Part three: Climate action #NotinNewYork

In my last #NotinNewYork article, I explained the importance of aligning climate goals with wider social and economic goals, along with the need for political leadership and radical collaborations between public, private and civic organisations to deliver change.

Our EIT Climate-KIC work in the West Midlands of the UK provides a good example of what happens when planned change bumps up against uncomfortable realities on the ground. The West Midlands was a pilot region for EIT Climate-KIC’s Transition Cities work, which paved the way for rethinking the role of innovation to support whole place and whole system change. Our work includes supporting over 70 companies to grow by developing new products and services and taking them to market; supporting the creation of energy innovation zones to test novel energy solutions for heating and transport (through Energy Capital); and developing a prospectus to encourage external investment in energy-related projects in the area, drawing on the natural strengths of a place that was at the heart of the industrial revolution.

Since the West Midlands is a cradle of vehicle design and manufacturing, EIT Climate-KIC has been exploring the introduction of new vehicle technologies through different projects. One project, InclusiveEV, involved testing the introduction of electric vehicles as part of a city-car club scheme with partners E-Car Club (part of the EuropCar Group) to tackle ‘transport poverty,’ where communities in urban fringes without access to private cars become excluded.

Yet, while the project intent was good, the practical outcome was very different. Over a period of nights earlier this year, every electric city-car club vehicle in our scheme was vandalized, whilst petrol and diesel vehicles on adjacent parking lots were left untouched. After discussions with our partners, E-Car Club, the police and the local council, E-Car Club have had to abandon the project.

One theory about the damage is that is was inflicted by local taxicab drivers. They are already under pressure—and undercut—by the rise of ridesharing firms like Uber. And a very visible electric car project in urban fringes which undercut their prices—enabling cheap, journeys amongst their core market—may have been the last straw. For taxicab drivers, the imposition of such schemes in their area creates an existential risk to their livelihood.

So how should we respond? One approach might be to just ignore the problems of one group, such as taxi drivers, on the basis that the electric and autonomous vehicle revolution is coming and there is nothing they can do to stop it. But, as we have found, this will create a direct and violent response.

Another approach is to note that we will not effect change at the speed and scale we require unless we address the issues of jobs, of identity, and of livelihoods of different groups across society. This suggests that if we are to run this project again, we need to engage properly with the local urban fringe communities that we seek to help. We need the local residents and the taxicab companies to become cheerleaders for cheap, clean forms of mobility, rather than as opposing forces seeking to stop every change. This means far better citizen engagement, understanding issues and opportunities for a just transition.

To that end, working with partners UK100 Cities, our latest project in West Midlands, Route2Zero is explicitly focusing on activating local communities around building a clean energy system that meets their needs for warm, affordable homes and effective, clean mobility.

 
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