Innovation and Cleantech from Finnish perspectives

Tommy Jacobson

Cleantech – What’s what

Cleantech or maybe Clean Solutions would be more appropriate term for the set of products and services, which value proposition is based on decreasing environmental impact and of which customers are willing to pay for. Clean Solutions is not a branch of industry, a technology or a discipline in traditional sense. Clean Solutions are often provided by “traditional industries” or more often an ecosystem of diverse companies deploying and combining various technologies, competences, disciplines etc. to reduce environmental impact of human activity. Most commonly referred Clean Solutions promote efficient energy or material use in some form. Scales can vary from huge technological process upgrades of heavy industries to immaterial b to c business models e.g. Uber or Airbnb are disrupting old businesses with impressive speed. Systemic Clean Solutions are of highest impact leading to people’s change of behavior in full societal scale.

Drivers

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The demand for Clean Solutions has not decreased but is bigger than ever and growing. This emphasizes the awareness of the scarcity of the very fundamental natural resources, namely, air, water and soil, which cannot any more absorb the waste streams caused by the use of non-renewable resources. Nature as a dump runs out of space.

Characteristics

Clean Solutions are systemic in nature. A holistic and sustainable solution necessitates that opportunities and possible side effects provided by relevant industries, technologies, competences and stakeholders are taken into account and integrated into a true ecosystem. Besides, new information and knowledge is needed to understand complex cause-consequence relationships, customer behavior, societal and environmental impacts, health effects etc. to ensure sustainable and true “cleaning impact”. To provide those missing pieces of knowledge, multi-disciplinary research is an effective tool.

Need for comprehensiveness, cooperation, cross-industrial and organizational and multi-disciplinary will bring us to novel innovation concepts beneficial or even imperative for sustainable Clean Solutions. These include public-private partnership, open innovation as well as simultaneous and targeted “research to market” value chain.

Finnish experiences and background

Finland is one of the small nations that lack of fossil energy sources but benefit plentifulness of other natural resources like forest, water and soil. This has been phenomenal for the culture, society, industry, competences and technologies emerging in Finland. Small and sparse population living in harsh conditions with only renewable resources has forced Finns to rely on each other. It is in Finns heritage to value cooperation of diverse actors with the shared vision of common interest and base the prosperity on renewable natural resources.

That explains why Finland is one of the leaders in energy efficiency and process integration for example high energy efficient combined heat and power (CHP) power plants or integrated pulp and paper mills with significant energy surplus. It is also highlighted by the Finnish innovation system, which has long history and is based on wide and deep cooperation between industry and academia.

It is not a coincidence that Finnish strengths are related to bioeconomy, circular economy, water and energy systems originating from leading forest industries, water intensive processes and need for efficient highly integrated energy systems. What is somewhat surprising is the recent development of world-class ICT competences. This is an excellent asset as ICT is the most important single enabler of Clean Solutions e.g. smart grids or big and open data based comprehensive environmental monitoring systems and environmental efficiency assessment services.

Recent trends and path forward

Finland has strong faith on education, research and innovation. The deployment of new professionals, knowledge and innovations has been based on excellent cooperation between universities and industry. Finnish public sponsors of R&D&I, especially the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation (Tekes) have been forerunners in promoting relevant, applicable and world-class research and development, which is preferably executed in joint R&D&I-projects and programs. In many international evaluations Finnish innovation system has been considered to be among the most efficient in the world.

However, due to recent turmoil of Finnish economy, a need to get radically more out of the Finnish innovation system with less public funding has emerged. At the same time globalization and digitalization have dramatically made the globe smaller enabling companies to distribute their functions on most competitive geographic locations, and likewise best professionals to change their home country accordingly. The fundamental laws on which nations used to base their welfare and competitiveness do not seem to apply in the same extent as before.

Due to its size, advanced infrastructure, stable society and relatively high level and evenly distributed education, Finland could be a frog plant and testbed for future Clean Solutions. Finland can be already now the forerunner in establishing the markets for future Clean Solutions by related governmental investments, regulation and incentives. Clean Solutions created and demonstrated in Finland would be based on public-private partnerships and trustful cooperation between various companies. Besides, Finland has already several critical success factors like some of the world leading Cleantech companies, high class research organizations, professionals and most importantly long track record and culture of cooperation. All of which are imperative for the development of sustainable and competitive Clean Solutions.

That would necessitate rethinking of the mission of Finnish innovation system to create forerunner markets and demand for globally scalable solutions that could be created and demonstrated locally in full – but agile and affordable – societal scale. That is to cultivate a fertile environment to attract the best companies and researchers to settle in Finland and to boost the existing ones.

It is imperative for the market driven economy to let industry and academia freely select the technologies, competences and business models appropriate to fill the demand created by customers and society. After local demonstration solutions are ready to be scaled up to global markets and turned on exports creating mutual welfare to all strands of “triple helix”, i.e. industry, academia and society.

Further speed and agility can be reached by re-organizing the traditional “research to market” value chain to a parallel process. In parallel process its stages like research, development, demonstration and commercialization would take place simultaneously with intensive interaction. The traditional step-wise process in which these stages are followed by each other is far too slow to be competitive. Besides, the feedback loop what works and is needed in the markets is inevitably too long jeopardizing relevance and functionality. Furthermore that would require re-designing the traditional public funding instruments defined by Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) or alternatively much deeper cooperation of them.

To keep these diverse projects, instruments and actions focused and integrated, a clear and shared vision of the market demand and targeted solution is imperative. The shared vision will glue relevant professionals, organizations and companies in to a well-guided and target oriented ecosystem. In addition to ecosystems, there is also a need for fertile ground for them to flourish. Transparent, well-defined and trustworthy practices are needed for IPR management, confidential information and trust to facilitate open innovation, fluent transfer of best practices and merging diverse interests.

These thoughts may sound new in this context but in USA already 1960’s - in the early phases of space era - it was put like this: “…that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills… while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs.” What would be “that” goal for Clean Solutions and who, where and when would describe it so clearly as JFK at Rice Stadium on the 12th of September 1962? There is still an opportunity for Finland to discover the “moon flight” of Clean Solutions.

Dr. Tommy Jacobson is CEO of Clic Innovation Ltd and he is one of the speakers at Aalto EE's Cleantech Executive program. 

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