The surprising impact of innovation on reducing climate change

New research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred A. Yamoah and colleagues explores the relationship between innovation input, governance and carbon dioxide emissions.

Picture of a wind farm

There is no doubt that the humanitarian and economic impact of climate change is a matter for global concern. However, prior research tells us that it is emerging and developing economies that are likely to be hit hardest by the impact of global warming.

In their 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that emerging and developing economies, with their heavy reliance on agriculture, forestry and tourism, were more at risk from the adverse impact of climate change than more developed economies. Indeed, the IPCC found that every one-degree centigrade increase in temperature would lead to a 1.3% drop in economic growth in an emerging economy.

What role does innovation play in the fight against climate change?

Typically, the fate of countries in this position has been viewed somewhat fatalistically, with little known about what can be done to mitigate the damage caused by the poor climate choices of more developed countries. However, since innovative technologies are known to have a positive impact on climate change factors by conserving energy and reducing emissions, we wanted to know whether increased innovation input could support developing economies in the fight against climate change.

Our study involved an analysis of data from the World Bank database on 29 emerging countries over the period from 1990 to 2018. My colleagues Godfred Adjapong Afrifa, Gloria Appiah (both Kent Business School), Ishmael Tingbani (Bournemouth University) and I examined whether investment in cutting-edge technologies could help address climate change problems in emerging economies, and how this relationship is supported or mitigated by governance factors.

The impact of governance

Why is it important to consider governance alongside innovation and climate change? First of all, it is good for business: stakeholder theory tells us that organisations that please their stakeholders by following ethical norms of fairness, trustworthiness and respect are likely to see improved overall performance in the long term.

When it comes to climate change targets, governments and international governing bodies such as the EU or ECOWAS are among the most critical stakeholders, as they are more likely to take a long term view and possess the necessary regulatory powers to ensure best practices are upheld.

How innovation benefits emerging economies

The introduction of innovative technologies and practices can benefit emerging economies in a number of ways. For farmers, genetic technologies can develop resilient crops that adapt to environmental challenges in agriculture. New technologies also typically conserve energy and reduce harmful fuel emissions.

Looking at the data, our results suggest that emerging countries with high innovative competencies reduce climate change problems by approximately 26.8%, with a 10% increase in cutting-edge technology.

While these findings show the dramatic impact of innovation on mitigating the negative effects climate change, it is important to note that the positive results were moderated by governance factors, as the quality of governance influences countries’ investment in innovative technologies towards curbing environmental damage.

Contrary to the typically deterministic view of climate change, our results suggest that emerging economies’ innovation efforts could have a significant impact on national and global success in the fight against climate change.

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COVID-19 induced travel restrictions are not enough to mitigate crises like climate change. Could a circular economy be the answer?

Research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred Yamoah and colleagues points to a new way to rebuild the global economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image of a reuse logo

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, resulting in a massive health crisis and huge economic loss.

While the impact on life as we know it has been unthinkable, a side effect of the way of life forced upon us by the pandemic is an unprecedented reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, which are projected to decline by 8%. If achieved, this will be the most substantial reduction ever recorded, six times larger than the milestone reached during the 2009 financial crisis.

However, these changes should not be misconstrued as a climate triumph. They are not due to the right decisions from governments, but to a temporary status of lockdown that will not linger on forever; economies will need to rebuild, so we can expect a surge in emissions in the future. Indeed, the relatively modest reduction in emissions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that zero-emissions cannot be attained based on reduced travel alone; structural changes in the economy will be needed to meet this target.

The case for a circular economy

Before coronavirus prompted this dramatic shift in our way of life, it seemed that the world had been waking up to the need for change to protect our environment. The linear model of our industrial economy – taking resources, making products from them and disposing of the product at the end of its life – jeopardizes the limits of our planet’s resource supply. Girling (2011) found that around 90% of the raw materials used in manufacturing become waste before the final product leaves the production plant, while 80% of products manufactured are disposed of within the first six months of their life. Similarly, Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata (2012) reported that around 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste is generated by cities across the globe, which may grow to 2.2. billion tonnes by 2025.

Against this backdrop, the search for an industrial economic model that satisfies the multiple roles of decoupling economic growth from resource consumption, waste management and wealth creation, has heightened interests in concepts about circular economy.

What is circular economy?

Circular economy emphasises environmentally conscious manufacturing and product recovery, the avoidance of unintended ecological degradation and a shift in focus to a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life cycle for products.

In our current situation, there has never been a better time to consider how the principles of circular economy could be translated into reality when the global economy begins to recover. Strategies to combat climate change could include:

  • material recirculation (more high-value recycling, less primary material production)
  • product material efficiency (improved production process, reuse of components and designing products with fewer materials)
  • circular business models (higher utilisation and longer lifetime of products through design for durability and disassembly, utilisation of long-lasting materials, improved maintenance and remanufacturing).

