn’t have.

And finally, what do you think is the most exciting electric vehicle right now?

There are two cars that I see as exciting developments and possible game changers in the EV market. Firstly is the BMW i8 sports car which has just been launched. This is one of the best looking cars around and coupled with the incredible driving performance, is providing an inspirational halo car for plug-ins.

Secondly is the Tesla Model 3 which is currently still in development. With this car Tesla are aiming to bring performance and prestige at a lower price. The product pricing is being targeted at the executive car sector of the market and could lead to rapid growth of electric vehicles amongst this high volume sales area.

Topping out – lets rock this slow news day

The Exeter Science Park is starting to take shape with the Science Park Centre recently holding a ‘Topping Out Ceremony’. If you’re not sure what this ceremopny is or what it means for the progress of the project then blog by Exeter Science Park’s Project Officer Samantha Chidley will explain…

The much anticipated Topping Out Ceremony for the Science Park Centre recently took place to the delight of the parties involved.

Delegates gather at Exeter Science Park for the 'Topping Out' ceremony

Hard hats in place – delegates gather at Exeter Science Park for the ‘Topping Out’ ceremony

For those of you who do not know what is involved in this ceremony then let me explain through the medium of wikipedia:

The practice of ‘topping out’ a new building can be traced to the ancient Scandinavian religious practice of placing a tree on the top of a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits of their ancestors that had been displaced in its construction.

So on the day in question we gathered, donned the hard hats and marched to the roof of the Science Park Centre for the tightening of a bolt!

The tradition marked an important stage in this project which is central to achieving ongoing prosperity for the region. The Science Park Centre will attract and support science and technology business to grow and collaborate with other research institutions across the city and further afield, which will ultimately provide more skilled jobs in the area (estimated 3,000 – 4,000 throughout the entire Science Park).

If you are interested in finding more about the Science Park – which is genuinely an excellent initiative for the City then please post below or contact me on s.chidley@exeter.ac.uk

Can fashion ever be sustainable?

To celebrate World Fashion Day Dr Clare Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics, writes about the darker side of fashion and the problem with fast-fashion. Dr Saunders also discusses her new project which explores whether teaching people to make or mend clothes encourages sustainable clothing choices…

There is a new buzz-phrase in fashion circles: ‘sustainable fashion’. A number of Universities now offer Masters courses in the topic. But can there ever be such a thing as ‘sustainable fashion’?

Fashion, by its very nature, encourages a buy-now-discard-tomorrow culture. Most fashion trends last less than a season. High street retailers are motivated to produce clothes that will fly off the shelves, but which the consumer will need to replace in a short period of time. Economic drivers encourage cheap production of clothes and rapidly changing high-street window displays. The relatively low cost of high-street fashion items and the fast turn-around of trends works against sustainability. People are no longer motivated to mend that worn pair of baggy jeans when drain pipes replace them as a trend. Fashion, therefore has huge sustainability implications. The environmental, social and even psychological effects of fashion are increasingly coming to light.

The environmental consequences of the fashion industry are well-documented. The resource demands are no small deal: the water resource required to grow and process cotton for just one T-shirt is estimated at around 600 litres (Turley et al 2009). Intensively grown cotton also produces toxic waste. It accounts for a quarter of all pesticide use in the US (Claudio 2007) and has negative effects on eco-systems and food chains as recently suggested by the controversy over bees and neo-nicotinoids.

Irene Griffin (left) from Falmouth University and Dr Clare Saunders (right) with exhibits from the Fashion Footprints travelling exhibition at the launch of their new research collaboration.

Irene Griffin (left) from Falmouth University and Dr Clare Saunders (right) with exhibits from the Fashion Footprints travelling exhibition at the launch of their new research collaboration.

Clothing is also considered to make a significant contribution to anthropogenically induced climate change. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has identified clothing as the biggest single material contributor to carbon emissions, producing twice the carbon emissions associated with producing aluminium. Around 90 per cent of clothes in the UK market are imported, mainly from Asian countries, attractive to industry for low costs, with high ‘clothes miles’, associated pollution and inequality.

