HS2, the attacker’s advantage, and the decision dilemma

October 30, 2013


A debate continues in the UK over building high speed train connections between London and the regions. An old concept in innovation theory may be useful in examining the decision to act

There has been much debate in the UK over the proposed HS2 link. Some years ago, there appeared to be a reasonable political consensus in its favour. The issue is now clouded. Labour is indicating ‘no blank cheque’ if they regain power. There is opposition to HS2 from those opposed to big government or big technological schemes threatening environmental consequences.

No simple vision

A simple vision to share with the public vanishes if it is not presented as having a key factor. Faster journeys was a simple vision but the more complex ‘making travel nice, fast, safe and economically good value for money approach is much trickier to present.

The result is increasingly unconvincing arguments. Economic justification relies on experts commissioned by protagonists. Most large technological projects come with unexpected extra costs. Other costs might be anticipated but are covered up by those with a position to advocate. Benefits, the other side of the decision dilemma, remain too loosely coupled with costs.

The attacker’s advantage

Pondering on these matters, I recall a simplification offered in innovation theory by a McKinsey consultant Richard Foster. In his book The Attacker’s Advantage [still in print] he presents the change as a shift from one s-curve to another. Using rather simple economic assumptions, it is possible to identify a region over time in which the economic advantages of shifting is compelling. Sometimes there is no such region or window of opportunity.

The attacker’s advantage always struck me as more of a useful conceptual map or thinking tool than a decision-making algorithm. It is better at isolating a more ‘either-or’ decision between two competing technologies. Between, for example, costs to the tax payer and costs to the traveller. Who pays through taxes is a political decision; who pays in travel fares is a commercial one.

Where do I stand?

I stand for a more informed, more disinterested debate. The current efforts of politicians leave me suspicious of there ever being a simple resolution of the decision. It seems more clear that ‘doing nothing’ is accumulating the problems building up within the transport connections between the wealthy commercial South of England and what is crudely classed as ‘The North’ . In this case, the North w includes Watford (gateway to the North), Birmingham (North of Watford), Manchester and Leeds (North West and North East of Birmingham) and Glasgow (very North indeed, no country for soft old southerners, which may have border guards, by the time HS2 is built).

As I mull these arguments over, I reach a few not very startling conclusions. HS2 will not be built without overcoming strenuous opposition. If it is built at all, it will result in unforeseen advantages and disadvantages. And the longer it takes to decide, the narrower will be the ‘window of opportunity’ for an attacker’s advantage.


Martin Luther King day in Miami

January 19, 2011

Americans honor the birthdays of three of its citizens with holidays named after them. George Washington and Christopher Columbus were the first two recipients, Martin Luther King the third.

It’s a day off work for government employees, and for workers in some other sectors such as banks. In America the date is fixed on a Monday closest to the actual birthday. Martin Luther King day falls on the third Monday of January. The edict was eventually enacted by all 50 States, although there were some who reluctantly gave up celebrating a more local hero on the day.

Miami celebrated under grey clouds this monday [January 15th 2011]. A visitor to the city might not have appreciated its significance. Traffic downtown was light. But the near deserted finance sector could have signified any non-working day.

King, and the “I have a dream” speech

I remember Martin Luther King, from a time when I was working as a research assistant at a New York medical college. That was in the 1960s. The civil rights movement seemed to an outsider like me to be lead by more militant characters. It was typified by the cool supporters of the Black Power movement held out leaflets from the street corners of Manhattan. Sometimes I would take a pamphlet. The activists seemed more concerned with getting their message across to “brothers rather than others” who mostly hurried by, occupying a different space on the sidewalks.

The controversial figure of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was also rarely out of the headlines. Powell was a firely politician and pastor who represented Harlem, in the United States House of Representatives for a staggering period from 1945 until his removal in disgrace in 1971. Although I did not know it at the time, Powell strongly opposed Martin Luther King’s non-violence policies.

But it was King’s voice which won through, both in a literal and metaphoric sense. His speech has become one of the most praised of all time for the power of its delivery and its impact. It is said to have encouraged President Kennedy to put more weight behind the Civil rights campaign (JFK was rather more ambivalent about his direct involvement than was his brother Bobby.)

Elsewhere

King Day events were reported rather modestly, and outside the news headlines. In Atlanta, the symbolic focus was at MLK’s Ebenezer Baptist church close by his birth place. The messages from political leaders and members of his family picked up on the continued need for non-violence and reconciliation. The recent slayings at Tucson were picked up as a theme.

This echoed a recent speech by President Obama which had also called for greater efforts toward reconciliation. The tragedy had triggered mourning and a political storm of accusations that rhetoric had inflamed the popular mood and precipitated acts of violence.