Innovation & Invention

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." - Barack Obama

When we think about Planetary ‘solutions’, we usually consider taking action in the way we look at land with Rewilding, for the natural world through Wildlife Conservation, and in our own behaviour by reducing Waste. We are responsible for change – change in our attitude and approach to the planet. This change may arise through Collaboration to defeat climate change, or by working together on local projects. But there is another way in which change can happen, and this is in the application of science, business and brain power… through innovation and invention.  Developments are happening right now, both in local communities and internationally. In conjunction with the Planetary pathway towards jobs and careers, we hope this page will help students to identify inspiration for their future studies, and stimulate others to switch into purposeful careers for the benefit of the planet.

Where do the SDG's fit in?

The Planetary Scale:

Innovation and new inventions support the progress of every single SDG, making it exceptionally important as a solution.  Without new ideas being constantly generated the world would remain static.  The same applies to environmental protection, recovery and improvement.  Earth and its humans are progressing and developing at an alarming rate – and so are the repurcussions. Therefore, methods in counteracting collateral damage of such progress must also keep up if we are to address the 17 Global Goals by 2030.  Innovators and inventors of the future will therefore play a key role in the sustainability of our planet.

Your Future

Have you thought about what life will be like in 50 years, if we do not find new solutions to the planet’s problems?  We can all adopt simple tips, tackle projects and take actionsto limit our  environmental footprint. But will that be enough to keep up with the damage to our planet, without equally advancing innovation and inventions? Will tips and projects remove enough carbon from our air? Will reducing waste reduce the amount of plastic currently sitting in oceans? Can we reverse damage with everyday change alone?

What's the Solution?

BIOTECHNOLOGY

New industrial and environmental biotechnology advances are helping to make manufacturing processes cleaner and more efficient by reducing toxic chemical pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, renewable biofuels from algae and other cellulosic materials decrease greenhouse gases while reducing our dependence on oil.  Biotechnology has enabled the elimination of toxic pollutants before they make it into the atmosphere, streams or landfills. Industrial biotechnology utilises genetically engineered bacteria, yeasts and plants in the form of whole cell systems or enzymes. In most cases this results in lower production costs, less pollution and resource conservation.

ENGINEERING

Nitrogen Oxide and Carbon Dioxide are two similar gases that cause both air pollution and harmful greenhouse gases. Engineering solutions have focussed on air pollution by capturing, cleaning and using harmful gases for beneficial purposes. Engineers can develop many solutions to environmental problems. They are also involved in water pollution control, recycling, waste disposal, and public health issues and plan essential projects around their city or state—like municipal water systems, landfills, recycling centers, or sanitation facilities. Their goal is to lessen the impact of human developments, like new roads, bridges or housing developments, on environments and habitats, and aim to improve the quality of our air, land, and water.

DESIGN

Design is important, because without blueprints, ideas and technical planning of how inventions and innovation could potentially work, there is no potential! From billboards covered in paint that captures CO2, to vehicles that run on electricity or hydrogen, design plays a key role in executing the overarching idea. Many businesses and companies also use design fundamentals within their organisations to plan for environmental management. Design for the Environment is a design approach to reduce the overall human health and environmental impact of a product, process or service. Different software tools have been developed to assist designers in utilising their skills to find the least impactful products, processes and services.

Ask Yourself 5 Simple Questions:

What are my strengths?

Am I good at designing? Do I excel in science or technology?

What do I enjoy doing?

The best ideas will often come to you when you are engaged in a topic you like!

Which problems do I truly care about?

If I could solve just one global issue tomorrow, what would it be?

What modern day inventions do I use every day?

Are there any simple sustainable improvements that I can identify?

Which career have I always wanted to do?

Can I apply this dream to a meaningful role for the planet? What training might I need to get there?

