Remembering David MacKay and his Unique Approach

Everyone has a story to tell about how they got to where they are today. Career paths can be driven by money, others by circumstance, many by passion, and for some, just pure coincidence. The biggest driver in my life has been people. The choice to venture into the world of sustainability appears to have stemmed from passion—who knows where this originates from. But importantly, my way of thinking towards sustainability and the approach I take to my work has been largely influenced by a few individuals. It has only just occurred to me that all three share the same name—one of these being David MacKay (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and author of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air).

It was with great sadness that I heard David lost his year-long battle with cancer, aged only 48. I felt it necessary to dedicate at least one blog post to him in the hope that his work can reach at least one other person. A person’s ideas, thoughts, teachings are not lost with their body, after all, and that at least is a comforting thought.

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Anyone that has worked with me knows that I like working with numbers. Especially big numbers. In essence, I like to look at ‘big picture’ sustainability challenges. This didn’t come without its challenges: when I proposed my BSc dissertation idea I was told it was large enough for an MSc project; my MSc dissertation was more like a PhD proposal; and as I begin my PhD at the end of this year, I’m sure I’ll have some recommendations to “narrow it down”. But I probably won’t, because David MacKay taught me that the greatest value can often be added by stepping back and seeing the bigger picture.

For those who are unfamiliar with David’s work, he wrote the [I originally wrote “one of” but I’ve yet to read another on the same level] greatest and most influential book I’ve read on energy: Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air. When this was first released, my dad and I bought the paper copy, but David also generously published it online for free (investing £10,000 of his own money in doing so). I encourage anyone and everyone to take a look. However, if you’re looking for a more digestible form of his work, he also condensed it into a TED talk which you can watch here.

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David’s approach in the book seems daunting to many; its pages are filled with numbers, equations and calculations. He was an engineer, after all, and his book is an obvious reflection of that. However, somewhat counterintuitively, what made this book so remarkable was its ability to make an issue (sustainable energy) which we nearly always treat as overly complex, and simplify it down to its most important considerations. Using the UK as his example, he asks two fundamental questions: “how much energy do we need?” and “if we maximise our energy production from sustainable resources, can we meet this demand?”.

His approach to these questions is what I think remains key to his legacy. He answered them through ‘big picture’ back-of-the-envelope calculations. Too often, especially in scientific disciplines, we let ourselves be held back by a lack of data, or data that ‘isn’t quite precise enough’. We convince ourselves that we need figures that are dead-on. David has shown that this simply isn’t true—in fact, probably quite the opposite: in order to look at large-scale complex issues we need crude number-crunching and back-of-the-envelope calculations. The moment you try to make it more precise than this, you lose the ability to simplify, the value in being able to identify and extract the key take-homes.

I read David’s book when I was 16/17 and in my first year as a university undergraduate. It was around the same period that I read Mike Berners-Lee’s “How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything”. Both Mike and David tackled slightly different issues, but their approach is largely the same—neither shy from crunching rough (note that rough does not mean uninformed or poorly researched) numbers for fear of getting them wrong. That summer I did my own analysis of UK agriculture and land use ‘David MacKay style’. He has influenced my approach to every project, dissertation and piece of work I’ve done (including the PhD on global protein demand/supply I’m about to undertake). His book was equally inspiring to my dad, who has coined and developed a new integrated process for the production of Food, Feed and Fuel [you can find out more, here]—a development that would have been near-impossible to uncover without looking at the agricultural/food system with a ‘big picture’ lens.

The point is therefore that David MacKay should not only be celebrated for his contribution to UK energy. He has undoubtedly added so much value to this challenge, but he has done so much more. He should be remembered for his way of thinking, and the application/teaching of an approach that extends well beyond energy. I’ve applied it to agriculture and food. You could equally apply it to the evaluation of any resource. In fact, I’d argue that this transcends the field of sustainability too—you can literally apply it to any complex issue. In doing so, we can see these challenges through a clearer, simplified lens—a vital step if we’re to develop effective solutions.

So although we’ve lost one of our most intelligent thinkers, his way of thinking does not die with him. It lives on in everyone who applies it in their own work. And I suspect, based on his passion for teaching and learning (in all areas of his work, including his free books), that this would signify a life well-lived.

Many thanks to David MacKay: one of the best.


2 thoughts on “Remembering David MacKay and his Unique Approach

  1. Great blog Hannah, and great guy – only met him once but he left a lasting impression on me of man who could truly see the wood for the trees on energy and who was willing to make time for anyone to discuss their views. Big loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Seeing the World as it is, with Hans Rosling | convergence

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