Growing awareness of climate change has not yet been matched by serious cuts in the amount of carbon the UK emits. Reducing the carbon intensity of our activities is proving difficult, and to achieve the deep cuts needed, the UK needs to develop different ways of building, travelling, moving about, shopping and even eating. These changes will require disruptive innovation: not just new technologies, but radically different systems of production and consumption.
So far, most low-carbon innovation has been incremental, bringing about improvements in efficiency but not transforming the way we do things. Cars have gradually become more fuel-efficient, but their basic shape, structure and technology have changed little in sixty years. We still generate most of our electricity in the same ways that we did in the 1950s, albeit slightly more efficiently.
By contrast, disruptive innovation creates products or business models that transform the landscape. The seeds of disruptive innovation for climate change are everywhere. From the rooftop wind turbines that hold out the promise of self-generated electricity in each household, to the new models of community ownership of energy assets, there are many innovations that have enormous potential. But these low-carbon pioneers tend to remain at the margins of our economy. By their very nature, disruptive innovations do not ‘fit’ easily within established regulatory or economic systems. Small-scale renewables, for example, find it very hard to compete in an electricity market dominated by large-scale power, because energy regulation has developed over time to support incumbent technologies and companies.
This project will investigate how we can nurture and support ‘The Disrupters’: innovators and entrepreneurs who can bring about the step-changes required for low-carbon living.
It will begin with a literature review focussing on innovation theory, low-carbon innovation and energy and environment policy. We will then go on to develop eight case studies of potentially disruptive low-carbon innovations, and investigate how we can move them from the margins to the mainstream. Through in-depth qualitative research, it will examine what factors are helping or hindering their progress, and draw wider conclusions about how they could be better supported, particularly through government action. Case studies will be drawn from four areas of innovation:
By looking in detail at these case study examples, the project will provide a lively, personalised account of innovation.
The final report of the project will showcase these innovators, and develop recommendations to government on ways of supporting disruptive innovation. This will build on the 2006 Stern Review on climate change, commissioned by HM Treasury, as well as the DTI’s upcoming Energy White Paper and Defra’s continuing work on climate change policy.
The low-carbon pioneers and entrepreneurs that are the subject of the research will be actively involved in presenting and debating its findings, through a final summit with policymakers, and a high-profile launch event. This NESTA-funded joint project will therefore provide valuable insights for government, helping in the development of more effective and responsive policy mechanisms.
The project will be overseen by an expert advisory group, drawn from academia, government and NGOs, with expertise in environment and innovation.
The project team
James Wilsdon is Head of Science and Innovation at Demos. His research interests include science and innovation policy, emerging technologies, democracy and sustainability. firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecca Willis is an independent researcher, Demos associate and Vice-Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission. Her work focuses on environmental politics and policymaking at both a national and regional level. email@example.com
Molly Webb is a Researcher at Demos. Her work focuses on science, technology, innovation and the environment.
Advisory group: confirmed members
The project will run until July 2007, when the summit and launch event will be held. See NESTA's Environment Challenge for more information.
A building services manager for a local council. A Cumbrian hill farmer. A high-end concierge service. And a Bath-based leadership coach. These are not the people who you would expect to be pioneering solutions to climate change. Yet each of them is responsible for innovations that could put us on the path to a lower-carbon society.
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