Small steps for Europe

14th January 2014

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Heather Parkes

Paul Suff discovers how a pioneering EU project is taking environmentalists out of their comfort zone

Climate KIC is Europe's largest public-private partnership on climate change. It links research, technology and business to find ways of mitigating or adapting to a changing climate and involves students, entrepreneurs, companies and public bodies.

The KIC - "knowledge and innovation community" - initiative is run by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which, in 2010, launched three programmes under the KIC banner (see below). The climate-focused element is based in six European regional areas - the UK's West Midlands, central Hungary, Emilia Romagna in Italy, Hessen in Germany, Lower Silesia in Poland, and Valencia, Spain - and there are five national centres, including sites in Berlin, London and Paris. The aim of the Climate KIC project is to provide the expert guidance needed to shape Europe's climate change agenda. Its vision focuses on:

  • helping innovators capitalise on new business opportunities driven by Europe's "first mover" response to climate change;
  • forging alliances among existing and new businesses with the aim of creating partnerships that jointly cover all elements of emerging value chains and help to build critical mass; and
  • supporting European governments and public agencies to develop effective policy frameworks and to pioneer early introduction of climate change products and services in collaboration with the private sector.

Achieving the vision is dependent on three strands of activity: innovation, entrepreneurship and education. In terms of innovation, Climate KIC seeks to identify and develop the market potential of emerging technologies, catalysing the creation of new products and services in Europe. Meanwhile, its work on entrepreneurship provides practical tools for small businesses working in climate innovation to turn their ideas into commercial success.

The education element involves nurturing and developing people to become agents for change through courses and a practical programme of learning by doing. Climate KIC operates its own doctoral programme to support researchers in innovation and offers work placements of between four and six months for MSc students. Summer schools also operate for post-graduate students to encourage entrepreneurial and innovative thinking around climate change.

In addition, Climate KIC runs professional development courses and training for low-carbon specialists. One of these, "pioneers in practice" (PiP), brings together sustainability professionals from the private sector, public bodies and voluntary organisations. Since 2010, about 200 people have participated in PiP and the 2014 intake will be recruited over the next three months.

New environments

PiP offers experienced professionals a grant of up to €8,000 to undertake two four-week placements: one in the West Midlands and the other in one of the five European partner regions. Throughout the programme, participants also take part in a series of workshops and mentoring, enabling them to both share their experiences and to better understand the theory that underpins PiP.

The course is based on the transition management model of environmental governance pioneered by Dutch government in the early 2000s to manage the transformation of its energy systems. Transitions thinking focuses on incremental change and addressing complex societal problems at various levels to steer society away from unsustainable systems.

Jon Bloomfield, who helped develop PiP and oversees the UK regional KIC in the West Midlands, describes the course as a "novel, structured, mobility" programme. "Pioneers come from a mix of age and work backgrounds, and we introduce them to transition thinking as a way of encouraging a shared vision and goals, with the aim of developing multiskilled practitioners steeped in the low-carbon agenda," he says

"The crucial thing about moving to a low-carbon economy is not to focus on a magic widget to get us there, but to discover how society can change in a systemic way ... so, how we will in the future construct buildings, use and conserve energy, and move around."

Bloomfield highlights a key feature of PiP, which is to take participants out their comfort zones and expose them to new thinking and experiences. "It's deliberate and we do this in two ways," he explains. "We put them in an environment they've never been before. Someone with practical, hands-on experience will be placed in an academic environment, for example, while a committed activist might go to work in a public authority or private company. This means they have to understand different ways of working and operating.

"Second, we move them to another country, though usually to a type of workplace they are familiar with. That's also about learning a new way of working, but also about dealing with another language and culture."

Kate Martin, PiP coordinator, who manages the scheme, comments: "Taking people out of their comfort zones gives them a fresh perspective to create innovative solutions."

She explains that participants attend a preparation event prior to their first placement and a number of other workshops throughout the programme on innovation studies and transitions management. In addition to sharing experiences and learning from each other, the follow-up workshops also revisit the theory. Participants attend the annual innovation festival, which in 2013 was in Wroclaw, Poland, and brings together Climate-KIC partners, students and entrepreneurs to showcase how the initiative is helping them to develop and commercialise innovative climate change products and services.

Martin says PiP is designed for people from different backgrounds and varying work commitments, and that recent pioneers have included employed and self-employed professionals as well as students on master's and PhD programmes.

Pioneers know what to expect from their placements as they agree a work plan with the host organisation before taking up their role, she explains. Although paperwork is deliberately kept to a minimum, Martin says that PiP participants have to submit an activity report after completing each placement, detailing what they did and what they learned during their four-week deployment .

