It’s NOT about the Oil, it’s about the Intellect

Naturally, the arguments for and against Scottish Independence are full of rhetoric, nationalism, and emotion. There is, for example, an argument about how the independence movement is all about ego, of one man or the other, depending on which side the arguer is on. Also, there is a lot of argument around whether or not the people of the new Scotland would be British, or claim to be British. This argument is made as if those are the only identity choices for the people who live within the borders of Scotland, be they the borders as they stand now, or the new old border of Hadrian’s Wall which would envelope Northern England and the City of Newcastle Upon Tyne.  There is also a line of argument from those who believe they are taking a rational, rather than emotional, perspective that revolves around economics of the new State. Plenty of armchair economists abound and the argument usually goes like this “Independence will be bad for Scotland, they are going to be in a lot of trouble. The oil is going to run out and they are counting on that”.

It’s NOT about the Oil, it’s about the Intellect.

Whichever side you stand on, independence, continued devolution, or a complete re-integration with Westminster, you should recognize that this is a shallow argument. In 2014, Scotland’s economic potential as a state in Northern Europe is not just about a fossil fuel resource; rather, it’s about the ability to harness the intellect.  The knowledge economy is growing worldwide the path to true economic prosperity is to get in the boat and rise with the tide.

Let’s assume for a moment that the pundits are right and there is not much oil left up there in the North Sea (because it’s all on the Norway side), and that further advances in technology won’t help the oil industry get at more. Scotland has hit peak oil and its all downhill from here. It still simply does not matter.  Having lots of oil wealth would be nice, and its proceeds could be put into a sovereign wealth fund to subsidize pensions (as its done in Norway), healthcare, research and development, and education, whichever of these the government prefers. If there is not much left up there, well, that is fine. The fund will be small. The country could still become one of the wealthiest ever on a per capita basis if it can successfully create a culture of creativity, learning, innovation and entrepreneurship.

A bit of history is in order. For centuries Scotland was at the bottom of the heap, one of Europe’s poorest. What turned it around?

It was the rise of literacy which caused a rising tide of the intellect that led to the common man reading, and then writing, and then exploring, and making. The printing press, invented in Scotland, changed the world. During that era of change, it was the institution of the church that either inhibited or facilitated the gain of intellect of the people.  The Presbyterian Church (now the Church of Scotland) forced itself to teach the common man to read, and set up a system of education in its infrastructure. At the time, this was deemed necessary in order that men be able to read the Bible, in order to participate equally in the new system of religion. Strategically it was a way to implement the core change needed for the Scottish Reformation to occur successfully.  Everyone who wanted to could learn to read, and those who didn’t were forced to do so, more or less. This learning activity paved the road for an intellectual revolution and a renaissance in Scotland.  Such is referred to as the “Scottish Renaissance”. This is not meant to be a parochial statement of contention, and we are not taking sides on Catholic vs. Protestant. Rather, its historical fact that such occurred.  While they did not know it at the time, these church school directors were running the incubators of their era that would lead to renaissance.


The Airlie Church in Angus, Scotland. Currently empty and up for sale. Could this historic property make a good rural incubator and contribute in this role to a new wave of innovation in Scotland?  (Source: Church of  Scotland)

Somewhat as a side note, I might add, perhaps the best use of all the old churches sitting empty throughout the land of Scotland today is to turn them into incubators, and thus back to their most influential historical use. The Church of Scotland is the largest real estate owner in the country.  It appears to have no real strategy for the renovation and use of its classic old churches, and most of these are located in the centre of the communities in which they stand. Many of these properties are up for sale currently. In my ethnography of Scotland, I discovered that the highest and best use of these parcels was incubators. Some of them are currently being used for storage, such as the one on Buccleuch Street near the University of Edinburgh.   Others have been turned into nightclubs, or retail stores. However, many are  just sitting empty, especially those in rural lands. It is estimated that the Church of Scotland has a deficit of GBP 5.7 million moreover and much of this is due to the cost of the upkeep of its historic properties. The Church of Scotland recently visited and met the Scottish Government in order to address the digital divide.  This is an issue it can help contribute to resolving itself through the deployment of its current network of properties.  Each could be rigged to provide high speed wireless internet access to their surrounding communities, and offer digital education to the community as a part of its mission, using the incubator managers and entrepreneur tenants as teachers.

The strategy for Scotland’s economic independence should not be based around the oil reserves. Rather, it should be about igniting the Second Scottish Renaissance. Part of the issue is the Scottish Nationalist Party’s fallback rhetoric on the oil issue. The conversation has to be about something bigger and more visionary.

The benefits of embracing these values of literacy, egalitarianism and inclusion can lead Scotland again into world leadership. This time, however, it won’t be the churches that make the change, but the Government along with the communities (artitistic, scientific and entrepreneurial). Government can implement policy and programmes that lead to openness and creativity.  If it manages to do such,  creative and entrepreneurial people from all over the world will move to the country.

You see, there is a strong yearning throughout the globe for a promise land of such. Creatives, innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs are seeking a place where they can move that is open to them and where they are equal with others, despite not having but a few pennies in their pockets. They yearn for a place where they can  join a community and create, interact, research, learn, and start and grow new organizations of impact. These creatives are in every country in the world, and they are mobile. Read Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class for more on this trend, and his recommendations for what cities and countries should do to harness it.  The thing about creativity, though, is that its inclusive. Everyone has some level of creative potential, and often its impeded by external factors. That is the beauty of creativity.

Instead of oil wealth, the debate should center around intellect wealth.  Here are the questions and debates that would reflect such:

-What should be done with the universities to make them more open, inclusive, and egalitarian?  Should there be one incubator per university or ten?

