Innovation is critical to technological development and especially impactful in spaces undergoing technological transformation, such as buildings. Innovation is the precursor to the technological breakthroughs that are bringing new value to our increasingly smart indoor spaces through applications that improve efficiency, productivity, and the occupant experience. As green buildings take center stage at the COP26 climate summit, innovation in buildings’ energy efficiency is set to become the focus of the international community as a critical part in solving the existential climate change crisis.
At the summit in Glasgow, the Better Building Partnership and the British Property Federation called for “radical collaboration across the real estate sector to deliver the routes to achieving net-zero real estate,” highlighting the 40% of global emissions represented by buildings. They focused on the need for better finance “to support the net-zero transition through technological innovation for greener buildings.” To assess and forecast such innovation we can look at the issuance of green building patents, which can reveal trends that could shape the future of the buildings market and the success of climate change mitigation efforts.
Overall global growth in the number of green building patents has been steadily increasing since 2001, according to a study by the UK Intellectual Property Office, operating name for the UK’s patent office. Growing steadily from less than 500 green building patent families worldwide in 2001 to over 12,000 in 2018, the increase is a reflection of healthy innovation and funding in the sector as well as continued optimism from key stakeholders. Over the past two decades, corporations from the building, energy, and IT sectors have joined subsequent generations of green and smart building specific startups to drive innovation in building energy management and improve the efficiency of building systems and devices.
Unsurprisingly, the world’s two largest economies, China and the US, dominate the green building patent landscape, with over 50,000 active patent families in China and around 35,000 in the US. Alongside Japan and Korea, these four nations make up the vast majority of all technology patents, but by using the Relative Specialisation Index (RSI) we can see that the UK, France, Australia, Canada, and Germany have become the world’s leading green building technology specialists, in that order. With a RSI value of 0.788, the UK could be described as the most specialized in relation to green building technologies, although new patents in the UK have been declining rapidly since 2015.
The list of companies owning the most patent families in the green building space includes many household names, and the top 5 are all based in the Asia Pacific region. Japan’s Panasonic owns the most, with almost 2,500 active green building patent families, followed by China’s Midea Group, Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric, China’s State Grid Corp, and South Korea’s LG Electronics. In 8th, Netherlands-based Phillips lighting spin-off, Signify, is the first non-Asian nation on the list with almost 1000 patent families, they and Bosch, Infineon, ON Semiconductor, and Texas Instruments join a who’s who of Asian electronics companies in the 20 top green building technology patent holders.
The dominance of traditional electronics companies reflects the make-up of the technology clusters within the green building technology bracket. In fact, 46% of global green building patents included in the UK study relate to electronics, but only 5.4% of the patent families relate exclusively to buildings. Such a scope makes it challenging to unearth specific building-focused details but does underline the undeniable power of traditional electronics companies in modern green and smart buildings. What does stand out is the large proportion of patent families dedicated to heating, making up 17% of all green building technology patents through water heating, HVAC, and control innovations.
Relative to the gradual worldwide growth in overall green building patents, the number of patents for heat pumps has been surging since 2015, when the number of new patent families filed began to double each year. China dominates the heat pump patent landscape, followed by the US, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. However, with an RSI value of 0.879, Austria is the most specialized nation for heat pump innovation, followed by Germany, Canada, South Korea, and the UK, implying a geographic heating-innovation bias towards affluent colder countries. The list of biggest heat pump patent owning companies follows a similar theme to the overall green building patent list, with Germany’s Stiebel Eltron (6th), Bosch (8th), and Vaillant (9th) standing out from an otherwise Asian dominated leaderboard.
“In coming years, one could expect heat pump patenting trends to continue increasing as the technology continues to develop,” reads the British Intellectual Property Office report. “Consumers may seek to pursue more environmentally friendly means of heating their homes. As a result, consumer use of heat pumps could be expected to increase in the near future. Such an increase could cause an increase in patenting activity relating to heat pumps, as companies will seek IP protection prior to commercialization of products.”
Innovation and patenting lay the foundation for increasingly efficient buildings but the mass commercialization and adoption of these new efficiency applications is a maze of market drivers and barriers from a wide range of, often conflicting, stakeholders. This fragmented building technology landscape leads to innovation-blocking siloes, poor interoperability, limited technology performance, dissatisfied users, and reluctant consumers. The splintered buildings industry needs a common purpose to unite behind, something that will force them to work more openly together in a market big enough for all companies, and saving the planet seems like it could be that purpose.
A growing green building market will be enough to drive technology innovation, we need our governments to accelerate its route to market and enforce adoption. The ongoing COP26 summit in Glasgow makes it abundantly clear that the role of government in green building development is set to grow rapidly in order to meet new ambitious environmental targets. Summit hosts, the UK, for example, announced the £270 million Green Heat Network Fund to support the commercialization of low carbon heat network projects, among other initiatives, and old statements from many world leaders suggest that much tighter green building regulations will be required to drive the necessary building efficiency for our global environmental goals.
While patent trends may tell the story of future green building innovation, we will need more than innovation to address the impact of buildings on the environment.