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Dutch delegates to the EcoAP HLWG share their vision on systems thinking

15/10/2012

  • Experts interviews

Robbert Droop and Just van Lidth de Jeude, Dutch delegates to the Eco-innovation Action Plan High Level Working Group, share their views on promoting a vision for eco-innovation and systems thinking. Robbert Droop works for the sustainability department of the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, and Just van Lidth de Jeude works for the climate, air and noise department.

What is eco-innovation, and what distinguishes it from innovation more broadly?

Robbert Droop: There is not a great difference, but eco-innovation so far has mainly been driven by governmental regulation. Originally eco-innovation was about protection of the environment, reduction of emissions and recycling. Now it is more about sustainability – a more integrated approach to innovating for the environment. It was so far mainly driven by governments because environmental costs have not been integrated into pricing.

The Environmental Technologies Action Plan (ETAP) was a response to this kind of regulatory need. Gradually, eco-innovation policy envisaged doing something beyond regulation, and that was the start of the Eco-innovation Action Plan (EcoAP). Now, market developments such as resource scarcity and the heavy environmental burden from the use of natural resources also drive entrepreneurs. These market pressures might become a more important driver for entrepreneurs than regulatory requirements alone.

Just van Lidth de Jeude: But investment in eco-innovation is still seen as a risk. One of the goals of EcoAP is to see eco-innovation as a challenge and not as a risk any more. There is still a lot to do to create that change of mind.

What are your roles in the EcoAP High Level Working Group (HLWG)?

JLJ: Our job is first to represent the Netherlands, to show that we are very much interested in going further with eco-innovation, and to facilitate actions and events in the Netherlands related to EcoAP. The HLWG is just the start of it and we have to spread the message.

RD: At European level, the EcoAP aims to drive all the European instruments, even outside the realm of environmental policy, to integrate eco-innovation into their actions. Very prominent of course is the eco-innovation aspect of the EU research programme, which allocates a serious amount of money. The EcoAP and the HLWG should give suggestions and a vision for where the EU research programme should focus. Similarly, with the sustainable industrial policies, the EcoAP should provide a vision. These three directorates-general (DGs) – environment, research and enterprise – are the foundation for EcoAP. But there are others, which are maybe even more important in the sense of size of budgets, such as agriculture and regional policy with the Structural Funds. Those are enormous funds. Even if we can influence a small share of that for integrating eco-innovation into the operations, there could be an enormous impact.

Is there a lot of work to do to convince policymakers of the case for eco-innovation, nationally and at European level? Is that part of your role?

JLJ: A lot has to be done in that field. Eco-innovation is not just about cost reductions. It is important for competitiveness, and the EU position globally. Other policy fields do not immediately understand the added value of eco-innovation as part of innovation. They just support innovation because they think growth and jobs will come from that. In the Netherlands we have a constant discussion with our colleagues in economic affairs.

RD: We think eco-innovation can contribute to the future resilience of industry, not only in the face of environmental costs, but also market changes, and fluctuations in prices of resources. If European industry is ready for that, it will have an enormous competitive advantage. We promote more and more a systems approach. The whole market system has to reconsider how it can meet society's needs.

JLJ: A whole chain of actors influences services and products, and if you don't look at the whole chain, you still cannot overcome the problems we face. We always make small steps, but they don't add up to a big change.

Is the HLWG also interested in identifying areas for new standards and regulations?

RD: There can be resistance to new regulations. Entrepreneurs can feel they are being restricted, when in fact he or she just wants to act like an entrepreneur. Our job is to create a vision, to show examples, successes and also failures, and motivate entrepreneurs to innovate for sustainability. Minimum standards are needed so that late adaptors catch up, but the focus should be on the frontrunners. They can be supported through government intervention, such as through green procurement. This requires government to play a different role; we used to be the regulatory authority, but now we want to work together with the frontrunners.

Real change could be encouraged by introducing dynamic standards. Countries need standards to push the late adaptors, but should not impose strict regulations that are not going to change for the next ten years. Progress can be created through dynamic standards. The Commission and the HLWG must think of ways of creating sufficient certainty for entrepreneurs who want to bring new products and processes to the market, but also of creating the perspective that: it is going to change, you'd better invest. That is the idea of dynamic standards, and we have to work on it.

The HLWG is going to work like a think tank. Decisions on standards will be taken in Council. We have more liberty to think creatively.

JLJ: It is more important to focus on the system approach than to look at specific areas such as water or resource use. The focus on specific sectors depends on the economic situation in particular countries or innovation activities in different regions. Our role is to work out how to make change happen: to look at solutions in another way and to attract all the actors necessary to make the change.

Robbert, you are also involved in the ECO-INNOVERA platform. What does that do, and does it have common interests with EcoAP?

RD: ECO-INNOVERA started as an FP7 project [EU Seventh Framework Programme for Research & Development]. It brings together 25 national and regional funders of eco-innovation research projects, and that's always research with industry. We very seriously work on a joint vision for research and eco-innovation. One of our major outcomes is a research strategy that identifies systems innovation as a very promising direction. We help our member organisations and other funders of eco-innovation to focus on what eco-innovation really is, and how to carry out ex-ante assessment of the environmental benefits of project. Dissemination is one of our core tasks: especially, promoting eco-innovation to policymakers and SMEs. We expect that ECO-INNOVERA can contribute significantly to the objectives of the EcoAP and its HLWG.

[Editor's note: information about ECO-INNOVERA can be found at http://www.eco-innovera.eu/].