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Autumnwatch 2013

Programming sustainability at the BBC: Albert, cultural change and technology

Richard Smith has worked at the BBC for 20 years. With a background in local radio, he then moved on to a career as a television reporter and correspondent  before getting the job as Environmental Project Manager/Sustainable Production Manager for the BBC in 2009. Initially on a 6 month placement to develop Albert the Carbon Calculator as part of the BBC’s development of environmental targets, five years later he's still there…

In 2010 the BBC launched their sustainability strategy called ‘The Difference’, focussing on energy efficiency, behavioural change, procurement and industry leadership. Its main priorities are two-fold: to reduce the environmental impact of its buildings and operations and to develop and promote sustainable production.  These are led by a small but growing team who set the strategy and try to coordinate implementation across the organisation, acting as advisors and connectors across different departments.

Previously located in BBC Outreach, the team has recently been moved into BBC Policy and Strategy: “, it’s something that’s right at the heart of strategic planning for the future” (Richard Smith 2014)*.     

Organisational impacts

Unlike Arts Council funded organisations, there is no statutory obligation for the BBC to reduce its carbon footprint, but as a publically-funded organisation it remains committed to activity in this area.

The largest part of the BBC’s carbon footprint is in its buildings, followed by transport emissions. In 2008 the BBC set challenging five year targets for reducing environmental impacts through the consumption of energy and water, waste generation and transport emissions. These included a 20% absolute reduction in energy consumed and CO2 emissions from buildings; 25% reduction in water used per person; a 25% reduction in waste to landfill per person and to recycle 70% of waste; and a 20% reduction in CO2 transport emissions per person.

In 2008 the BBC set challenging five year targets for reducing environmental impacts through the consumption of energy and water, waste generation and transport emissions.

Planned steps in meeting these targets included, for instance, having fewer and more efficient buildings at Media City, rainwater harvesting systems and installing low flush toilet cisterns in facilities across the organisation.  A central priority has been to recycle and reuse old TV Centre equipment: “one of the huge TV studios is now absolutely packed full of electronic equipment, each bit individually numbered, because we want to make sure that every single one is re-used, or at the very least recycled”.

Despite such efforts, the original targets were not met and have been extended to 2016. This has largely been put down to timing issues with the relocation of TV Centre to Salford Quays, which effectively meant that three buildings were running simultaneously. It is only now that the BBC is beginning to see the benefits of the property strategy being realised.

It is only now that the BBC is beginning to see the benefits of the property strategy being realised.

Creating closed loop systems is also high on the agenda, with the BBC initiating discussions with manufacturers and supply chains to improve procurement processes and reduce waste. Often there is little opportunity for direct engagement by staff with issues such as building performance or closed loop systems, yet everyone is ultimately linked into programme-making of some kind. Enter Albert the Carbon Calculator…

Albert the carbon calculator

The main bulk of Richard Smith and his team’s work is around sustainable TV production: “we want to be the world leader in sustainable production.” The specific mechanism for delivering this is in a carbon calculating tool called ‘Albert’. Albert is a footprint tool that calculates the projected and actual carbon emissions of programmes, resulting in a CO2 per studio hour figure. Developed 4 years ago, Albert is now used by the vast majority of productions across the BBC.

Since then, Albert + has also been developed as a certification scheme which seeks to assist programme makers to put the information generated via Albert into practical action: “we use a weight loss analogy: if Albert is the set of scales then Albert Plus is the diet plan”.  Successful programmes, in receipt of a certificate from the Director of Television, include two children’s programmes, Autumnwatch and an independent production by Kudos.

The first Albert + mark was received by the CBBC production ‘All At Sea’ , which implemented changes to procurement, catering, paper use and travel plans as a result of their initial carbon footprint. One further example of changes on set as a result of the information generated by Albert is DIY SOS, which ran its site with solar power instead of diesel generators, saving 600kg of CO2 and considerable financial resources.

Low energy lighting on set

A further testament to the tool is that it has also been adopted by BAFTA and shared widely across the sector, through the BAFTA Albert Consortium. Established in 2011 the UK-wide collaboration brings together Channel 4, IMG, ITV,UKTV, NBC, Kudos, Shed, Sky, Boundless, Twofour, Endemol and All3 Media  to enable TV and film productions to use the tool free of change, building on a non-competitive set of relationships: “sustainability rather wonderfully seems to be an issue where you can leave [competition] at the door …when you are in the room, people seem to be generally very open and honest and willing to collaborate and I think that approach has led us to where we are now”.

Technology = Information. Information + Human Intervention = Intelligence

Richard is modest about the achievements of Albert to date, noting that it is still in its relative infancy as a carbon calculating tool. One of Albert's key ingredients seems to be the unique blend of technology, human intervention and changing organisational soft norms. Albert is a good entry level for people who want to make the next step from just ‘having recycling bins in the office’, but ‘it’s only a tool, a means to an end, not the end itself’. 

One of Albert's key ingredients seems to be the unique blend of technology, human intervention and changing organisational soft norms.

Using Albert, programmes have an accurate record of their projected and actual carbon emissions; but it doesn’t make recommendations. Instead, a member of the sustainable production team sits down with the programme-makers and offers sensitive advice appropriate for the programme being made: ‘there’s no point telling people making a programme about ice caps in the North Pole that they should use public transport!’ Richard jokes.

