PSI welcomes professor of innovation and sustainability

Fred Steward joined PSI in October as Professor of Innovation and Sustainability. As he settled in, he talked about his work and why he chose to join PSI.

What's the relationship between innovation and sustainability?

The planet is facing a crisis in terms of carbon emissions and global warming. One solution would be that we all cut down our consumption and reduced economic activity, but that's not very realistic politically because no one wants to do it. So the alternative is that we change the way we do things at the moment. Innovation is central to achieving that.

In other words, we combine a realistic view of people's desire to live a more prosperous life with radically changing the way in which they do that to reduce the impact on the environment.

How might that work?

The traditional examples of innovation that you hear about are new types of power station, renewable energy, new kinds of car using fuel cells, and so on. Those innovations are very product focused. We've made good progress in making products more efficient. For example, our fridges and our homes are more energy efficient than they were 10 years ago.

However, it doesn't look like we can meet the scale of the challenge just through individual products. What we need more and more are what are called system innovations. These are about the way we live our lives in cities and how we move around. That involves new products, like those new cars, but it also means new kinds of managing systems. That means new ways of people getting to work, people working at home, and rethinking how the placing of homes relates to workplaces. Systemic innovation is key to all of that.

How does your work fit into that?

The way I've stated the problem doesn't really fit with the way our policymaking bodies and businesses actually work; they just see themselves as individual parts in an overall picture. The first task is to get that kind of systemic thinking about sustainability into the policy world. So, for example, I did a study for Defra in 2008 trying to outline that way of thinking. At PSI, I'll be doing more of that kind of report for government, looking at how we could think differently about innovation.

Why did you come to Policy Studies Institute?

I've been an academic for a long time - over 25 years, mainly in business schools. But having become interested in and developed these new ideas, I've become impatient about how long it is taking for them to influence how we do things. I'm less and less interested in conjuring up lots and lots of new ideas, and more interested in trying to get some of these new ideas into practice. PSI is Britain's oldest policy-orientated research institute and has a good track record of translating research into ideas that influence the policy world - which is exactly what I want to do.