The SDGs Drive Innovation in the Energy and Infrastructure Sectors: Saipem Shows How

by Laura K. Wise
Jan 28, 2019 10:00 AM ET
Image credit: Saipem

Originally published on TriplePundit

This article series is sponsored by Saipem and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Adopted in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forth a roadmap for addressing the world’s most pressing social, environmental and economic challenges by 2030. Unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs explicitly call on business to play a role in tackling global challenges like access to energy and clean water.

As such, several of the goals specifically target industry and the role they have to play in building a more sustainable and equitable world. SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), for example, calls on stakeholders in the public and private sectors to build more resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation for a brighter future.

SDG9 may prove particularly relevant for industries already in flux, such as the energy and infrastructure sectors. As the renewable energy market continues to grow, innovation in these industries has become a key to growth now and for the future.

Saipem, an Italian-based energy services company, believes that innovating its business model is the way forward. “The oil and gas and the whole energy industry is experiencing a transformation of its complex system,” Mario Marchionna, Saipem’s head of technology innovation and development, told TriplePundit. “As a consequence, the [industry] … needs to sharply renew its focus in order to cope both with near and with future challenges.”

Saipem has in its portfolio a series of innovation projects poised to modify its way to work—which record an increased attitude to collaboration, a different way to shape its supply chain, and role changes due to new business models. But what does innovation look like in one of the most established industries in the world?

Saipem: One company’s approach to SDG9

Saipem is a world leader in engineering and drilling activities and in the development of major projects in the energy and infrastructures sectors. The company is adept at operations in harsh environments and remote areas, such as the deep ocean, and it strives to remain forward-thinking on the technological front.

At least 70 percent of Saipem’s research and development budget is devoted to what Dr. Marchionna calls “radical solutions” or to fields outside of the traditional oil and gas market. For example, in 2017 Saipem successfully installed the first floating wind farm in the world, the Hywind Scotland Project. The company devised a new process to lift, handle, and install 6 megawatts of wind turbines on floating spars anchored to the seabed—making use of its core competencies for operating in all environments. