There are many deep, often depressing, ironies that are playing out as the full implications of Brexit continue to unfold. The additional bureaucracy needed to extricate ourselves from all the evil red tape; the strengthened position of those who would like to break up the UK; and the fact that we may find ourselves in a far worse trading position, in return for any greater control that results. The ship may be about to hit an iceberg, but hey, at least we are in charge of the rudder.
So in these uncertain times, we desperately need some confidence in the ability of our economy and society to thrive. There is an obvious opportunity for green business to provide this confidence, and a particular opportunity for design, engineering, manufacturing, and construction companies to export products and know-how that can be at the heart of the brave new trading relations which Brexiteers are waxing lyrical about.
Given many headlines at the moment can bring on a case of the cold sweats, it’s heartening to look at the innovation that is taking place in the green economy. At UK-GBC, our own Innovation Lab is in the thick of generating new business models in the built environment sector: ones that address social and environmental challenges, while creating economic value. Through this process we have uncovered incredible stories of new technologies and new ways of doing business that suggest the future is bright.
Small-scale energy production and storage is an obvious example. Tesla might get the headlines, but UK companies like Powervault – producing battery storage for the UK residential market – show huge potential. Some alternative methods of construction have been around for a while, but we’re now seeing much greater scale in what is being delivered through off-site construction with British engineering, not to mention the rise of 3D printing and open-source design templates. WikiHouse is a UK-based example of the latter.
And it might seem like science-fiction, but we’re entering a world in which ‘machine learning’ will become the norm – where buildings self-learn in order to increase the efficiency of their energy systems. Deepmind, a UK artificial intelligence company acquired by Google, recently reduced the electricity required for cooling in a Google data centre by 40 per cent.
But back to those ironies. European research funding – some of which will have benefited companies involved in the examples above – has a strong financial net benefit to the UK. Including all structural funds, UK businesses and universities receive around €1bn a year for R&D. For the last six-year period in which the records are available, the UK contributed €5.4bn while receiving €8.8bn in return. The PM has repeatedly made assurances that research and innovation will be protected, but it would seem a tall order to deliver on this promise. As such, it is even more important than before that the policy environment supports and encourages innovation and private sector investment in R&D.
But here’s another irony. A good chunk of the design and engineering services that UK companies have successfully sold to the world have been spurred on by past government green legislation, which have forced developers, contractors, designers and the supply chain to fundamentally rethink products and services, in order to radically cut carbon. Many of those drivers, such as the zero carbon buildings policy, have been scrapped.
So government desperately needs to do some joined up thinking. The upcoming Clean Growth Plan, and the Industrial Strategy, represent opportunities. Can it take a rounded, long-term approach to the value of strong standards and ambitious policy to build a green economy, or will short-term, old-fashioned red-tape scaremongering be victorious again?
This article was originally published on Business Green, on March 17, 2017.