As regular readers will know Political Climate thinks the focus of climate policy should be on innovation to reduce the cost of low-carbon technology rather than on forcing up the cost of carbon intensive energy. But, innovation is not straightforward and more money does not necessarily mean the right results. This is lesson coming out of two recent events I attended, the first a Green Mondays event on ‘disruptive’ innovation and the second a speech by Sir Harold Evans at the RSA on The Spirit of Innovation.
Three points stand out.
First, what sort of innovation? Is incremental innovation enough? Not if you listen to Hugo Spowers of River Simple. Their aim is to eliminate the environmental impact of personal transport. According to Hugo incremental improvements to the efficiency of cars is not enough. What is needed is a whole new business model, beyond selling a car as a product, to selling mobility as a service. This is innovation as ‘whole system design’.
Second, who can achieve this kind of innovation? According to Ramon Arratia from InterfaceFLOR (it won’t be the existing players in a sector. He explained how his company developed a far more sustainable option for sticking down tiles than all of the existing adhesives on the market. Their innovation – to do away with the adhesive altogether and instead use a form of sticky tabs. Is it realistic to expect an adhesive company to uninvent the adhesive? Or for a car manufacturer to completely reconfigure there existing, highly profitable business model? For Ramon disruptive innovation will only emerge from companies moving into lateral markets – not from existing players.
But the overriding lesson from both events was the need to be comfortable with failure. Sir Harold explained how it took James Dyson 5000 experiments before he came up with a working model of his now ubiquitous dual cyclone bagless hoover. Innovation is a trip into the unknown, and when you don’t know where you are going it’s easy to go the wrong way. This is where it gets hard for government: as the swingeing cuts kick in Government is going to feel the need, more so than ever, to show a return for every penny being spent. So, as we make the case for investment in innovation we need to think: what sort of innovation do we need? Who are the right people to make it happen? And have we got the stomach for the inevitable failures we will encounter on the way?