“People have invented their own branches”: Prof. Steve Evans on the success of the S&C Hub

Steve Evans

Prof. Steve Evans, Wolfson Fellow and Director of Research in Industrial Sustainability at the Institute of Manufacturing, is an expert in efficiency, and so it’s no surprise he has an efficient language for the approach he takes to encouraging sustainable practice in industry: “sometimes, we’re basically saying ‘stop doing stupid stuff’,” he says.   

Steve Evans

Professor Evans leads one of the largest global research teams trying to improve the environmental impact of the world’s industrial systems. And the impact is huge.

“In general, about 30% of climate impacts are generated from transport, about 30% by buildings, and about 30% by industry,” he says. “Three equal shares. Politics tends to highlight the impact of cars and buildings, but it largely stays away from industry.”

That’s where Prof. Evans and his team, based in the Department of Engineering, come in. His team works with industries across the globe to tackle the handbrakes preventing a transition to sustainable operations.

“At one factory in Kenya that we worked with last year, I think we saved enough CO2 in one year to pay for the Wolfson College CO2 budget for a couple of decades. That’s just one factory, and we work with hundreds.”

A model for world-changing impacts

How do you create such big savings in emissions? Material efficiencies and energy savings are vital, but they’re part of broader areas of change essential to make the biggest impact.

“We say that you need to do four things in order to move towards to a more sustainable world for industry. One is efficiency: in other words, what can we do now making today’s products using today’s machines? We call that an efficiency agenda. The second is that we have to change business models. That’s what we call sustainable business model innovation, the way in which we exchange value.

“Number three is technology. Pretty much 90% of the industrial sustainability research is in tech that does clever things, so I don’t compete with that. The fourth is transformational change. Because even if you did the first three things, you might not reach a sustainable industrial system that could live within planetary boundaries. So we study the big problem of how must the entire system change fundamentally.”

Focusing sustainable expertise at Wolfson

Now, Prof. Evans is applying his expertise to Wolfson’s Sustainability and Conservation Research Hub. He has been heavily involved since the Hub was founded a year ago alongside the Gender and Global Health Hubs. 

“The President came up with this idea of Interdisciplinary Research Hubs, and I’ve had the luck to have been able to put a lot of energy into it. I think Wolfson is a really good place for this to happen, it’s fertile ground. I do a lot of research on change management, so how do you manage change in organisations – and there’s a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of competence at Wolfson. All you have to do is harness it.”

The Hub has had an incredibly productive first twelve months, allowing students, fellows, and the wider community to engage with sustainability issues, and Prof. Evans puts this down to creating events that are “fun and meaningful” and presenting a common language that makes sustainability concepts accessible across disciplines. He also ascribes the success to the independence participants have to explore different solutions within the Hub.

“It’s not a top down thing at all. We talk about the Hub as a tree, and we want independent branches. Each branch can manage itself, and it just gets support from the centre. So if people want to go off and do interesting things, let’s help them and facilitate that. People have invented their own branches.” 

Prof. Evans believes that, ultimately, people will be attracted to sustainability challenges as much out of intellectual interest as moral imperative.

“I think that a lot of our students will eventually come to this space because it’s intellectually interesting, because it’s the greatest challenge of our time. And I think people will vote to choose jobs on that basis too – if you have to choose between working for a factory that is simply trying to maximise profit and a factory that’s trying to maximise sustainability, you’re going to do sustainability every time because it’s intellectually more interesting and challenging.”

You can find out more about the S&C Hub’s first year anniversary events on the Interdisciplinary Research Hub on Sustainability and Conservation Hub webpage.

You can read Prof. Steve Evans’s profile on the Wolfson College website