EIT Climate-KIC project turning London into cleantech innovation hotspot

As thousands of policymakers, business leaders, climate activists and everyday Londoners gather online this week for the second annual London Climate Action Week, they do so with the shared conviction that – despite the COVID-19 pandemic – a brighter future is possible.

Bright as the future could be, it is no easy task defining how to get there. Hence, the plethora of webinar subjects, from the mass roll-out of cycle infrastructure and the retrofitting of building stock, through to the creation of climate friendly financial instruments and public policies.

That so many ideas and solutions should be bubbling away in a dynamic city like London is no surprise, but harnessing so much innovation presents a very real challenge. How can London overcome this challenge? 

London calling: creating an ‘innovation hotspot’

In response to that question comes a new initiative called CleanTech London. Due to be formally launched later in the year, the initiative’s stated goal is to turn the UK’s capital into a “world-leading cleantech innovation hotspot” by providing a shared springboard for the best and brightest in the city’s £39.7 billion low-carbon sector.

“Many of the world’s most creative and talented people are working in London right now. What we’re proposing is to create a cluster among those with an existing track record in order to rapidly increase the growth of London’s low-carbon ecosystems,” says Richard Templer, a professor of chemistry at Imperial College London and one of the lead architects of the initiative.

From aeronautics to biotech, the practice of clustering has been repeatedly shown to help emerging sectors scale at pace. The basic idea is simple: by bringing creative entrepreneurs together, a natural exchange of knowledge and people takes place, which, in turn, releases fresh ideas and new ventures.

With around 13,700 clean-tech firms already headquartered in the city, CleanTech London is not starting from zero. Low-carbon clusters are also beginning to emerge across the capital, in neighbourhoods such as Haringey, Bermondsey and Brixton. This initial success of London’s climate industry has much to do with the enabling environment already in place.

Top of the list here is clear local government direction, provided most notably by the Mayor’s 442-page London Environment Strategy, published in May 2018. Local enterprises have also benefitted from access to the growing number of climate financiers in the City of London as well as close proximity to world-class universities and research centres.

“There’s already heaps going on yet with none of the potential benefits that arise when people have a more formalised opportunity to meet and interact. The goal of CleanTech London is precisely to fill this gap,” says Professor Templer, whose own institution is among the eight founding partners.

The other partners comprise the Greater London Assembly, EIT Climate-KIC, London & Partners, London Legacy Development Corporation, London Waste and Recycling Board, Sustainable Ventures, Transport for London, and University College London.

The introduction of a more formal support structure will help accelerate the initial ‘organic’ growth of the capital’s low-carbon sector, the organisers hope, catalysing commercial opportunities, generating new jobs and, more generally, supporting London’s stated vision for creating a low-carbon future.

Systems thinking: a change accelerator 

Behind CleanTech London is an explicit acknowledgement of the vital role that technology has to play in achieving a 1.5 C pathway by 2050, as laid out in the landmark Paris Agreement and confirmed by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Again, such a view is not new. Three of the founding partners – EIT Climate-KIC, Imperial College and Sustainable Ventures – have been collaborating for a number of years on a Europe-wide Accelerator project. To date, the project has supported over 100 low-carbon start-ups, with two-thirds going on to raise over $250 million of investment. A number of the project’s graduates are London-based, with cleantech firms Notpla and Powervault among the high-impact examples.

At the same time, the initiative also recognises that technology’s potential to contribute to a 1.5 C future goes beyond the confines of super-smart engineering and top-notch science. An enabling ecosystem matters too. Successful technology-driven change invariably unfolds within a framework of favourable policy directives, investment flows, skills availability, and market demand, among other key factors.

To fully realise technology’s potential, therefore, an approach to innovation that takes into account all these change levers is needed. So explains Aled Thomas, Innovation lead for the UK and Ireland at EIT Climate-KIC

“Many of the technologies required for a low-carbon transition are already developed or will be shortly. The problem is that systemic barriers are preventing them from reaching significant commercial scale,” he adds.

He speaks from experience. The problem of ‘systemic barriers’ to decarbonisation is one that EIT Climate-KIC has seen play out repeatedly in its work across Europe over the last decade and more. Examples span from prohibitive structures of financing, regulation and procurement through to restrictive models of citizen participation and technology ‘lock-in’.

Such barriers present dilemmas for individual cities and regions just as much as specific industry sectors such as cleantech, says Aled Thomas, who worked closely with the Greater London Authority on the initial planning and development of the cluster concept.

Structured transition: multi-pronged and multisectoral

EIT Climate-KIC’s conviction is that for climate innovation to really take hold, it needs to occur not solely at the technological level but at an entire systems level. It recently developed a methodology to achieve precisely this kind of systems-level innovation.

The approach, which accounts for the complex interplay between different change levers, actors, and interventions, is currently being road-tested via a variety of experimental ‘deep demonstration’ pilots across Europe.     

Emerging out of a network of existing initiatives across the UK capital, CleanTech London draws on many of the same systems-based tools and strategies for achieving its mission. It’s an approach that, in part, rests on advocacy. The organisers hope that bringing the cleantech community together in an inclusive network will help provide a ‘unified voice’ for London both nationally and globally.

Another core element is encouraging market access and business growth. One of the initiative’s core workstreams centres on raising the international profile of the capital’s burgeoning climate industry, for example, while another concentrates on stimulating capital investment and funding.

Feeding into this systemic approach is the inclusion of many of the key players in London’s tech ecosystem in the initiative’s governing structure. Critical here is the hands-on support and involvement of the Greater London Authority, which serves as the city’s main political body.

On the supply side, meanwhile, the tech incubator Sustainable Ventures is ensuring that the voice of London’s entrepreneurs will be heard. Equally, the public transport provider Transport for London and trade and investment promoter London & Partners represent the demand side of the equation.  

As CleanTech London expands, this same multisectoral, systems-wide focus will be maintained, says Rikesh Shah, TfL’s Head of Market Innovation: “The intention is to create an eco-system of already established companies, start-ups and other influential players in this field to create and utilise new solutions by bringing together different expertise.”

A year ago this week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a climate emergency and reaffirmed London’s commitment to a 1.5 C future. After COVID-19, the world looks very different than it did then, but the pending threat of irreversible climate change remains.

CleanTech London marks a timely illustration of how a systems approach can help scale action – not just in London, but in cities all around the world.

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