Aberdeen residents ask “what comes after oil?”

Climate Week North East Scotland encourages new conversations about how Aberdeen can change its cultural relationship with energy generation and consumption. With further oil sector job losses just announced, Dale McEwan finds that art, communications and life sciences could play big roles in shaping a post-crude Aberdeen.

“The fields of science and journalism have dominated how people understand this,” says visual artist Hannah Imlach. She has been sponsored by Creative Carbon Scotland to design sculptures based on Scottish energy transition, such as a turbine on the Isle of Eigg. She believes art helps people to imagine different kinds of energy.

“There’s real impact that can be achieved through communities in different ways. Arts can occupy this more imaginative space in some respects where they use more speculative features as to how we want things to change.

“Artists can inhabit those spaces and they can make them very visceral for people to imagine themselves in one future scenario or another. And then we can perhaps discuss together how we might get to those places.”

Life after Oil is a subject that is very much on the public agenda.  Peacock Visual Art have hosted the event “What Comes After Oil – Crafting Energy Transition in North-East Scotland” and Peackock’s Director Nuno Sacramento is one of the co-organisers. The Scottish Government’s energy strategy aims for renewables to deliver 50 per cent of the nation’s heat, transport and electricity consumption by 2030.

Sam Trotman, director of Scottish Sculpture Workshop, says an energy transition is also a cultural transition. “I think that’s a really important thing we need to pick up here.

“What are our cultural organisations in Aberdeen doing? Well, there’s Aberdeen Festivals which is sponsored and supported by oil and gas. We have Grey’s [School of Art], a great art school. Again, their degree shows are sponsored by oil and gas. So, how do we even start to think about a cultural transition if that culture is still embedded within oil and gas?

“So actually, maybe one of the first really simple things we can do is say ‘OK, what do we get from this relationship? Is it something we can live without? Is it not? Is it even just a conversation that we can start to have?’. And once we can then find that neutral space like we’re trying to find here in The Worm, maybe they’re some of the spaces that we can start to have those conversations in.”

There is a strong feeling that increasing public interest in energy will help to change culture. Social anthropologist Annabel Pinker picks up this thread.

“We need to find a way to link in our emotional side.” Pinker works for Aberdeen’s James Hutton Institute, which is co-hosting the event and strives to achieve sustainable land, crops and resources.

“What is it that gets us engaged in this debate? How do we make people care? And I think one of the ways we can do that is by continuing to hold conversations where we begin to show those interlinkages, because so often energy is classed as just one technical domain.”

Changing energy ownership will also help to improve public engagement, says James Hutton Institute fellow Bill Slee. A publicly owned energy company is something the Scottish Government says it will consult on by the end of 2018.

“Communities who have got their own turbines, they like to go and do the maintenance themselves,” says Slee. “People feel a sense of ownership of a basic resource that they need.”

This grassroots conversation is the start of a new dialogue and it falls on the same day that Total has shed up to 250 jobs in the Granite City following a takeover of Maersk Oil. A further 5,500 job losses are expected in Aberdeen’s energy sector by 2027, according to a city council report. It is easy to see why Aberdonians are clinging onto hope of something better.

“Hope is not a strategy,” says engineer Paul Lindop. “We’ve got a lot of energy and skills in North East Scotland that currently are waiting for the oil price to recover. My little pitch here is not about oil and gas energy but about the energy of people in the North East.”

Lindop points to communications as an industry that could flourish in Aberdeen.

“One of the things that the North East of Scotland is now a world leader in is communication. If you go out to Dyce, those satellite farms are not there by chance. The fact that you had to communicate with data and voice and all sorts of things offshore, remote and mobile locations, mean that the North East of Scotland is the number one place for that skill set.

“Those satellite dishes are what people recognise when they fly in and out. They don’t know what they mean, a, in terms of the industry they work in now, and b, what their potential is.”

Lindop also believes Aberdeen should capitalise on its computer science graduates. He highlights a brain drain of professionals in this field. Further opportunities could also be harnessed from the city’s life sciences.

“We have one of the world’s best life sciences research groups sitting hidden in Aberdeen,” adds Lindop.

A new bio-therapeutic hub for innovation in the region is in the pipeline. Opportunity North East is supporting the development of the hub which will provide space for start-up businesses in life sciences. The organisation calls itself the private sector’s response to rebalancing the North East economy.

“…It will grab headlines with a nice big shiny building,” says Lindop, “but at the moment it’s hidden. That needs to be a bright, kernel for something that people grab hold of.

“Oil and gas have affected the mood of the town. The downturn has affected its mental state more than probably its true financial state. And there are lots of good industries in the town.”

Trotman argues that hope is indeed a strategy and one that hangs all of these creative ideas together.

“For me, hope is the only strategy that we have at the moment. Hope is the thing that gets us when we have no answers to what it is. It’s the thing that makes us believe there are answers and there are different ways of being in the world.

“So I would suggest that hope is quite strong and why we’re all here today.”

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  1. Alf Baird says:

    ‘Hope’ is a strategy? Where do all these ‘visionaries’ come from? Shuirly nae Aiberdeen.

    1. Foreigners Alf! They are probably Foreigners!

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Well Ed, given the ‘experts’ that are regularly wheeled into BBC Scotland studios and Holyrood committee rooms, we evidently no longer seek the opinion of many Scots. That would seem an inevitable outcome in any nation that refuses to adequately develop and nurture its ain fowk to higher levels and/or to give them the opportunity to lead its social institutions, its universities and cultural organisations for example. Recent evidence suggests proportionately more Scots have been blacklisted from oil & gas, and construction industries, and even the Elitist Scotland report suggested discrimination to be perhaps rather more widespread than anyone might imagine.

