Funded by the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Megatech project

Innovation is seen as an important component of social and economic development. Sweden invests around 3,7% of its GDP in R&D activities every year (OECD, 2008), ranking it amongst the first in the world. In addition, 298.4 patents per million inhabitants placed it in the first place amongst EU members in 2007 (European Commission, 2010).

In the more recent years, humanity has started to look at development in a whole new way. We have started talking about sustainability and the environment as an important component of such a concept.

But, are innovation systems and technology the answer to the environmental crisis the world is facing nowadays? We believe that is a tricky question, but they certainly have a part in the solution.

Acknowledging the latter, governments all over the world have started to develop and promote initiatives that aim at developing a growing field: environmental technologies (we can discuss later on what the term involves). Swedes, as pioneers in this field, have detected the necessity of expanding their boundaries in order to, not only help technical problems in other venues in the world, but also to maintain-and increase-the economic growth needed to support the continuous development of their society. This is why, governmental institutions are promoting projects that help expanding markets and disseminating Swedish technologies.

Now, for a technology to be implemented, there has to be a venue where to implement it.  In more economic terms, for supply to exist, there has to be demand. It is important to discuss the fact that supply and demand not always meet, which can be due to several reasons (e.g. incomplete or distorted information, regulations, prices, political drawbacks and social conditions among other things). Having a technical solution to a problem does not necessarily imply that there is an infallible market for it (as many companies and governments have found out).

This supply-demand dilemma can be attacked from several flanks. A very common way is to use a top-down approach. In this approach, companies develop a solution (be it tangible or intangible) and start looking for a market in order to commercialize it. A bottom-up approach would use a different strategy: evaluate a market and then finding solutions for its problems.

But, which markets should we evaluate? It depends on the product/service you want to promote. In our case, when talking about environmental technology, one has to identify where problems could have a bigger impact. There are several sectors requiring technology for the solution of their problems-environmental, in our case: oil/mining industry, power generation, paper industry, transportation, waste, sanitation and drinking water, among other. Can you think of places where several of these issues converge? We can!: Cities, and especially Megacities (what is a megacity?).

Did you know that in 2007, humanity reached an important landmark in history? 50% of the world's population is now urban, and in 2050, this figure is expected to grow up to 70% (UN, 2008). This sends an important signal regarding the necessity of taking care of an everyday bigger and more concentrated population. The technical systems required for maintaining our current-and future-way of life pose enormous challenges.

 Source: UN, 2008                           

But, as you may know, these are not challenges only for future generations. These problems are already present in many cities all over the world, although they may be more evident in two specific types of cities: emerging and transition cities. Here, population growth has had a tremendous boom during the last 40 years:

Source: UN, 2008                       
In order to analyze these types of urban agglomerations, good access to information is a must, and local contacts are required. This is an asset that the team has. Due to the international experience within the scientific community of the project's leader, key partners were available in Mexico City (MEX) and Cairo (EGY). We are talking about enormous megacities! Amongst the biggest on Earth! (Curious about their population?).

With an extensive literature review on urban environmental history of these and other urban areas; field trips to these venues in order to meet the identified stakeholders that can give us an insight on what is happening and with partners and interested entrepreneurs at the supply side, the project's team aims at gathering enough information, with the intention of providing a better basis for the process of decision-making of Swedish environmental technology companies.

So, welcome to this fantastic journey that started one year ago. We, at the Environmental Technology and Management division of the Linköping University are positive that it will be an amazing experience from which researchers, students, companies and politicians will learn a lot, and from which both the Swedish and the international community will benefit.