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Is technology doing enough to help businesses make the transition to net zero?

New and emerging technologies such as 5G and electric charging points are playing a major part in helping to lead the green agenda and take the UK one step closer to its net zero ambitions.

But is technology actually doing enough to help businesses to make the transition towards becoming carbon neutral? And what more needs to be done?

High street banking giant NatWest brought together a panel of business experts from across the West Midlands for a round table discussion about sustainable tech.

During the event, the 10-strong panel had their say on how technology is helping to drive sustainability in their businesses, and discussed what they feel needs to be done to ensure that technology is accessible enough to help businesses to be sustainable by 2030.

Host: Josh Winfield, regional eco-system manager for NatWest’s enterprise team;

  • Paul Thwaite, CEO of Commercial Banking at NatWest;
  • Michael Shaw, NatWest’s chief legal officer and group general counsel;
  • Pam Sheemar, NatWest’s entrepreneur development manager;
  • Matthew Grainger, of Grainger & Worrall Limited;
  • Yiannis Moas, CEO of Birmingham Tech;
  • David Plumb, chief innovation officer at the University of Warwick;
  • Jaqueline Holman, head of environmental strategy at the West Mids Combined Authority;
  • Robert Franks, managing director at West Midlands 5G;
  • Alex Cole, CEO at TIN Smart Social;
  • Dominic O’Brien, managing director at Experienced Energy Solutions.

Yiannis Maos, CEO of Birmingham Tech, opened the discussion.

He said: “Tech and digital can absolutely help businesses, and it can help the world get to where we need to get to, however, accessing that technology – especially at an SME level – is a challenge.

“The challenge is two-fold; one is the awareness, knowledge and insight of what it can do for businesses – and also the potential cost savings. We need more awareness.

“And the second point is how easy is it to access this technology in the first place? Yes it’s the right thing to do, but how do you access it and how do you integrate it?.”

Michael Shaw, NatWest’s chief legal officer and group general counsel, agreed that more needs to be done to raise awareness about sustainability.

He said: “We’ve been talking also about the need for finance, for government, for business, but what we haven’t talked about very much is the need for more awareness and desire from the consumer and the marketplace.

“Now part of that, I think, is that we – businesses – don’t do a great job of communicating the need for every individual in this country, as well as businesses, to start to think about sustainable futures and what they should be expecting.”

Alex Cole, CEO at TIN Smart Social – a Birmingham-based skills consultancy business which supports excluded and disadvantaged groups – added: “We deal with families who have absolutely no idea, and don’t even care, what net zero means. For them it’s about heating or eating at the moment.

“So we must do better at translating how infrastructure allows them to live better, and why they should care.”

Dominic O’Brien, managing director of Experienced Energy Solutions, revealed that the company has made a commitment to help 2,000 businesses get on the road to net zero over the next four years.

Dominic, who is also the co-founder of Birmingham Net Zero, said: “There’s so many technologies out there for solutions, I could rattle off so many that we get involved in such as solar, battery storage, wind, but I think where the investment needs to come is visibility.

“If businesses are signing off to become net zero, they really have to have an understanding of current footprints. If you don’t have visibility of your current footprint, when you’re implementing solutions, what are you benchmarking it against? How do you know what effect that’s having on your business and the environment?”

Jaqueline Holman, head of environmental strategy at the West Mids Combined Authority, believes that new technologies and solutions are key.

She said: “We’re not going to do it just by procuring what we’ve always bought, we need to start looking at new and novel solutions to help us accelerate on our journey to net zero.

“It’s about working with the supply chains, looking at different finance mechanisms, looking at how we work with business and people. How do we bring everyone with us on that journey?

“There’s a lot that the public sector can do, but it is a big shift from where we are now to get us to where we need to be for delivering against our net zero ambitions.”

Robert Franks, managing director at West Midlands 5G, says that collaboration is the way forward.

He said: “We have this amazingly vibrant startup eco-system in the West Midlands. Birmingham has been the second most popular city for start-ups for the last six years outside of London, and we’ve had more new businesses created across the UK in the last 12 months, during parts of the pandemic, than in the last decade.

“However, we have a real problem with scale-ups. We have fewer scale-up businesses now in many parts of the West Midlands than we did two or three years ago.

“Many of these businesses aren’t technology businesses, but they’re businesses that need technology, so I just wonder if there’s an opportunity for us to work together even more strongly to support those SMEs that aren’t technology companies to embrace the productivity improvements around digital.”

David Plumb, chief innovation officer at the University of Warwick, said: “New economic growth is really important, so we have to find opportunities to get the investment.

“One of the examples I’m looking at the moment is micromobility; by the end of the decade, various analysts say that it’ll be worth about £60 billion as a market.

“Now, we have some really interesting manufacturers in the UK who are in adjacent markets, and we want to bring them in to think about how we might deliver some new platforms.

“Many countries around the world will then follow our rules, as they often do, but then British manufacturers are at a head start, because they’re already working in those spaces.”

Matthew Grainger, of Shropshire engineering consultancy Grainger and Worrall Limited, said businesses need to find the right balance when it comes to sustainability.

He said: “We’ve got to come up with a sustainable business plan first, and we’ve got to make profit, we’ve got to invest, we’ve got to train and to manage through the next 10 or 20 years. There are so many headwinds that manufacturers are facing at the moment. Then we move on to the innovation and the technology side.”

He added: “We’re heavily involved in motorsport and there’s the EV (electric vehicle) revolution, but it’s not a one size fits all.

“There are lots of technologies out there that could be that could help with the drive towards net zero, particularly where the automotive industry is concerned.”

Pam Sheemar, NatWest’s entrepreneur development manager, told the panelists that a recent survey showed that 88 per cent of the bank’s customers wanted to transition to net zero.

She said: “They want to move to a more net zero and carbon neutral way of operating, but they don’t know how. So it’s about giving them the tools, the education, the infrastructure and the finance, even.”

Closing the meeting, Paul Thwaite, CEO of Commercial Banking at NatWest, said: “No matter what our lines of business, we’re going to be talking about this topic for the next couple of years and at NatWest we are committed and prepared to play our part.”