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Innovation in the UK

Britain has been a hive of innovation since the start of the industrial revolution.  At Innovate 2017, the UK government’s innovation agency brought together many technology leaders, with a considerable proportion of them developing sustainable, low carbon and cleantech solutions.  The story told at the event across four presentation stages and numerous exhibition stands was of British enterprises developing solutions to many of our world’s issues.

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport gave evidence of the UK’s innovation, when he commented from the main stage that “the UK has 4% of worlds scientists, but produces 16% of the highly cited papers”.  However, as he went onto say, “we haven’t been great at turning innovation into commercial reality”.  Therefore, the main aim of the event was to support companies to grow faster and give them a platform to tell their story.

Specialists in story-telling, Guy Pattison and Will Hill of the Long Run Works, took us on a hero’s journey at the start of the day.  They showed the eight stages of their free to access ‘Communication Canvas’ and how it helps to bring business stories to life.  Appropriately for a tech event, they used the sci-fi examples of Star Wars and Hunger Games to illustrate the importance of stories; as they appeal the emotional right brain. No matter how logical a technology solution might be, if its promotion only appeals to the rational left brain we are missing half the head. 

Heavily represented at the event was the Catapult programme run by the government and is an example the importance of sustainability in the story of British innovation.  They have 10 programmes, with four of them directly related to sustainability; Transport Systems, Offshore Renewable Energy, Future Cities, Energy Systems, and others having a significant impact, such as Digital and High Value Manufacturing. 

Sustainable start-ups at the cutting edge

Whilst it was important for government agencies and respected speakers to be at the event, the most exciting aspect was the attendance of a multitude of start-ups working on, and utilising, cutting-edge cleantech thinking and practices, such as; electric vehicles, battery storage and charging, circular economy, internet of things (IoT) and buildings technologies. 

An example of a business utilising the latter two are LightFi.  They have an IoT solution that retrofits in 10 minutes and monitors rooms by picking up how many WiFi devices are on, giving precise real-time info to enable smart management of buildings.  Their CEO and co-founder, Dr Alex Bak, commented that: “As a growing start-up coming out of the Climate-KIC programme, having a stand at the event was a considerable benefit for us as we got to meet many potential partners, customers and investors, and it was inspiring to meet the other exhibitors and to see many of their interesting innovations.”

A shining pioneer

At the other end of the scale of enterprises in attendance, Tokamak Energy were a shining example of a business that is a global pioneer. You might have heard of nuclear fusion, which is where a reactor creates conditions hotter than the centre of the sun to produce energy.  After decades of publicly-funded research, fusion is famously always 30 years away from commercial reality.  Tokamak Energy are however on track to achieve commercial fusion power in a dozen years.  Rather than working on a hyper-giant research facility, which is what an international conglomeration of nations are building, very slowly, in the South of France, they are looking to produce a comparatively much smaller version in the UK.

Ross Morgan, their Senior Commercial Manager commented: “Nuclear fusion offers the potential for essentially limitless carbon-free energy, with no risk of meltdown and no production of long-lived nuclear waste.  We aim to reach 100 million degrees in our test facility in 2018, and then by 2030 have proved the commercial viability of fusion power and be delivering electricity into the grid.”

Summarising the importance of sustainability, Dr Mike Pitts, the Head of Urban Systems at Innovate UK commented when interviewed at the event: “If you’re not thinking about environmental and social factors, you’re not thinking properly about the future drivers of your business.  So, we’ve built that into everything we do.  And if an innovation isn’t moving towards that kind of future, it’s probably not going to succeed.”

Sustainability is everybody’s job

Pitts continues: “I used to be our lead on sustainability and work across all of our sector teams and businesses, to help them do some of that thinking.  However, we took away having someone whose name or job title involves sustainability because everyone just thinks sustainability’s the title holder’s problem rather than being everybody’s opportunity.  My job was to get rid of the need for my job!”

This final observation collates with a comment from Sir Mark Walport from the main stage, as he enthused that: “Innovation is a team sport”, to which we can now add that sustainability is also a team sport, creating a compelling story for British businesses to make a difference with their technologies and innovations.