Laurence Oakes-Ash - My City Science Journey

10 October 2023

What’s your position at City Science (and what does that mean)?

I’m the CEO and Co-founder of City Science. That sounds very grand, but in reality, I’d say my role in leading the team and assisting our clients with their decarbonisation efforts can be distilled into three key areas:

First: seeing things from different perspectives. I’m always conscious of the big picture - where are we going and why - and communicating it effectively both internally and externally. But I also like to do the opposite, by getting deep into the details of the most difficult challenges our clients face (like increasing the uptake of heat pumps or decarbonising freight transport) and helping to solve them.

Second: translating clients’ problems to our technical team, who can help fix them. I studied maths at university, but I don’t understand all the maths required to do what our technical people do. However, I am able to talk to clients, understand their needs, and translate them into things our team can then deliver. Ultimately, I’m a generalist who can build bridges between people with more specialist outlooks or skill sets. The issues we deal with are complex and interconnected, and being able to link different viewpoints is essential to making progress as quickly as we need to.

Third: encouraging ambition. I believe it is my duty to keep inspiring our clients to be more ambitious and our team to push harder and faster to deliver results. That’s what I am, really - someone pushing for greater results. And ultimately, it’s all about action. We help with a lot of strategies and planning, but plans are no good if they sit in drawers and don’t result in action. Sometimes, I need to talk people out of doing more planning and encourage them to start actually doing things that will make a difference.

How did you come to be working at City Science?

After university, I went to work in the City as a trader, and I ended up staying there for eleven years. I was attracted by the energy and the sense of purpose everyone seemed to have. However, over the years, I became more and more disillusioned, and eventually, I couldn’t take it any more. I would never want to go back, but I did leave with three big learnings that I’ve retained ever since:

So-called experts - especially those in the mainstream - can get things spectacularly wrong. The financial crisis and European debt crisis shaped me, and I came to realise that there was a significant amount of cognitive bias embedded in important economic forecasts. On both occasions, risks were consistently downplayed, and then it all came crashing down. Since then, I’ve treated research, especially economic forecasts, with a high degree of healthy scepticism.

Having the data you need to make decisions available on your desk when you need it changes everything. As a trader, I had four screens and I could get any information I needed instantly. That transforms everything and the lack of available data - especially for people making far more important decisions than I was as a trader - has continued to bother me.

Never say no. In the City, everyone had a ‘can do’ attitude because there’s always a way to make something happen. I do think that’s very powerful and it is an approach I’ve tried to use in everything I do.

When I left the City, I moved to Devon with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. But I started talking to as many interesting people as I could and one of these was Glenn (Woodcock, City Science Co-founder and Chairman). He wanted to know what it would take to get a city to Net Zero, and that’s the conversation where it all started.

I wasn’t an expert, but I instantly realised this idea of decarbonising places at scale was something I would be passionate about, and it was something that combined the things I knew about - maths, science, engineering, modelling - with how we were going to get it done, so project management, and the financing of it. I was able to bring all those things together.

We started on the data and development side and then built the consultancy side, because the two aspects need to work together to help clients get to where they need to be. My dream is that one day, clients won’t need consultants, because we’ll give them such useful data and such efficient decision-making tools that the actions they need to take will be obvious. In fact, my vision has always been that we’ll be able to give clients, like CEOs of local authorities, a high-tech version of Sim City - a game I used to love - so they can model their own areas in real-time and see exactly what the impact of change (or lack of change) would be.

Realistically, great data along with outstanding human expertise and insight is the best balance, and that’s what we offer at City Science.

Can you give an example of a project you're either working on or have been working on?

In truth, I love the diversity of the projects we get involved in. They are all fascinating, and if I had more time, I’d get more involved in all of them. That said, the two types of projects that most excite me strategically at the moment are Net Zero Action Plans and Local Area Energy Plans (LAEPs), because they bring a wide range of things together into a unified approach.

So, for example, transport and energy aren’t treated as separate, independent issues, but they are brought together and considered in a whole system. This is vital if we are going to deliver Net Zero for entire areas, and I’m extremely excited about them.

Ultimately, this is exactly where City Science stands apart and what we exist for. We are uniquely placed to support people through the whole cycle of decarbonisation, wherever they are on the Net Zero journey.

We designed our company around decarbonising places and we have everything clients need to deliver this as their Net Zero Partners: we’ve got the data and modelling, we can build one-stop shops for retrofit, we can roll out electric vehicle charging, we can deliver cycle schemes, we can help build community engagement, we can secure funding, and so on and so on.

For me, it has to end in delivery. Plans are all well and good, but we need to deliver them. We’ll have more impact if we focus on action rather than just looking at strategies. There are so many things we can do and we want to help our clients to get them done.

What motivates you most about the work you do at City Science?

There’s nothing else I would want to do or could ever imagine myself doing.

This has as much meaning as any work ever could, and there’s always plenty to learn and things to change.

But I also love the variety. I’m not constrained by a particular niche. I don’t have to have a specialism. I can be a finance expert one day, and a transport expert the next day. I’m a big believer in generalists. They’re so important because they can bring together all the strands in a coherent way. I encourage our team members to think like generalists as much as possible and avoid being put in a box.

My dream now is to get a place - like a whole city - decarbonised. We have all the skills and expertise to deliver this at scale as Net Zero Partners. We’re really good at getting funding mobilised. Now we need to find people who are genuinely ambitious to get it done and build a strong relationship to help make it happen as quickly as possible.

What do you enjoy doing with your free time?

For a while, any holiday or free time meant reading more about transport planning or energy models. But now I’ve got children and I love spending time with them - especially watching films. Paw Patrol 2 and The Little Mermaid have been recent highlights.

When I turned 40, I got a piano and - apart from times when I have to go away to see clients or go to conferences - I practice every day. I played the piano really badly before I got my own, but I’ve got the bug, and now I just want to be good at it!

And I love musicals. I know that’s not a normal thing for business leaders to admit, but take me to see ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Wicked’ and I couldn’t be happier. I love them as an art form. You’ve got all these things to get right - the story, the script, and the lyrics. It’s not like just writing pop music, for example, because you’ve got every musical palette and genre to choose from. You could use classical, jazz, or pop - there aren’t many other areas where you can do that. To me, it’s the peak of musical art, because you can go wild within the constraints of telling a story and connecting with the audience. Oh, and I’m writing my own musical about Elon Musk… but more about that another day!

If you could wave a wand and change some aspect of policy or legislation what would that be and why?

I talked above about how I left the City feeling disillusioned about experts, and especially about economists. They were consistently reassuring everyone when the financial crisis was just around the corner, telling us it wouldn’t happen, and as a result, they failed to alert people to change direction.

I fear the same is happening again with climate change.

I believe the costs of climate change are being underestimated in ways that could be catastrophic if they result in a lack of action to prevent it.

The idea, for example, that we’re going to have a small hit to GDP is nonsense. These “experts” are part of an industry that’s paid to keep things as they are and tell us everything is okay. With the financial crisis, only those on the fringes had the honesty to tell it like it really was, and it’s likely the same now.

Once we get to a 1.5°C temperature rise, the consequences of food prices increasing dramatically, or insurance contracts being withdrawn and so on, are very real. In my view the economic costs are being vastly underestimated by the mainstream once again.

So if I could wave my magic wand, I’d make it so we can have honest conversations about the costs and likely impact. Then, everything might fall into place.