Innovate UK: Integration and collaboration brings new wave of sustainable innovation

EXCLUSIVE: 2015 will be the year that sustainability becomes an integral part of business innovation, with an increase in collaborative research and development projects and a gradual reconfiguration of supply chains to encourage closed-loop production processes.

That’s the view of the head of sustainability at Innovate UK, Richard Miller, who believes more and more businesses are beginning to embrace the idea of sustainable wealth creation; capturing environmental, economic and social dividends from new products, and working closely with other organisations to develop or improve supply chains.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Miller said: “Sustainable innovation has been on a long trajectory. At Innovate UK, we’re seeing sustainability being taken progressively more seriously.

“So many of the companies we work with have clear sustainability objectives from the outset – they’re thinking about the costs of waste; access to raw materials and the impact on communities. But they’re not coming to us talking about ‘sustainability’; the products simply have sustainability credentials built into them.

“The idea of sustainable wealth creation has been there from the very beginning, but I believe it’s becoming an integral part of many business models. Why would we invest public money in a system, product or market opportunity which fundamentally has no future? Innovate UK is often investing in products some years before commercial practicality, so we need to be looking down the road at those markets and work out how ‘sustainable’ a product or service is.”

Closing loops

Innovate UK, formerly known as the Technology Strategy Board, is an executive non-departmental public body that funds, supports and connects innovative business models to accelerate sustainable economic growth. The organisation plans to launch more than 80 ‘competitions’ this year, with up to £536m of Government funding available.

One recent Innovate UK-funded project that Miller believes exemplifies a new approach to business sustainability is REALCAR (Recycled Aluminium Car) – a collaborative R&D project led by Jaguar Land Rover. The carmaker worked with six other organisations, from industry to academia, to develop a new aluminium alloy, which resulted in up to 50% of the body of the new Jaguar XE being made from recycled aluminium.

“Each partner involved in the collaboration had clearly defined roles and offered complementary expertise to successfully deliver the project objectives,” said Miller. “I genuinely believe things like this will happen a lot more. Collaboration is essential – some of Innovate UK’s programmes have specifically targeted collaborative R&D projects; bringing groups of businesses together to ensure there is a profit at every stage in a closed-loop system, so that everybody has an incentive to play the game.”

Sustainable strategy

Looking forward, Miller believes businesses will begin to embed social and environmental concerns so firmly into core strategy that we no longer need a team of people to keep them on the company’s agenda.

“In many ways, my job will be gone when nobody’s talking about it anymore,” he said. “Part of my personal goal is to make it unnecessary to have a ‘chief sustainability officer’ because a business will have successfully embedded it into its strategy. That’s the direction Innovate UK is taking, as a deliberate policy – we want sustainability to be an obvious part of innovation.

“If I could pick one message to put out to companies who see themselves in the sustainability space, it is to really focus on the value you’re bringing to the customer, not on how cool your technology is. Find out the potential problems your customers are wrestling with and show them how you’re going to fix those problems. It’s not just about sustainability; it’s got to be about the whole package.”

Luke Nicholls

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie