Innovation, sustainability, and censorship

Frank Convery dreams of a Silicon Valley of Emerald Green over at Comhar. To get to Silicon Valley, you need to pass through that other valley, where bad ideas face a certain death.

Rigour and scrutiny, however, are not part of Convery’s vision. He claims that Palo Alto “will be submerged if sea levels rise significantly” — ignoring that Palo Alto is 9 metres above sea level (projected sea level rise by 2100 is less than one-tenth of that); that people there know how to build dikes and can pay for it too; and that Palo Alto is special because of its people rather than because of its physical characteristics.

I left a comment to that effect on his blog, but discussion is not appreciated in sustainablalaland.

UPDATE: Comments are up now at Comhar.

UPDATE: Frank Convery responds. I close the discussion here.

37 replies on “Innovation, sustainability, and censorship”


I’m very disappointed. Have you not learned any of the things that are really important during the time you have spent in Ireland? Do you not know, for example, that the direct expression of statements based on solid evidence is considered the height of rudeness by those who inhabit the land where disbelief and judgment are suspended endlessly?

What struck me about the ‘valley of death’ piece – which looked at energy (and, indirectly, climate change) – was the combined cost savings effect of structural changes in the industry and massive changes in the technology and application of energy efficiency.

Well, we’ve had the structural changes in Ireland and we have cost dissavings – and now we’re going to pay a fortune to harness the wind.

Innovation means doing the things we do – and things we would like to do – more efficiently. Perhaps we can buy licences to apply some of these US innovations and see if we can develop their application.


Yep, seems that way alright. That’s bad form. From the little I read it looks like you are right to take issue with the “Palo Alto will be submerged” comment. I think the critical work you do is valuable.

I just left this message on his site:

“Greetings from Brazil.
Why are you blocking / removing comments by informed academics / researchers like Richard Tol etc.? Hardly worthy of someone who likes the academic title ´Professor´?

Peadar Coleman.


You would think that Comhar, the forum for national dialogue on sustainable development, would welcome dialogue. In fact, they get subsidized to do that.

Great stuff from the Comhar website in the opening paragraphs…

…and here in my ignorance I thought great business ideas were grounded in customers… thankfully State Capitalism has put me right on that…

if this is Smart Economy thinking at work, count me out please.

@The Alchemist
“if this is Smart Economy thinking at work, count me out please.”
Eh, we don’t have anyone to count you out… how would you like a never-to-be-implemented white paper to put you to sleep?

Professor Frank Convery presents an interesting fable but like many other academics who are moved by aspirations rather than reality, it does not make the big-scale funding of university research in a small economy, any more credible.

“The first fruits of this change are beginning to emerge, as multinationals (examples include Boston Scientific, IBM, Intel, HP, Johnson and Johnson, PayPal, Pfizer, Novartis, Roche, SAP) begin to invest in R&D in Ireland, and a swarm of start-ups emerge.

I see a time when parents who have the means to do so help their children finance an innovation-led company, rather than a house, where the five-kilometre ‘innovation corridor’ linking UCD and TCD is home to a plethora of creative activity, and where a Bucks equivalent emerges to enable serious people to meet and do deals.”

A swarm of start-ups?

140 spin-outs from third-level research in 10 years and 1,000 jobs! – – the survival arte is 90% because most of them are not exposed to the market.

In the US a typical high-tech firm has a 25% chance to reach its 7th birthday.
After 30 years, the high-tech cluster around Cambridge University employs 30,000 and most firms have a payroll of less than 10.

What Convery and other cheerleaders of public funding of research ignore, is the market.

The public sector is usually the biggest customer of IT companies.

With public spending expected to be restricted for many years, how realistic is it to expect an unprecedented number of companies that survive, to
develop export markets with a staff of a few people?

The mention of sales may seem taboo but welcome to the real world!

From the original:

“Palo Alto faces environmental challenges, including climate change – much will be submerged […]”

Note that there’s no claim that all of Palo Alto will be submerged (the area is hilly, after all), despite what Richard Tol implies. Better citation practices by the academic from the ESRI, perhaps?

Palo Alto is special because of its people rather than because of its physical characteristics.

And the people have congregated in a physical location, you may note, which brings us back to the desirability to the local economy of keeping them there.

Admittedly, Convery only claimed that “much” will be submerged, which is still nonsense. You may want to visit there one day to climb all those hills.

