Tag Archives: counting

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.


Please count me in

24 Jul

Dear Mr. Harper,

My name is May, and I am 10 years old. I was born in 2011. At the time, my mother and father were going to English school for grown-ups, so they decided to give me an English name after the month I was born in.  They were very proud of me, and happy I could be born in their new home country of Canada.

I am writing you because my mother said you were Prime Minister when I was born, and she said that this is a very important job, and that you could do important things, even if you are not Prime Minister any more. I would like you to please tell your friends who are in charge to bring back the big counting thing my teacher says is called a census. We are doing a project at school about Canada, and my teacher said this would help us know more about Canada and all the people that live in it, so we could make sure they have all the things they need.

I really like school, but it is very crowded.  My class also has lots of kids from all over the world, who have moved to Canada with their families.  My friend Asha only came to Canada last year. She says her Dad is very worried he will not be able to find a good job, because there is not enough information about how to find work in our city.  My teacher sometimes helps Asha’s mom to write letters, since there is no more grown-up English school where we live. Asha’s mom said it’s because there isn’t enough information about what new people coming to Canada need, or what languages they speak.

My mom says this too. She is a nurse at a hospital in our city. She works very long hours because there are not enough nurses, because the hospital thought there would be less people getting sick.  It turns out there were more people moving to our city all the time, and now the hospitals are not big enough. Sometimes when people are very sick, they have to wait for a long time to get better.

My Dad drives a big bus in our city. He says that the bus company is hiring lots of people, because they need more buses now that people want to drive less and be green.  People are still the same colour, but I think he means something about the environment.  Dad says that there are not enough buses in some places, and it’s because the bus company only had some old information about where people were going to want to live.

In my project, I am going to write that we used to know more about the people in Canada, where they came from and what they needed.  This stuff is pretty important, especially since my mom and dad wouldn’t have to work so hard, if the hospital and the bus company had more information. If your friends in charge can’t fix it so we have the census again, when I grow up I’ll be Prime Minister so I can fix it.

Yours respectfully,


Grade 4, Smith Elementary School

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m an excited aunty-to-be who hopes that my niece or nephew will be counted. Reinstate the long form census of Canada in 2011.