For National Grid Future Thinking story about green recovery

Future Thinking: Unlocking a green recovery through innovation

As we work to tackle climate change while facing the personal and economic challenges of a post-COVID recovery, Iliana Portugues, National Grid Partner’s Head of UK and NGV Disruptive Innovation, explains why thinking differently has never been more important – and how downhill mountain bike racing helps her keep her mind open.

National Grid Partner's Head of UK and NGV Distruptive Innovation Iliana Portugues


If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all dependent on innovation. From the personal – where so many of us have had to find new ways to work during lockdown – to the global efforts to find a vaccine, innovation is the key to overcoming challenges.

COVID has dominated the news over the past year, but climate change remains the most potentially devastating challenge to our planet and people. Indeed, it may even have played a part in sparking this pandemic.

Cleaner air and water, effective waste management and enhanced biodiversity have all been proven to reduce communities’ vulnerability to pandemics and improve resilience to infection. Conversely, deforestation, habitat degradation, agriculture intensification, wildlife trade and climate change all play a role in zoonotic diseases, including COVID-19. This means the green recovery from coronavirus has never been more vital – it will not only protect our planet, but may also help to prevent future pandemics and secure the habitat we need to live.

The green light for recovery

A critical part of addressing climate change is the decarbonisation of the energy system and, in particular, heat. Heating homes, business and industry processes alone accounts for 37% of the UK’s carbon emissions.

A critical part of addressing climate change is the decarbonisation of the energy system and, in particular, heat.

The Government believes that rising to the net zero challenge with a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ could provide 250,000 jobs in the UK and position us as leaders in green tech and finance. Our own research showed that building the Net Zero Energy Workforce for the future would require the UK to recruit 400,000 roles between now and 2050.

Diversify to innovate

These roles must be filled with people who bring diversity of thought to build a cleaner energy future. This could be working out how to use artificial intelligence (AI) to bring more renewables onto the network, or exploring how to introduce hydrogen into our gas pipes safely and efficiently, or discovering how to develop sustainable carbon capture and storage solutions to enable net zero industrial clusters – but the central theme is innovation.

Research carried out by Deloitte showed that cognitive diversity increases innovation by 20%. Why? Because being jolted out of your comfort zone and learning from others helps you to think more creatively. Most of the time we only use a tiny part of our brains, because we get into routines that don’t require us to adapt our thinking and make new connections. You must put yourself into different situations to learn and adapt. It’s hard to innovate if you get too comfortable.

Personal challenges

Personally, I challenge myself to try new things all the time to keep my mind active. Most recently I took up downhill mountain racing. I decided I was going to compete in a series of competitions. This sport is all about reacting quickly in a situation of stress and uncertainty, and I wanted to understand how I’d perform.

I discovered the way your body deals with scary situations by defending itself and saying ‘no’ is similar to the way people resist the change required to innovate. It helped me understand why it sometimes can be hard to get people to accept new ways of doing things.

That experience also taught me another useful lesson about innovation – it’s OK to fail. I entered a seven-race series and only completed five due to injuries. I suppose that’s a failure, but I still learned and achieved a lot.

Thinking outside the box to innovate

We’re going through a transformational era in energy, which is why our sector needs to attract people who think differently. We need to purposefully create diverse teams within our established energy organisations and make it attractive for groups of individuals to create and develop ideas for our sector.

We’re going through a transformational era in energy, which is why our sector needs to attract people who think differently.

But we know that it can sometimes be challenging for start-ups and entrepreneurs to work with an organisation like National Grid and vice versa. We want to break down those barriers and encourage entrepreneurial thinkers to collaborate with us. My team is currently working with research organisations, incubators and start-ups seeking to change the way we manage our energy.

Next year we will be publishing our own potential solutions to big energy and sustainability problems. This will encourage innovators to propose their original solutions and we can mentor them to enable them to turn their ideas into reality.

Wearable tech protects mental health

One way we have already begun to apply innovative thinking and new tech to solve problems is by using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to improve team performance and wellbeing.

During the pandemic, we’ve had more people out in the field working alone or socially distancing, so we’ve been using wearable tech to support them remotely. The tech can check on your mental wellbeing and prompt you to take a break or allow you to communicate with office staff to solve problems. It’s like a virtual buddy and is really useful with having fewer people on site.

With every great challenge comes great opportunity and that’s never been truer than it is now, as we tackle climate change and the impact of COVID. It’s been a tough year for the world, but now we have the chance to build back better and speed up the journey to net zero.