Pioneers in practice

Pioneers say that the experiences from their placements have been mostly beneficial. Bloomfield reports feedback indicating that nearly two-thirds (63%) of participants in the first two years of the scheme say they gained specific insights from their placements.

"Taking yourself out of your normal context on both a professional and personal level means you to meet people you would not usually meet, but who have a common goal. You learn new things from them and you then bring that knowledge back. It enabled me to push forward my professional development in many different ways," says 2013 pioneer Özlem Ögtem-Young.

Ögtem-Young was a research assistant at the University of Birmingham before participating in PiP. Her domestic placement was with Sustainability West Midlands, a not-for-profit enterprise that works with member businesses, public bodies and voluntary organisations to develop practical solutions to sustainability issues. Ögtem-Young's international placement was at Ingenio, the innovation and knowledge management school at the University of Valencia.

The latter involved her examining the concept of "green jobs" and whether labelling roles in this way has positive or negative implications. The university is now seeking funding under Horizon 2020 - the EU's research and innovation programme, which is offering €79 billion of finance for projects up to the end of the decade - to take forward Ögtem-Young's work on green jobs.

Richard Bubb, an experienced environment consultant and energy auditor from Shropshire, describes his international placement at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, Hungary, as a challenge, though ultimately very worthwhile. "Being away from home for four weeks in a foreign country without knowing the language can be hard, but my experience was very positive ... I'd do it again."

While Bubb feels he personally gained from his placements, he also believes both host organisations benefited. His domestic placement with Carillion involved helping the construction and business services firm develop its processes for quantifying the carbon savings from its work on the Energy Company Obligation (ECO). "Carillion needed the data, so they needed someone to perform this role," says Bubb. He continues to work with the company as a consultant on its internal auditing of ECO processes.

In Hungary, Bubb used his expertise in environment management systems (EMS) and energy auditing to assist the institute. It is a role that continues long after the 2013 PiP ended. "The university wants to put in place an EMS, so I'm helping to develop the framework," he says. But, in a unique approach, Bubb is working to create an EMS for the organisation that also makes use of the creativity of the academics and students.

"They are architects and designers and they want a more creative system than the standard plan, do, check, act [PDCA] model. So, developing a system that is based on ISO 14001, but combines PDCA and the creativity of staff, is now my goal," he says.

Lydia Pickering, a PhD student examining hydrogen fuel at the University of Birmingham, is another recent pioneer. She describes her domestic and international placements as wonderful experiences. Pickering worked first at Solihull-based Energy and Utility Skills, the former sector skills council for the utilities industry, helping to develop a website for young people on green technologies and jobs.

"It took me out of my research and laboratory environment and put me into a business one," says Pickering. As with Bubb, she has continued to work with Energy and Utility Skills, having been employed by the organisation during summer 2013.

Her assignment in Italy was with the research division of a technology company, which is experimenting with a hydrogen-fuelled bicycle. "It was great being able to put my research into practice," says Pickering. She explains that by the end of her four-week stint with the firm, she and her Italian colleagues were riding a cycle round the car park that was powered by a hydrogen cylinder feeding a fuel cell.

"It was an invaluable experience and showed me that there is more to working life than academia, which is where I thought my career was heading," she says.

This year and beyond

Bloomfield explains that Climate-KIC in the West Midlands aims to recruit an additional 20 pioneers for the 2014 programme, bringing this year's total to 65. He also says that the continuing positive feedback from PiP participants demonstrates that there is a strong case for replicating the model in the other KIC regions and elsewhere.

"There is clear demand for this type of programme," says Bloomfield. "After all, it's not just our six regions that need multiskilled practitioners equipped in the thinking and practice of low-carbon transition."

* Anyone wishing to apply to join the 2014 "pioneers in practice"(PiP) programme should contact Kate Martin at Martin is also keen to hear from organisations wishing to host pioneers.

Knowledge and innovation communities

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is a key driver for sustainable economic growth and competitiveness across the bloc. It integrates, at the EU level, education and entrepreneurship with research and innovation. From 2014 to 2020, the EIT will receive €2.7 billion to continue promoting innovation across Europe. Through its knowledge and innovation communities (KICs), the EIT aims to develop and test a new model of how innovation is approached, managed, financed and delivered.

The EIT's three initial KICs were established in 2010 to address:

A new KIC on raw materials - examining sustainable exploration, extraction, processing and recycling - will launch later this year. In 2016, a KIC examining sustainable supply chains, from resources to consumers, will be established, meanwhile a mobility KIC will be introduced in 2018.

The KICs aim to achieve the critical mass necessary to achieve a systemic impact, such as the creation of new businesses and jobs, as well as the promotion of new skills and entrepreneurial talent in the economy. The Climate-KIC, for example, aims to significantly accelerate the innovation required for a transformation to a low-carbon economy, and to ensure Europe benefits from new technologies.

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