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Future directions: governments try not to I pick winners any more, but the Foresight programme shapes where research funding may go.

Future technology spotting may be a mug's game, and UK governments of every persuasion have shied away from directly doing this kind of thing for the past 30 years or so. Yet they still have mechanisms for identifying the most promising areas of technology and for assessing the UK competence in them.


The most influential of all of these public future watchers has just updated its report on technologies and innovations for this and the next decade--and some of the biggest growth prospects are in areas such as sensors, renewable energies and system design, where environmental engineers play important roles.

Foresight is part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and is very much the modern face of government technology watching. The Technology and Innovation Futures report that Foresight brought out in 2010 identified 53 separate areas as technology themes likely to be important in the next 20 years, and this year's update confirms most of these and adds more:

Energy transition: changes in the basic provision of energy, and the updated report sees three areas where there have been significant developments since 2010. One, not surprisingly, is the absence of growth in western economies, which rather limits scope for major investments; the second is the rise and rise of shale gas as a possible quick fix for the generation gap from 2015; and the third is the change in prospects for nuclear power worldwide since the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

On demand: this is seen almost as a philosophical point, extending not just from the customisation of products and the immediacy offered by technologies such as 3D printing but now into further fragmentation of what would previously have been considered as bulk, homogeneous commodities. Examples might be attempts by communities to negotiate deals for, say, energy supplies outside the framework of national deals.

Human-centred design: this is seen as the trend for designers to develop their ideas and products in tandem with the users of those products, and the technology of being able to build properties into base materials is seen as a critical factor in this, as is the pervasive "intelligence" now being added to everyday artefacts.

The addition of these underlying themes means there are new areas of technology that the Foresight team now considers offer promise for the next 20 years or so.

In the area of energy, for example, it now believes that there is a case for rethinking attitudes towards carbon dioxide and that a convergence of energy production with biotechnology is feeding potential for it to be viewed as a feedstock for future energy or future high-value products and materials. "Carbon capture and storage", in which [CO.sub.2] is a nuisance that has to be locked away, might in time be supplanted by "carbon capture and conversion", and the UK's strengths in electrochemical catalysis could be key to realising this potential.

Other energy developments are putting a greater emphasis on energy storage ideas as a way of overcoming the intermittency of some renewable sources such as wind power. And the new update also sees opportunity in high-voltage DC grids that could use areas where the UK is a leader, such as power electronics and simulation.

Some of the new areas opened up by the expansion of the on-demand concept are to do with healthcare where the UK is again seen as a pioneer in drawing IT and automation into patient monitoring and treatment provision, a lot of it centred around robotics, which is seen as emerging from being overshadowed by IT and engineering applications. Robotic applications in terms of tissue engineering are an area of potential growth.

Healthcare issues are highlighted in some of the developments to be expected from the "human-centred design" theme, with the updated report seeing possibilities in intelligent fabrics and clothing and in interaction between people and the buildings they live and work in. A core technology that underpins many of the developments is in sensors and the report singles out for special mention biosensors and bioreceptors that have implications not just for human health, but also for industries such as agriculture.

The Foresight reports are advisory, but nonetheless influential. Gone are the days when governments would directly intervene in business decisions or tell industry what to do; but public money through the research councils and the Technology Strategy Board is still a huge part of UK research and development, and this kind of report is intended to give the fund managers a steer on where the promising ideas and technologies might be.
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Lucas, Richard
Publication:Environmental Engineering
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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