Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The most unsustainable Olympics ever?



Another historic blog... First the Rio+20 Conference, last month plumbers discover the Higgs Boson.  This month the most unsustainable Olympics ever...?

Blogs record what your President does – and for a fortnight I did nothing but sit and cheer and occasionally eat McDonald’s.  For fourteen days no one mentioned ‘iconic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘innovative’, and certainly not ‘affordable’.  Instead it was faster, heavier, further – measurable and real - a brilliant celebration of what it is like to be normal, focussed and to deliver.  This year’s President’s Prize for Normal Engineering goes to the Boardman bikes.

I can now reveal, as a Presidential exclusive, how Lord Coe won those few extra medals beyond wildest expectations, through a brilliant three phase tactical feint of D-Day proportions.  You will only read it here.

First phase - unleash the London Creatives at the very beginning. Remember the logo that looked like a cow-pat, a mascot that looked the survivor of chemical warfare, and an Eiffel Tower with a knot in it called the Orbit with associated drivel about complexity from its structural engineer?  Our competitors must have been reassured: how could such bizarre eccentrics ever be real competition in a 10,000m?  

Phase two was in some ways even more accomplished.  Five hour waits at Heathrow, Sir Bob Crowe (I anticipate I know, but how could his contribution go unrecognised?) and his threat of Tube Strikes, and G4S doing what subcontractors always do well? Even London’s  Evening Isvestia and the US Presidential candidate got fooled (even?). If there was hint of what was to come (the Olympic Torch: brilliant design against an impossible spec) it was instantly covered up (like running the torch through places no one had heard of for weeks as if Google Maps had just gone down for good).  Just as for the French knights in Henry V, accidentally on the BBC a few weeks before – a slip up that caused the BBC Director General his job - winning gold medals off the bizarre British would be un morceau de gateau.

Phase three brilliantly addressed the weakness in the master plan. Athletes would be arriving, but they would get to the Olympic Village with no hassle. The rooms were simple but well finished and the showers worked.  Would they not suspect there had been a ruse?  Then the final, awesome masterstroke - the Opening Ceremony.  Who else but a country with no idea how to plan, organise and focus would put on for an international opening ceremony what amounted to ‘the most spectacular school play on earth’.  Most of the outside world – flicking across Press websites – seemed to think they saw a country not too sure where it came from with absolutely no idea where it was going, ‘such a refreshing change’ from the Beijing Games, though with spectacular lighting (actually a Chinese company) nevertheless.  The exquisite final homage to the victims of the London Bombings never got shown on NBC as they’d flipped to a Michael Phelps interview.
Then? Well, in the weeks that followed the UK unleashed Yorkshire on the World. The rest is history.

The athletes were not the only triumph. The construction industry has been congratulating itself no end, and even though the logo police made sure we didn’t get any new business, there is no need to over paint it again here. But I found it has been quite hard to find good write ups of all the technical frontiers that got pushed without failure.  Though cheers to the CIBSE Journal for the building services bits! No one mentioned the extraordinary unchallenged throughput of the drugs testing system out at GSK Harlow. The IT industry pulled some amazing hidden stunts too. If you want to convince young members of your family that engineering is more than Brian Cox then try the NBC website that has a neat section on the technology behind the Games sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  Bolt was great, but on that new track a long distance world record was just amazing (sorry #unbelievable).  

I had hoped for a guest blog from Lord Coe but while I was suggesting that Imperial hold off taking over the drugs testing centre for just a day (it is part of the Legacy) so that the UK could ensure a clean set of participants at the closing ceremony, the line went dead and he has been at meetings ever since.  To me there was no real excuse for the closing ceremony. Russell Brand at the Olympics? They don’t even let him on Blue Peter. London’s Forces of Darkness with its Sauron’s Towers, had engulfed Normal again. It was all great for those in our industry flogging London as the home of bizarre in-your-face-design, but not great for the rest of us trying to sell abroad what it said on the tin, best in class works first time…. OK but come on Fisk: why the most unsustainable Games ever?

I’m only banging on because England is about to stumble into a new planning framework based on two contrary meaning s of development asserted simultaneously.  No place for normal planners!  There is already an increasing gulf between the hard-nosed version of sustainable development taught on most Masters Courses and the floppy bunny thing in the UK Engineering Council Spec. Things are only going to get worse. The industry’s environmental engineers did a really great job on the Olympic site, it is just that has not much to do with sustainable development one way or the other. 

