Proof that confirms faith

Part of the scientific method is to experiment. 

It starts with a question.  The next step is to look around and see who else has asked a similar question.  Then you construct an experiment to test your ideas about how to answer the question.  This experiment either proves your ideas were right or that they were wrong. 

If the ideas were right, you need to communicate the result to others to save them asking the same question again, because you know the answer.  If the ideas were wrong, then you need to go back to the start and ask the question again. 

I have spent over 30 years using this approach and it has rarely failed to help me understand more.  It also applies nicely to the development of technology.  If you think that your technology is ready – you test it in some kind of demonstrator.  Either the demonstrator works, and your faith in the technology is vindicated, or the demonstrator fails and you have to go back and try again.  Actually, because most technology demonstrators are complex systems, the result is usually a complex blend of bits that work and bits that need to be rethought.

We seem to be doing a lot of demonstrator phase activity at the moment.  Our Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator competition, which opened back in January, will have its formal launch this week, on June 23rd.   Here we are testing the various potential power-trains and associated systems that might enable us to maintain our current levels of personal and mass transport whilst lowering the emission of greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide) to levels that would enable future generations to inherit a less uncomfortable planet! 

There are a bewildering array of options, each with its protagonists and detractors.  Each has a different set of variables to consider when deciding at this point in time whether they are credible and viable.  We will put just over 300 cars on the road in the next year and be able to test just some of those variables. 

To put this demonstration in context, we are testing one thousandth of a percent of the current number of cars on the UKs roads.  The data we derive from this “experiment” will feedback into the rest of the Innovation Platform and enable us to support work that answers the questions we didn’t answer this time.  There will need to be a further demonstrator in a couple of years’ time – with more cars and more difficult questions.  This is inherent in the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Teams “Test Bed UK” concept and we are working with the other interested parties to make sure the continuity of the overall programme in maintained.

Meanwhile, the Low Impact Buildings Innovation Platform has its own demonstrator – the Retrofit for the Future competition.  The Innovation Platform itself has been supporting various programmes to develop the components necessary to build a low impact house, but it was time to test our progress.  We were fortunate that Communities and Local Government and the Homes and Communities Agency were interested in using their housing stock to provide the necessary test houses for this important test.  Once again, houses are complex systems and will need several demonstrators over the next decades as we develop both the components and systems that we will need to provide housing that enables us to live in comfort whilst not making the problem of climate change worse.  We have increased the size of the programme to enable around 200 houses to be retrofitted to give deep cuts in energy use – but again, as a very small fraction of the 26 million homes in the UK, these will only act as demonstrators and help develop the technology packages –eventually lowering the cost of applying these technologies for the rest of us.

Also this week saw the launch of our “digital test beds” as part of our support for the agenda put forward under the banner of “Digital Britain.  Again, it’s a system we are proposing to test and thus the results will be complex – with many elements of technology and the interaction with people to spice things up.  This is earlier in its development and we won’t be announcing the full details for a couple of months, but it does fit the evolving pattern of our activities.

The important aspect of these demonstrators is that they are expensive to carry out.  The Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator sees the investments of £25m of government money (£10m from us, £10 from the Department for Transport and £5m from Advantage West Midlands, One North East and the South East England Development Agency).  This is matched by the companies taking part to build an overall programme worth more that £50m.  Retrofit for the Future sees an investment of £20m of government money, and should hopefully lead to a wider roll-out of the technologies in the social housing sector.  We have committed £10m to the digital test bed programme, this year, but we will almost certainly have to invest more in this type of activity in the future.  We are therefore very careful to make sure that the money is well spent – we have learnt that careful planning and the design of all aspects at all scales are vital ingredients of a successful programme. 

That said, these are still experiments.  We need to test unproven technologies, or why are we doing them?  We need to work on whole systems and we need to take account of how the world will change around us over the next years and decades if we are extract the maximum value from these demonstrators.  And we need to widely publicise the results, what works and what doesn’t if we are to realise the wider value of these programmes. 

In the development process, sometimes failure can be as valuable as success – although I know it won’t feel like it at the time!!


Last updated on Thursday 06 August 2009 at 09:37

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  • Duisberg|05/08/09 at 9:36 AM

    Probably posting this in the wrong place, but here goes...

    Instead of blowing huge amounts of public cash on pointless projects (£25 million on electric minis ?!) when the UK contributes only a tiny amount of C02, why not use the money to lobby/cajole/encourage the US, India and China to stop opening a new coal-fired power statation every week ?! We know the answer already - because it will put many in Government funded Outfits like this out of business.

    Further opinion/discussion here :

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