Ten years on from Brodies' first steps into Aberdeen, we mark the milestone of a decade in the city with an Enlightened Thinking series dedicated to the region. What better place to start than the economic outlook, as, like the rest of the world, Aberdeen grapples with what post-pandemic life will be like, while at the same time is on the cusp of a huge opportunity to cement its position as a global energy leader, building on its reputation in oil and gas to become a green energy capital.
Sharing their enlightened thinking on the challenges and opportunities for the economic outlook in Aberdeen were Myrtle Dawes, solution centre director, OGTC; George Boyne, principal, the University of Aberdeen; Russell Borthwick, chief executive, Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce and Steve Whyte, director of resources, Aberdeen City Council. The session was ably chaired by Brodies' managing partner, Nick Scott, and partner, Elaine Farquharson-Black.
Much talked about, but perhaps now with added impetus in terms of post-pandemic recovery, it is very much "transition in action" from the OGTC perspective, according to Myrtle Dawes. With the net-zero solutions centre opening its doors in 2019 not only is there a clear path towards net-zero oil and gas production, but also the integration of alternative energy sources including wind, solar and tidal.
But the transition needs creative thinking and technology behind it. That creates a powerful proposition for jobs and economic outlook if the support is there for the technology companies and entrepreneurs to create technologies here, rather than import them. Thinking about the abundance of natural energy sources the region has to offer, and combining that with the technology to accelerate its development, then there is a real opportunity for Aberdeen to become a supplier of energy, rather than an importer. Of course, on paper, that may seem relatively straight forward, but the reality is that this will take a huge collaborative effort to work across sectors where the language, behaviours and regulatory regimes are very different.
The OGTC estimates that to keep pace with the demands of the transition will require investment of around £10 billion per year, with much of that CAPEX intensive – but all the signs are there that this is not a negotiable and moving ahead, at pace, is a must.
This sentiment was echoed by George Boyne, principal of the University of Aberdeen who gave a useful reminder that transition was nothing new for a 526 year-old establishment and highlighted the University's support of the Energy Transition with the opening of the decommissioning centre, ongoing research, and the launch of the first MSC in energy transition. That said, he also asked listeners to be "mindful that there was a vibrant economy [in Aberdeen] before oil and gas."
And on the point of oil and gas, Russell Borthwick was keen to make the point that clean energy consultations can't mitigate oil and gas too soon, and that it is crucial in the wider narrative around transition.
That was echoed by Steve Whyte who also spoke of the wider city resilience required in terms of transitioning into the new energy capital of Europe and how the local authority can provide the necessary levers for the private sector to help make that happen. The Council's commitment is clear, with the energy transition zone included in the proposed Local Development Plan and policies designed to achieve net-zero energy transition through greener travel, connectivity, green space and infrastructure and also in terms of providing demand for new energy sources from the likes of the hydrogen buses, through to what will be manufactured and produced into homes across the region.
Optimism for Aberdeen's transition to a green energy capital has since been boosted on the back of the latest UK budget, where the Chancellor announced £27 million funding for the Energy Transition Zone.
The Council's proposed City Centre and Beach Masterplan refresh will be key as Aberdeen and the North-east emerges from the pandemic, as it considers what people want from the city and how it might look in the next 20-30 years.
But before looking too far into the future Russell Borthwick made the point that getting back on the road to recovery requires the local economy to reopen with support given to businesses, that face a critical time as restrictions are lifted, to ensure that they remain viable. He also made the point that Aberdeen's reputation as an international city should not be overlooked.
The importance of looking beyond our own borders was echoed by George Boyne who highlighted the need to get students from around the UK back into university. And while he accepts that some online learning is likely to continue into the future, he made the point that students want to have an on-campus experience, which brings with it a whole host of economic benefits.
It was very clear that collaboration would be key in rebuilding the economy, but also in ensuring the wider ambitions for Aberdeen and the North-east can be achieved. That vital link between business and education has resulted in the opening of the National Decommissioning Centre – a £38 million partnership between the OGTC, the University of Aberdeen and industry, as part of the Aberdeen City Region Deal; initiatives like the Opportunity North East's (ONE) £40 million biohub to support life sciences start-ups and high-growth enterprises; the OGTC and Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult alliance designed to 'fast-track' the energy transition and a number of 'upskilling' courses designed by the University of Aberdeen.
And collaboration will also be key in delivering the regional economic strategy, which Steve Whyte stated, "cannot be derailed because of recent events." Aberdeen City Council is working with bodies and sectors like Aberdeen Harbour Board in relation to its South Harbour development, but is also looking at collaboration on a different level as it draws together all the perspectives required to reinvent the city centre.
So what's next?
The consensus overall is that it is time to focus on the positives, not the negatives. That we must be ready to get out of the starting blocks as soon as restrictions allow and encourage everyone across the region to play their part both in terms of recovery, for which the campaign www.northeastnow.scot is galvanising a shop local spirit in order to support North East businesses, and in achieving the potential that Aberdeen and the North-east has to take its place on the global stage. And while reinvention is the watchword, as a region, it is important to also keep doing the things that we are good at. In short, it is time to turn ambition into action.