Overcoming Sustainability Challenges By Establishing Cross-Industry Collaboration

In the run-up to the CIEX 2020 conference, we had an opportunity to catch up with Pierre Joris, President at A.SPIRE who will reveal A. SPIRE’s perspective on achieving sustainability by cross-industry collaboration. We had a few questions for him related to his session, to warm up a bit for the event.

Question #1: Without giving too much away –what is the core message of your talk and what would you like delegates to remember? 

Pierre: The sustainability challenges that the Chemical Industry is and will be facing in Europe are enormous. The climate neutrality and circularity ambitions that are being discussed at European levels are very inspiring but will mean for our industry, not only huge transformation investments but well before that, the development and scaling-up of very disruptive innovations that will make that transition feasible.

This can be achieved only by combining forces and resources to address these formidable challenges and by moving forward together in a collaborative manner. This applies certainly for collaboration within our industry but is also needed across other process industries, such as Steel, Cement, and many others. First of all, because these industries do face similar challenges and will most often rely on the same fundamental technology solutions to manage that transition. But also because cross-industry collaboration is the only effective way to bring into the picture the precious industry symbiosis solutions that will be needed to succeed. Such a need for cross-industry collaboration is the core message of this talk.

Question #2: Why did you choose the topic of your talk?

Pierre: Because I want to convey a certain sense of urgency. Although the full climate neutrality and circularity transition that is ambitioned is still decades away, time is really of essence as investment cycles in our industry are pretty long. These long investment cycles will, therefore, require that most of the disruptive technologies needed can reach TRL9 level within a decade or so. This is really tomorrow when you look at the innovations that are being considered. The cross Industry collaboration that I, as president of A.SPIRE, am advocating in this talk, needs to happen now.

Question #3: What motivates you to join CIEX 2020 and what are your expectations?

Pierre: CIEX brings together a high number of industry leaders and experts in the field of Innovation. This is, therefore, a great platform to bring this message and convince them to move forward, but also to get constructive interaction on this topic. I think also that the spirit of this event is to foster collaboration as an essential element to innovation, hence a perfect alignment on the main message I wish to bring.

Question #4: The need for innovation has been a continued topic for the chemical industry –how would you sum up the current state of the industry, specifically with a focus on its innovation efforts?

I am not in the best position to reply to this question and you can certainly have a better perspective on this topic by looking for example at the Suschem R&I agenda.

Besides, I think that it is very difficult to sum-up the current state of the chemical industry from an innovation perspective in a single conclusion, as there is such a variety of realities in the chemical industry. You can go from small focused companies to large diversified companies, from pure commodities, very mature products and processes, where survival goes through cost and productivity performance, to sophisticated and differentiated specialities where product innovation for new needs will be the keyword.

All in all, and on a very personal note, I think that the Chemical Industry has always been and will remain a very vibrant industry from an innovation perspective, providing most of the new solutions that our society will need to address the major societal challenges, whether in terms of clean energy, clean mobility, growing and ageing population, need for high-performance data treatment and sensors, etc….

I regret though that our industry has been so slow in embracing itself modern digitalization trends, such as AI, or block-chains, in its own processes, from production processes, to innovation process through the way it does business with its partners. I am convinced that these tools and best practices can really help our industry be faster and more effective, in particular in innovating and in developing the new solutions that our downstream users need.

And this is particularly true for the development of the new solutions that our industry will need to transition to climate neutrality and circularity. Discovery of new catalysts for CO2/CO reaction can be accelerated through AI, traceability of materials in a circular economy can be helped by block-chains, competitiveness of new climate-neutral processes can be improved through deep process digitalization etc.

Question #5: What must (chemical) industry leaders do to remain competitive and prepare for the future?

Pierre: With no surprise to you, I will certainly put innovation as one of the priority that any European chemical leader needs to have in mind to keep its company competitive. Commoditization is faster and faster in our industry and Europe is well known not to have any specific cost competitive advantage. Differentiating our product offerings, improving process efficiencies, developing the best solution for our downstream value chains needs, or offering the best business models are all therefore key to remain in the lead and this goes through innovation.

But within such innovation space, I genuinely think that tackling the robust and innovative sustainability solutions that will enable our companies to address the key societal challenges of either climate change, resource scarcity or waste management will be critical for preparing for the future. First, because our industry will simply need those solutions if it desires to keep its “License to Operate”. Second, because it will be (and is already) a must to keep attracting the best minds in our companies, and hence ensure a bright future. And last but not least, because this will put our companies in the leading seat for competing globally in the climate-neutral and circular society that our word will need in the future.

Question #6: Looking back on the past 3 months please share your thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the industry but also society in general

Pierre: COVID-19, or rather the fighting strategy that our respective governments decided to adopt in front of COVID-19, have had for sure a very damaging short impact on our companies, and this of course to various extent, depending on the market segments served.

From a management standpoint, this will certainly bring the industry leaders to re-think the robustness of their supply chains, the resilience of their organization and business models in case of tremendous shocks of this magnitude, and the flexibility of their working models. This will also probably lead some companies, especially the larger ones, to a complete reconsideration of their activity portfolio to rebalance towards more resilient and less shock-sensitive activities.

On a more personal level, I think that this crisis, will for sure have changed the way of living of a lot of people, in terms of mobility, priority in their life, and sense of civic responsibility and support they could bring to their neighbours. Future will tell us how these inspiring changes will last.

But this brutal shock could and should also be an opportunity for our political leaders to drive the reconstruction of their economies, including our industry, towards a better, more sustainable society. While the different governments are ponding at the best way to support the re-start of their economies, the huge financial support and resources needed should definitely be oriented towards those initiatives and companies that will show a clear commitment to contribute to such a better and more sustainable society.

You can see Pierre’s full presentation during the CIEX 2020 this October in Frankfurt. Join him and many other experts from the industry here

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