The Last Word: We all want to change the world

Posted on 22 Oct 2012 by Tim Brown
"The big question is why government should help and what help that form should take?"

There are plans in the pipeline for new industrial innovation awards in the use of additive manufacturing and the RSA last month launched its Great Recovery campaign to inspire more discovery projects in re-manufacturing and total lifecycle management.

Money is being force fed into innovation schemes. The Government’s industrial strategy announced on September 11 (p18) validated the long running work of the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Networks and announced new, targeted funding for transformational technologies – for example, synthetic biology. On September 19, Science Minister David Willetts revealed plans for a new set of Doctoral Research Centres with £14.1m behind them.

And while government may be driving the innovation bandwagon, it is certainly not short of willing passengers. Everyone wants to get on board it seems.

I learnt with no great surprise recently that accountancy group PwC has significant plans to expand its innovation services in 2013 and the Royal Society for the advancement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce is also on a mission to revive its image as a friend of industry.

Not to be outdone, The Manufacturer is hosting it very own innovation conference on October 16.

All this activity is fantastic and the schemes and awards have a common purpose. They all feature the transfer of innovative technologies and ideas into commercially viable products, an acknowledgement that innovation schemes must be accessible to SMEs, and that carbon reduction is a desired outcome for innovation.

As Prof David Delpy, CEO of the Engineering & Physical Sciences Council, said at the EPSRC’s Manufacturing the Future Conference this week, “The whole landscape in which academic research is done has changed dramatically. We have an academic base now that is incredibly engaged with industry. The UK is second only to the US in terms of the number of collaborations, and I suspect per capita we are number one.”

So far so good. But it seems there is still a missing element in all this innovation, especially that which focuses on reducing the use of raw materials and establishing a low carbon economy: incentivisation of behaviour change.

Both in business and in their daily lives, people – especially us Brits – are stubbornly slow to adopt small changes to their routines in order to embrace new products or services unless they feel an immediate and significant benefit.

Witness the UK’s approach to domestic recycling. We are still light years behind countries like Germany and Austria where national government was quick to lay down the law on sorting domestic waste decades ago. This hampers the ability to innovate around remanufacture or reuse of domestic products.

In business, regulation has taken a harder line. But lacking infrastructure and incentives for doing more recycling and moving to greener power sources mean that moving to a low carbon economy still seems a burden to most.

The option of simply carrying on as before is still tantalising. Our society is based on products and services which derive from carbon fuels, and while all the big oil and gas companies research and run demonstration projects for greener fuels such as biofuels, one manufacturer who feeds into the energy industry recently told me about the viability of some of these projects; as well as the oil companies’ willingness to popularise them while oil stocks last.

“They will not truly push those technologies until the last drop of oil is gone from even the most difficult to reach wells,” he said. “They keep pushing forward more and more expensive extraction projects and R&D investment is focused on this. I keep my eye on the developing science and technology that might revolutionise our industry, but the driving force behind our own R&D is defined by the demands of our clients.”

The innovation is coming, but the real will of industry to go green needs to join it.