Beautiful China: Big Impact

After years of focusing solely on industrial development and economic growth, China has begun prioritising environmental protection to avoid pollution-related social unrest. As a broker contact succinctly put it, “People are getting sick of walking around in the set of Blade Runner”.

In the past, the only accurate (or honest) source of air quality data came from the equipment located on top of the US embassy in Beijing. But things are changing. Environmental policy has been tightened, aggressive targets have been set and most importantly, by putting the environment on a more equal footing with regional economic development, local officials are becoming more motivated and able to enforce environmental compliance.

However, air quality in China remains very poor. A problem which is exacerbated further in the winter (mid-Nov to mid-March), with more coal being burned for heating compounded by the seasonally still weather conditions. To avoid further ‘airpocalypse’, China has curtailed production from a range of heavy industries (e.g. aluminium, steel, cement) during the winter in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 surrounding areas; its so-called ‘2+26 Plan’:

Source – UBS EvidenceLab, World Air Quality Index project, UBS are actually tracking air pollution in China as a leading economic indicator

But since China remains the largest single market for most industrial and energy commodities, its shutting down of domestic industries is having multiple sustainability-related investment consequences.

Which are? Well, not least a trend favouring high-quality versus low-quality commodity feedstock. The former requires less energy for processing and therefore results in less pollution. China’s crackdown is (currently) seasonal, but there are also long-term (sustainability-related) structural drivers which favours this trend (See: When’s a commodity not a commodity?).

And for those ‘dirty’ industries that want to continue to operate, greater enforcement and monitoring is forcing Chinese producers to improve their pollution controls. Therefore higher expenditure for them but also demand for end-of-pipe clean-up technologies (also underpinned by China’s new emission trading scheme).

Finally, underpinning China’s move away from coal, there is the structural shift in favour of renewables, gas, nuclear and EVs, and the associated demand boost for ‘green’ commodities.

History shows that economic development (unfortunately) often brings environmental deterioration, which in turn prompts policy-induced measures to protect the environment as wealth increases. There’s no reason why this can’t happen in China as well as it seeks to shift its economy away from dirty basic industries. The real test of the current plans will come in the December to February period, when China tends to be hit by its most toxic smog episodes.

Masters of (Dealing with) Disaster

Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 was one of the most damaging storms in history disrupting and claiming lives across the US. Around the same time, South Asia experienced some of its worst flooding in years, costing more than 1,000 lives. Not long after, another Hurricane, ripped through the Caribbean and Florida, followed by Hurricanes José and Maria, devastating cities and island nations and leaving tens of thousands homeless, without power, food and water. 

The number of disasters resulting in at least $1 billion in damage is on the rise.  With 15 such events to date in 2017, there has never been more focus on disaster management and recovery.

Alongside governments and NGOs providing humanitarian relief, efforts have been joined, and in some cases led, by corporations. Alphabet is flying internet-transmitting balloons over Puerto Rico to restore lost connectivity. Emergency supplies within the country were stuck at ports due to damaged roads and a lack of capability for drivers and dispatchers to coordinate their efforts. The ability to communicate after a disaster of this scale is essential.

Social media has changed disaster response. Facebook’s safety-check tool allows users in emergencies to mark themselves as safe on their profiles, alerting their network instantly.

What do all these companies have in common? They’re innovative tech firms. Here we see technology being used to aid in disaster recovery and even save lives. You could argue they’re really doing it to improve their image, which is a particularly devious marketing strategy – but you could also argue they’re doing it entirely out of selflessness. These efforts are not necessarily for profit; they are using their resources for the good of society.

More and more cities are taking up state-wide emergency service systems, allowing corporations, emergency services and individuals to remain connected. The Everbridge critical event management software has sent over 4 billion messages globally, over 20 million of which were to support efforts around Hurricane Irma. During the Californian Wine Country wildfires, Everbridge saw 15,000 new registrants per hour. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s office used Everbridge to first alert residents about the multiple fires, which was closely followed by evacuation alerts, potentially saving lives.

Of course there is more than technology required in these situations. Tetra Tech (Tech by name, not just tech by nature…) call themselves the “Masters of (Dealing with) Disaster”. They work with communities, preparing them for potential disasters through activities such as event drills and planning exercises. Tetra Tech also help communities recover from disaster situations, helping to rebuild and all the while increasing their preparedness for the future.

Tetra Tech said it as well as we could:


“After everything is said and done, preparedness, response, and recovery all come down to helping people get their lives back.”

Tech(s) and the City

A woman’s car is waiting outside her front door to take her to work, she checks her emails on the journey, once there her electric car drives itself off to park and recharge. A family of flying maintenance robots lives atop an apartment block, working to clear leaves blown into the gutter overnight. A man has a heart attack in the street – the emergency services send a drone equipped with a defibrillator arriving crucial minutes before an ambulance can.

Whether this is your idea of a future utopia or dystopia, the evolution of cities is already well underway. Smart cities across the globe are pioneering all sorts of cutting-edge technologies to reduce pollution, boost energy efficiency, increase safety and improve services. Not only is this helping to protect our planet and its inhabitants, it is stimulating growth and unleashing a new generation of jobs.

What does ‘Smart City’ actually mean?

It can be interpreted in many different ways, but primarily a smart city today is about ubiquitous connectivity. Making optimal use of all the interconnected information available to better understand and control its operations, and to optimise the use of limited resources.

It is live waste management systems that can talk to traffic monitoring systems for quicker and more efficient waste solutions, emergency services that can access live CCTV footage and sensors that track air pollution in real time – allowing citizens with asthma to avoid certain routes when air pollution is high.

It is an ever-evolving space, with some cities far more developed than others. NYC has rooftop wind turbines. Dubai is using water jetpacks to skip traffic and tackle fires from the air. Singapore is doing just about everything. Our home of Edinburgh… well Edinburgh has a state-of-the-art tram all the way to the airport.

It doesn’t mean the world has to look like a scene out of an old Jetsons cartoon. It is about improving the quality of life for citizens, utilising technology to be able to respond to the needs of citizens quickly and efficiently, at scale and in an eco-friendly manner.

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Companies which contribute to the development of smart cities, even indirectly, have profound sustainable advantages on health, safety and the environment. We like, and invest in, a number of these:

Tetra Tech – a leading provider of consulting and engineering services. Currently leading a project to help Kenya create its first smart city. A connected city in which everything from the streetlights, to the traffic lights and the irrigation valves will be controlled and optimised from a central system.

Everbridge – a global provider of communications and enterprise safety solutions, is automating the delivery of critical information through apps and warning devices. It is also helping businesses and emergency services locate their people in critical situations. As the state-wide emergency notification program used in Florida, the Everbridge platform is used to send over 20 million messages to combat the impact of Hurricane Irma.

Alphabet – its urban tech subsidiary Sidewalk Labs is currently eyeing up Toronto for its first digital city, “reinvented from the internet up”.

Tencent – the leading provider of internet value-added services in China. Working with Guangzhou city in China to construct a “new type of smart city”. The city will utilise WeChat, Tencent’s popular social media app, in public services for payments, facial recognition, and innovative services in healthcare such as electronic medical records and artificial intelligence.

Kingspan – the Ireland-based building materials company. Everything Kingspan does is smartcity-tastic. From smart LED street lights to smart energy management using the ‘Internet of Things’, everything is smart smart smart. It is currently developing an affordable sensor network for water level monitoring to alert via SMS local business owners, farmers or households in a vulnerable area.