THE BLOG

What Can the UK Learn From the Internet? From Smart Phones to Smarter Cold

05/08/2015 16:14 BST | Updated 03/08/2016 10:59 BST

It's been said that world-changing innovations are only obvious in hindsight.

It's true. The internet revolutionised our lives to such a degree that business, entertainment, healthcare and government will never be the same.

Yet, even once the internet was established, did people anticipate it would change our use of telephones? That it would become a competitor to television? Or that it would become possible to control your fridge using an app?

Of course not.

Despite the fact that Tim Berners-Lee, a Brit, is the father of the World Wide Web, it was visionaries in California who saw the technological and commercial opportunity and invested. It was Silicon Valley VCs and investors who took risks and backed them. And crucially, the government supported university research and made it all possible.

The rest is history. Now Google alone has a market cap of nearly $370 billion and 'to Google' has entered the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary.

We are at another turning point that will change millions of lives, although it's not easy to see the change happening in real time.

For centuries energy has equated to heat. The industrial revolution was powered by steam and coal still plays a disappointingly large role in the energy mix.

As a result of this ingrained presumption, nobody talks about cold. Cold is the Cinderella of the energy debate.

Despite this silence, cold is central to modern life. Much of the food we eat is processed, transported and stored in cold. Vast swathes of the world would be practically uninhabitable without air conditioning. From Singapore, to Las Vegas, millions of people survive and thrive because their life is artificially cooled. Add in data centres, healthcare, mining and transport and it becomes clear that, although we might not notice it, cold is vitally important.

But, because nobody has thought about how we provide cold in a resource efficient way, the technology we rely on lags behind developments in electricity generation and heating.

Predictably, nobody has ever thought about how to deliver cold at a national level. No government or supra-national agency has a policy on cooling. As a result, vast amounts of cold are wasted in processes like regasification of LNG.

Cold has been overlooked for too long. But change is coming.

Just as we've seen the growth of a digital economy, we are witnessing the birth of a cold economy. And, just as with the internet, it's British thinking that's leading the way.

The University of Birmingham has recognised the importance of cold and the opportunity it presents. It has begun a major commission that's pulling together academics, industry leaders and policy makers to establish a road map of how cold technologies can be developed and integrated into efficient systems.

This work will enable the UK to extend its leadership in the cold economy.

But will Britain learn from the internet? Will it grasp the opportunity? Or will it allow others to take pre-eminence, only realising the importance of an emerging industry in hindsight?

Encouragingly, there is evidence that lessons have been learned and it could translate early promise into global leadership.

Most importantly, the UK government has announced support for ERA - the Energy Research Accelerator - a multimillion-pound collaboration between six universities and the British Geological Survey that will deliver a step-change in energy research. If the government backs ERA, as the Chancellor indicated it would, then the effect could be profound.

ERA will energise research, helping the UK to create ground-breaking solutions to global problems of resource efficiency and energy wastage. It will also lead R&D into advanced manufacturing, enabling the UK to not only innovate, but create market-ready technologies at a price the world can afford. ERA will enable the UK to turn good ideas into valuable products and create jobs.

Within the remit of ERA, cold has specifically been recognised. The Thermal Energy Research Accelerator (T-ERA) will support the development, integration and manufacturing of innovative cooling technologies. T-ERA will be at the forefront of the movement to 'do cold smarter'.

It's no coincidence that novel technologies flourish in California. It has an ecosystem of innovation, built around world-class universities. By bringing leading universities together, ERA can establish its own ecosystem that will drive the cold economy forward.

If the government follows through and backs emerging cold technology, then the rewards could be substantial. The Carbon Trust estimates that 10,000 jobs could be created in the sector by 2025.

That's almost exactly the number of people who work for Facebook; a company with annual turnover of more than $12 billion; a product of the digital revolution; which began with a Brit; but only the Americans had the awareness to see happening.