Building back better

A circular economy could also act as a vehicle for crafting more resilient economies. The pandemic has forced a rethink of the way our global economy operates, revealing the inability of the dominant economic model to respond to unplanned shocks and crises. The lockdown and border restrictions have reduced employment and heightened the risk of food insecurity for millions.

To prevent a repeat of the events of 2020, it is necessary to devise long-term risk-mitigation and sustainable fiscal thinking, moving away from the current focus on profits and disproportionate economic growth. Circular economy concerns optimised cycles: products are designed for longevity and optimised for a cycle of reuse that renders them easier to handle and transform. Future innovations under this model would focus on the general well-being of the populace, alongside boosting the market and competitiveness.

This economic model would also support the achievement of social inclusion objectives, for example by redistributing surplus food from the consumer goods supply chain to the local community.

The benefits of a circular economy are therefore obvious in that it strives for three wins in terms of social, environmental and economic impact. The pandemic has instigated a focus on the importance of local manufacturing for a resilient economy; fostered behavioural change in consumers; triggered the need for diversification and circularity of supply chains and evinced the power of public policy for tackling urgent socio-economic crises.

Governments are recognising the need for national-level circular economy policies in many aspects, such as:

  • reducing over-reliance on other manufacturing countries for essential goods
  • intensive research into bio-based materials for the development of biodegradable products
  • legal frameworks for local, regional and national authorities to promote green logistics and waste management regulations which incentivise local production and manufacturing
  • development of compact smart cities for effective mobility.

Post COVID-19 investments needed to accelerate towards more resilient, low carbon and circular economies should be integrated into the stimulus packages for economic recovery being promised by governments, since the shortcomings in the dominant linear economic model are now recognised and the gaps to be closed are known. The question is no longer should we build back better, but how.

This blog was adapted from T. Ibn-Mohammed, K.B. Mustapha, J. Godsell, Z. Adamu, K.A. Babatunde, D.D. Akintade, A. Acquaye, H. Fujii, M.M. Ndiaye, F.A. Yamoah, S.C.L. Koh, ‘A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies’ in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 164. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105169

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Introducing the Centre for Innovation Management Research

The Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) is one of Birkbeck’s inter-disciplinary research centres. Professor Helen Lawton-Smith, Director of CIMR, explains what it’s all about.

CIMR is an inclusive and impactful centre of research excellence in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship. Inclusivity comes from the engagement in all our activities of CIMR members, our academic colleagues in Birkbeck and in other universities, our diverse set of visiting fellows and alumni (professionals in a wide range of organisations) and our PhD students.

Impact comes from our research, publication and dissemination in societally important topics. Recent studies include analysis of strategies for knowledge exchange, of knowledge co-creation, of diversities of innovation (BAME and disabled groups), public policy on entrepreneurship and innovation in differing regional, national and international contexts and on. We’ve been awarded research grants by the ESRC, British Academy, European Commission and Innovate UK.

Our recent workshops have included: Accelerating SME Internationalization: Academic, Policy and Practitioner Perspective (March 2019); International perspectives on measuring and evaluating knowledge exchange (July 2019), Strategies for knowledge exchange in a changing higher education landscape, (September 2019).

We engage in national and international collaborations. In 2019, led by CIMR, the School of Business Economics and Informatics signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kogod School of Business, American University, Washington DC. CIMR colleagues work closely with scholars in the US and in mainland European countries including Sweden and Italy.

We publish in top international journals including Research Policy, Industry and Innovation, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, European Urban and Regional Studies, Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, Small Business Economics, and Regional Studies.

Our research insights feed directly into UK and international policy-making. We have informed practice in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Innovate UK, European Commission and the OECD.

Our research and international collaborations feed directly into teaching on technology transfer, innovation and entrepreneurship and blockchain. Masters students are welcomed to CIMR events and to join our alumni – we look forward to meeting you.

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How to find ideas that markets will love

Birkbeck alum and Innovation Strategy Consultant Melina Padayachy identifies the essential missing link for successful entrepreneurs.

Creativity, Idea, Inspiration, Innovation, Pencil

Finding ideas that markets would love can often seem like a feat that only few people are lucky enough to achieve. Study the stories of Amazon, Google and Starbucks for instance, and you would find that in each case, the innovators almost stumbled upon their ideas by chance.

Indeed, prior to the genesis of Google, Larry Page was a student at Stanford University where he was aspiring to download the internet on his computer and rank web pages based on their popularity. As a result, Google’s proprietary Page Ranking technology was born, making Google the leading search engine in the world.

