09. 03. 2010

No more niches – we need sustainable innovation at scale

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It’s the scale of it all that is sometimes daunting. On energy, for instance, we have to transition from around 90% dependency on fossil fuels to around 90% on renewables – allowing a little bit of residual space for cleaner and super-efficient fossil fuels (aviation, amongst other things, where technological substitution is always going to be limited). If we had two hundred years to make all that happen, it would be fine. But we don’t. Between 2025 and 2050 is seen by most scientists as the outer time limit available to us.

Which will require an unprecedented level of innovation in every sector of the economy. And that means getting scale in all those sectors to get the right drivers in place to make the innovation happen. From niche to mainstream. Easy! But scale means different things in different sectors.

I spent a day last week at Ecobuild - ‘the biggest event in the world for sustainable design, construction and the built environment’. That absolutely wasn’t a claim that could have been made at the first Ecobuild, five years ago, which attracted no more than 1000 visitors. This year, there were more than 50,000 people there. Earls Court was flush with exhibitors, from some of the biggest companies in the UK to distinctly ‘alternative’ start-ups taking a massive gamble on enough people falling for their particular ‘breakthrough innovation’. There were countless meetings and debates going on the whole time, and the kind of buzz that one doesn’t always associate with events of this kind.

For the politicians who’d dropped in, and wandered around looking a bit bemused, it all said one thing: no more niches. This was about scale. New orders. Expanding markets. Innovation (in the construction industry!). And even, dare one say it, new jobs.

I won’t be churlish by pointing out that this supply-chain journey (from niche to huge, scaled opportunity) could have been stimulated by the political system many years ago – as it was in Germany, Scandinavia and so on. At least we’ve got there now, and it’s exciting.

The UK Green Building Council has been a central part of that journey, and is now providing the kind of leadership (across this complex industry and beyond) that the politicians need in order to stay in touch with the developments on the ground. The UK Green Building Council launched its new Green Building Manifesto at Ecobuild – and it’s well worth a look.

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