The clean tech sector loves innovation, but being regarded as innovative can be a mixed blessing
Like most people, I love the idea of innovation. Innovation is new, it's exciting, it's cutting-edge, and it's vital – even if no one can agree on precisely what it is.
In green business and environmental circles innovation is self-evidently of huge importance. Our current economic models are at the root of the environmental crises we face, so we need to develop innovative new technologies and business models to resolve those crises. Without technical innovation to bring down the cost of clean energy and transport we will never decarbonise the economy, without innovative new ways of doing business we will never tackle the resource crunches that loom over so many industries. That is what makes the sheer quantity and quality of clean tech innovation on display at last week's BusinessGreen Leaders Awards so inspiring and heartening. We need clean tech innovation, and long may it continue.
However, there is a little-acknowledged caveat to our obsession with innovation that was highlighted last week by the Dutch landscape ecologist Victor Beumer. Sometimes, he told the Global Estuaries Forum in Deauville, you need to stop regarding a solution as innovative and acknowledge that it has become normalised, boring, passé even. In fact, this should be the point you are aiming for – that is when you have made it.
Beumer was speaking of how we can use eco-engineering techniques to tackle flood risks when he said: "People say this is innovative, but it's been being done for over 10 years and if you call it innovative people want the government to pay for it and businesses won't take the risk." But he could have been talking about almost any clean tech innovation.
The key point that too many in the clean tech sector overlook in their rush to celebrate innovation (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) is that not everyone likes innovation. Large swathes of the public don't like innovation. Pension funds and institutional investors really hate innovation, many multinationals, regardless of what they say to the contrary, are wary of innovation. What they want is safe, reliable, bankable technologies, projects and business models that will deliver near-guaranteed returns.
The goal of the clean tech revolution is not innovation for innovation's sake, it is innovation to reach and then pass the point where greener alternatives become safer and more effective propositions than the polluting incumbents they are designed to replace. We need a clean tech industry that can innovate, but we also need one that can roll out its innovations at global scale in the matter of a few years. There are other skills that matter besides innovation (and yes I appreciate the contradiction of writing this just days after our BusinessGreen Leaders Awards celebrated the best in green business innovation).
The most encouraging aspect of the decision by retail giants such as Walmart, Sainsbury's and Tesco to invest so heavily in deploying solar panels and LED lights at their stores is that these firms are not traditionally that innovative when it comes to this aspect of their operations. They are not deploying these technologies to prove that they are cutting-edge, they've done the return on investment calculations, tested the technology and deemed it to be the best and most cost effective, not necessarily the most innovative, option. Similarly, it has to be asked if wind and solar energy should still be seen as innovative in those parts of the world where the technology has been around for more than 20 years and can now compete with fossil fuels on cost without subsidy.
Of course, innovation remains crucial, it is the lifeblood of the clean tech sector and will remain so for years to come. Green industries secure huge benefits from their being regarded as unimpeachably modern and technologically bleeding edge.
But there will come a point, and for some parts of the green economy it has already come, when clean tech firms will have to realise innovation can only get you so far. Sometimes you have to focus on deployment, and it is at that point that being regarded as innovative can become a curse as well as a blessing. It is almost always good to be seen as innovative, but if clean tech firms are to ever achieve their goals they also have to be regarded as boringly mainstream.
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