Important Existing Innovation & Inventions

Green Vehicles

Powered by alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies, ‘eco-vehicles’ include hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, battery electric vehicles, compressed-air vehicles and hydrogen and fuel-cell vehicles.  The UK Government has announced that new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030 in a bid to reduce emissions, and so green vehicles are becoming increasingly important and more commonly spotted on the roads. There are issues with this design, however, in that hybrid vehicles relying on batteries require lithium parts, an element that is not currently in abundance.  At the current rate, demand for lithium could outpace production by 2023. To get around this predicted shortage, researchers are developing ways to recycle used lithium-ion batteries – a prime example of the importance of innovation in keeping up with progress.

Hydrogen

The use of hydrogen as a primary energy source has been widely debated across continents. Hydrogen can power cars, be used to heat homes, and fuel industries such as steelmaking and heavy transport, including buses. Supplying hydrogen to industrial users is now a major business around the world and demand has grown more than threefold since 1975. It continues to rise, but is almost entirely supplied from fossil fuels, with 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal going to hydrogen production. As a consequence, production of hydrogen is responsible for CO2 emissions of around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined. This is an expensive process and the alternative – the use of surplus wind energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen – does the job cleanly but at an even greater cost.

Airbus has already started to explore the use of hydrogen for their aircrafts through a new program called ZEROe. The designs are a starting point to explore the tech needed to build the first climate-neutral commercial planes, somthing the airliner plans to bring to market by 2035. Although it was more focused on electric aviation for small airplanes, Airbus has now changed course towards hydrogen as a candidate for solving aviation’s CO2 problems.

Image Credit: Airbus.com

Liquid Air

There is a new energy plant being developed in the UK which, using surplus electricity from wind farms, will store energy in the form of liquid air. The surplus electricity produced at night when demand is at its lowest will compress so hard that it becomes  liquid at -196 celsius.  When demand resumes during the day, the air will be warmed and the resulting rush of air will drive a turbine to make electricity which can then be sold back to the grid. The energy efficiency of this mehod is thought to be 60-70% depending on how it is used. Unlike batteries, liquid air does not create demand for minerals and rare earth materials, so is another potential contributor to clean, variable renewable electricity. Batteries are excellent for short-term storage but liquid air has the possibility of being a long-term power source, the emission of which has no negative impact on the environment.

Carbon Capture

Inventors across the globe are continuously working on developing structures that are able to ‘suck’ or ‘capture’ harmful gases from the air, acting like giant vacuum cleaners for the atmosphere.  Some towers, such as Daan Roosegarde’s Smog Free Tower – a 7 meter tall aluminium tower that provides clean air for public spaces such as parks – also has the ability to transform the captured smog into jewellary, art and other objects.  Technology developed by NASA has been integrated into a billboard in Bilbao, Spain; an ad campaign which The Guggenheim Museum claims will clean the air at the equivalent rate of 700 trees.  The technology draws pollutants and bacteria from the air through process called photocatalysis.

Water Treatments

Technological innovation for water treatment, the resulting adoption of cleaner and environmentally sound  industrial processes as well as the development of sustainable and resilient infrastructure is continuously progressing in the modern world. Storm and wastewater solutions that help reduce sewer overflows during extreme weather conditions are exceptionally important, as nature does not throw away water as human beings do – nature recycles every drop and has been doing so for billions of years.  The largest water treatment plant in the world, the James W. Jardine Water Purification Plant, treats one billion gallons of water a day and provides virtually all of Chicago’s potable water. In less developed countries, however, other solutions are required as the possibility of building such plants diminishes. For example, a company called Lifesaver has invented a portable method of purifying water, removing 99.9% of bacteria.  Whilst the products are currently pricey, innovation has the potential to inevitably develop the concept for future use by the developing world, and the design allows charities to tap into potential donations in the meantime. Other companies, such as Skywater, are inventing solutions to draw clean drinking water from the air, and in Europe, Aquaporin A/S is working on water purification through the use of membrane technology.

