Looking Beyond Financial Returns
If we were to capture and bottle the concept of “capital”, its essence would be anything that has the capacity to generate a flow of benefits which can be valued in real terms.
So, what will produce the flow of greatest benefits in the future? Delivering against our global carbon commitments? Eliminating the health and social inequalities within and between our communities? Or is it being the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it?
Future capital must look beyond the financial return as we seek to meet the greatest challenges we have as a species. With life sciences, energy, space, mobility, aviation, AI, quantum computing, agri-tech and many more critical clusters the Arc is the future frontier in the UK where not only will it drive economic prosperity but also social and environmental gain as well.
The Arc is home to the UK’s greatest concentration of innovation assets – current capital if you like.
Add to those current assets the brilliance of ten universities, including Oxford and Cambridge and a legacy of innovative entrepreneurialism, and we have the drawing power to attract even greater investment to deliver against our greatest challenges and deliver significant value in, and for, the future.
But there is a complacency with areas of success like the Arc. Not all parts of the Arc are successful, not all communities share in the prosperity. Given the state of infrastructure, the lack of effective connectivity and inequalities still across many of its communities, the potential for greatest gains by levelling up the Arc’s own places has somehow been lost in translation through a national levelling up agenda. This unequal prosperity did in part lead the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in 2017 to call on Government to invest in this significant economic region to ensure it meets its ambitious growth targets for the benefit of the whole country.
Perhaps what the Commission should have focussed on in hindsight is the potential value to the future lost if we do not invest across this whole region to address its own inequalities. In this way, we can create the greatest uplift in productivity and in doing so, help to drive and support a national economic recovery.
The basic assumption of growth built into the NIC work was a doubling of gross value added from the Arc to over £200bn per annum by 2050. However, the future capital potential of the Arc must be measured in ways other than GVA. When the world needed an effective and viable solution to a global pandemic, academic, public and private organisations came together to develop, test, manufacture, distribute and export the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. Wellcome Genome leads the world in mapping the code of life itself which fundamentally provides the basis for tackling our biggest health crises and where else on earth has the power of a star been artificially produced as the model for viable long-term domestic energy supply?
Well of course it is within the Arc – at Culham Science Centre. We can go on…Bletchley, Silverstone, Westcott, Harwell, Millbrook, Babraham…all international assets of science and technological significance leading the way to the future.
The future is indeed bright for the Arc and its role in delivering positive benefits for the UK economy is critical; but we need to work to deliver better outcomes now for our existing communities and by doing so we will secure even greater benefits for future generations. Future capital arises from commitment and investment in the Arc now: investment in infrastructure, skills, the environment, and our communities. As they say, the second-best time to plant a tree is now.
Future capital must be about adding sustained value, not accepting short-term gain. Building more homes, workplaces, and infrastructure which do not meet our carbon commitments is only adding more to our significant challenge for retrofitting. Constantly borrowing against the future does not build future capital. The vast majority of the houses we are already planning for every year up to 2035 are not meeting our future needs around zero carbon, affordability, or environmental gain.
Development that does not meet the needs of our existing and future population, which does not add value to our natural and human environments, which detracts from our health and wellbeing does not add value to our future: it adds burden, creates public distrust, adds cost to and detracts from future generations creating a drain on future capital.
To deliver future value we must act now.
Sustainability is at the core of what we want for the Arc, a green Arc2: delivering positive gain by integrated thinking across all three pillars of sustainability – environment, social and economy. Truly sustainable development provides a market for the innovation the Arc generates, provides homes and skills for the whole local population and uses materials, utilities, land and services in an effective and efficient way to minimise waste. The future value added through such sustainable development can be invested into our communities providing local services to improve our health, wellbeing and overall quality of life. This is the future capital the Arc can bring, lifting the ambition and outcomes for the people not only of the Arc, but beyond and across the whole nation.
The key to future capital then – the future value of our human, natural and physical resources – is to commit to a common vision for positive change that targets better outcomes now as well as in the future. This sort of ambition will not be unique to the Arc: what is unique is the Arc’s ability to deliver against this ambition. If we change nothing, the Arc will no doubt continue to deliver future capital: the question is whether we can seize the full future value of collaboration and create greater economic prosperity, gains for our environment, human health and wellbeing – delivering sustainable development for the Arc and beyond.