• COVID-19 will make it tougher to keep the necessary pace of cleantech development.
  • A faltering global economy and new ways of working will pose challenges.
  • Here are three ways to meet them.

Accelerating cleantech development will seem like a Herculean task after the worst of the COVID-19 crisis has been overcome. The global economy will be in dire straits and new methods of collaboration – developed and tested during the pandemic – will begin to take shape.

While we will increasingly see direct human interaction and onsite meetings replaced by remote work and video conferences, the demand for interdisciplinary and more intense research and development (R&D) cooperation on sustainable energy technologies will actually increase at the same time.

What appears contradictory at first has to do with the very nature of the energy transition. This increasing demand for interdisciplinary interaction results from the complex technological systems which must be transformed substantially if we are to fundamentally decarbonize human activity in line with the targets of the Paris Agreement. Successfully developing high-impact cleantech requires continuous input from experts in engineering, economics, various fields of the humanities and other disciplines. In order to bring enough sustainable energy technology to the market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically, all relevant stakeholders in the cleantech sector will have to draw upon new approaches of decentralized, project-based and all-digital work planning. Joining forces with regard to R&D will also be necessary in order to facilitate and foster market introduction and penetration of clean technologies at the national and international levels.

What we have learned

There have been two main obstacles in the way of ambitious cleantech development over the past couple of years. First, the right kind of partners have to be brought together before the innovation stages. This anticipatory approach is critical if innovators are to survive the two proverbial valleys of death (see figure 1).

Second, in order to scale the technology for the mass market, the right kind of marketing/communications and scaling strategy have to be initiated early enough. Otherwise even brilliant ideas and business models run the risk that they cannot be circulated quickly enough to secure access to corporate partners, appropriate funding, legal and business advice and other kinds of support - and, not least, the social acceptance of new technologies must be taken into consideration at an early stage of development (including smart interactions with the various stakeholders from society). These rules will continue to apply in the post-COVID-19 era. Following the disruptions to conventional work planning and communication methods imposed by the crisis, stakeholders will have to adapt quickly to a changing environment if the pace of cleantech development is not to lose speed – when actually it needs to be accelerated massively if we are taking our Paris Agreement obligations seriously.

The two 'valleys of death'
The two 'valleys of death'
Image: Future Cleantech Architects

Three steps to boost cleantech R&D after the crisis

Here are three steps for keeping the pace of high-impact cleantech development at pre-COVID-19 levels – and for gradually accelerating as the economy recovers and leaves more room for transforming our energy systems.

1. Encourage an interdisciplinary, project-based work environment with intuitive, all-digital support tools.

From the laboratory stage to prototype phase and from niche application to mass market, innovators have to rely on cooperation with experts from various disciplines and academic backgrounds. This cooperation needs to be sped up - and some of the improvised methods of organizing work during the COVID-19 crisis might facilitate this process. Excellent digital project management tools have been available for a while, but innovators oftentimes do not have access to these tools. This has to with the fact that either their laboratory environment does not support such progressive work methods or because these tools come with a price tag which deters start-ups from making the investment. No matter which camp the start-up belongs to, any of these innovator types should be enabled to draw upon such tools and benefit from the advantages they can offer. Advisory on the opportunities which are created by digital process planning is another key component in the set-up of progressive start-up ecosystems.

2. Communicate – even technologies and complex processes – to a broader audience, using a standardized set of KPI for comparability and transparency.

We have often come across outstanding ideas and were then surprised when the innovators themselves believed these ideas to be unexplainable to a broader public. But in particular communicating these more complex ideas and inventions is critical, since so many highly specific expert segments in human energy use need to be transferred into sustainable processes over the next two decades. Many of the external partners – which innovators depend on as they carry their developments through the innovation stages – are not part of the niche expert circles where inventors usually present and discuss their ideas. Many of the potential partners hardly have a chance of finding their investees if the innovation is not communicated clearly. This is obviously a challenge to the field of science communications: Given the broader and multifaceted picture of the energy transition, a set of rations and key performance indicators (KPI) could help to put a non-expert – yet educated – audience in the picture even on niche segments of the energy transformation.

3. Intensify work on breakthrough ideas.

Global economic development will most likely suffer considerably and this will slow the pace of investments in sustainable energy technologies. Therefore, it is even more important to zoom in on those technologies that promise a disproportionate potential in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The work of Future Cleantech Architects centers around this very aspect and while a lot of encouraging R&D activities are on their way with a three to four-year time horizon, it is essential to increase activities on those aspects which will have to be market-ready in eight or ten years to harvest all the benefits of sector coupling and integrated energy.

Key areas of focus in cleantech R&D
Key areas of focus in cleantech R&D
Image: Future Cleantech Architects

This entire transition needs to be a sustainable, long-term process in itself: As the Wuppertal Institute has pointed out in a recent paper, it is critical to continue focusing on long-term transformational efforts amidst other COVID-19-related activities on rebuilding national health systems and short-term economic recovery. While the focus of public investment necessarily needs to be on recovering from the crisis itself, mid- and longer-term public investments are critical for reaching the transformational objectives of the energy transition.

Priorities for managing the energy transition post-COVID-19
Priorities for managing the energy transition post-COVID-19
Image: Wuppertal Institute

This challenge will be demanding, long-term and very hard – but it can be met. Let us tackle it as a multi-disciplinary, highly technological and collaborative project.