‘Innovation’ is an abstract word that can seem a long way from everyday life. When I asked my flatmate what the word means to him, he said “people in lab coats”. But, in reality, that is only a very small part of what it’s all about.
Innovation potential is everywhere. Imagine, for example, what might be involved in upgrading your home to manage the temperature and energy better, perhaps relying on solar panels on the rooftop for clean power and trading surplus energy with your neighbour? Or what needs to change for you to be able to fix your phone more easily instead of buying new, or to find your way efficiently across town using different forms of transport with an app? Finding ways to live greener takes innovation.
There are always going to be new technologies developed by people in lab coats, more often than not the solutions we need are already there, but the innovation relates to a whole range of other aspects that have to be worked out to make sure everyone can benefit. For example, new business models might be needed to help us keep our phones and other tech in use for as long as possible, or we can find ways to tailor energy efficiency upgrades to different types of buildings. Innovation can relate to nature directly, for instance, designs that help to provide more spaces for nature within our urban environments, or new ways to channel private investment towards restoring peatland to prevent flooding.
The pandemic has raised questions about how we want to live in the future. As we recover from its impacts, these discussions should be right at the centre of plans to rebuild the economy. How can we do things better in future, to make sure we live in warmer, more comfortable homes, have cleaner air and better quality products that last? How do we not waste so much food and have the ability to pursue our new-found love of nature without having to travel so far?
Green innovation can also lead to a big triple win – by being good for people, the environment and the economy. In developing new sustainable products and services, UK businesses can get on a stronger footing to compete in fast-growing green markets worldwide. This is predicted to open up the potential for hundreds of thousands of jobs here in the UK over the next decade, in clean transport, nature restoration, building upgrades and the circular economy.
But this won’t just happen. It needs active leadership from the government to support the right sort of innovation and ensure it is helping everyone to benefit from more sustainable options. At the moment, the market price of products does not factor in social and environmental costs, discouraging investment in lower impact alternatives and potentially putting green innovators at a disadvantage. Past experience shows that government intervention is essential to fast-track new solutions. For example, it was thanks to more ambitious standards and regulations around lighting efficiency that LED lighting was able to rapidly move from the prototype stage to lighting all our homes in just a few years.
What should the government be doing to turbocharge green innovation as part of its recovery plan? Research and development funding alone won’t do it, as that mainly targets the people in lab coats. Instead, the government needs to use a mix of policy, regulation and investment.
Covid vaccine development is a good example of what is possible when all these elements collide, showing the kind of comprehensive approach needed. Along with a strong investment in science-based research and development, a reliable market was created, thanks to pre-purchasing and extensive public engagement around safety, which was significant in motivating businesses to invest. The government also helped to strengthen the UK supply chain and has been closely involved in overseeing all stages of development, approval and roll-out.
The success of the Covid vaccine innovation shows what’s possible when we set our mind to solving a problem. The same level of leadership and support should be directed at finding new solutions to rebuild our economy in a way that benefits people, businesses and nature.
Caterina Brandmay is head of climate policy at Green Alliance