Sustainable transformation

The University of Surrey’s Institute for Sustainability is preparing to launch its Sustainability Innovation Hub for businesses based in Surrey and beyond

In the race to net zero, businesses across the globe are taking action to neutralise carbon emissions by 2050 by transitioning to more sustainable operations. Whilst this is a fundamental step to tackle the climate emergency, we can take things even further. Forward-thinking SMEs should be asking themselves: how can we adapt and scale up our activities towards climate change, and even more importantly, how can we be nature positive?

The Institute for Sustainability at the University of Surrey recognises that, when it comes to developing sustainability strategies, many organisations don’t know where to start, and the challenges they face are often shared. This has inspired the Institute’s latest venture, the Sustainability Innovation Hub, which sets out to support firms across Surrey and further afield, helping them not only reduce their carbon footprint, but transform their business to be more purposeful and leave a positive impact on society.

The Institute, which launched in December 2022, is a centre of excellence for research, innovation and education that addresses the challenges and opportunities of promoting prosperous, healthy and equitable lives for current and future generations. In its transdisciplinary nature, it operates as a ‘global synthesis centre’ across social, natural and technological sciences with a view of leveraging Surrey’s existing research and innovation strengths and working closely with industry, government and other organisations the world over.

The brand-new Sustainability Innovation Hub has been created to provide a streamlined approach to problem-solving. Officially launching this autumn, it will be a centre of activity that brings together researchers and organisations to nurture ideas, encourage collaboration and support the adoption of sustainable practices, products or services. “Our programme has been designed to help organisations develop and/or fast-track the adoption of sustainable solutions,” explains Nathalie Hinds, head of operations and partnerships for the Institute for Sustainability. “We embrace agile innovation practices, collective intelligence and systems thinking approaches to address complex change, transformation and innovation.”

The Institute for Sustainability boasts a community of over 200 research fellows, who – all experts in their specific fields – can support organisations on their sustainability journey. “A lot of local businesses share the same problems,” Nathalie points out. “Part of the challenge is that organisations struggle to articulate their problem statements. Our methodology has been designed to support leaders to pinpoint core issues, challenge our community to provide them with multiple perceptive, and collaborate on identifying and trial and testing the best way forward.”

Nathalie continues: “Under the Institute, we have so much expertise. We can broaden businesses’ knowledge and horizon, looking beyond the battle against carbon towards the bigger picture – business sustainability transformation. We would like to encourage firms to think more about employee wellbeing and diversity, as well as their purpose and ethos in the context of their supply chain, and challenge them to consider nature-based solutions to become climate positive.”

Nathalie Hinds, head of operations and partnerships for the Institute for Sustainability

A seven-step methodology (select, discover, define, consult, refine, test, roll out/monitor) will underpin how the Sustainability Innovation Hub operates. The initial selection process, Nathalie explains, is very important as it will determine businesses that have a real, tangible reason for making change, and measure whether that change is replicable and scalable with other businesses. “We will look at, for example, whether sustainability is part of the organisation’s strategic priorities, whether there is funding available to facilitate the transformation, and whether there are people within the team with roles dedicated to sustainability.”

From there, the discovery phase begins, which centres on identifying the challenge and articulating the problem statement. This is then followed by a roundtable discussion and brainstorming session at the Institute, where the problem statement is defined. The Hub community will focus on project co-design, systems thinking and identification of interconnections.

The consultation stage, the Hub’s open innovation programme, takes the problem statement and puts it to a broad community of experts. Then, it is about refining solutions through mapping and feedback. “We will explore whether the solutions are tangible, depending on factors such as timeframe, budgets and other complexities,” says Nathalie. “Subsequently, during the test stage, we will implement solution prototypes and monitor them, refining them as needed, before rolling out as a new way of working. We won’t disappear after the project. We will continue to check in on the business’ performance – whether it’s in six months or a year.”

It is no surprise that, in the run-up to its launch, there has been a lot of interest in the Sustainability Innovation Hub. Among the organisations supporting the venture is CREST Business Awards. “The Hub is a very exciting venture by the Institute for Sustainability team, with whom CREST Business Awards works with closely through our think tank group CREST Consortium, as well as the awards programme,” says director Carol Miller. “The closer collaboration it will achieve between academic experts and businesses is one of the key reasons we initiated our think tank and it’s vital to help accelerate initiatives that will achieve net zero. Invariably, businesses achieve more cost-effective ways of working and increase stakeholder interest through environmentally sustainable practices and products.”

Another strong advocate for the Hub is Solarcycle UK, a company which develops and installs scalable, off-grid e-bike and e-scooter solar charging stations to help organisations achieve their sustainability, transport and employee wellbeing goals. Founder Paul Stratford explains: “As a young startup business, it is invaluable for us to be able to leverage the vast intelligence within the Sustainability Innovation Hub, helping us design our product around actual human needs. Tapping into this resource, we can develop public charging solutions and metering that measures the positive impact of installing our ‘solar-in-a-box’ e-bike charging stations. Working with the Sustainability Innovation Hub and University means we are supported in the development of a successful roadmap for our products, backed up with credible research and evidence.”

If you would like to find out more about the Sustainability Innovation Hub and how it could support your business, please contact An online brochure will be available at the end of August.

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