UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Ten years of innovation and sustainability

27 October 2021

What have we learnt from 10 years of innovation and sustainability? Associate Professor Will McDowall looks back over the last decade and what it has taught us in this field.

dashboard of an electric car with the battery icon in orange

Exactly a decade ago, in October 2011, Sir Dieter Helm expressed what was then a widely held view in the Guardian: “It is also wrong to assume that renewables… are going to be cheap alternatives”. Ten years later, renewable costs have fallen faster and further than most observers—even technical experts—expected. Energy innovation has transformed the policy landscape, overturning deeply embedded assumptions about the relative costs of renewables and fossil fuels, and providing some optimism that energy systems change can come about more cheaply and quickly than had previously been assumed.  

So what has this decade taught us? 

First, it has shown that consistent and stable policy support can play a big role in accelerating the development of emerging technologies. The creation of early markets, fostering a diversity of options, and supporting R&D have all been critical. We have a much better idea of the policy portfolio than we did a decade ago.  

Ten years ago, it was still common to hear the concern that government attempts to ‘pick winners’ would inevitably fail. But strategic government support for the deployment and commercialisation of specific areas of technology has played a central role in the revolution in renewables costs. Those that fear government failure weren’t wrong to be concerned, but the new era of green industrial policy support has been designed to avoid many of the pathologies of the 1970s, like choosing specific ‘national champion’ firms. Today’s UK government is much more comfortable with—and much better at—directing innovation to achieve sustainability goals.  

Second, we often ignored the fact that innovation, once achieved, can enable ambitious green policies. Ten years ago, a policy to phase out internal combustion cars would have been political suicide. Now it’s uncontroversial. Bismarck famously remarked that politics is ‘the art of the possible’. The magic of innovation is that it makes what was once politically impossible seem easy.  

Third, it was once common to hear people contrast ‘technological’ solutions with social and behavioural changes. But in so many cases, we see technological and social changes co-evolving and reinforcing each other. A great example comes from more sustainable foods: social movements around veganism helped spur innovation in non-milk dairy products, which have now enabled a much wider penetration of dairy alternatives and vegan lifestyles. Technological innovation does not sit in isolation from social change, but is embedded within it.  

At ISR, these lessons reinforce our commitment to an interdisciplinary and systemic perspective on innovation, which acknowledges the interactions between policy, society and technological systems. As we look forward to another ten years of research on innovation at ISR, new challenges are emerging – it’s going to be a busy decade.   

Photo by Kumpan Electric on Unsplash