        1. You’re right Alf – you’re always right – the answer to every problem, very post, every issue – it’s always ‘They’re Foreigners!’

          1. Alf Baird says:

            It would perhaps have been more helpful Ed if you could address any of the points I made regarding what some may regard as institutionalised discrimination of Scots in our own land, rather than revert to semi-hysterical tabloid mode reminiscent of the Herald’s resident britnats.

            As Harry McGrath stated in relation to Scots and to Scotland’s apparent longstanding colonial predicament, ‘there is a fine line between altruism and being mugs’.

          2. Ive debated this for years. Pointing out your repetitive one-dimensional reductive analysis of EVERYTHING is not ‘semi-hysterical’ nor ‘tabloid’.

            It would help if you addressed the authors article rather than drag every single debate into your myopic world view.

          3. Alf Baird says:

            ‘The scourge of colonialism’, as the UN describes it, would seem to be multi-dimensional; i.e. the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. It could be argued that Scotland appears to tick all three boxes.

  2. Willie says:

    It is not difficult to imagine a post oil Aberdeen becoming economically blighted.

    A Scotland in microcosm where the oil wealth came but then left leaving no oil fund legacy.

    In fact a bit like the new Aberdeen Western Peripheral By Pass. Built thirty years too late, and now being built on the never never.

    1. That’s true – and true of everywhere – just maybe more acute in Aberdeen?

    2. Alf Baird says:

      Don’t forget the new £350m port Willie, which looks like it is also 30 years too late, and certainly decades behind similar ‘new’ oil supply ports at Stavanger/Tananger and Esbjerg.

  3. w.b.robertson says:

    Hope? Hope? Hope is the last thing to die.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Kate Raworth in her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist proposes a move towards distributive and regenerative economies. These new models will be based on cross-disciplinary approaches where modern biological research meets complexity theory (and art, anthropology and engineering mentioned in this article) with positive roles for state, commons, corporations, civic organisations, households and individuals. Understanding where we get our energy from (effectively the sun, so plundering fossil fuels is burning through Earth’s battery that measures charging time in geological ages) is key to the economy, although absent from dominant economic schooling.
    https://www.kateraworth.com/

    Anyway, she mentions the USAmerican city of Oberlin’s environmental dashboard as a city-level education, information and change-making resource; something similiar might be useful for Aberdeen. At least it adds some personality to the topics:
    https://environmentaldashboard.org/

  5. Gordon McKay says:

    Like a lot of older people probably, I can remember when Dyce was a village and Westhills was just a post office and a croft. Then came the oil boom and thousands of people moved north or west to either work in the nascent oil business or to provide services to those who did. But with the oil winding down the tide that moved in will inevitably move out again because there’s no other geographical reason for people to stay on in Aberdeen once its core business fades. If you want to know the future of Aberdeen, look no further than the mining towns of the South Wales valleys.

  6. Ex Aberdonian says:

    ‘Affa sair made’ is a North east expression to describe someone who is negative and peevish and it strikes me that this description applies to the whole of Aberdeen and it’s hinterland, not just now but for long before the North Sea downturn. It breaks my heart when visiting these days to stand at a bus stop in Union Street, and think about all the money that has passed through the place in the last forty years and conclude that the public sphere has nothing to show for it (Union Square certainly doesn’t count). Where was the forward thinking during the good years? Did anyone even try to wrest some small change from oil companies to improve the infrastructure of Aberdeen. The place is the epitome of private luxury, public squalor. I wish anyone who is trying to pick Aberdeen up the best of luck.

    1. Wul says:

      Good point. (about the lack of infrastructure legacy from oil)

      You could say the same about all the Scottish coal-mining towns where the earlier “black gold” was dug up. Very little of the vast resource plundered seems to have stuck around locally.

      Where did it go?

      1. Alf Baird says:

        “Where did it go?”

        Whitehall and the international oil majors divied it up between them, with assorted local monopoly interests intercepting what was left. Much like any of Scotland’s major resources.

        The altruism o us Scots fowk kens nae boonds, Wul.

  7. NextTrainOutOfAberdeen says:

    Too late to ask such questions. I wish oil never came to Aberdeen. It came and gave off a paper-thin external impression of wealth & prosperity, but it merely blighted Aberdeen, robbed it of a sense of community, a lived in city where families intended to build futures for generations.

    Instead the worst excesses of an oil town occurred. Greedy outsiders who never intended to make a permanent life in Aberdeen, greedy locals who bought into that consumerist empty culture and also forgot Aberdeen would have to exist without the oil. Well, the ones who can will have or will soon bail, leaving the city and those of us left to rot from the decades of corruption, incompetence & neglect.

    15% population drop since the last (and ultimately start of a drawn out final) oil collapse.

    What’s more sad is the recent glut of developments in recent years…but nothing of value. Tacky cheap mass housing and accommodation developments, you know the kind. Ugly new builds that are notoriously cramped and with short lifespans…but who will buy them? More of the same inconsiderate lazy and unwanted office and shop developments. Union Square alone for all it’s gleam, only served to drive the rest of the town centre into the pits.

    Dirty slimey unmaintained streets & buildings, touting Brita9in in Bloom wins but you’d never believe it by the state of Aberdeen’s parks, green spaces and floral displays.

    And more, including as mentioned, ACTUALLY NEEDED developments that came waaaaaaay too late.

    I wish the oil never came to Aberdeen.

    Not only did it rob us of any real lasting benefit of the wealth off our shore, but it robbed Aberdeen of a soul. There’s blighted long suffering northern English towns & cities I’d rather live in than Aberdeen, at least they maintained some sense of common purpose and community.

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