UK-GBC: Innovation will enable sustainability leadership in construction

EXCLUSIVE: Fresh from the launch of its inaugural Innovation Lab workshop, the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) has claimed that fostering innovation can restore confidence and strengthen leadership in the built environment during a time of "increased difficulty and uncertainty".

UK-GBClaunched its nine-month innovation lab programme last month, and the organisation’s head of learning and innovation Cat Hirst believes that the building industry is set for an influx of collaborative low-carbon partnerships and new sustainability leaders, all through embracing innovation.

“It requires leadership and confidence to foster innovation and improve decision-making,” Hirst told edie. “Post-Brexit could be really difficult and lead to failure at a time when there’s less certainty and less money to support. Equally, another way of thinking about it is that 2016 was such a crazy year and there’s still so much uncertainty, maybe now is a better time than any to look towards new ideas and innovations to change how we do things.”

The UK-GBC Innovation Lab officially kicked off with a workshop aimed at identifying “breakthrough challenges” that will form the basis of UK-GBC’s future meetings. Canary Wharf Group, Land Securities and Marks & Spencer (M&S) have been introduced as lead partners in the initiative, which will foster innovative sustainability solutions and explore future trends of the built environment.

The initial workshop highlighted the key challenges that the industry will face in regards to climate resilience, resource efficiency and technological advancements. The next workshop will be held on 1 February and acts as a structured programme of open innovation set up to tackle some of the built environment’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.

Hirst revealed that the labs aren’t aimed at “reinventing the wheel”, but rather creating a dialogue that encourages companies to work with one another. With innovations such as battery storage set to create ties between multiple sectors, Hirst believes that the built environment needs to seize the collaborative opportunities that innovation will bring to ensure that solutions are tailored to specific needs.

Fortunately, the sector already features numerous companies and organisations that are extending an arm to innovation. UK-GBC consists of 400 members – the majority of which have shown an interest in the workshops that also bring academia, start-ups and suppliers to the table.

Hirst alluded to Ikea’s Space10 – a research hub and exhibition space that explores and designs innovative and responsible business models – and Canary Wharf Group’s Level 39 – Europe’s largest technology accelerator for finance, retail, cyber-security and future cities technology companies – as examples of how members are already embracing innovation.

UK-GBC has played an active role in promoting innovation in the built environment in the past. Through the Council’s Future Leaders programme, which aims to facilitate the growth of new leaders and business models through collaboration, graduates established LOOP, a digital marketplace for asset reuse in the built environment.

LOOP concentrates on material assets, with a particular focus on steel frames, heating a cooling systems and specialist equipment, often sent to landfill. Through the Future Leaders programme, LOOP was installed with the necessary knowledge – and confidence – to venture successfully into the marketplace.

With the success of these initiatives in mind, Hirst feels that the innovation labs can help identify “pain points” in the sector, before turning to open innovation to potentially alleviate these concerns.

Open innovation, whereby companies source ideas and concepts externally to boost their own blueprints, can often lead to issues over trust. When it comes to commercialisation, Intellectual Property (IP) rights can also become delicate to handle. As part of the innovation labs, UK-GBC has introduced a “front load” approach, using legal expertise, to ease these concerns and create an environment where ideas can be shared and enhanced, instead of companies merely trying to “talk shop”.

“The IP issues are one of the biggest bumps you can find and that’s why open innovation is not that common within this sector or others,” Hirst said. “It is the most challenging type in order to bring together different organisations and create a safe space to talk, share ideas and gain value.

“It’s extremely valuable if you can pull it off. We tried to front load the IP issues, by working with lawyers to create something in the spirit of what we wanted to produce. It wasn’t going to tie anyone in knots, but it sets the precedent for operations. We want an open and honest forum.”

While Hirst is a firm believer that innovation is dependent on successful collaboration – one of the key aims of the workshops – funding in order to get ideas off of the ground can also cause teething issues for new concepts.

Industrial innovation

The inclusion of financially-endowed incumbents such as M&S is a welcome sign for UK-GBC’s aspirations, and Hirst also feels that the political landscape will soon act as an enabler for innovation. Speaking to edie before the publication of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, Hirst claimed that innovation was something that the Government is focusing heavily on, and something that UK-GBC is in constant communication about.

In fact, last week’s publication of the Industrial Strategy has shown these claims to be true. The Industrial Strategy raises the prospect of stronger Government support and involvement to allow businesses to address regulatory barriers currently hindering innovation and growth. Specifically, the paper sets out how the UK will foster innovation to effectively close the gap between the nation’s most productive companies and sectors. The Strategy also revealed that smart energy technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will be supported by the £4.7bn Research & Development (R&D) pot announced in the Autumn Budget.

With Construction News finding that £43m is spent on construction R&D in the UK, compared to £203m in France, and £750m in Japan, financial support could soon be funnelled into a built environment that is in need of an ‘evolutionary jump’ towards innovative business models.

With the built environment demanding around 40% of the world’s extracted materials and demolition waste representing the largest waste stream in many countries, the additional funding is more than welcome. Yet, as Hirst will attest, there needs to be a willingness amongst companies to embrace new concepts; a willingness that the UK-GBC is attempting to mobilise and strengthen.

“There’s an opportunity to increase financial contributions, but for the sector to really thrive it’s not about the money, but rather the effectiveness of the innovation,” Hirst adds. “We know from our 400 members that there is a desire to transform business models and innovate. But not all have the resources or the skills to be able to do that. A lot don’t have dedicated R&D plants.

“We want to show value in lots of different ways, this isn’t just to deliver innovation at the end, but it also builds the capacity to understand the process of innovation and generate confidence within the sector.”

edie’s innovation month

The month of January sees edie shift the editorial spotlight to green innovation, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to celebrate the very best of emerging clean technologies and low-carbon systems.

Change will not happen without genuine innovation and so this month will explore the bleeding edge where change is really happening. From emerging tech to new business models; breakthrough approaches and creative leaders, we’ll shine the spotlight on the real game-changers and sort the facts from the fads.

Read all of edie’s innovation content here.

Matt Mace

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