Sustainability as a primary driver of innovation Innovation can and must play a critical role in helping to simplify the problems and break the trade-offs between economics and sustainability. By Ved Sen, Business Innovation at Tata Consultancy Services

  • 2 years ago Posted in

After COP 26, the consensus is that global efforts to tackle climate change are still falling short of where we want them to be, due to conflicting interests. It's easy to ask a country to stop cutting down its trees or reducing palm oil production, but more difficult when their economy depends on timber or palm oil exports. 

Through the IPCC, the 2015 Paris Agreement, and many other global initiatives (such as NetZero), we are attempting to claw ourselves back from the precipice of irreversible climate change but it will never be enough to simply address it through policy and behavioural change. Innovation has a huge part to play in helping us think about sustainability, in science, technology, design, and creativity.

One of the core premises of innovation is that it breaks the existing trade-offs between inputs and outputs - or between a zero-sum model and a win-win environment. It's becoming clear that the only way we will collectively achieve our global climate change goals will be with a significant layer of technological innovation across 12 important areas:


Renewables contributed over 40% of the UK's total energy production in the first quarter of 2021 but innovation's job is far from complete. There are plenty of firms who have dedicated themselves to the broad problem of sustainable energy production, including companies like Drax and Velocys, who are producing sustainable energy from waste wood and feedstock. Enel is another global player, generating almost 50 giga watts of energy globally from solar, wind, hydro-electric, biomass, and geothermal means.

The science of solar cells is evolving as we speak. Perovskite materials (which are based on a specific crystalline structure) are being improved continuously for more effective harnessing of solar energy, and companies like Oxford PV are taking this technology to market. Others such as Icewind  are building vertical axis wind turbines which can be used in industrial environments, extreme and remote locations, while Solecco are creating innovative roof tiles which are themselves solar panels.

A big part of energy consumption can be addressed by better storage, which is why battery tech has been such a headline item, not least because of Elon Musk. For example, Calderra's ‘Warmstone’ uses recycled and natural materials and is 100% recyclable, Theion looks to replace cobolt with the far more abundant sulphur for solid state batteries, Moixa wants to improve the "IQ of the world's batteries" and Buffalogrid delivers content while helping charge small devices with solar power.


Every aspect of transport, across land, sea, and air is subject to innovation. For example, hydrogen cells and smart electric vehicles for people and cargo from Gaussin, and zero emission autonomous ships from Kongsberg. BP is even working on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), as electric planes become a reality.


The best place to solve most problems is to go as close as possible to the source, so the raw materials we use (especially the ones that have a big environmental footprint), are an excellent place for innovation. Enter fabrics from coffee grounds and biodegradable 'vegan' bottles to combat plastic, sourcing fuel from household waste, or 'renewable' plastics from Neste.

I especially like the sound of AirCarbon which uses a naturally occurring biomaterial called Poly (3-hydroxybutyrate) or PHB which is a substitute for plastic, leather, and fibre. Meanwhile HP and Ford are using the waste from printing teeth aligners from SmileDirectClub (40,000 of them per day), as plastic that goes into trucks and cars.


One of the biggest sources for raw materials is of course farming - from silk to salad - and sustainable farming will go a long way to helping save the planet. Avalo applies AI to genomics to create plants capable of sustaining more extreme weather. Code Demetra, an Italian start up, works on the ripening process of fruit so it stays fresh longer through the distribution chain, reducing wastage, as well as refrigeration requirements.

Golden Agri has created high yielding Palm Oil seeds which will curb the deforestation caused by palm oil production. Avalo helps crops adapt faster to extreme weather so food can be grown closer to where it's consumed. For all the farm animals that need protein input, Ynsect generates food for plants and animals through its insect farms, while B-Droid's flying robots replicate the work of bees to accelerate pollination.


Beyond the actual products, it's clear that we need to fix processes to be energy and carbon efficient. Generate capital sets up sustainable initiatives across the world across the world. Econic works on catalysts that convert CO2 emissions into polymers. Kobold Metals uses intelligent exploration to find rare minerals required for batteries and other sustainable uses.


We have recognised the need for looking after products long after they've left the factory or the store as the entire lifecycle of products is our responsibility. We know that electronics have a lot of plastic and metal components which need looking after as lifecycles get shorter and we need better  recovery as well as product design.

You might recall that the gold, silver and bronze medals for the Tokyo Olympics were made from metals recycled from over 6m electronic devices collected in Japan. Newer products such as solar panels can be designed for easier extraction, but less so for items such as mattresses. The circular economy needs to start rewarding sustainable design and fortunately, companies such as Greenology are now tackling the problem for legacy products such as tyres.


For every product, there is a by-product. One of the biggest focus areas of the sustainability program is the reduction of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) and a lot of the innovations discussed earlier will support this objective. Recovering lost ground is a challenge by itself, so even small efforts can be meaningful, such as the Sea Bin Project, and the Smog Free Tower.  Full Cycle Bio Plastics made news a couple of years ago for creating organic plastic that bio-degrades, sometimes into fish food.


We know if we want to improve it, we usually have to measure it. This can sometimes be difficult when it comes to effluents, greenhouse gases, or pollution on ocean floors. Planetly makes tools which help measure carbon footprint more effectively and PawPrint calculates your domestic carbon footprint but is also being used by companies to calculate their energy footprint under WFH conditions. Saildrone allows sensors to be mounted on autonomous oceanic vehicles for marine data collection. Responsibly allows benchmarking of supply chains for climate impact and diversity.


As consumers we stand at the end of the 'supply chain' and the choices we make for travel, products and services are ultimately signals for the supply chain to respond to. The pandemic has seen the hollowing out of city centres and the rebirth of suburban living but wherever we live, green and  sustainable buildings should be a must for most of us. Fashion brands especially will come under increasing scrutiny and even gaming has adopted the theme of climate survival.


It’s apparent now that an inflexion point has been crossed and we may see more natural disasters, from floods and fires to earthquakes. Our ability to predict disasters has been quite low because they have always been treated as freak occurrences but now companies like are crunching the data to improve our ability to predict wildfires. Innovative companies like Eonef are using helium balloons to deliver data connectivity in disaster hit areas, or even to aid in wildlife observation.


Our communication networks are the highways of the digital world. Small wonder that Nokia and Ericsson are both deeply involved in making 5G more sustainable both in its design and usage. Arup designs sustainable buildings for commercial use and airports are learning to become more sustainable too. The Galapagos airport is designed to run on solar and wind power, and 80% of the material used for the airport was recycled. Arlanda Airport in Stockholm has been carbon neutral since 2009. 


None of this is achievable without the right investment, so a focus of sustainability in capital needs to be our last task for innovation. A lot is being done already, for instance, the climate risk reporting requirement of the TCFD in the UK, and any number of sustainability focused investment funds, and sustainable banks, such as Aspiration. However, the risk of greenwashing is always around the corner, and we need to stay vigilant.

Building a sustainable future  

There's no doubt that the fight to save the planet can only be won if governments, businesses, institutions, and consumers all push in the same direction for the right changes. Innovation can and must play a critical role in helping to simplify the problems and break the trade-offs between economics and sustainability. In fact, sustainability might be one of the primary drivers of innovation over the next decade. What's your big idea to save the planet?

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