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BLOG: The nation needs innovation

Posted on 18/02/2016 by Nick Sharpe

With the publication of a Scottish Renewables paper on innovation and confirmation from DECC this week that "investing in green innovation is crucial", Policy Officer Hannah Smith argues that it's coordinated effort as much as 'Eureka moments' that turn the best ideas into reality.


Innovation is somewhat romanticised. It’s about Steve Jobs working out of a garage, Ayrshire vet John Boyd Dunlop’s development of pneumatic tyres for his child's tricycle, or the Wright brothers pondering powered flight for four years in a North Carolina field.

While ‘Eureka moments’ are an important part of innovating, the reality is often that a whole host of resources are mobilised to reach the end goal. As economist Mariana Mazzucato argues, the countries that innovate best have systems that allow both the private and – crucially – the public sectors to work together.

Innovation is, in part, organic. But it’s also something that can be fostered, guided, and strategically directed – and that’s what needs to happen for us to create the flexible, low-carbon energy system we need.

The benefits of the end result are well understood. Decarbonising to tackle climate change is imperative, as global leaders have recognised at both Paris and Davos. Geopolitical volatility in both price and supply remains a concern, while consumers rely on stable and cost-effective supplies to power their homes and businesses.

For many energy innovators the vision is of a smart system where decarbonised electricity, heat and transport networks work together. Electricity grids are optimised, consumers have more control over their energy, and the system is flexible to changing patterns of supply and demand.

To get there, we need disruptive technologies, we need to roll-out pioneering grid management initiatives and we need to innovate. We do that through a strategic approach.

The obvious example – with clear parallels to tackling climate change – is the space race, where President John F Kennedy dedicated huge national resource to the challenge in what is still probably the best example of so called mission-oriented finance.

He embraced the challenge and set government agencies to work, saying: “[The] challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”

Less obvious is Steve Jobs’ success at Apple.

While the iPhone may have been Jobs' brainchild, the development of many of its component technologies (GPS, Touchscreens, Siri voice recognition) owe their development to funding sources as varied as the US military, DARPA, and the CIA.

The lesson for me here is that an innovation climate can only be fostered if various cog-wheels can be brought together, with vision and strategy.

With the right sorts of collaboration, aligning the work of research bodies, and directing funds at the areas set to bring the most benefit, ‘organic’ innovation ideas can be mobilised to reach the end goal.

At a time when our energy system is undergoing transformative change, this is a lesson industry and government must heed.

The Department of Energy and Climate change committed to double its energy innovation spend in the UK Government’s November 2015 Spending Review – a move Scottish Renewables welcomes. But a coordinated and well-directed approach is required if we are to get ithe most out of every pound spent

In our briefing paper on innovation, we outline the areas to which we feel funds should be committed to gain maximum benefit to our energy system.

There needs to be a strategy, and that’s what we’ve called on the UK Government to develop.

With the number of innovations already occurring in our energy system I’ve no doubt we’ve got plenty of Steve Jobses – but we do need our Kennedy.

Pic: US Library of Congress

Nick Sharpe

Director of Communications