The foundations of the modern Olympics ticked all the Big Picture sustainable development boxes.  One generation, through the fellowship of sport, tried to make the future safer for the next. But the Olympic ideal just seems to be a victim of technology.  Once film was invented (pub quiz question of the year: Which was the first industry to be nationalised by the Bolsheviks…) the Olympics were twisted by others to serve political ends. The infamous Berlin Olympics were staged to show via the media of newsreel that Aryans Win All the Prizes.  That ominous theme in the bass kept on during the Cold War.  Then another technology warped the story further.  While it took a fortnight for athletes to get to the first Olympic site, air travel meant it took a day to go anywhere.  Suddenly World Federations of this and that sport sprung up and you could be World Champion not just Olympic champion.  Indeed by the Los Angeles Olympics (it of the Soviet Union boycott that had followed the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics) the whole financial and political model of the IOC was struggling.  Then technology – global television – offered it a Mephistophelian bargain – global company commercial sponsorship.  It is a tricky bargain because it needs each event to be more a celebration of conspicuous consumption that the last.  If that fails, commercial sponsorship does not plateau, it plummets, flitting to somewhere else that is not ‘so yesterday’.  So London was the most expensive Olympics ever, because it had to be, Because You are Worth It.  But as you might say to Captain Jack, there is only so much plank you can have pushed out from the ship before you end up in the sea anyway.

The IOC has tried to tie in urban regeneration.  That is because the IOC cannot see its way to downsize and disperse the physical event, so every host nation needs to find some vast derelict piece of land to build a site from scratch.  As a consequence desolate oversized ‘Olympic parks’ are scattered over the planet, like dinosaur footprints.  Now we know a lot more about how to do ideal regeneration than this suggests. My colleagues at the Bartlett could have given you a fair guess that the new Westfield at Stratford and the total collapse of the small retail businesses at Forest Gate were not uncorrelated.  But if London had submitted a brilliant regeneration optimised bid it just would not have won against IOC criteria. As it is the Olympic Park caused the 2011 Shopping Riots.

Saying ASHRAE were using the wrong data last month and now connecting the Tottenham riots to the Olympics – is there no depth to which this guy won’t go? As it happened one of my tutees last year came from Bruce Grove, and finding geothermal heat pumps a bit dry (sic) we often got on to the antics of the owner of Spurs and his counterbid to move to the Olympics site. ‘What would Tottenham be without Spurs?’ my tutee said sadly shaking his head. Nothing much, anymore. Does dry tinder cause the fire? Indeed if Government had not got itself into such deep hock on the whole Olympic project, with Treasury desperate to gorge itself on more blood even before the sunset, there might have had more time to look at real regeneration plans like the Welcome Trust proposal  that made some economic sense in the East London context.  But without a structure plan that a normal city might have had, it is hard to see how that kind of bid could make headway against the prices that hit and run Qatari funded property developers could offer, only doing their job. As it is, the festering economic dereliction around the site’s wider periphery is going to be a challenge that a lonely new data centre is not going to cure on its own.

Going into our Olympics venue clutching our gold-plated tickets the Fisks suddenly recognised one of the street performers that the Olympics budget had dotted around the site to make us all jolly.  She happens to be a brilliant very young theatre director.  But the money was good and the Olympics had killed new London theatre that summer.  We had last met her at her production of Bravery’s Frozen jammed with twenty others in small room at the Edinburgh Fringe. Mega brilliant and mind blowing, and, Danny, needed only a cast of five. ‘Were we going to Edinburgh again this summer?’ our young friend asks. Sadly not.  As some of you will know the Fisks aren’t as mobile as usual this year.  But the Edinburgh Festival, now there is food for thought for London ...down south marking its own homework yet again.

The Festival is the Greatest Performing Arts Festival in the world without actually needing to assert it. It did take the City Fathers a good while to get their minds round it, but now it runs.  Its Fringe is famous and sprawling, but there are no logo police going around scratching out the word ‘Festival’. Each year more flats get done up for rent, more old venues refurbished, all nice steady work for the industry, and McDonald’s sponsor nothing (OK so they don’t do deep fried Mars Bars anyway).  Heavens some people even stay in Leith. It has spawned a significant Book Festival, an embryo Film Festival and the stage setting annual address on the media.  A full day will empty your pockets but this will not be money ferreted away by the IOC or paying for putting up something to be knocked down again a month later. No one seems to think the skyline needs improving.  This year it is as successful as ever insulated from the bomb dropped on the DCMS budget from others running round in circles. 

In the powers vested on me as President of CIBSE I hereby grant you, the Nation of Scotland, the Honorary Award of Normal Country (Second Class) and welcome you to the other economically successful and sensible Normal countries. ‘Second Class?’ I hear Mr Salmon ask.  Sorry but first Class Normal needs the meters to be read before the Display Energy Certificate goes up.

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