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Innovation Trend Notes: Society


Luca Corradi

Luca Corradi

Innovation Network Director

In the first of a series of Innovation Trend Notes from OGTC’s Luca Corradi, he sets the scene by examining some of the societal trends we have all experienced over the last twelve months, before talking all things tech in his upcoming blogs. Big societal movements influence technology developments and investment decisions, Luca argues that we will see the ripples of the Covid-19 effect on society, affecting how we work, how we generate energy and how we consume for years to come.

In a relatively short period of time, Covid-19 has shaken our economic structures and ushered in or accelerated a commercial office rent crisis, an existential ‘crisis of the city’, home education, remote working, social distancing, wariness of physical contact, the dominance of online shopping and so on.

For some working from home has been a big challenge, while others enjoyed greater flexibility and spending the saved commuting time with the family. What’s interesting is that the transition to working from home would have taken businesses months if not years to implement, and yet because of the emergency it was achieved in roughly two weeks. It’s still too early to call the end of the office as we knew it, but some companies have already made bold decisions.

For example, Dropbox and Twitter have told their staff to work from home permanently, and Facebook and Google have given their employees a choice to only come in if they wish.

However turbulent 2020 was, and no matter what changes will ‘stick’ in the long term, the year still ended with some optimism. Multiple Covid-19 vaccines had been developed, Brexit concluded with a deal, and the US were on the path to re-join the Paris Agreement. 

Yes, despite the pandemic, climate emergency remains prominent in the minds of the public and governments. The new era of the Biden administration, along with China’s 2060 Net Zero pledge, represent a global shift and unilateral focus on the climate crisis. The flurry of government policy activity towards the end of 2020 demonstrates the UK’s intentions in the lead up to COP26 in Glasgow in November.

Perhaps the pandemic has accelerated our thinking and belief that we can change direction and build back a better world. Once a marginal idea, we are now seeing a significant social shift towards a ‘stakeholder economy’. Look how rapidly the concept of putting people and planet first has gained ground in business decision making.

The investment company BlackRock now prioritises sustainability criteria in their investment plans, and Larry Fink, BlackRock Chairman and CEO, recently spoke in an open letter about how “purposeful companies, with better environmental, social, and governance (ESG) profiles, have outperformed their peers.” Institutional investors and pension funds are moving away from fossil fuels, and customers want to deal with sustainable companies. 

The concept of economic growth, and ever rising GDP, has been synonymous with a thriving economy for generations, while population growth has been a constant in human history. Population is expected to peak around 2065, before which we will have to find a new paradigm for the economy, and that new paradigm will have to include sustainability measures. 

Part of that new paradigm will be the circular economy – the design of reuse and recycle as opposed to consume and dispose. This is especially prevalent in the energy transition, and the decommissioning of oil and gas assets and infrastructure for other sectors, such as offshore wind. 

A case in point is that wind turbine blades are currently disposed of in landfill, detracting from their green status, and OGTC is involved in two cross-sector projects investigating the recycling of existing assets and those currently in production to effect change in this area. 

Mellyzime Biotechnology, one of OGTC’s TechX start-ups, has developed a patent-pending enzyme for the low-energy bio-recycling of plastics into valuable chemicals, that can be reused to create new plastic materials. Plastic is a useful and flexible material, but until now there has been insufficient recycling of plastic and this must change.

Technologies such as these and big, bold, radical technology shifts can have a major impact on our ability to meet our net zero targets.  With such a sense of urgency, OGTC is working with industry, government and academia to bring impactful and affordable net zero technologies to the market.

Bill Gates reminds us that even with all the major societal changes brought on by the pandemic, globally our total CO2 footprint reduced by just 8% in 2020.  8% is significant, but unless this reduction accelerates year on year, we will not reach net zero by 2050, and the human and economic cost of global warming is likely to be far higher than the current pandemic. 

Clearly, we need societal behavioural change and a suite of technologies to tackle the climate emergency, technologies that can act as ‘vaccine’ against the devastating effects of global warming.  We need to have a sense of mission and purpose in our drive to become a net zero society, we also need to be investing in developing technology that make a net zero North Sea affordable.

Next up in the series Luca will share his thoughts on Transition Tech Trends and Digital Tech Trends and will dive deeper into some that are emerging todrive our technology transition in the UK.