We hosted great range of speakers to talk about Innovation and sustainability. With backgrounds spanning large corporations, government, start-ups and social entrepreneurship, it was good to hear a range of views on the role that innovation can play in making things sustainable. Despite these different perspectives, a number of themes emerged during the discussion that followed.
Making conscious choices
Arthur Potts-Dawson, of Acorn House restaurant and the People's Supermarket was emphatic about his mission to manage consumption on behalf of his customers - take the responsibility away from them so they don't have to worry about it. He also called for a greater awareness of how much energy it takes to bring food to your plate and not to waste it when it gets there. If you can't eat it - save it, or think of a new way of using it. Don't scrape it into the bin.
David MacKay, working as Chief Scientific Advisor at DECC is working top-down to provide real data on different options for sustainability, so people can see the different options, and make fact-based decisions. He suggested that we're not very conscious of our energy use: "Buying energy is like going to the supermarket and loading up with shopping, but paying at the end of the month by direct debit."
Waste and end-of-life
Paul Vickery, entrepreneur and Chairman of Oxford Photovoltaics, a spin-out solar company, talked about the dilemma between being sustainable and pursuing profits to grow the business. You can make your product more sustainable, in their case by making solar cells that work without some of the heavy metal additives included in other solar technologies, but will the market recognise it? When it comes to making things easier to dispose of, do buyers really care, or will they go elsewhere? Arthur Potts Dawson's restaurants make big efforts on waste, composting and recycling, as well as minimising the waste generated. Arthur credits his son with this change in his thinking: "you feed them good food, but what happens to all the waste? There a huge life cycle that happens after the point where you consider it to be rubbish".
From complex systems to individuals
Peter Madden, from Forum for the Future, who works with lots of large companies on how they can build sustainability into their plans, talked about the big, complex systems that will need to change. Small efforts might not always be enough, and large incumbents often have little incentive to change anything. They are using 'gatecrashing' and other methods to try and create disruption, and understand the tipping points to changing systems.
Other panellists recognised that this boils down to individuals. Arthur talked about trying to make an impact on the 90% who don't really care about the green agenda, through supermarkets where most of our food consumption comes from. Paul thought that new media presented an opportunity to create a collaborative platform for communities to do things like pool their energy buying, or organise car sharing.
The importance of optimism
Talking about the psychology of change and sustainability, Peter Madden argued that the 'green narrative' is too negative, too apocalyptic. Painting a positive vision of the future is important to get consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs excited about the opportunities. And Arthur's focus was on the next generation - changing the way people think needs to start with education and schools, because that's the generation that will be able to change the culture.
The event was chaired by Philip Colligan, Executive Director of Nesta's Innovation Lab.