Behind such observations is a serious point, that technology is only as good as the interpretation of the data in context that is generated: ‘the difference is in terms of the knowledge produced and understanding where a programme is made, and a million and one different factors, which you could never get out of a logarithm”.

Technology is only as good as the interpretation of the data in context that is generated.

Whilst organisational leadership is seen as important, ‘boots on the ground’ are most significant allowing human interaction behind computer programming. Importantly, Albert allows people to make their own choices, in a guided way, about how to act on the data generated. Albert + is a certification scheme that is the next step towards making more sustainable programmes.

Whilst acknowledging that a ‘certificate’ may not produce behaviour change in its own right, recognition of their achievements across the BBC, particularly at the senior level, has proved to be an important motivating factor: “is a certificate enough, is that enough to motivate people? But amazingly and wonderfully it is enough… I’m not necessarily saying it will float everyone’s boat but certainly the productions who’ve got them so far are thrilled to get this’. 

Behind this approach is a considered position in relation to organisational cultural change.  The BBC is a massive organisation, staffed by people of ‘multiple shades of green’. Albert exists in a grey area between voluntary and mandatory requirements, between the carrot and the stick. ‘My preferred option is always to have a kind of ‘interventionary’ conversation’.

This raises the age-old question of how you measure the impact of a tool like Albert? The team collect data on how many productions have used Albert and have a measure of its equivalent value in terms of carbon or financial savings, but they acknowledge they have a way to go: “we don’t have every mechanism in place yet, it’s a sign of it being a relatively new thing at the BBC, but it’s also a sign that we’ve gone from a position where no one was asking us to measure the success of Albert the carbon calculator our years ago because it was so below the radar the expectation levels were zero”.

Measuring cultural change brought about as a result of the tool is a particular challenge. Ultimately, it could be used to influence programming strategy and decision-making, off-setting high carbon programmes with lower, more locally produced ones. However, this is a few steps removed from the current situation: “we know that by engaging with production you can only reach a certain number of people, we need the architects of the programmes and the commissioners of the programmes to understand this stuff as well, and that will take a long time".

The key, according to Richard, is starting small: ‘it all starts with a meter reading’.  Resilience and persistence from the environment team are critical, with a large part of the job relying on persuasion: ‘we just never give up: in the early days if I’d listened to the criticism, I could have gone ‘do you know what I don’t think this is going to fly’ but we didn’t, we kept going with it.’ In parts this relies on detailed knowledge of the sector and organisation, rather than generic environmental expertise, speaking the language of employees to produce ‘bums on seats, not complex levels of knowledge that no one is going to engage with’.

Moving from London to Salford has brought benefits for the environment team in terms of partnership working, with the BBC’s environment team joining the Manchester Arts and Sustainability Team as one of its newer and certainly larger organisations. As a knowledge-sharing network, MAST offers the organisation the opportunity to network more locally, fostering new developments such as a nascent carbon literacy project for Media City and working with a range of smaller cultural organisations on the environmental agenda: ‘I like working with large and small organisations; everyone is equal round the table’.

The Alternative?

Technology is often presumed to offer a quick-fix to global environmental problems. Yet in Albert and Albert +, a socio-technical approach to behavioural and cultural change is evident. With a small, but relatively well supported team, carbon calculating is rendered legible in human terms, through the sensitive interpretation of data in friendly and supportive ‘interventionary’ conversations.In this respect, the blend of human and technological interaction to produce culture change is both modest and promising.

The blend of human and technological interaction to produce culture change is both modest and promising.

This example also draws attention to how organisational change may be brought about, not by enforcement, but through persuasion and changing cultural expectations in the BBC. Carbon foot-printing has become common-place, both through internal mandatory requirements and because the social norms of the organisation increasingly emphasise compliance. What we see is a kind of ‘soft legality’, drawing on a collective sense of responsibility.

Yet in the long-term the approach will inevitably reach a plateau. When all programmes have been foot-printed and agreed a carbon reduction plan, where next for the organisation? Two areas suggest themselves. 

Firstly, how can the lessons of Albert be leveraged to inform strategic decision-making and a more active mobilisation of the civic role of the BBC as a change agent in wider society? The team currently work within the guidelines of the BBC, respecting such principles as ‘editorial impartiality’, in which BBC programming cannot, on balance, reflect a stated position for or against a particular issue. 

As an organisation, the BBC clearly represents its environmental, and broader outreach commitments, as central parts of its mission. Yet, ultimately, if their potential weight as a cultural change agent is to be harnessed, the thorny issue of impartiality and how that relates to both evidence and public opinion needs to be refined and revisited.

Secondly, how can the BBC as a large organisation continue to support and enhance the sustainability of the urban environment in which it is located? This goes beyond considering sustainability in the environmental sense towards a coordinated and principled set of engagements with Greater Manchester and the rich diversity of cultural and community organisations  in and around Media City.

Further information

Images used courtesy of the BBC.

Interview with Richard Smith, January, 2014.
*All quotes drawn from interview with Richard Smith, January 2014.

This article has been written as part of the ‘The Alternative?’ series by the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform for Mistra Urban Futures.

It also draws on work carried out for the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Cultural Intermediation’ project.  It is part of a working paper in development for publication on Low Carbon Culture? as part of the Mistra Urban Futures research agenda.