Tom Idle meets Martin Charter, director of the Centre for Sustainable Design
The Centre for Sustainable Design’s annual conference, Sustainable Innovation, is now in its 16th year. Why has it hit a chord with people?
It’s one of the few long-standing platforms for sustainable innovation. We try to look at state-of-the-art sustainable innovation and design – bringing in new ideas and looking at the implementation challenges for business. It offers a multi-disciplinary platform, with delegates ranging from sustainability, CSR, CR directors and managers, through to innovation specialists, product development specialists and NGOs. So, we’re not just focused on one area and that leads to rich discussions. Traditionally, it is still buzzing at the evening dinner, which is always a good sign.
How has the thrust of the event changed in the last few years?
There has been a shift from the ‘why to do’ to the ‘how to do’.
You say that one of the lessons you’ve learned from last year’s event is that sustainable innovation needs a business focus. Has that been a problem in the past?
That’s always been core to what we do. Academics without a background in business don’t understand some of the implementation challenges. What we’ve seen is many companies ‘hitting the green wall’ [first coined by the environmental consultants Arthur D. Little]. You can push environmental projects internally using environmental language and pushing environmental benefits. But unless you translate that into the internal business functions, it will fail.
When did you start getting into corporate sustainability?
After working in the City, I then worked for an exhibition company heading up product development for new trade shows. And it was in about 1986 that I started to look at environment and one of the things to come out of that was the Environmental Technology show [now part of Sustainabilitylive!].
In 1988, I set up a research consultancy focusing on events for sustainability, which then morphed into looking entirely at business sustainability.
Then, in the run-up to the Rio Earth Summit, I noted that there was no niche business publisher on business sustainability, so I set up Green Leaf Publishing and launched Greener Management International and Greener Marketing. I then set up one of the first green business clubs for SMEs in the South-east.
I then got some funding here at the UCA [University for the Creative Arts] to set up the Centre for Sustainable Design.
How do you make your money?
We’re almost like the new breed of what the Government is looking at now, in that we are 100% externally funded.
We get involved in European research projects. We have our annual conference. We do training and consultancy around product sustainability and innovation. Recently, we’ve been doing training for Bentley Motors and Hewlett-Packard.
We’ve also established a programme called Green Thinks, which uses various applied creativity techniques to help companies generate ideas and also think through how they are going to commercialise them. We’ve run the programme with 25 SMEs so far, but we’re taking it to the larger companies too.
The Government has a grand ambition to create a low-carbon economy, but do we have the skillset in this country to deliver it?
No. Our work with SMEs in the South-east on eco-innovation for products has found is that there is high-level rhetoric and a lack of infrastructure. If somebody’s got a good idea and they want to take that forward, there is very little support for them on the ground.If you look at the building sector – and the the Code for Sustainable Homes, for example – there are massive skills gaps. There is a lot of inertia in the market, with builders saying, ‘well, we’ve always done it this way, why do we need new skills?’
We need to create a green triangle. If we start to stimulate eco innovative products, services and technologies that can stimulate new businesses, which then create new jobs. It’s about innovation, entrepreneurship and new jobs. The Government is not joining that up at all.
What can big business do to help?
Innovation often comes from the smaller companies so maybe there could be some more creative knowledge exchange programmes created with people seconded into companies.
The other option is using their supply chains and procurement to pull through innovation. We’re doing exactly that with one of our programmes called Green Dragons where we get a number of big buyers sitting at a table, and we vet a number of eco-innovative products from service technology suppliers and give them an opportunity to pitch. If the company likes what they hear, they can buy it. But if it’s early in the development cycle, they can say to the SME if you do this, that and the other, then we may specify you; it gives some incentive for the SME to invest in the R&D.
Have you seen more interest in sustainable innovation in the last five years? Have you been busier?
We’re always busy but I wouldn’t say we’ve had Fortune 500 companies ringing us every day. The challenge we face is that there is still a perception that if you work out of a university, it is all a bit theoretical.
We’ve witnessed the second wave of companies that have come into this maybe five or six years ago, linked to the green consumer wave to do with climate change. They have been forced to get to grips with the agenda which has sometimes made them a bit myopic. It’s about generating awareness of the business benefits, making it relevant and giving them some indication of how to start.
Are there common failings you see among those innovation businesses?
There is a lack of marketing and commercialisation skills. And often, companies don’t benchmark against their competitors and they will say ‘I’ve got this fantastic low-carbon technology’ but they haven’t proven its relative merits. Just because you have got a green product, doesn’t mean it’s going to sell.
Are you still optimistic about the sustainability challenge being met?
The Government needs to provide the appropriate infrastructure, because there is a lot of pent up energy within the SMEs that we’ve dealt with to push forward the products, services and technologies.
It’s very difficult for them. I’ll give you an example: a couple of years ago we started to look at whether you could generate energy from footfall on flooring and we came across the Sustainable Dance Club in Rotterdam. If you dance on the floor you create energy. It’s not the answer or solution, it’s just showing another way. And it got enormous global interest. Well, we’ve got a company here in he UK that is doing the same sort of thing, called Pavegen which focuses on pavements. It’s a low-carbon product, all of the guys there are under 30, it’s based in London. But they have had little support which amazes me given the fact that they are based in London, which is part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and the enthusiasm of Boris Johnson. It’s a fantastic example of great product that has not been picked up. The whole policy agenda is being pushed in this direction, this company keeps winning awards in various places and yet none of the system has connected with them.
How do we stop that happening?
There needs to be more appropriate business support, particularly for SMEs which are the engine of the green economy. You need a series of catalysts, like the CfSD, which has experience of R&D, marketing and awareness of finance and that can actually point these SMEs in the right direction. We are well placed to deliver on that, but we have got to win projects in order to do that.
What are you most proud of in your time at CfSD?
That we’ve run the conference every year for 16 years and we’ve had 2,000 people attend from 50 countries. It’s also nice when I’m in meetings and I speak to people that I don’t even know who say, ‘I came to Sustainable Innovation 2003 and it was really helpful’.
I think the sheer fact that we’ve survived all those years, pretty much self-funded is also impressive.