The 2013 disaster in the Rana Plaza building, Bangladesh, brought the social externalities of fast-fashion into sharp relief. There, low paid textile workers were ordered to work in a building visibly structurally damaged on the day it collapsed, injuring over 2,000. In return for hard labour, workers are paid a pittance. Fashion also contributes to insecurity, psychological illnesses and eating disorders. Moreover, individuals remain unskilled in making and mending clothes for themselves, resulting in a sense of powerlessness.

Reversing fast-fashion is no simple matter. Many are aware of the dark side of fashion, but they get caught in a value-behaviour gap because low quality disposable fashion dominates the market; and ethical clothing is considered unfashionable/unattractive, is a niche market and is expensive. Low quality fast-fashion items are more readily available in the market place, making it difficult to behave in an alternative manner. Furthermore, clothing has deep connections with individual identities, socio-economic status, emotions and lifestyles, and is rooted in socio-cultural attachments.

In the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, I’m working with textile artist Sue Bamford on a project that seeks to understand whether teaching people to make and mend clothes helps them to develop more sustainable clothing choices. Given the nature of the fashion industry described above, we prefer to talk of ‘sustainable clothing choices’ than ‘sustainable fashion’.

We will be offering four free half-day clothes-making workshops to interested individuals. The research element involves conducting interviews with participants prior to and after their clothes-making workshops to monitor any changes in their clothing choices. Individuals interested in participating in the project should email me on c.saunders@exeter.ac.uk.

Women and energy

Professor Catherine Mitchell is Professor of Energy Policy

A recent Ernst and Young report has shown that only four per cent of executive board members of the top 100 utility companies is female. Not only does the sector have minimal women, but it is also primarily older and white in character – with 60 per cent of its management over 40. The report argues that this is worrying in terms of diversity of thinking given that the current big kit, centralised energy model is in the middle of fundamental disruptive change and needs new and innovative thinking and practices.

The E&Y report focuses on business but there are similar problems across the energy public policy interface, whether in Government, civil service, the Regulator, NGOs, academia and so on. The outright daily sexism of energy in the 1980’s and 1990’s – which I endured – has been replaced with a much less obvious version – but it is still very powerfully there.

Look at any ‘mainstream’ energy conference and the routinely male speakers. There are numerous as-well qualified women around but they are often not chosen. One example of the mind-set of energy which has to be overcome is illuminated by an International Women’s Day Conference I organised in 2012. It was not marketed as a women’s conference. The only difference between it and the numerous, other, very well-attended conferences I have organised was that 100 per cent of the speakers were women. Although the topic of the day was very relevant; the women top-notch and interesting; very few men attended. This despite the fact that women routinely attend meetings where all the speakers are men, or where some of the male speakers have less merit than themselves.

Gender issues

Gender issues are complex – as is energy. With apologies for the simplicity of the sweeping statement, on the whole, industries with money are dominated by men. ‘Successful’ women tend to manage to make it first in sectors where the pay or societal kudos is less. I have always thought that Brenda Boardman and I were only able to get into energy academia in the way we did back in the late 1980’s / early 1990’s because we worked on renewable energy and energy efficiency respectively – something which was very uninteresting and unimportant to the general energy world at the time. Nor is it a coincidence that she ran, and I run, a group with many women members.

Some countries and some energy industry structures are better than others. For example, if the industry structure is made up of a few large companies, in a centralised system (as it is in GB) then there is less opportunity for new entrants of any description. More devolved, decentralised political systems – such as the US system with 50 States or the German system with Lander – again provides more opportunities because there are more jobs to be filled. Googling ‘women in energy’ does bring up many support groups, but interestingly the first page of links are all in the US or Canada.

Under threat, Governments, the Regulator, the civil service and companies may choose those who more easily fit in and who do not rock the boat rather than the more uncomfortable person who pushes for change.