The mayor of Palo Alto seems equally ignorant about how alto PA actually is. Quoted in Irish Times yesterday, he said

“The very location of Palo Alto and other cities in the Silicon Valley area mean the population is aware of some of the most urgent environmental problems.

For example, he says, 1m (3ft) of sea-level rise “could have a drastic effect on our communities”, many of which are barely above sea level.”

After me, Holbrook and Peadar, they probably concluded they were under attack and shut down all comments.

Comhar SDC, including the blog it hosts on its website and all submissions to that blog, are of course subject to the Aarhus rules on freedom of environmental information.


The public sector is usually the biggest customer of IT companies.

What type of IT companies though? I can readily believe this of traditional IT services firms, but it would surprise me if it were true of shrinkwrap-software companies or most websites.

And don’t forget the golf course. I guess that what’s the mayor meant with his “drastic impact”.

Given the shape of San Francisco Bay, wave action is limited so a simple dike will do.

I think this is a perfect example of how ‘debate’ is conducted in Ireland. Richard’s views, though based on research and evidence, are not compatible with the warm and fuzzy feeling (WAFF) the Green fraternity wishes to advance and he is attacked not on the substantive point he has made – “Palo Alto is special because of its people rather than because of its physical characteristics” – but on his opinion on how the denizens of the Palo Alto area might sensibly respond to the possible impacts of climate change.

And in the context of the energy sector issues considered in both pieces in Richard’s post, it is interesting to note the role of retail competition in facilitating efficiency savings and in providing innovative services to consumers. Retail competition in electricity and gas has had a patchy history in the US. For gas it has struggled to take-off in many states. Wrt electricity retail competition is being rolled back in some states and hybrids of competition and regulated supply are appearing in others.

Retail competition is making ground in the more populous states where it is using the technological innovations cited in the Forbes article to provide better service to consumers. The key point is service – perhaps not surprising in the US. Energy retailers in the US survive because they provide service and locally elected law-makers and regulators will only remove existing regulation if they are convinced of tte benefits of retail competition.

In Ireland and the EU, retail competition is mandated from on high – irrespective of the costs and benefits. Retail competition in the EU is imposing costs on consumers with little benefit – and often just causes annoyance – think call centres and BGE losing a laptop with data on its electricity customers.

Because retail competition has been mandated without people’s direct consent, retailers have little incentive to explore and apply the technological innovations that would benefit consumers – as there is in the US.

Thinking of rising sea levels and their effects closer to home, much of the older city of Dublin is at or even below sea level, but there does not seem to have been any increase in the incidence of tidal-related flooding over recent decades. Strange!

“Introductory physics courses are taught at three levels: physics with calculus, physics without calculus, and physics without physics.” This is not just a saying among cynical physicists. A new report from the Confederation of British Industry suggests that much school science in Britain is at level three. The economic impact of poor science teaching can be overstated but its effect on students’ lives cannot.”

This is from an FT editorial, Einstein would weep, in 2006:

@ Paul Hunt

Richard Toll and Matthew Elderfield show why it’s important to have a lot more outsiders in key positions in Ireland.

People like them don’t have to worry about massaging brittle egos and the risks of not going with the flow!

@ anonym

The FT reported earlier this year that growth rates in UK public sector spending on software and IT have outstripped those in the private sector every year for the past decade, according to Richard Holway of research firm, TechMarketView.

The public sector share of the market has grown from 19% to nearly 30% with some leading suppliers taking more than 50% of their revenues from the public sector.

The UK government spent £7.57bn on IT, networking and related costs last year, excluding staff costs, according to figures released by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

The biggest single item, £2.33bn, was on outsourced and managed services. The next biggest bill was for telecommunications (£1.41bn), followed by networking (£1.3bn), software (£903m), systems delivery (£570m), hardware (£440m), maintenance and support (£334m), and uncategorised items (£314m).

Corporate spending on IT in the UK fell for the first time in five years in 2008 to about £7.4bn.

In Ireland, over the past decade, Accenture at its peak had 1,600 on its payroll, mostly working for the public sector. The banks in particular had big IT budgets.

Now, the banks and the public sector are bust.

The challenge for young tech firms is to develop a cash-flow domestically and some reputation in their field before seeking to develop export markets.

The UL spin-out Stokes Bio, developed a key technology and won the attention of Monsanto, the GM seeds giant who signed a cooperation agreement with it. Within a few months Stokes got a buyout bid.

However, the biotechnology industry first made a profit in 2008, after more than 40 years and then only because of the success of its 3 biggest firms.

