It is only 22 years next month since the first Minerals Engineering conference was held in Singapore. How things have changed beyond recognition since then.
The internet was in its infancy, and very few companies had websites, or even email. All correspondence was by mail or Telex, and the emerging fax machines. We had built a data base of names and addresses, to which we would mail registration brochures, and delegates would mail their completed forms, together with a cheque for payment.
There was no PowerPoint of course, so all conference presentations were by 35mm slides. Singapore itself was the window into the future of technology, and I remember bringing back one of the first digital cameras, a crude low-resolution device, which nevertheless created a lot of interest on returning home.
It would have been impossible then to predict our modern world of high speed internet, digital cameras, mobile phones, Skype etc. And probably, given the exponential increase in change, totally impossible to predict what the world will be like in another 20 years time, and how we will be going about our business.
The whole point of my waffle is that the news in Britain at the moment is dominated by the proposal to build a high speed train network, from London to Birmingham, then branching to Manchester and Leeds, at an estimated cost of £33 billion. The proposal is highly controversial, as the line, which by necessity has to be as straight as possible, will cut through areas of outstanding natural beauty, and many people on the route will lose their homes and businesses.
There are compulsive arguments either way, but the one that convinced me was an article in The Times (29 January), by Andrew McGuinness, which considered the points that I mentioned above, and argued that saving an hour on the journey from London to Leeds may be of little importance to the business world of the future, where working from home might be so commonplace that it would be hard to imagine a time when hours were wasted in commuting.
The article proposed that if we want to invest in a network, it should be a digital one. McGuinness suggests that we should emulate what South Korea did in 1997 to rebuild its economy, by investing in a high-speed fibre optic network. This allowed the country to avoid recession in the current global crisis. He argues that Britain should use the billions proposed for the railway to make the country a leader in the digital age, as many of our high-tech companies are let down by a creaking infrastructure. It has been estimated that high speed broadband could be put in every home for £5 billion, and could create over 600,000 jobs in four years. With decent internet across the whole country, entrepreneurs could do business in remote areas such as Cornwall and never need catch a train!
So, is the High Speed Rail network a potential white elephant? What do you think?