In parallel to this, the very competitive British university system promotes academics based on the number of journal articles they produce; the amount of grant money they bring in; and to a much smaller degree, the impact of their work – ie whether anyone takes any notice of what they do. At root, over and above the basic requirement of being reasonably bright, promotion comes down to how many hours someone is prepared to put in and how much travel they are prepared to do, in and around their teaching. In a perfect world, with a couple who equally shares childcare this should not affect women adversely – except for the maternity leave time. Those academics – men or women – that do not have children, or who have a partner more able or willing to spend more than the 50 per cent on childcare will be able to spend more time on producing the outputs on which they will be assessed by. All things being equal, in a job interview situation, the latter would be offered the position. Academics undergo a ‘snapshot’ assessment of this criteria once every five or so years. Together all the ‘values’ of the academics in a university are summed and this leads to the university league tables, the basis of university economics. Academia is undergoing its own revolution at the moment and universities are very conservative places. Without doubt, the anyway very tough world is even tougher for men or women, who would like to have children and spend time with them.

Combine the difficulties of women in academia with the conservative, big tech world of energy and one can see that there are substantial issues that have to be overcome in energy: women have to be chosen for jobs but also those jobs have to be enjoyable and attractive to women.

Athena Swan

‘Sorting out these issues to enable women to take the place they wish to within energy (and society) is complex and multi-facetted. Within academic energy, research councils are starting to make some demands on universities about women on grants, although it has made little difference in practice. Similarly, the Athena Swan programme in STEM subjects has at least opened the gender subject up, even if, again, under the fundamental incentives of academic life in Britain this makes little difference. Within business, the E and Y report sets out how different countries have attempted to stimulate more women on boards, and to get the ‘pipeline’ – the development process in place to enable sufficient meritocratic women to be available at each level within business – underway. For example, Norway legislated in 2003 for a 40 per cent quota for females on boards of state-owned firms by 2006 and on boards of publicly traded firms by 2008.

To me, one very important aspect of change – whether in energy or within society – comes down to the governance process in place, and how that governance process provides incentives which either maintains the system or encourages new ways of doing things. Those that gain from the current systems tend to promote its continuation. I know that within energy there are many brilliant and effective women who are overlooked. I agree with E and Y that new thinking and practices needs diverse input into that thinking. The position of women in society has improved since my youth; as it has improved from the world my mother worked in as a Medical Doctor; and as her time has improved from my grandmother’s world, where she (but not her husband) was required to give up work as a teacher when she got married. But both society and energy are changing much too slowly. I strongly support a quota for women on boards – not just to inject some new thinking now – but also because it will act as a pull for women throughout the rest of society. I also support a research council requirement that all programmes, grants and so on supported by research councils should meet a minimum percentage of members, speakers etc.

I am not someone who believes that the people (usually men) in charge have got there through some ‘objective’, entirely meritocratic process. It is time to even things up a bit.

Value creation and waste reduction in a circular economy

The Business Leaders Forum (BLF) is a regular event run by the University of Exeter. Aimed primarily at chief executives and senior management, it is a membership-based organisation that enables influential business people to stay up-to-date with current trends in business. Julie Whittaker, a Senior Lecturer in the Organisation of Markets at the University of Exeter Business School, gives her thoughts on the latest meeting, which had the topic of a circular economy.

Experts have urged businesses to grasp new opportunities that can help to combat the twin challenges of rising resource prices and waste costs.

The call came at the latest BLF, hosted by the University of Exeter, where it was highlighted that companies which fail to come to terms with these challenges are in danger of becoming less competitive. To take advantage of the new prospects, businesses need to position themselves as part of a circular economy, within which, in principle, all materials are cycled infinitely.

A diagram illustrating the circular economy. Courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

James Walker, Head of Innovation for Net Positive at Kingfisher plc spoke about the steps his company, a large multinational retailer (which includes B&Q and Screw Fix) have started to take in moving the economy away from the take-make-waste linear pattern towards a more circular process in which goods are designed with either recycling, or even better, reuse in mind.

James told attendees that electric drills are used on average for only 20 minutes in their whole life. He suggested that a better deal, both for the customer and the retailer would be to offer a box of tools for specific DIY tasks for hire rather than for sale. This would mean fewer tools manufactured and at the end of life the materials in the tools could be more readily recovered.

We might question what this could mean for current tool manufacturers? As with most structural economic change, there are likely to be both gainers and losers.

A circular economy is beneficial to the natural environmental, but James was keen to emphasise that while previously businesses have been motivated to reduce their environmental impact on ethical grounds, today it was a business necessity to adjust to the new market conditions.

