If I could only use one word to describe innovation in the low carbon sector
– actually, let’s call it the ‘zero carbon sector’ from now on –
I’d call it EXPLOSIVE.
I started in my role as secretariat to the Innovative Zero Carbon Working Group (IZCWG) over eight years ago, and back then I didn’t even realise what a huge range of businesses we had in the West Midlands operating in the zero carbon sector that were already developing innovative technologies, products and services. The few that were members of the IZCWG were awesome, but we hadn’t even scratched the surface.
Part of the reason for this was my being new to the scene – obviously, it takes time to build up networks. However, another reason was because there simply wasn’t the same level of opportunities or support for zero carbon businesses back in 2014 compared to now, meaning fewer opportunities for them to take their zero carbon innovations to market. Zero carbon has become a priority, due to three reasons (all of which link with each other):
- Our moral obligation to do something urgently to tackle climate change, which thanks to figures such as Mr. Attenborough and Ms. Thunberg has focused minds in more recent times.
- The changing policy and enshrining of Net Zero into law as part of the Climate Change Act (to think, we didn’t even use the term Net Zero a couple of years ago).
- In response to this, the expansion and acceleration of public and private sector funding and opportunities for businesses to apply for.
For those of you lucky enough to be a member of the IZCWG and subscribed to the awesome associated mailing list, you’ll know just how many of these opportunities there are. I vividly remember I sometimes used to struggle to fill the ‘funding and opportunities’ section of the newsletters, and today it’s the total opposite, as trying to adequately prioritise has become the challenge.
With these opportunities and continued evidence that the West Midlands is one of the leading regions in the UK for zero carbon growth and innovation, we have a seen an explosion of innovative companies operating in the zero carbon sector, especially in the past few years. This includes in areas such as hydrogen technology, battery storage, circular economy and autonomous vehicles.
I’ve been asked to outline what innovation means to the zero carbon sector. I would suggest, given its breadth and diversity, that it means something different to everyone, but here is my take.
- Technology – the application of new, smart prototypes and technologies to accelerate the reduction in emissions, saving of energy or rollout of clean transport options.
- Turning demonstration into reality – we’ve seen many low carbon ‘demonstrators’ over the years; the next step is to turn these from small-scale theories into real application.
- Small business growth – we are lucky in the West Midlands to have a vast range of businesses doing something new for the greater good, and thriving as a result.
- Clustering – organisations and companies basing themselves in the West Midlands as a result of our consistently strong growth and innovation in zero carbon activity.
- Collaboration opportunities – the West Midlands, as far as we know, is the only region with a cross sector working group that aims to provide opportunities for companies to collaborate to develop, grow and thrive. It is also the only region with a local sustainability partnership – that’s us – to help establish permanent connections and relationships.
All of the above provides us with evidence that innovation, economic growth and sustainability and Net Zero can go hand in hand, and we need more of the same if we are to meet our mandatory UK Net Zero by 2050 and WMCA’s Net Zero by 2041 targets. But what’s next? What do we need to further scale-up, accelerate and encourage more of the above? A recent report that looks at the Low Carbon Goods and Services Sector in the region shows, following extensive engagement, that to keep on top of the opportunity we need, amongst other things:
- Innovation in procurement allowing innovation between public and private sectors to become easier [what we’re doing: Digital Innovation in Public Services is a WMIP-funded project piloting challenged based innovation partnership between innovative SMEs and local authorities]
- More opportunities for business to business engagement [what we’re doing: numerous projects, including the WMIP-funded Innovation Engine 3, to bring together large and small private sector companies to solve challenges through innovation]
- Further exploration of opportunities associated with hydrogen technology [what we’re doing: SWM is working with Cadent to run an event on hydrogen in late Spring]
- To support improvement of the transfer of knowledge from academia to industry [what we’re doing: strengthening this collaboration through groups such as the IZCWG]
- To provide certainty to businesses through long-term support and funding [what we’re doing: collating and signposting a myriad of opportunities through channels such as the IZCWG and our Sustainable Business Support Hub]
- To strengthen skills in the low carbon sector; at the moment, the ambitions of Net Zero technology rollout does not necessarily reflect the skill set in the industry [what we’re doing: working with organisations such as the Midland Energy Hub to determine what is needed in our region].
Yes there’s still more to do, but this is a very exciting time in the Net Zero innovation landscape. I said at the start of this piece that it’s explosive, largely because the scale and pace of innovation in this sector is mind-blowing. But we know there’s even more to unlock, and that’s what we, in our role as Virtual Innovation Team lead for zero carbon, plan to continue supporting.
Author, Alan Carr
Virtual Innovation Team Lead, Zero Carbon; Sustainability West Midlands