-What do the universities need to turn out more good research? To create more firms? Attract more students? What do they need?  How can the government help get that to them?

-How many makerspaces, hacklabs, and hotdesk areas should be in each city?

-What do the new emerging entrepreneurial communities really need? How can we help?

-How can the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland work together for a new breed of primary and secondary education that encourages creativity and innovation, and literacy of the new?

The Alba Innovation Center as Visited by the Academic Entrepreneur

The Alba Innovation Centre near Edinburgh, Scotland (Livingston).  Does Scotland need more incbuators like this?  What about 100, both public, private and university-operated, in every major city? (Source: 360 Architecture)

-Is Clouser right when that Scotland should become the first country of the 100 incubator city?  Is 100 the right number for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen but also Dundee and Newcastle (if it joins the new state?)

-Should the country be investing in mostly information technology incubators, kitchen incubators, horticulture incubators, arts incubators, social incubators, or biotech incubators? Or all of them?

-What about acceleration programmes. How are they different from incubators? Should they be accelerated themselves?

-How should the country increase the supply of venture capital?  Of entrepreneurial risk capital?

-What is the minimal immigration hurdle for new citizenship?  Which countries have immigration policies that Scotland would like to emulate, if any?

-What is the optimal immigration strategy for attracting creatives, entrepreneurs, and innovators from all over the world?

-What does a great entrepreneur attraction programme look like? Is Brazil’s better than Peru’s?  Why?

-How can Scotland attract the best researchers and teachers in the world? What would it take?

-Alternative energy is growing, including renewables, how can it grow even faster?

-Should we rig our cities and rural communities with high speed wireless internet access and make it publicly available as a free good in order to help bridge the digital divide?

These are the questions around which the discourse should occur.  Natural resources are not going to be a competitive advantage in an old Northern European state, now matter how long they last. Nor is manufacturing (except for specialty manufacturing).  The creation and exploitation of knowledge and creativity, now that can be a sustainable comparative advantage that can be exported over centuries to the economic betterment of its people.

The goal here is to lay the groundwork and infrastructure for a creative, innovative, entrepreneurial economy. Artists, musicians, designers, dancers, performers, magicians, hackers, makers, engineers, software developers, website designers, bloggers, creative writers, other writers, technology entrepreneurs, startup guys and gals, researchers, scientists, activists, whistleblowers, gadflies, expatriates, roamers, gypsies, culinary artists, horticulturalists, crowdfunders, business angels, venture capitalists. traders, speculators, risk takers and a range of other types from all over the world will be attracted to Scotland and move to its shores. They will be attracted by those themes of literacy (learning), egalitarianism, and inclusiveness. (It is the latter two where it finds its points of differentiation from England in some regard).  Through immigration and innovation policy, as well as infrastructure and community spaces (education, incubation, makerspaces, and pubs themselves), this can be achieved.  The argument for independence thus gets much stronger as these changes will be impossible to implement in the currently devolved state with limited power. The equality of women is crucial as well and a move in this direction will further fuel the fires of innovation.  Like other countries in the “Arc of Prosperity”, egalitarianism of the sexes is essential for high intellectual production and an impressive GDP per Capita. I believe this will come about through the acceptance and in-migration of those creatives listed above.

The Hillington Innovation Centre near Glasgow, Scotland.

The Hillington Innovation Centre near Glasgow, Scotland.

What makes Norway really impressive is not just its huge oil reserve and the fact that it exports 100% of it, keeping the proceeds in reserve for retirees. Rather, it is the egalitarian culture that pervades its society and organizations. Not just between men and women, but between members of organizations. Norwegians aren’t fond of hierarchies. In today’s knowledge economy, this distaste is of great advantage. Many will write this off as “Well, that is just Scandanavian culture”. Or is just smart.  Is thinking just reserved to a few in the North of Europe

Thus we see that economic and quality of life prosperity for that matter is not about whole controls the oil in the North Sea, whatever might be left of it. Rather, its about the limits of the imagination and pushing beyond those limits. You can see this in children when they play as they share the material with each other in order to build something bigger and better that satisfies the yearnings of their imagination.

It has been a long, long time since the Darien Scheme  which was the last straw that forced Scotland into union.  Caledonia may not have been realized in 1700, but it may be yet to come “if the cards are played right”.

The country should not miss the opportunity to create a new land of opportunity that will set an example for the rest of the world to follow. If nothing else, such a discourse will inform the world and help move the conversations beyond just the control of resources and territories. Many of the other Western states are retracting. For example, the United States with its paranoid immigration policy, increasing taxation, burdensome regulatory environment and declining primary and secondary educational system. This is not a zero sum game and shouldn’t be seen as one. There is simply an opportunity to take a leadership role. However, the Scottish Nationalist Party will need to move the discourse from oil to intellect. Yeah, it will find the policies and procedures of Westminister to be just as cumbersome and will be able to criticize them for political fodder.

Perhaps some reading is in order. For starters, I’d recommend a new one by Brad Feld Startup Communities.  While I don’t agree with everything Brad asserts, I would still would content it should be required reading of all politicians, economic development professionals, and university administrators in Scotland, and the UK, for that matter.  There are also books by Richard Florida, one of which is noted above. Richard has been invited to Scotland by Scottish Enterprise at least a couple of times in the last 10 years, so he is well known.   Next, Etzkowitz, all books and papers including MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science and The Triple Helix.

The good news is, there is already a lot of innovation infrastructure and cultural momentum in Scotland. This just needs to be leveraged and expanded. 100 incubators in ever city. 10X growth in research funding for Scottish universities and students. 100X growth in creatives and entrepreneurs. And beyond.

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