The second speaker, Devon based Mark Hodgson, a sustainability consultant with QSA Partners outlined the different types of circular economy business models, explaining how they can be adopted, giving South West examples.

These models not only place a greater emphasis on providing services rather than products (eg providing access to tools rather than tool sales) but also give attention to design for reuse and recycling. Drawing on the example of Co-Cars (the Exeter car club he helped to establish) he illustrated how digital technology which provided easy access and monitoring of car use, enabled the circular economy business models to be commercialised.

The University of Exeter Business School will be running workshops on the new circular economy business models, in the autumn. Anyone interested in learning more should contact Julie Whittaker by email on .

Small businesses in a time of change

This post is by Sophie O’Callaghan and first appeared on the Climate & Us blog.

Smaller and medium-sized businesses are the life-blood of the UK’s economy. How are they preparing for climate change?

In the UK in 2013 the business sector accounted for around 16 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions so it’s clear that businesses have an important role to play in helping to reduce the impacts of climate change. Many businesses will also feel the impacts of climate change on their activities and on their profit margin.

At the Centre for Business and Climate Solutions we are working to help businesses to take action to prevent and adapt to future climate change. The CBCS is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund 2007-2013 under the South West Competiveness Programme.

The tourism industry is vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather.

I hope that as awareness of climate change becomes more widespread, more businesses will take notice and think about how they can best respond. Larger businesses are in a better position, as they are able to hire consultants and employ specialists to guide their decision making. But what about the smaller businesses? The majority of small businesses are taking some form of action to reduce their carbon emissions. But many business owners don’t know how to adapt and respond to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Part of my role is to help businesses to consider the best course of action.

It seems to me that the concept of climate change and its potential impacts is still relatively new to most people. Understandably, business owners therefore want to gain a better understanding before making any decisions about what to do. Add this cautious approach to a general difficulty among smaller businesses to consider the long term, plus a lack of time and money and we have a recipe for inaction.

Tourism

In my role I work on a personal, one-to-one basis with businesses. It is rewarding to help people to understand that a positive response to climate change can, in many cases, be a simple matter of identifying the risks and making effective plans. This can help a business to keep its doors open, stay profitable and maybe even get ahead of the competition. I have come across cases of businesses that have looked ahead and prepared their premises against flooding. After recent flood events they have been back to normal trading after a few days whilst their neighbours faced recovery times of several months.

It is great to see that some businesses that we work with are already taking climate change on board and beginning to act. People working in the construction sector, such as architects and builders, are telling me that they are more than ready to consider climate change impacts. This is because they can see that the decisions they make today will affect the buildings that we will all be living and working in 100 years from now. Sadly the tourism sector is quite vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events. This year many tourism businesses in the South West found that, even though only a few businesses suffered from the extreme weather earlier in 2014, people were still put off taking their holidays in the region due to a perception that the whole area was still affected.

Contact us via twitter: @ExeterCBCS or visit our website.

The success of TickBox

 

TickBox – a website set up by Exeter student Matt Morley to help people compare election candidates and decide who to vote for – picked up two awards at this year’s SETSquared Student Enterprise Awards. TickBox Head of Marketing Alex Scott-Malden tells us about their awards experience…

Sometimes it takes a nudge from the outside to look up and realise what you have done.

In the run up to the SetSquared awards we were hardly aware they were happening. All four of us were feverishly writing proposals, meeting investors and planning the next stage of TickBox. Our stall for the event was put together in the minutes we could find in between sending emails and general working. It may sound a little self-congratulatory but I think it was when we turned up at the evening that we realised what we’d done might just have worked.

We spent a good hour talking to people about TickBox, seeing their interest pique as we mentioned the 41,000 people who’d used the site or the articles written about us, including one in the Independent. It was great to watch people having a go on our touch screen computer and seeing who they were matched with. A moment of comedy occurred when a member of the Conservative party was recommended he shouldn’t vote for himself…

The awards dinner itself was wonderful, there’s something really quite magical about going up on stage. Under the lights we ended up collecting both the Best Student Start – Up and the People’s Choice award.

From the bottom of our hearts we’d like to thank Ignite, the Students Guild, the University and everyone who came and voted for us. You all made us feel special.