• by Dax Lovegrove, Head of Business Sustainability & Innovation at WWF-UK
  • Sep 17, 2013

Disruption that begins to mend energy, mobility, manufacturing and other broken systems is happening all around us. It is driven by technology-enabled people power, start-ups, expanding multinationals from the emerging markets or incumbent players breaking into adjacent sectors.

Businesses face a stark choice – to resist or embrace? Embrace would seem to be the better bet for long-term business success and the more innovative sustainability teams will highlight to colleagues both the inevitability and the business opportunities around positive disruption.

I’ve written about some of these disruptions already in Green Futures such as those starting to fix broken energy, which has played a big part in taking us to the 400ppm landmark. The larger utilities are struggling in an increasing number of markets to deal with the deployment of climate policies and the widening availability of DIY energy. We’re seeing an explosion of new micro-renewables providers and community-owned or crowd-funded clean energy schemes, often enabled by digital channels. People are more able to arrange and invest in their own access to heat and power for their home than ever before.

In Australia, for example, we are seeing what is reported to be the ‘unstoppable’ roll out of rooftop solar. This has created tension between the utilities, who are lobbying against increasing home installations, and consumer groups – one of whom has set up a Solar Citizens’ campaign to protect the interests of solar owners.

A similar battleground in the UK is on the horizon. B&Q intends to pinch customers from British Gas and other utilities. It is expanding its DIY offering to provide micro-renewables as part of the firm’s Net Positive plan, and also reaching out to customers via new digital platforms. Alongside this, there are now over 40 community-owned energy schemes in the UK, and crowd-funding schemes are taking off. Abundance Generation and the Trillion Fund recently gained approval from the Financial Services Authority to link individual investors and renewable energy projects.

Our current system of congested and high-polluting mobility is also set to change. Younger online users, aka digital natives, have new and different aspirations: instead of owning their vehicle of choice, they just want to use it. So, as car sales reach a plateau in the west, we see the rise of Zipcar, which provides prompt online access to car sharing. It has transformed the car rental market, leading to its acquisition by Avis. Hertz now also provides on-demand car-sharing services. Car sharers tend to walk, ride bikes and take public transport more often than they drive, and the combined impact of this is the equivalent of taking up to 14 cars off the roads. Buzzcar is another emerging venture set to accelerate peer-to-peer car sharing services. Even established car manufacturers, such as BMW, are looking beyond car sales towards new kinds of mobility solutions, one of which is a car sharing service – DriveNow.

The same trends are starting to impact manufacturing. Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired Magazine and writer of ‘Makers, the New Industrial Revolution’, describes a future of makers at home and in the community taking on the design and production of goods. He thinks it will change the face of manufacturing to the extent that the internet revolutionised the flow of information.

Among the examples he cites is the success of TechShop in the US. TechShop provides ‘maker spaces’ – workshops where people can pay a membership fee of just $125 a month and train to use any kind of manufacturing equipment from welding machinery to 3D printers. This was the domain of big business, but now entrepreneurs can develop their own ideas, prototypes and projects.

Financial backing is also more widely available, through crowd-funding digital sites such as Kickstarter. One start-up that received strong support through Kickstarter was B-Square, for a modular, solar-powered electronics system that can be built up into a mini power plant for the home. The investment enabled B-square to take the venture forward, and also to adopt an open hardware approach that means customers can tailor the product to their needs. This is a glimpse into the future of people-powered manufacturing.

Disruptive innovation will transform whole industries and systems: that is inevitable. Sustainability teams would do well build up their innovation skills and encourage their firms to adopt a more experimental mindset and test out new propositions with customers. This will help companies cope with and drive disruption in a fast moving landscape.

For inspiration around new business models visit to see various green game changers. Our next Green Game Changers report in the autumn will look at incoming innovations from Asia.

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