@ P L Malone

Cork used to have a regular problem with tidal flooding in particular on Oliver Plunkett St.
Parallel to this street is South Mall where there are still examples of the steps up to the second level of houses where the front door was.

A resident could tie-up his boat by the steps.

@Richard Tol

Hopefully a “technical glitch” on this site does not again delete a most honourable comment, as other sites have done to you, implying it never happens on your blog …

A Dutch person (focus: Asian air quality) on China Central TV, CCTV-9, just stated air pollution costs 2% to 4% of GDP. For IRL that would be about €4 Billion to €8 Billion per year. The commie-show-host asked intelligent questions which would be censored on RTE, which like ESRI has become a facade for democracy.

The Dutch person on CCTV stated deadly PM 2.5s are not measured; the focus is only on less dangerous PM10s. I guess PM10s are also a red herring in the focus of the ESRI spin machine; especially with DCC funding ESRI; DCC of ‘massaged reports’ and ‘undue influence’ misleading a public process – Judge McKechnie, and information withholding and obfuscation.

With ESRI funded by society is there any chance you could state ESRI’s estimate for the air pollution cost to Ireland? Further evasive and perhaps non-existing references are not appreciated.

What’s the health cost transferred to residents from the incineration industry?

You’ve stated on this site its been ruled out that incineration is the reason for one thousand excess deaths in Amsterdam. You omit a reference, even an indirect one. Do you have a scientific reference and a direct reference for your statement?

Amsterdam’s 1,000 excess deaths can be costed at €US 8 Billion per year. Lets divide that by three for Dublin, or a turd in Drumcondra-mafia-speak, incinerator promoters and ESRI funders So, if incineration costs up to an extra 300 deaths per year in Dublin the total cost transferred from DCC to the non-insured in Ireland’s for-profit health care system will be $2.4 Billion per year. Do you deny this?

# Richard Tol Says:
August 21st, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Your comment seems to have disappeared, just like mine.



# Dublin Voter Says:
July 8th, 2010 at 7:24 pm

@Richard Tol

Is there a reason you have not published my comment of July 8, 2010 at 01:38? I can edit the text.


In Addition:

Is it not reasonable to ask ESRI and its employees to provide easily available references for statements they make
– especially when the reference is for an ESRI document the ESRI employee has referred to?

First you seemed to make the appearance of answering my question by referring to the Gorecki report (paid for by incinerator promotors DCC). You now seem to be changing the goal posts about answering my question, a question which is of strong public value. Did you know the Gorecki report did not answer my question when you referred myself and blog readers to the
Gorecki report?

Dublin Voter Says:
July 1st, 2010 at 6:57 pm

What is ESRI’s expert guesstimate for the future taxpayer liabilities from premature deaths across the city of Dublin from incinerator micro-particles and nano-particles?

At 300 premature deaths across Dublin per year, and at €8 million per death, the proposed Poolbeg Incinerator would cost Irish taxpayers €2.4 Billion per year.
# Richard Tol Says:
July 8th, 2010 at 7:48 pm

@Dublin Voter
This blog is not moderated (with a few exceptions, and you are not one of them) so the only explanation is a technical glitch.

The Gorecki report is explicit about its assumptions on mortality. The ESRI cannot be expected to present every detail of its research in such a way that it pleases everybody all the time.
# dublin voter Says:
July 9th, 2010 at 6:28 pm


So The Internet Ate My Homework?


Dublin Voter Says:
July 8th, 2010 at 7:24 pm

@Richard Tol

Is there a reason you have not published my comment of July 8, 2010 at 01:38? I can edit the text.

@richard tol

Are you totally nuts?

Ireland’s supine “institutions” such as ESRI and Engineers Ireland are a million miles removed from Silicon Valley & Palo Alto. Such cute-wee-hoorism has permanently crippled Ireland. ESRI is part of Irelands inbred culture, crippling the future.

Perhaps because your hometown is below sea-level you distort another blog [] and imply the people of Silicon Valley are not special. Or is it the dikes on bikes on dikes? Nuts.

You claim
“Rigour and scrutiny, however, are not part of Convery’s vision. He claims that … Palo Alto is special because of its people rather than because of its physical characteristics.”

Palo Alto *is* special because of its people.
No cute wee hoors employed by Irelands ESRI (not PA’s ESRI).
Respect for engineering.
Respect for VCs.
Respect for the original Hp Way.

Total disrespect for the ESRI’s cute-wee-hoorisms.

