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The Big Interview: Richard Miller

Richard Miller is a man on a mission: making his own job redundant. One day, he believes, ‘sustainability’ will be so embedded in business practice that executives with such a word in their titles will become extinct.

As head of sustainability at innovation agency Innovate UK, he has overall responsibility for strategy and oversees programmes in urban living and future cities, low-impact buildings, resource efficiency and water. He has been at the organisation, formerly the Technology Strategy Board (see box below), since it became independent in 2007 from what was the Department of Trade and Industry.

“But I’m working to make myself unnecessary,” he says, “and that I passionately believe.”

Sustainability is a business issue not a green one, Miller points out. But while typical entrepreneurs probably have a view on customers’ demands, technology developments and regulatory changes in the decade ahead, they often give little consideration to future sustainability issues.

“Our challenge is to bring sustainability thinking to the same level as the other [business] factors in describing the future,” he says.

Working with entrepreneurs is at the core of Innovate UK’s mission of removing barriers to innovation: “We do a lot of listening to industry. We are almost consultants to it.”

CV: Richard Miller

A PhD in Chemistry, Miller spent time as an academic in the Department of Instrumentation and Analytical Science at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, before a career in industrial R&D and product development with Unilever and Imperial Chemical Industries.

He had a number of senior roles including vice-president of R&D for a Unilever subsidiary and director for knowledge and sustainability with an ICI company. Later he founded and developed two consultancy businesses focusing on sustainability, innovation and intranet strategy, before joining Innovate UK.

Innovate UK’s staff visit business premises, run workshops and seminars, as well as overseeing the Transfer Knowledge Networks (TKNs), which are physical spaces and online platforms designed to promote collaboration, best practice and knowledge-sharing between industry and academia. The organisation also has advisory groups comprising representatives from different sectors who help create programmes.

“They act as a sounding board for us to test our ideas against and because the same group meets us regularly, they are able to give us consistent advice and guidance as the programme develops,” says Miller.

The group on resource efficiency includes representatives from the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, WRAP, Defra, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a waste management and recycling company, two materials firms, a design consultancy, a bank and a retailer.

Feedback from the group complements a consultation process conducted by the organisation before opening funding competitions, one of which targeting waste and recycling will be launched in January 2015. The £4.5m initiative will support research and development projects aimed at increasing the value of materials from waste streams.

“We have tried to involve all the necessary players in our work on the circular economy,” Miller says. “We started off by looking at getting designers and manufactures on board because 80% of the environmental impact of products is locked-in at the design stage. This is now trying to take that one step forward.”

To be successful, waste management companies should think about their contribution to the circular economy.

“A while ago I asked a waste management firm how they defined their role. And they said it was picking out the obviously recyclable components from the feedstock and then rendering the rest safe for landfill. That’s not ambitious enough – think about yourselves as suppliers of materials to industry.”

Recycling companies should become partners of manufacturing businesses and demonstrate how they can “make industry problems vanish”, Miller adds.

The advice comes from someone who has first-hand experience of issues related to waste management in the business sector: Miller moved from the academic world to industry in the late 1980s, working in senior positions for the global brand Unilever and a subsidiary then acquired by ICI.

“We could only make money on anything that came in through the front gate of the factory and went out as a product – we couldn’t afford waste”.

Miller continues to be strongly involved in industry. On a typical day, he is rarely at Innovate UK’s headquarters in Swindon. Rather, he will be out meeting business leaders and making introductions between members of different sectors, because “innovation happens at the boundaries between traditional areas”.

Waste matters are often involved in discussions about innovative technologies. Innovate UK’s database contains at least 400 projects that refer to waste minimisation, prevention, treatment or management, he points out.

The organisation’s work in this area is expected to expand further.

“We try to push resource efficiency within the programmes at Innovate UK, for example, when we think about materials for the energy industry. [We ask] not just what are the technical requirements but what is their recyclability? That closed loop.”

Miller’s vision of an interconnected and sustainable future for business is clear. He might not become the last head of sustainability at Innovate UK, but if he does manage to “make himself unnecessary” ahead of schedule, he would probably spend more time in his garden in North Wales looking at the stars.

A keen amateur astronomer, he picked up the discipline five years ago, upgrading the binoculars he used as a child to more advanced equipment in an example of how technology has made possible what was considered impossible decades ago. He has photographed the outer planets, observed a body 2.45 billion light years away, and even spotted a supernova explosion.

“In a really weird way it connects with my interest. Every atom that makes our world that is heavier than a carbon atom came out of a supernova. It is the only place in the universe where those heavier atoms are synthesised, so we are literally made of exploded stars. How cool is that?”

What’s in a name?

From Technology Strategy Board to Innovate UK

The UK’s innovation agency changed its name from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to Innovate UK in September 2014. “It is simply a better name,” says Miller. “It makes our message clearer. We are here to help companies innovate.”

As the body is incorporated by Royal Charter, the TSB will continue to be the entity’s legal name and will be used in contracts and other legal aspects of its operations.

Recovery and reuse of high-value metal resources from portable battery waste

Innovate UK has granted £342,943 to a two-year project carried out by hazardous waste firm Augean in collaboration with the Centre for Process Innovation, battery recycler G&P Batteries and machine manufacturer International Innovative Technologies.

Project ReCharge aims to use waste batteries to improve the supply of zinc, nickel, lithium and other metals currently going to landfill or being exported as waste.

ReCharge will use a known industrial biotechnology processes to cultivate micro-organisms that extract and concentrate the metals contained in portable batteries, then recover the metals produced. The technology will be exploited through a licensed UK waste processing company.

Supply chain collaborative BIM system for minimising construction waste in design

Innovate UK has given £315,672 to a three-year project carried out by construction company Balfour Beatty Construction Northern, the University of West of England and Queen’s University, Belfast.

The project developers argue that the best form of waste strategy is minimisation, and this can be best achieved during the design of a building. However, there is currently no tool that designers and contractors can use to successfully predict and reduce construction waste at the design phase.

The project aims to develop an intelligent Building Information Modelling system using early supply chain involvement to tackle the problem. This includes prediction of quantities and identifying sources of waste at design stage, material reuse and recovery, material optimisation by off-site construction, efficient procurement, deconstruction and flexibility.

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