Life with purpose
COP26 Check-in: Will Page
COP26

COP26 Check-in: Will Page

Former Chief Economist of Spotify and author of Tarzan Economics, Will Page, shares his insights into COP26 and sustainable technology.
By Alice Treasure
11th Nov 2021

We sat down with Will Page, former Chief Economist at Spotify and author of Tarzan Economics, to get his insights into what we can hope for from COP26 when it comes to the tech industry. 

Will is speaking on the Building the Sustainable Open Future for the UK panel today, lending his economic expertise to discuss how open source technology is essential in making the tech industry sustainable. 

TBT: Thanks for joining us, Will. Have you been to COP before?

Will: No, I haven’t. As someone from Edinburgh, I tend to avoid Glasgow where I can – but I’m really excited to be going

TBT: Tell me a bit more about the Open Technology and Sustainability Day that you’re attending with Open UK.

Will: Open UK is advocating for open source technology to be used across the UK. There’s great value in collaboration, and open source tech is all about working together and sharing resources. 

I think those values are extremely well aligned with the values of COP26, which is asking how we can achieve more output using less resources. The answer is through collaboration. 

TBT: Talk to us about your role at the event. 

Will: We have quite an amazing setup there; we’re very fortunate to be onsite. There’s going to be engagement with politicians, industry leaders and regulators – which is crucial in terms of how the transition towards a sustainable, open technology industry happens. 

I’ll be speaking on a panel focused on how we can build a sustainable future, which will have Nicola Sturgeon present as well as other dignitaries.

Open UK’s Open Technology for Sustainability Day is taking place on November 11th 2021, and can be streamed for free.

TBT: What do you hope the event will achieve? 

Will: I’m interested in something that I discuss in my book, Tarzan Economics, which is that the things that matter the most are being measured the least. 

If you have a valuable piece of code, you could keep it to yourself and enjoy the benefits that would be reflected on your balance sheet. If you gave that code to the open environment, you’d be recording a loss. According to the way we currently measure things, you would have given something away and got nothing in return. 

Meanwhile, all the very real and important benefits of going open source – collaboration, innovation, sustainability – aren’t recorded as replacing that economic loss. I’m hoping this event can facilitate a discussion about the ways we can correct that.

TBT: Why do you think open source technology is so essential in order for us to make technology more sustainable? 

Will: If we had a hundred companies with a hundred local servers, that means X amount of energy consumption. If they all got rid of their individual servers and adopted AWS in the cloud, they would use Y amount of energy. And Y is less than X. 

The simple mass collaboration and collectivization of open-source and cloud solutions has huge potential for making more efficient use of the scarce resources that we have.

TBT: Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about what the overall outcome of the conference will be? 

Will: Firstly I want to deal with what I call the pessimism paradox: people only wanting to talk about what they can be pessimistic about. I think that can be short-sighted and narrow-minded. 

COP26 is getting bigger every year. I think it’s important to celebrate some of the work that has been done. Progress doesn’t grow on trees; it’s hard work. We’re seeing glimpses of that work when we flick on our TVs or tune into the radio or check our smartphones, but those narratives don’t necessarily show the months, years and even decades of progress which has gone into what we’re seeing today.

“How we can achieve more output using less resources? The answer is through collaboration.”

TBT: What do you hope COP26 achieves for the technology industry? 

Will: I hope there will be an increased appreciation for how tech can be incorporated into sustainability solutions, and a better way of measuring its impact. I also hope that companies that may have been solely interested in profit, costs and investor relations can start to broaden their agenda. 

I’d like us to think about where our best and brightest talent is going, and then consider how we can use those industries to create climate solutions. The top three career paths used to be accountancy, finance and law. Today, those are replaced by tech jobs, software developers, engineers, designers and so on. How can we deploy those sectors to start thinking about the climate differently? 

We need to allocate resources and brainpower to this problem in a way that’s coordinated. We need to rethink how we’ve done things so far, and question how we can do them better. And at the heart of that is asking: how can we act for the common good and avoid the temptation of our self-interest? 

TBT: How has your personal attitude towards climate changed over the decade?

Will: It’s gone from a footnote to the front page – as I’m sure it has for many. Alongside that, I’ve seen a difference in the power of the market to drive sustainability solutions too. 

Norway, for example, has made a huge amount of profit from oil and gas, but the market is now rapidly leaving the old way behind and switching to renewables. As an economist, I find that fascinating because it’s the market solving market problems faster than it takes for state regulation to come to fruition.

“What makes you feel that you’re doing something above and beyond the call of duty, for the benefit of the common good? For me, that’s what purpose is.”

TBT: What does purpose mean to you? 

Will: I think purpose is not what gets you up in the morning – because sometimes that’s the paycheck – but rather what gives you goosebumps. What gets you excited? What makes you feel that you’re doing something above and beyond the call of duty, for the benefit of the common good rather than self interest? 

Self interest would be thinking, I’m the only Music Chief Economist in this country, and I’d like to keep it that way because I can demand higher fees. But purpose is wanting to share the knowledge, connections and skills in order to foster a new generation of music economists. 

My purpose is to make myself redundant and help others come through the ranks and make a difference through their work in the music and technology industries. 

TBT: What do you want to be remembered for?

Will: I’d like to be remembered for communication. Climate, for instance, is complicated. My father taught me that to communicate anything with complexities like climate change or economics, you have to be speaking to an audience to which three rules apply: one, they don’t think they’re going to understand it. Two, they don’t want to understand it. Three, they have to understand it.

I want to be remembered as someone who can communicate to an audience like that. You’re not preaching to the converted – that’s easy. You’re preaching to the unconverted, and that’s where things get tricky, but it’s also where change is happens. 

TBT: Let’s end by looking ahead. What’s your hope for the future of business? 

Will: First and foremost, my hope is that the next COP is held in Edinburgh, not Glasgow…

But for business, my key mantra is that we need to change how we measure climate action. How much action is accurately being captured by the statisticians whose reports are then used to create policies? 

My hope for the future of business is that the ambitious goals that are being set here can be properly measured and accounted for, whether that’s through tax policies, subsidies, grants or other incentives. Change can’t happen when the thing that matters most – our climate – is being measured the least. I’m hopeful that COP26 can change that.

Will is attending COP26 with the nonprofit Open UK for the Open Technology for Sustainability Day on November 11. Non-profit organisation Open UK promotes businesses, individuals and projects that use open source tech across the UK. To join their COP26 event remotely and stream all sessions, register here.

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