@ Paul Hunt
“Innovation means doing the things we do – and things we would like to do – more efficiently. Perhaps we can buy licences to apply some of these US innovations and see if we can develop their application.”

Innovation sometimes relates to improvements in efficiency, or other things as well (e.g. combining known things in a different way, or applying known things to a different field or application–and getting it to market). It’s different from R&D, not necessarily about patents or licensing.

Innovation is defined more clearly as putting something already known into a new context and INTO USE. Commercializing it. Applying it. It’s not R&D, or registering a patent and leaving an idea sitting on a shelf. The new idea is probably nothing revolutionary, just a new twist.

Having an idea, even after it’s been trialled or prototyped–is a far cry from bringing it successfully to the marketplace. Most folks (including the “smart economy” promoters) have no idea of what’s involved–the time frame, the money, the right customers, getting basic regulatory info about logistics, customs, or standards in various countries. . .

Who would have thought it would be so difficult to find out the regs for self-certifying for the CE mark, for example–or to find out how to assign & use the right kind of bar code, or how to get a bar code image formatted and printed on a bank holiday weekend. . . (Major Irish MNCs couldn’t even help me with this.)

One can talk about innovation, spin-outs and exports, but for an Irish start-up to actually achieve this is more challenging than government spin implies.

Particularly illuminating was MF’s observation on a previous thread, that Ireland does NOT have a strong culture of innovation or international trade. (Compare Ireland to cultures that have thousands of years experience in international trade routes.) That comment led to an “aha!” moment for me. I had heard so much spin I had believed it, then couldn’t understand why I so often experienced trying to get support for “innovation” being such a struggle. (By “support” I mean basic, timely information–not necessarily funding.)

“I think this is a perfect example of how ‘debate’ is conducted in Ireland.” That proved prophetic.

@Dublin Voter
The person on CCTV was probably referring to air pollution in China’s cities.

On the matter of excess deaths in Amsterdam, I have repeatedly referred you to the RIVM website:

Most of the comment here is about the altitude of Palo Alto, Convery’s article was not

But hey, why bother with the general substance when you can nit pick a casual remark.

It seems bizarre that Irish economists seem to be obsessed with contour lines. Must have been a quiet day in the office.

I agree that the discussion about the vulnerability of Palo Alto would have been more appropriately placed at the Comhar blog. Unfortunately, discussion is not allowed there. If you read the comments by EWI, Mark and Dublin Voter, then you may discern a pattern. The nasty and loony fringe of the environmental movement would not normally concern a blog on the Irish economy, but they hold a certain power over parts of the economy.

The main topic of Convery’s article would be an interesting discussion here (and indeed has been), but he did not have anything pertinent to say.

The office is indeed fairly quiet on Saturday.


“…they hold a certain power over parts of the economy.”

I’m sure you’re well aware that the “nasty and loony fringe” are simply the attacks dog for the ‘publicly acceptable’ face of the Green movement which (while maintaining plausible deniability of the antics of fringe) is seeking to leverage its limited political power to achieve its objectives. Nothing wrong with this; minority parties in government seek to do it all of the time. The problem in this case is that the Greens have bolted their ambitions wrt to the extent and pace of de-carbonisation, green industry and innovation and import substitution (all of which are very questionable and require scrutiny) on to extremely dysfunctional policy, regulatory, corporate and financing arrangements in the energy sector.

This link provides a further example of the damage this nonsense is doing to consumers and the economy:

However, the idea that a statutorily-established, ‘independent’ regulator is responding to a Government-mandated review of energy prices while competition is supposed to be taking off in the market (and the regulator is contemplating removing controls on final prices) does not seem to strike anyone as totally bizarre.

You simply couldn’t make this up. Is no one in Government prepared to impose a limit on the damage that the Greens are doing to the credibility of energy regulation and to consumers and the economy?

Sea level rise scenarios for San Francisco Bay are mapped by the California state government. (Palo Alto is in the South Bay)

Although Wikipedia might tell you that Palo Alto is at an elevation of 9m, in fact this suburb is hilly in parts and East Palo Alto runs right down to the bay shore.

An analysis of threats and mitigation strategies for SF bay is in a paper here:

So the prediction that much of Palo Alto would be submerged in a do-nothing scenario is a prediction from the state govt rather than from Comhar.

Excellent idea. I look forward to evidence-based rebuttal and counter-rebuttal until the only contentions that remain are generally accepted to be solidly-based on the best evidence that is available.

Dream on.

Comments are closed.