For Amazon, Jeff Bezos came across an important piece of information about the exponential rise of the internet while researching opportunities for his boss and as a consequence, he created what is now the leading online retailer in the world.

Next, the idea to sell espresso in a coffee bar popped into Howard Shultz’s mind while he was attending a conference in Milan and he saw espresso bars at nearly every road corner. He wanted to import the concept to the United States and today, Starbucks is one of the leading coffee places in the world.

In all three cases, it would seem that the innovators were either in the right place at the right time or they were trying to solve the right problem. As a result, one may be tempted to conclude that innovation is essentially serendipitous and that any attempt to decode it would be futile.

Yet, if you examine how past innovations impacted their markets, you would find certain distinctive patterns that could be emulated. For instance, some innovations capitalised on existing trends while others were caused by growing and changing trends, and still others, created new trends.

Of even more significance, are the facts that based on their respective market impacts, different ideas would need different development, go-to-market and scaling strategies.

The implications are quite significant because often, new ideas are subsumed under the generic banner of innovation and no distinction is made among their respective market impacts. As a result, some fail to take off. Indeed, scroll through the post-mortems of failed ideas and you would see that often, ideas failed because their market impact was either wrongly framed or overlooked, and as a result, the wrong development and go-to-market strategies were applied.

The Link between the market impact of an idea and its development strategies

Amazon.com

Take a look at Amazon.com for instance. In 1994, Jeff Bezos spotted a growing trend in the use of the internet and he noticed it was starting to change the way that books were bought. Internet technology was new at the time and people had just started buying books online. Already cognizant of the facts that internet usage was growing at the rate of 2300% per year and that books were the most sold items on the internet, Bezos decided to launch an online bookstore. However, the uncertainties facing the company were quite high.

To start with, it wasn’t clear whether book buyers would continue adopting the internet and if so, whether they would change their book purchasing habits. In that respect, Amazon relied on market intelligence to gauge the rate at which internet usage was growing.

Also, by observing markets, Jeff Bezos could find that there were already two online booksellers and that the market was growing.

Then, Amazon’s beta test prior to its launch helped identify the barriers to adoption, namely customers’ concerns about storing their credit card information online. Amazon thus came up with a secure credit card system. Incidentally, the company “finished 1996, its first full year in business with net sales of $ 15.7 million- an attention getting 3000 per cent jump over 1995’s $ 511000.” Clearly, the trend had caught on.

Boo.com

Similarly, Boo.com was an online fashion company that was founded in 1998 by Ernst Malstom, Swedish poetry critic, and Kajsa Leander, former Vogue model. Aspiring to be the “premier online location where the cool and the chic would be able to buy their clothes,” Boo.com launched with 400 employees in eight offices.

However, in as much as only 20% of UK households had access to the internet, the company had few visitors to its sites and not enough sales to sustain itself. Furthermore, the website’s features could not be fully accessed with the dial up connection in UK households. As a result, the company had to close down two years later.

Question is: Could Boo.com have done anything differently?

To start with, Boo.com impacted its market in very much the same way that Amazon.com impacted theirs. Indeed, the company capitalised on a growing trend in the use of the internet, to change the way that an existing job was being done, i.e purchase of fashion.

The uncertainties that Boo.com faced were quite similar to those faced by Amazon.com.  Yet, unlike Amazon.com, the company did not understand its market impact and as a result, it did not try to overcome the uncertainties associated with the idea.

For instance, it should first have had market intelligence pertaining to the rate of growth in internet usage in its different markets. Market intelligence would have revealed that only 20% of UK households had access to the internet, and that information would have enabled the founders to adequately gauge the scale of their initial business and potential rate of adoption.

Then, with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), Boo.com would have identified the barriers to adoption. For instance, it would have discovered sooner that the features on its website were not supported by dial-up connection and it could have perhaps simplified its website or found ways to get around the problem. The MVP would have also allowed the company to test the fit between the service and markets and the fit between the business model and markets.

Instead, the company was focused on scaling and as a result it did not survive.

Thus, by understanding the market impacts of innovations and by understanding their implications for the development, commercialisation and scaling of new ideas, innovators can avoid diving into new ventures armed with only their gut feeling, and can successfully bring their ideas to markets.

Melina Padayachy is an affiliate alumnus of the Birkbeck Centre for Innovation Management Research. This blog is adapted from an excerpt of her new book, The Innovator’s Method: Bringing New Ideas to Markets.

Based on an analysis of past innovations and of start-ups that have failed, The Innovator’s Method identifies a unique link between how an idea would impact the “job to be done” of its market and its ensuing development, go-to-market and scaling strategies.

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