Lesley Thompson: "Steve Jobs showed that engineering and design are the same thing"

The director of sciences and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council answers the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years? 
For me, it’s the transistor. It has had such an impact: I don’t think there’s an area of life that hasn’t been transformed in some way by the transistor, from computing and mobile phones to health-care technology.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Penicillin. I had a great-uncle who died at Dunkirk. If penicillin had been available at that time, he would probably still be around today. So that’s quite a personal one.

And sporting event?
The 1966 World Cup final. I’m the non-sporty one in my family. I can remember being completely silenced and put to one side of the front room, while my avid football-fan family watched the World Cup.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you and why?
Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I love food, I love eating, I love cooking and France. The whole package is just a dream to me. It’s a book that I always take with me when I go anywhere.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
Nelson Mandela, because of the power he has had to unite. You only have to look at the world’s reaction to his illness at the moment.

And author or playwright?
J K Rowling. She’s been able to teach children to read and to enjoy reading.

How about someone in business?
Steve Jobs, for the joy that people have got from the iPod, then the iPhone and now the iPad – and because he showed that engineering and design were the same thing.

And sports person?
Jonny Wilkinson, because of what he did in the Rugby World Cup, in those last three minutes of the match when everything looked desperate. The ability of one person to kick a ball and have it lead to such joy – it’s just extraordinary.

And philanthropist?
Isaac Wolfson. He made all kinds of investments in technology and infrastructure. I think he should be better known.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
I wouldn’t say that this is my absolute favourite, but: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

Favourite speech?
Martin Luther King: “I have a dream . . .” Every time you hear it, it gives you the shivers.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
There’ll be sensors everywhere. We’ll have the ability to add them to all sorts of devices and draw data, helping people live their lives better, whether it’s at work or in leisure or in health care. Any scientific advance has to be made with caution and with a strong ethical framework. This shouldn’t hold science back: you need to develop the ethical strand and the scientific strand at the same time. That’s the responsibility of all scientists and society as a whole.

What is your main concern about the future and why?
Water. Its distribution is very uneven. I think the potential for war or strife because of problems with water is profound.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
This is going to upset some people. My area is quantum technology and it could be very disruptive. Think about the effect the quantum world will have on computing, sensing, communications, the measurement of time, the measurement of geography . . . The impact will be vast if we can seize the opportunity of quantum science and turn this into quantum technology. At the moment, we work down at a scale where electrons can be in more than one place at a time. That opens a whole new world of potential for how you might build electronic devices or optical devices and how to provide security for computers and have different way of communicating.

What do you think is the priority for the future well-being of the people and the planet?
The most important thing for me is to ensure that the world is investing in open-minded education. By this, I mean educating children so that they are able to question, not just learn by rote. Some of the conflicts we are seeing are driven by ideology. Opportunities for the world to create and to develop things could open up if education was available to everybody in a way that enabled people to develop their own thoughts and ways of questioning things.

Lesley Thompson is the director of sciences and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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