Biodegradable Materials

Water is contaminated by plastic waste and nature is destroyed by microplastic particles, including wildlife in our rivers and oceans.  Microplastics have even been discovered in natural food items such as honey! It takes 700 years for a plastic bottle to decompose and 90% of the cost of a bottle of water is for the bottle, not the water. But it is now possible to make biodegradable plastic substitutes, such as Sussex University’s fish waste ‘plastic’, MarinaTex. Advances in design and technology have seen improvements to the strength and resilience to other materials, such as paper and card, that can replace items traditionally made with plastics but can biodegrade more quickly.  Individuals are also coming up with unique ideas to protect wildlife specifically, by creating edible products to replace plastic.  Hidetoshi Matsukawa has designed and introduced a paper bag alternative to his town in Japan that is fully edible by the sacred deer that share the area. Meanwhile, Saltwater Brewery created E6PR – a biodegrable beer can packaging ring made from waste grain from the brewing process, meaning the packaging is also edible for sealife, such as turtles, dolphins and fish. These examples demonstrate endless possibilities and scope for innovation, and you could be part of that!

Clean Cooking

It isn’t just outdoor air pollution that is damaging to people’s health. Indoor air pollution is also a big concern and highest in less economically developed countries, where the use of cookstoves or open fires indoors is very common. Open fires and old fashioned cookstoves are extremely inefficient, with only a small amount of the energy generated from burning the fuel actually going into the cooking process It is still one of the top five health risks in developing countries, as well as producing a quarter of carbon emissions – making it the second largest contributor to climate change. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is led by the United Nations Foundation and hopes to bring clean cookstoves to households, saving lives, empowering women and tackling other environmental issues.  The main way that clean cookstoves work is by being much more efficient, producing much less smoke in the process.  Fuel is raised up off the ground on a metal grate, allowing a flow of air underneath into a well-insulated chamber. This means that considerably more of the energy from the fuel is used for cooking. This can then be attached to a small chimney which maintains the air flow and stops the dangerous air pollutants getting trapped in the home.

Pioneering Vaccines

When we talk about innovation and invention, the first things we usually consider are sectors such as industry, transport, pollution – tangible, everyday items that make life easier or ideas that can improve how we live.  However, innovators and inventors are arguably even more vital in the fight for health and in the development of medical treatments and vaccinations. Measles vaccinations have saved over 15 million lives since the year 2000.  Had scientists not invented the vaccination, those lives would have been lost.  This became even more apparent throughout 2020 and 2021 with the global spread of COVID-19. Vaccinations can usually take up to ten years to develop safely, however scientists used groundbreaking technology, design and tenacity to speed up the process to within 6 months for the benefit of the global population and, inadvertedly, the harm the virus has caused to the planet.  The Pfizer-BioNTech, a vaccination invented by couple Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci in Germany, was the first jab to be approved for use, and Margaret Keenan, a UK based grandmother, was the first person in the world to -receive the vaccination. Oxford University were close behind them, with their vaccine, ‘Oxford-AstraZeneca’, approved for global use at the end of 2020. There are now 4 different vaccines in circulation which are helping to reopen the world.

Take Action for Innovation & Invention!

Start the change...

Simple tips for small scale innovation and invention through every day actions

Take notice in science class! Environmental engineers, for example, develop solutions to environmental problems using principles of chemistry and biology. Meanwhile, physicists are helping to prevent global warming and deal with the fallout of climate change by predicting whether patterns, measuring various temperatures, and figuring out how to harness solar / wind energy.

Take an interest in design and technology subjects.  Those random doodles you do on your notepad? That could be a blueprint for new eco-friendly building one day!

Become more aware of everyday items you use that have been invented to make life easier. Try to idenify a difference between those, and any inventions or innovations you notice that have been developed to make the planet greener.

Next time you scroll through Netflix and Prime looking for a new series to binge, or fall down a YouTube rabbit hole, consider watching some films about inventors! Revolutions – The Ideas that Changed the World could be the inspiration you never knew you needed…

Carry a notepad with you.  How many times a day do you, a friend or family member say “Oh no I really wish this could work this way!” or “Why hasnt someone thought of this?!” Jot those thoughts down – you could be the person you thought of it first!

