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  • Andrew Gale

Innovation - The revolution will not be televised

Gill-Scott Heron sang “the revolution will not be televised”. He was saying that the things that change us cannot be captured on film. This can be applied to how we understand and experience the revolutionary innovations and changes we are experiencing as we live through the “information age”, characterised by digitisation, access to knowledge, disinformation, consumerisation, etc;. Some suggest that we live in the Anthropocene epoch, a term coined in the 1980s by Crutzen and Stoermer, arguing that humans are now the most influential species globally. Ultimately, the real change, the real revolution, will be within us.

Innovation is a word that we hear every day in relation to climate change. In November’s New Civil Engineer magazine a whole section is devoted to “Innovative Thinking”. The first article is about printing concrete on the HS2 project, involving the precision inclusion of microscopic strands of graphene reinforcement. Graphene, discovered in 2004, is an allotrope of carbon; a single layer of atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice nanostructure. This innovative concrete technology being used on HS2 is reducing the carbon footprint of that part of the project by 50%, through the innovative application of new materials, software, automated mechanical means and radical new construction processes. In the case of the HS2 example, there are no concrete moulds, or formwork, required. Traditionally, the formwork for concrete constitutes a very large proportion of its overall cost. There’s a cost reduction too and less labour is required. Jobs required today and in the future need to be at a higher level of skill than in the past.

Innovations to facilitate net zero carbon are usually concerned with technological tactics and in the future, strategies. I looked up synonyms of innovation. They include: change, alteration, revolution, reorganisation, upheaval and transformation; to mention just a few. This all tends to sound disruptive and unsettling, which is why we hear more nowadays about disruptive technologies. Arguably, there are five disruptive technologies: artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing, virtual reality and internet of things. All of these can be found in the HS2 project. These technologies are revolutionising our lives and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global acceleration in innovation and change.

At COP26 there was an Innovation Zone – a partnership between Scottish Enterprise and Climate Action. The organisers of this initiative state that “the Zone places innovation and investment at the heart of COP26, to accelerate the pathway to net zero and achieve a just transition”. The concept of a “just transition” is an approach to economic, environmental and social policy, aiming to create an equitable sustainable future for workers and communities, promoted by the International Trade Union Confederation since 2015. We can infer from this that stakeholders in the net zero revolution will defend their legitimate interests. Although the matter of competing interests is often discussed in relation to nations, with different levels of economic development, the same is also the case at a much more granular level; so those synonyms for innovation may portend difficult times ahead, requiring innovative solutions to perceived, predicted and emerging injustices. Renee Cho, wrote “Why climate change is an environmental justice issue” (State of the Planet, September 22, 2020). Economically and socially disadvantaged groups are disproportionately affected by climate change. Innovations to change this will need to be truly revolutionary.

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