Something significant happened in my world this week – I set up as a limited company.
Going limited has meant a mental shift in gear, as much as a legal or accounting one, and it is exciting. And it takes me on to today’s blog – which is all about ambition and mindset.
About once a month, I supply a spread on Point and Sandwick Trust’s activities to the Gazette, which is part of an arrangement I’ve had with editor Melinda Gillen since last year. (PST’s community-owned wind farm at Beinn Ghrideag is pictured above, by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos)
I don’t usually put these pieces in this blog – Hebrides Writer is a passion project; a place for writing that is more personal in nature – but one is worth sharing here, I feel, because there’s lessons to take from it about how we shape development and a lot of it speaks to the wind farm debate.
It relates to the direction – or rather, the lack of direction – that is all too often taken by public agencies.
Headlined ‘Lecturers back wind farm for showing a different way’, this particular story was all about how Point and Sandwick Trust were being praised for their ambition and leading example by two senior engineers at Lews Castle College UHI.
Dr Chris Macleod, the engineering lecturer who set up the Innovation Centre at the college (which recently received £30,000 from LEADER, levered in by the £20,000 already donated to the centre by Point and Sandwick Trust), was the first one to be quoted.
He said: “Point and Sandwick Trust are just about the only people I see that have a bit of get up and go about them. They are really one of few institutes that look beyond the traditional into the future and they have imagination whereas I don’t think some of the other traditional organisations necessarily have that in abundance.”
It was a comment that was picked up on Twitter, by one follower.
Brian Whitington, on the PST Twitter feed, replied: “I think that is a classic Western Isles understatement! A bit? As much as I try and suppress my ex London ways, on this I would say; PST are bloody fantastic. This is a London understatement.”
Isn’t that great? We can’t normally go around saying “PST are bloody fantastic” – it’s not quite subtle enough – but it rather made my day.
Personally, I also think they’re a great organisation. Because they have managed – in the face of significant, sustained and concerted opposition – to build a wind farm that is 100 per cent owned by the people and generates a lot of profit entirely for the benefit of the people.
Their money is all reinvested in good causes and they have big ambitions too, in terms of science and technical developments in renewables.
They’re also a wee bit maverick – and yes, I like that too.
So that’s all good.
The difficulty comes when you butt up against organisations that don’t ‘think differently’ – or don’t seem to think much at all. About anything!
How to cope? Is there some kind of magic spell for using on the chronically obtuse so that the rest of us don’t expire in exasperation? Is it possible to ever influence change when behaviours and thought patterns have apparently become set in stone?
“I’m not sure you can change it,” said Chris. “You’ve just got to show there’s a different way. “You’ve got to lead by example. You’ve got to try. If you aim for the stars, you might reach the moon.”
His sentiments were echoed by one of his colleagues, Alasdair MacLeod, a senior lecturer in energy engineering at the college.
And here Point and Sandwick Trust come in again, on the topic of forging ahead.
Alasdair has been working on a project with Point and Sandwick Trust and other partners to map areas of energy usage and potential development throughout the Western Isles and has described some of PST’s big ideas for future renewables as “extremely ambitious”.
However, he also said: “The reason these people are successful in what they do is because they think big. They are ambitious. They’re not restricted by practicalities.”
He was talking there about problems like funding – which can cease to be insurmountable obstacles later on, for example, as costs can come down – and how technology moves on.
Alasdair said: “If you look at everything based on what you could do at the moment, it’s too easy to be critical, and if you didn’t have entrepreneurs who looked beyond that, then probably nothing would ever get done.”
By his own admission, scientists tended to be negative as they had to “focus on worst-case scenarios continually”, to test hypotheses – whereas entrepreneurs were more likely to see solutions.
He also admitted to have been wrong, previously, about PST’s ability to deliver a wind farm.
“I was wrong about the wind farm. I said they’d never get three wind turbines up but I was wrong. I thought it would be too difficult.”
He described Point and Sandwick Trust as having “huge ambition” over renewables possibilities for the Western Isles, but added: “It reflects the same kind of ambition they had when they put up the three turbines, when everybody else believed it couldn’t be done.”
He said they had a “track record in overcoming huge challenges before” and could, therefore, “make a huge impact in the Western Isles” in the future.
It’s a mindset that Dr Chris Macleod believes is key in turning around the islands’ fortunes.
When Point and Sandwick Trust announced its £20,000 sponsorship of the Innovation Centre last year, the then chairman Angus McCormack said innovation was “part of what we promote at PST”.
At the time, Chris spoke out about the Western Isles’ view of the kind of industry ‘we do’ here – and called for leaders and teachers to embrace the high-tech industries.
While traditional industries had their place, he said, they had “failed to produce sustainable and lasting prosperity for hundreds of years”.
Despite working as a NASA contract engineer and director of research at Robert Gordon University’s School of Engineering before returning home to Lewis, his vision for an Innovation Centre received precious little support from public agencies – until he applied to Point and Sandwick Trust.
Compared to some heavy industries, which have had tens of millions of public money over the years — with repeated layoffs at the end of contracts (Arnish is a case in point, although their new contract is absolutely to be celebrated) — Chris said the public sector refusal to fund the Innovation Centre was “quite bizarre”.
He said: “There was lots of nodding their heads but very little support in terms of people actually saying ‘we’ll put our hand in our pocket and give you the money to do it’. There’s this attitude here that ‘what we do’ is set in their mind and they’re not very open to new ideas.
“Programming and coding and software engineering is a big thing. If you’re aiming for any sort of career these days, you have to be able to program a computer.”
He recognised that “the people of the Western Isles aren’t as entrepreneurial as, for example, the Shetlanders or Orcadians” but also added: “There’s almost a bit of a culture of entitlement. That ‘we deserve to be saved.’ Whereas, having been away 30 years, my answer would be, ‘well go and save yourself rather than waiting for some white knight to ride in’.
“When I came back here there was still this attitude that clever people will come in and save us — whether it’s a superquarry or a windfarm. Whatever the flavour of the month is. Why wait to be saved? Why not save yourself? It’s like a drowning man in a pond, desperately waiting for someone to throw him a ring and save him rather than trying to swim for the shore.
Meanwhile, clever people are just laughing to themselves and doing clever things but they’re not doing them here.”
He added: “Point and Sandwick have shown that you can be a success if you think differently. Rather than waiting for some big corporate to come in and save them, they actually did it themselves and, if anything, they just prove that you can do it.”
I read an opinion piece in the Press and Journal this week that chimed.
Michael Foxley, former leader of Highland Council, wrote a piece in Tuesday’s paper with the headline “We must be bigger cog in renewables chain”.
He questioned the deals which people in the Highlands were getting from various projects and said the “consequences of ill-thought-out hydro schemes” – his particular focus – were escalating.
Citing the “unacceptable intrusions into designated landscapes and historic sites” – and controversy over the multiple hydro projects planned for Glen Etive – he asked: “Who now benefits from these schemes?”
It was, he said: “Certainly not the residents in the north, with many suffering the highest levels of fuel poverty in Western Europe…”
CALL TO ACTION
He concluded: “Serious action is required and we need to get angry.”
I wanted to stand up and cheer the man! Even though I was in my office at home and no one would have seen or heard me, apart from the cat.
Here was a call to action, if ever I’d heard one.
There will always be those who like the comfort of the crowd. And the safety of their heads beneath the parapet.
For the rest of us, we’ll keep on pushing – and demanding better. As Dr Chris Macleod said, you can only lead by example. You can’t change people.
You have to show that there’s a different way.