HS2, don’t scare the faster horses

Henry Ford said that if he had listened to what the public wanted he would have made faster horses. This is exactly the thinking that has gone into the Government’s decision to invest £32bn in the folly that is HS2, the fast train line from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham.


I could go into the arguments against HS2, the environmental ones are compelling in many respects. I actually think the biggest negative is that it will suck enterprise and economic activity further away from the north and into the south-east of the country. HS2 is presented as allowing fast access to the Midlands and North of England. Anyone who travels regularly by train knows that the reality is that morning trains to and from London are full to bursting with people travelling from north to south, and evening trains take the same people back north. Northbound trains in the morning and southbound trains in the evening are relatively empty. HS2 will exacerbate this process, making it easier for northern people to do business in London, not in their home locations.

HS2 is old thinking because it is based on the assumption that everyone needs to travel for business and they want to do it faster. The reality of life is that the internet is allowing us to find new ways of not travelling, and we should be investing in furthering these processes for the sake of the environment and our quality of lives.


HS2 is also flawed thinking because it assumes that travelling time is unproductive time. Indeed the economic justification for it only begins to stack up because its advocates discount all time spent in a train as economically wasted. Again, this ignores a reality of modern life that many people work while on trains. People still wedded to their cars miss the point entirely that working on the move is possible. Working on trains is not ideal, but this is an area where investment, if it is available, should be going. So, a key part of the alternative to HS2 is to make our existing train network a more amenable place to work. Invest the money into more carriages, new kinds of trains, and, crucially, force collaboration between train companies to make new routes, interchanges, and ticketing systems possible (renationalisation anyone? Maybe not).

Trains can be mobile workplaces. They already are for many. I think we should have “mobile office carriages”, with proper workstations, powerpoints, watercoolers, and working wifi that doesn’t keep dropping out. And, no, train companies, I don’t want you to charge extra for these services, rather, see them as a tool for attracting people out of their cars and into your carriages. We need more co-working-type spaces in railway stations too, to make interchanging between services an easier process that is less disruptive to the passengers’ workflow.

Wakefield Westgate Station

If we treat journeys as part of our working day, where the ability to work effectively is more important than getting there faster, we will achieve the transformation of the railways into a support infrastructure for 21st Century life. HS2 is just faster horses.

Let’s use technology to unlock ingenuity

My friend Abi Manifold reminded me, through a post on Twitter, of Sugata Mitra’s inspirational TED talk about how he had embedded computers in walls in Delhi which children had used to educate themselves.

I think there are so many other ways we can use this principle. It’s why I support the deployment of free wifi wherever it can be utilised. Put it there and people will use it in ingenious ways. People are creative when given the chance. They just need some tools.

Here’s Sugata Mitra’s talk

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk60sYrU2RU]



I’ve always been a great fan of storytelling. I loved having stories read to me as a child, I loved reading them to my own kids, and I ended up studying English Literature at university, largely due to my great love of the Victorian novel, many of which were epics of storytelling.

Over recent years I’ve developed a growing interest in the power of storytelling to change people’s lives. I think, in part, this may have been stimulated by my frustration at observing how often stories are used to prevent change; TV soap operas being a case in point, which present society with a reflection of the worst aspects of human nature, and seem designed to dampen ambition and instill pessimism.

So, I’ve been looking at how organisations and individuals can use storytelling, and, in particular, digital storytelling, to spread messages about their work, and inspire others to do similar good. In 2011, David Wilcox and I did some work for the Big Lottery Fund documented here, which sought to assist them to encourage projects they work with to use digital storytelling as part of their evaluation processes. During this work I was fortunate enough to see a presentation by Nick Jankel about the process of storytelling and interview him afterwards. Talking to Nick helped me crystallise a lot that I instinctively knew about storytelling, and gave me a framework to put things in.

All my work, whether it be in assisting organisations to adopt and deploy social media, leading people towards digital inclusion, engaging communities in the process of securing better rural broadband, or live video streaming events and celebrations, is aimed at enabling people to tell their stories. It is stories that engage people, and show them that people like them can achieve great things.

That’s why I was particularly pleased when Duncan Hodgson of One Blackpool asked me to deliver a short session on Digital Storytelling as part of the series of Breakfast Seminars they are running. And, despite having to get up at 4am on a freezing cold morning, I really enjoyed it and was bowled over by the positive reaction. Duncan did a Storify of the tweets from the session

[View the story “Digital Storytelling Breakfast Session” on Storify]

The reaction confirmed to me that I am onto something here and that there is a real appetite to learn more about storytelling. So, I’d love to do more of this. If you’d like me to do a digital storytelling session for your organisation or network, either as a presentation like I did in Blackpool, or as a longer session giving time for practical work, I’d love to hear from you. My contact details are here.