What are the three main myths on technology and innovation in the energy transition?


Welcome back! Now let’s talk about
technology. Technology can be an important ingredient in innovation but
for technology to be useful for innovation this technology should have
reached a certain level of maturity. This is why we talk about a scale called the
technology readiness level, TRL. In this scale, that goes from 1 to 9, at
technology readiness level number one the technology is not mature at all. It
is only the result of very basic research that was able to observe the
existence of a basic principle. You need a lot of time, and a lot of steps should
be taken to allow technology to mature. You need to formalize the concept and
the theories on a given technology. You also need to test it, first in the lab
and then in a condition close to its environment. And after years and
decades of hard work, some technologies will reach technology readiness level
number 9, which is a moment where the technology has been proven to be
functional in its operational environment. This is the moment when
the technology can actually be used as an ingredient of innovation in order to
deliver, for instance, on climate neutrality in Europe. And this is
important to understand, because when we talk about climate neutrality by 2050, if
we really want to get there with new technologies we need to massively invest
in research innovation today. In other words, from this perspective, 2050 starts
today. Because it will take a long time for the least mature technologies to
reach a level of maturity that will allow innovators to use those
technologies in innovation that will make an impact in Europe in the decades
to come. This is also important for us because it
allows us to start to debunk three very common myths that exist when we talk
about innovation policy. The first myth that needs to be debunked is the
idea that innovation only comes from private sector initiatives. To understand
why this is wrong, the easiest way is to use the example of the smart phone. The
smart phone is innovation that almost all of us now use every day. But what
makes a smart phone a phone that is different from a stupid phone is due
to 13 technologies, and you see them there. And you can see that each of those
13 technologies have been developed by the public sector. You see that some of
them are the result of US public sector research, for instance DARPA, the Department
of Energy, are US programs. And you see that others are the result of European
public research and innovation, for instance the technologies developed by
CERN. Here what the smart phone allows us to understand is that what really
allows innovation to be developed is the combination. The combination of ambitious
public research and innovation together with ambitious and forward-looking private research and innovation. Myth number two is on
technology. It is the idea that technology will save us all, and
this is wrong for two reasons. The first is that even when we have the technology
we don’t do what would need to be done to get to climate neutrality. Let’s take
one of the most important sectors for the European energy system, and this is
the sector of buildings. Buildings are the place where 40% of the European
energy is being consumed and in order to make all our buildings climate neutral
today we already have all the technologies
that we need. We have the technologies to insulate the houses, we have the
technologies to produce renewable heat through heat pumps, through biomass, solar
heating systems, etc. But those technologies currently are not being
deployed to the scale that would be required to reach climate neutrality by
2050. So even when we have the technologies on their own,
technologies do not solve the problem. The second reason why technology will
not save us all is that some of the technologies that were promising in the
past actually did not deliver, because technology, research, innovation, those are
very risky businesses. We fail a lot when we do research and innovation, and that is
totally normal. And actually if we want to succeed we need to fail more because
it is by failing that we get to understand what will work better.
Therefore technology will not save us all because a lot of the technologies
that we hope to create in the next decade won’t work.
Some of them will, and in this case this will not even be enough. Some of them
will simply not work in the future and there is currently no way to be sure
that this technology will work or that this technology will not work by 2050.
And this leads us to myth number three. To illustrate this myth I use a
quotation from a famous EU politician that said I believe in innovation not in
regulatory frameworks. And this is a myth that is used by some politician, not all,
but some politicians are using innovation as a distraction. They’re
using innovation in order not to act today, as if innovation will be the
silver bullet that will save us in the future. Well actually what the people that work on innovation tell you is that if you want innovation to progress, you need
many things, but you also need to have the right regulatory framework. You also
need to have the right infrastructure the right taxation and the right
behaviors, a level of acceptability by businesses, by consumers,
by citizens. Indeed innovation is not created in a vacuum. Innovation is
created to meet the demands of a specific system that is made of other
technologies, that is made of an existing infrastructure, that is made of current
and future customer routines, social norms, and that is also made of Taxation
and regulatory policies to illustrate that let’s use the example of the car.
Using a car for long distance travel today seems normal. But 50 to 70 years
ago, this was actually an innovation and this was an innovation that was allowed
by a specific regulatory framework and by public policy decisions. For instance,
today in Europe we have highways, and those highways were created by public
policy decisions with politicians taking the decision to use taxpayer money in
order to build the highways, and it is those public policy decisions that made
the car travel of a long distance faster. Therefore, when we think of innovation we
really need to also think about the kind of regulatory framework and the kind of
soft taxation schemes that help innovation to be created and to be
deployed. So as a conclusion, we know that we need a lot of innovation in order to
get to climate neutrality, and for that the European Union needs to do two
things. The first one is to build a strong and ambitious EU innovation
policy. And the second one is equally important, is to make sure that all the
other EU and national policy decisions on regulation, on taxation, on
infrastructure. That those decisions take into account innovation and that they
are bold enough and ambitious enough in order to foster innovation and help us
to deliver on the objective to make Europe a climate controlled economy by 2050.

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