Starting from Zero

14 Jan

There are, as you might imagine, many enduring traditions at a university like Oxford. For example, you can be refused entry to write your exams if you are not properly dressed in formal academic dress or sub-fusc as it is known. You can read more about sub-fusc at exams on my classmate’s FT blog here.

A slightly more subtle tradition is the numbering the weeks of term.  This was also the custom throughout my elementary and high school experience, so there was some happy nostalgia when I rediscovered the practice.  Less obvious however, was the need for a Week 0 or ‘Nought Week’ as it is sometimes known. This week was Nought Week here at Oxford. There are no classes, but students are required by the rules of the university to be present. It’s an official part of the calendar and school rules, and there is one every term.

So what happens in Week 0? I like to think of it as built-in ‘brain stretching’ time – that transitional period between vacation and work that we have all found ourselves wishing for on the Sunday night at the end of a vacation, right before heading back to work on Monday. This week, we’ve attended presentations about electives we’ll be able to take next term, and several classmates have been participating in the VCIC venture capital competition.

My particular ‘brain-stretching’ moment came in a small seminar room, where about 20 of us gathered to listen to a presentation about a community wind farm project in Mexico.  There are many unique features about the project, a partnership of the Yansa Foundation and a local indigenous community in Ixtepec, which has designed as a social enterprise.  Perhaps one of the most exciting things about the project was the plan to formally quantify and verify the social and environmental impacts, beyond GHG emissions reductions, that the project will deliver.  These certificates will then potentially become a traded commodity, as companies and potentially countries, look for ways to meet their commitments to support GHG reduction and climate change mitigation.

But how do you measure something that doesn’t have a convenient scale, like dollars or megawatts or milligrams? It’s the ultimate ‘starting from zero’ kind of problem. Economists and accountants traditionally branded these things as ‘externalities’ that were conveniently left off the balance sheet because they were so challenging to measure. But times have changed. Imagine my complete delight when an hour later, the very last elective presentation of the day introduced a new course on impact valuation – the technical process of defining social, financial and environmental metrics and quantifying them, with a view to fully integrated triple bottom line assessments.

Clearly, we have some way to go before this approach to valuation of resources, and products and companies is mainstreamed. But it’s encouraging to think that ‘zero’ is not really nothing, but may be the start of a really big something! Here’s hoping you too can find a ‘zero’ in your world that becomes a brain-stretching moment for this year.

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One Response to “Starting from Zero”

  1. Michael January 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    The failure of the professions, for example accounting, to measure many more types of impact is a reflection of a falure to innovate. The expertise is no doubt there but the environments in which professions operate are not conducive to innovation. Institutional stability takes precedence. It is ironic that when these professions were invented they were themselves major innovations that advaned the industrial era economy. Read my book, Life 2.0: Thriving in Close and Continuous Association.

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