Whatever happened to Britain’s Big Society?

Back in 1997, the new Labour government of the UK had great expectations of the “third sector”, the voluntary sector, in other words. In 2010 when Labour was displaced in government by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the new leadership introduced the idea of a “Big Society”, where we were to all think globally but act locally within the context of creating a sustainable society. It was a wonderful idea, albeit not entirely original given that many communities had for decades pulled together and had thriving voluntary groups and activities long before politicians latched on to the idea and gave it a marketing spin and attendant soundbites.

Of course, the banking crisis of 2008 led to a lasting global recession and the subsequent economic problems for millions of people, the austerity remedies have, it would seem, put paid to any hope of society truly pulling together and becoming sustainable in that Big Society sense. The stark reality of the gap between rich and poor still widens, many of the super-rich continue to reap the rewards of any good will, effort and energy of the masses, there is no trickledown and multinational corporations continue to minimise their tax bills.

A paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Society from researchers in the UK describes how “Overall the big society is recognized as a pivotal player in the relationship between citizens and the state.” Its authors, Jamie Halsall of The University of Huddersfield, Ian Cook of Liverpool John Moores University and Paresh Wankhade of Edge Hill University add that, “The third sector is perceived as a principle mechanism for implementing the big society vision.” In the paper, they explore the impact of this Big Society concept on the voluntary sector in the context of the ongoing global economic recession. Their conclusion is that while laudable, the concept is now perceived as being little more than government’s big brother handholding us through endless cuts to services and expecting us to carry the burden as volunteers. Moreover, when the third sector fails, the same politicians then foist private companies on us where previously government provided assistance.

We are, it seems, now wary of “Big Society”. It is widely considered an essentially cost-cutting exercise rather than a genuine attempt to ensure that an alternative third sector is helped towards sustainability. No one expects to live in Utopia, but nor is it true that less is more.
Halsall, J.P., Cook, I.G. and Wankhade, P. (2015) ‘The British big society effect: the challenges of the third sector’, Int. J. Sustainable Society, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp.309–321.

Rapid dispersal of aircraft pollution

A series of aerofoil-shaped panels downwind of an airport runway could break up the plumes of exhaust gases from departing aircraft, preventing those gases from staying near the ground and so dispersing them more quickly.  A similar array could be used to prevent vehicle pollutants accumulating downwind of motorways, or even to disperse ground frosts over arable fields.

Michael Bennett of the Centre for Aviation, Transport and the Environment, at Manchester Metropolitan University, writing in the International Journal of Environment and Pollution, describes a computer model that he has used to simulate pollution from aircraft, and shows how the exhaust gases might be more quickly dispersed by the placing of an array of aerofoil-shaped panels downwind of aircraft in their take-off run.  He has used the computer model to simulate how effectively such an array might reduce ground level pollution near London’s Heathrow Airport.

The exhaust gases emitted by an aircraft beginning its run up to take-off are produced in huge volumes close to the ground.  Initially, these gases are slow to disperse upwards, both because of the aerodynamics of the moving aircraft and because of the so-called “Coanda effect”, which makes a jet of air cling to a surface.  At the distance of the boundary fence, surface concentrations of pollutants may thus still be undesirably high.  Bennett models how the line of panels encourages this pollution to leave the ground by creating a swarm of vortices downwind.  These rise though their mutual interactions, carrying the pollution with them.  This is the reverse process to the aerofoil wing effect that allows an aircraft to take off, but instead of lifting an aircraft by pushing the air down these ground-based aerofoil panels use the ambient wind to push the exhaust gases upwards.

The aerofoil panels would be tilted to accommodate the prevailing wind and sited on the ground at such a distance and height that they would not cause problems for aircraft taking off or landing on the nearby runway.  The basic aerofoil panel array modelled by Bennett could then reduce surface pollution from aircraft exhausts at the airfield boundary by at least 25 percent, he suggests.  An equivalent reduction in pollution emissions from the aircraft fleet might take decades.

The next step will be to carry out wind tunnel experiments to see whether the pollutant-dispersing aerofoil panels will work in practice.  Substantial engineering and regulatory work would then be required before any such system could even be tested at a working airport – in aviation, safety is paramount!

Bennett, M. (2015) ‘The application of an aerofoil array to enhance the dispersion of an extended surface-based pollution source’, Int. J. Environment and Pollution, Vol. 57, Nos. 3/4, pp.202–214.

Research Picks – February 2016

Online trust

How do you know whose opinion to trust online, especially on the well-known microblogging sites where all and sundry can post their views however outlandish and unsubstantiated? Researchers in China think they may have an answer, having developed a way to calculate trust-based sentiment from a person’s updates. Their data mining approach looks at the network surrounding a given series of updates to expose those users that apparently trust each other and so calculates how much trust others should put in a given user when trying to determine the validity and trustworthiness of a given update.

Zhang, B., Song, Q., Ding, J. and Wang, L. (2015) ‘A trust-based sentiment delivering calculation method in microblog’, Int. J. Services Technology and Management, Vol. 21, Nos. 4/5/6, pp.185–198.


Be still my clicking camera

A new way to “undo” motion blur in a digital photograph has been developed by scientists in India and demonstrated to work well with standard demo images. Blurring of an image due to camera motion is a common occurrence in amateur or hastily snapped photographs. Many cameras have image stabilization that attempts to remedy this, but in low light conditions when shutter speed might be slow or when using large lenses and no tripod, camera blur still occurs. There are numerous computer algorithms that attempt to “sharpen” images, but largely only with limited success. The team has developed a mathematical model that can analyze a digital image and determine how the pixels are distorted due to camera movement and then reverse the movement in the computer to reduce the blur substantially.

Mishra, S., Sengar, R.S., Puri, R.K. and Badodkar, D.N. (2015) ‘Robust parametric blur identification for motion blurred image under noisy conditions’, Int. J. Image Mining, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp.326–341.


Shiny, shiny

Composite films that have something akin to the iridescent properties of the inside of oyster shells, mother-of-pearl or nacre, have been made from cellulose nanocrystals and a plastic known as polyethylene oxide by US materials researchers. Inexpensive materials of this sort made from readily available compounds rather than expensive and rare metals could have an important role to play in future optical-electronic components for the next-generation of device screens as well as components in a possible optical computer. The properties of such materials can be precisely controlled through relatively simple tweaks to the ingredients and how they are prepared and so allow them to be fine-tuned for a particular application or device.

Diaz, J.A., Braun, J.L., Moon, R.J. Youngblood, J.P. (2015) ‘Iridescent cellulose nanocrystal/polyethylene oxide composite films with low coefficient of thermal expansion’, Int. J. Experimental and Computational Biomechanics, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp.189–199.


Net economics

For the internet to be sustainable each internet service provider, ISP, must grow its systems, improve its efficiency and offer bigger and better speeds and services. Unfortunately, while the expansion of ISP business is scalable to some degree there is a law of diminishing returns, particularly in terms of profits for those companies. Researchers in Japan have investigated whether or not whether increasing internet traffic is compatible with ISP economic growth. Unfortunately, the answer is it is not, traffic far outstrips economic utility with the current internet topology. Their answer is a radical new design that involves autonomous systems generating new links to cope with increasing traffic and ensure long-term economic utility for the providers while accommodating growing customer needs and demands on the internet.

Nakata, Y., Arakawa, S. and Murata, M. (2015) ‘A provider and peer selection policy for the future sustainable internet’, Int. J. Management and Network Economics, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp.238–256.