Innovation and sustainability

Having spent much of my professional career involved in both technological innovation and environmental sustainability, I’ve always taken it for granted that the two are natural partners.

It was a bit of a shock a few years ago to realise that this wasn’t normal. Environmentalists tended to see innovation as “Industry despoiling Nature”, while technologists often saw “The Environment” as an unimportant externality, of relevance only for the annual CSR report.

Both are now coming to realise that these attitudes are out of date.

Environmentalists are at last waking up to the importance of technological innovation. For example, Friends of the Earth have a major new project “Big Ideas change the world”.   This is a good idea in itself, and they welcome thoughtful contributions from experts in a number of topic areas, including “Business”.

I’ve been helping with the topics area of “Innovation” which has the headline message that “There is great potential to create wellbeing through technological innovation.”   To many technological readers this will seem so totally obvious it’s surprising that it needs saying at all. It’s very clear that human health and wellbeing has been transformed by the technological innovations: Clean water, modern pharmaceuticals, easy global communication, safe and appetising food, comfortable homes, entertainment, mobility …. The list could go on and on.

Progress towards greater wellbeing isn’t a simple matter of pushing the innovation button of course, because technological innovations don’t exist in a little bubble. Technology, society and the environment together form a complex system, in which it’s inherently hard to predict the long term consequences of an innovation. Unexpected limits appear, because if you develop something that’s attractive, all too often so many people will be attracted to it that it’s no longer attractive.

For example, in the mid 1930s those that could afford a car had the freedom of a largely empty road. It was assumed that investment and innovation would allow all to share the benefits, but 80 years later, although we have more roads we have so many cars on the road that average daytime traffic speeds in central London are just 9mph. In rush hour Cambridge congestion is even worse, so its unsurprising that 30% of working residents cycle to work.

Innovations also often get used for unexpected purposes, or have unexpected side effects. For example, the internet is a powerful tool for human wellbeing, but congestion is beginning to be a problem. In part this is because reaching the fundamental physical limits of the amount of data that can be pushed down the existing optical fibre links. Laying more cable and technological innovation will undoubtedly continue to increase capacity, but costs are increasing and technology is probably in an unwinnable race with the growth in online media consumption. All those cat videos, social media updates and porn are clogging the net. One recent study suggested that porn accounted for 30% of internet traffic, which is hardly the progress Tim Berners Lee had in mind when he generously refused to patent his hypertext idea, in order to create a world wide web for all to use.

All too often today, developments are so short term, with such little attention paid to sustainability that they don’t last, and hence are very ineffective ways of contributing towards greater wellbeing. For example the Grafton Centre was built just 30 years ago but is already looking tired and due for major refurbishment. If it lasts another 20 years, it will be doing well.

In contrast the construction of Ely Cathedral began in the 11th century, and it survives because, by luck or judgement, it respected the limits of what could be built with stone and wood. Cathedral builders thought about sustainability because they wanted their works to endure. I’ve been told that 500 years ago Kings College planted an oak woodland so that they would have mature oak trees available when the timbers of the Chapel roof needed to be replaced. That’s long term thinking for you.

Innovation can create wellbeing, but the key question of course is “Wellbeing for whom?” Any change will inevitably benefit or harm some more than others. For example, our cheap, safe and appetising food may come at the expense of farm workers in developing countries being poisoned by pesticides. Taxing sugary drinks would help reduce obesity, promote wellbeing and ease the pressure on NHS budgets, but would slightly reduce the drinks manufacturers’ profits. Addressing climate change is never simply going to be a scientific or technological issue, because of the choices that have to be made about who benefits, who suffers and who pays.

Resolving these questions is a matter of power and politics, which is why I’m pleased that the environmentalists are starting to engage with innovation. Business may find environmentalists annoying, and environmentalists certainly won’t have all the answers any more than technology innovators will, but their input will help stimulate better solutions.

This will help us all make the world a genuinely better place.