Research jobs in environmental science. Knowledge is power, and often we are not aware of the endless career opportunities on offer! It is also worth bearing in mind that a role you enjoy and are passionate about may on the face of it not involve any innovation in the job description, however once you are in a role, it is much easier to advocate for change and new ideas!

Be in the know about the latest innovative designs and inventions that are being created as we speak in order to help the planet. Many fresh ideas from across the world are featured regularly on the Planetary News pages!

Do a bit more...

Not everyone will come up with a brand new idea during their lifetime; but it doesn't mean that we can't all innovate for the environment...

Support innovative design ideas for the environment that are already up and running on sites such Kickstarter and Go Fund Me.

Play problem solving games that will help to expand your critical thinking and ability to think outside the box. There are many related apps that allow individuals or groups to get involved with real life research, such as iNaturalist and Zooniverse. In Tyto Ecology and Habitactics, you must make decisions to prevent your own ecosystem from crashing.

Visit museums that exhibit inventions. Understanding how everyday items were originally designed and how innovation has improved them can be inspiring for your own ideas. The Science Museum is a great place to start, or alternatively there are many museums that now offer virtual tours.

Research traditional job roles and how you could apply the necessary skills to help the environment.  This in itself is being innovative! For example, by understanding what an engineer does, it will be easier to see how the normal career specification can be applicable in an environmental context.  Next, look into the qualifications that you might require to achieve a position in your chosen role.  Our upcoming ‘You’ tab might be helpful, so watch this space as we develop the Planetary Pathway!

Identify ways to improve methods of  everyday living, whether this is at school, working in an office, travelling or simply at home – making your day more sustainable is innovation in motion!

Connect & Collaborate

Your World. Your Future.

Are YOU ready?

Experts, activists and philanthropists agree, one of the most effective ways of making positive global change for our planet is to CONNECT—with each other, with organisations, with charities and specialists. The bigger the project, the BIGGER the impact, and by helping you to join the dots Planetary hopes to assist with your efforts to make worldwide change!

Project 1

With your design technology class, colleagues or community group, why not brainstorm some designs to enter an invention competition? For schools, there are many competitions that run annually, such as Shell's Bright Ideas Challenge. School Science provide a comprehensive list of available contests on their website which could see your innovation come to life! For older project-makers, The British Invention Show accepts ideas for their exibitions and awards throughout the year, based around the key themes of 'Design, Innovation, Invention and Technology'.

Project 2

As a group, focus on one of the SDGs explored in our 'Learn' section and choose one of the key issues that you would like to try and resolve. This could be as wide a problem as hunger, plastic pollution or global warming, or more specific. Research any inventions or current innovation that could help to resolve your chosen issue. If there are no current projects, brainstorm any inventions or innovation that you feel the problem requires to be resolved - you never know, you might hit on something important or groundbreaking! Present your ideas to family, friends, in an assembly or class, or to your colleagues, and identify the range of jobs that would be needed to bring your ideas to life. Would you like to be that person? You can be!

Project 3

Take part in an En-Roads Climate Workshop! En-Roads is an interactive computer model that allows users to change various factors, including innovation and technology advancement, to see for themselves how this could impact global warming throughout the century. You can join a webinar via their website, or download their climate action simulation games to compete as a group, and learn exactly how innovation interacts with other factors to create positive change.

Useful Links

En-Roads Climate Simulator Link climateinteractive.org
The Science Museum uk sciencemuseum.org.uk
Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves Link cleancookingalliance.org
National Careers Service Link nationalcareers.service.gov.uk
Airbus Zero E Link airbus.com
School Science Link schoolscience.co.uk
Bio.org Link bio.org
Pfizer uk pfizer.co.uk
Studio Roosegaarde Link studioroosegaarde.net