This insight was first published as part of NCUB’s State of the Relationship 2021 Report. Read the report in full here.

Multifaceted challenges like climate change require a systems-based approach which allows point solutions to be assessed in the context of their impact on the overall ecosystem.

This can potentially identify unintended consequences of actions taken which limit solutions to single pathways or block off or dismiss options at too early a stage. At the end of the day there is no silver bullet for climate change, and we will need all the options available if we are to successfully address this challenge. The selection and deployment sequence of these options will have a critical impact on the timescale and cost in which the challenge is addressed.

Circularity arguments are important such as materials re-use, for example recycling of RSJs in the building industry into new structures or recovering precious metals from catalytic convertors; the principles behind which will be critical for future energy needs from batteries to hydrogen production. There is an opportunity to think beyond the operational lifetimes of the hardware and to design things for ease of raw materials recovery at end of life. Repurposing of existing infrastructure will also offer significant savings in terms of energy and cost; the repurposing of the gas networks from natural gas to hydrogen being a case in point.

The question then is how to access, develop and implement the innovative solutions needed to address the challenges we face. A regulatory framework that supports implementing innovative solutions and the ability to prototype and scale at pace will play a key role in enabling the UK to lead in this field.

A key challenge for small energy technology companies is to gain market access, often they need either a first customer or access to large scale physical (hardware) or data sources. Here the Government and hard-fought lessons from Covid-19 can help. During Covid-19 the Government acted as the first customer for vaccines, ventilators, and a whole raft of other technologies. At the same time, it enabled the creation of a more flexible regulatory framework to accelerate bringing innovative solutions to market. Businesses can develop new technologies, what they need is market access and assurances of a supportive regulatory framework. Sometimes unintentionally, existing, and often outdated regulations remain on the statute book and act as unintended barriers. During Covid-19 the Government by acting as first customer and providing market access did a huge amount in accelerating the delivery of innovative solutions to the market. The challenge now is how do we continue on the same footing to meet challenges like climate change without reverting back to way things were before and losing momentum and the opportunity for the UK to lead in many areas. Work processes like “agile” attempt to create the sense of urgency needed and focus on the critical items rather than trying to solve everything simultaneously. Digital is also radically reshaping the way we work and there is a need to take time out to invest effort in understanding what it can deliver as many companies are doing today. Universities have a key role to play in providing people with the necessary skills and businesses can help by communicating the practical examples of where the impact of digital technologies can be felt.

Digital tools are revolutionising the way we work. The trick here is not to simply create better digital versions of what we already have but rather use these tools to create innovative out the box type solutions to the challenges we face. Digital tools combined with new ways of working such as using agile methodologies are helping to create innovative solutions and drastically reduce the product development cycles enabling these solutions to be realised in the marketplace much faster.

The challenges we face combined with the techniques we now have at our disposal make this an extraordinary period of innovation. What sits at the heart of enabling this to flourish is collaboration between government, academia, and business. Bringing together innovative ideas within a supportive regulatory framework and the ability to scale and deploy the solutions at pace will enable innovative products and services to be brought to market in a timely fashion. There is a significant role for public private partnerships to drive innovative solutions for the future and put the UK at the forefront of developments.