Innovation Zero: An opportunity for better collaboration


Published 30th April 24

By Kalyan Sarma, VP of Climate, Environment, and Sustainability Commercialisation at Ploughshare

I’ve said it a few times, but there is no harm in saying it again – collaboration between industry, academia, and government is critical to our work in climate, environment, and sustainability. I’ve equally said this to a few people, but I’ll say it again too – events like Innovation Zero are an incredibly important opportunity for us to come together and make this collaboration happen.

I’m attending Innovation Zero on behalf of Ploughshare, and I have to say I’m super excited to be doing so. I’m talking on a panel that is discussing why climate change and sustainability matter to defence with my colleagues from Dstl. They all know how policy can influence research and development, but I’m hoping that through our discussions at the event, more people will know why defence R&D and defence policy is so important to climate change and sustainability.

It’s not very often that there is real opportunity, no matter how hard we try, to get industry, government, and academia in the same room over a couple of days to discuss the future of the planet. I’ve been working in this space for much of my life, with time spent in all three, and I can’t really think of a better combination. That said, the combination is simple, but executing it is difficult. Especially when it comes to policy.

Among the discussions we’ll all have at Innovation Zero, I really hope that policy, and creating a conducive policy environment for sustainability will be front and centre of people’s minds. I’ve jotted down a few ideas with this in mind, and hopefully I’ll be able to cross off a “bingo” square through hearing them over the next couple of days.

Firstly – material security. We need to recognise that in the UK we have insufficient local supply to meet our demand and requirements. Material security is at the heart of this, and we need to take examples from other countries to help ourselves. A problem shared is a problem halved, and if we ask for help, we will receive it. Japan, for example, uses urban mining and a robust recycling programme to maximise their material use – we need to do the same. Our recycling infrastructure needs to be supported by robust policy that allows us to better utilise expertise in this area.

Which is my next point. We need to tap into existing capabilities more effectively and establish a value chain where all stakeholders – from industry, to government, to the public – derive value. Only then will there be true uptake in more sustainable practices.

Without that, you only hear talk of risk, and understanding risk is key to ensuring a better outcome – despite its presence. Using that knowledge we already have; we can better understand risk in those same supply and value chains – alongside creating policies that make economic viability a priority. Twiggy Forrest makes this point repeatedly, and he makes it with gusto. I think we need to take better notice.

On policies themselves – they need to be incentive based. It’s perhaps a sign of the times where incentive needs to be met to get results, but that’s the way it goes. Policy needs to lead to regulation, yes. But it also needs to lead to delivering incentives. It also should absolutely not be developed in a vacuum; it needs to involve the entire value chain. Only by considering points across the entire chain can we hope to develop policy that is truly effective for everyone.

With everyone on board, then we can look at market expansion. Those policies will be designed with the aim of expanding new technologies without prescribing specific solutions. We may find that one technology is good for a few things, or perhaps for something completely different in mind. Market forces need to be able to influence and determine the most viable options.

All of this is what innovation is about – developing technologies in an environment that allows innovation, and that allows multi-use inventions to move to where they are most useful. Policy is a guide to this, and hopefully, just hopefully, there will be more collaboration in this hugely important part of climate, environment, and sustainability research in the future. Defence has a role to play, as does getting the technology out of the climate research that defence undertakes – and I hope that we can demonstrate that importance, and the potential it has at Innovation Zero.