Today a guest post from Lee Bunce, a Green with a keen interest and academic expertise in the relationships between information, democracy and technology.
Scotland is uniquely placed to take advantage of the new technologies that together will shape the future of our planet. It is both geographically and technically well-positioned to place itself at the forefront of renewable energy and information technology. But to make the most of these new technologies it most avoid repeating old mistakes. Rather than handing the benefits, and profits, over to a handful of corporations Scotland should direct its efforts towards its communities.
Scotland’s renewable potential is well understood. It has some best resources in wind, wave and other renewable energy sources of any country in the world. Perhaps less appreciated is Scotland’s potential to be a leader in technology. Scotland’s ICT industry already directly employs around 40,000 people (according to ScotlandIS ), compared to 11,200 in its whisky industry for example, and its games industry in particular is thriving. Government support combined with access to a highly skilled workforce, as well as geographical advantages such as proximity to both the rest of Europe and America, and indeed its renewable energy sources, could help make Scotland a world leader in the field in much the same way that Iceland is to the north.
Development of these industries has so far been carried out along traditional corporate lines. Scotland has hugely ambitious targets for renewable energy, aiming for 100% of Scotland’s electricity to be produced by renewables by 2020 . The majority of this energy will be produced by large scale top-down onshore wind projects, which largely means a continuation of the trend whereby the ‘Big Six’ energy companies provide around 99% of UK energy. The Scottish government meanwhile envisages that around 500MW of this renewable capacity will be community owned, or just around 3% . It’s a start, but nowhere near ambitious enough. In Germany around 65% of its turbines and solar panels are community owned, and Scotland could aim even higher.
Community owned renewable energy comes with a number of benefits. It creates local jobs, keeps money circulating within local economies and builds community cohesion. Projects that are community owned are also more likely to be supported by the communities they serve, which is important at a time when resistance to wind-farms is prevalent. By taking a more ambitious approach to community energy, Scotland reap these benefits on an enormous scale.
Likewise, the way in which information technology works sometimes holds back innovation and progress due to commercial monopolisation. Technology is primarily about knowledge, in particular using knowledge for the benefit of society. Again, development in technology has so far followed the traditional route followed by the rest of the UK, whereby this knowledge economy is built on classic conceptions of private enterprise which commodify knowledge using stringent intellectual property legislation that restricts the use of knowledge and information to those who can afford to pay for it. Again, Scotland could benefit by adopting a more community based approach.
Community here means something different of course. It might mean online communities developing free and open source software that is available to all, or building useful applications based on free and open data. It might even mean communities of artists and musicians using information technologies to make their work freely available under ‘copyleft’ licences, or scientists sharing data and collaborating online. The benefits of adopting this ‘open’ philosophy could be substantial. Relaxing intellectually property laws could stimulate a boom in innovation in technology and beyond as ideas are able to freely spread and developers are able to build on the ideas that came before them.
Supporting free software and open data does not mean being anti-business, as is often claimed. It just means being rejecting business models that do not benefit society in favour of other models that do. Taking free software specifically, this might mean that instead of making a profit by selling expensive licenses to use software while keeping the source code hidden programmers can make money by offering their expertise as a service, providing support or bespoke modifications. The result is that the technological benefits can be spread far and wide (the classic example of this is the GNU/Linux operating system, though there are countless others).
Both these approaches towards new technologies, energy and IT, mean doing something quite different to the economic default. They mean discarding policies and practices that benefit the few in favour of quite radical new ideas that can benefit the many. Given that the future of these technologies and industries will likely shape the future of Scotland, and indeed the planet, any method of distributing benefits as widely as possible deserve to be taken very seriously.
Lee is one of the two founding editors of the Edinburgh green journalism project POSTmag. The text published here is available for reproduction under a creative commons licence with attribution to the author.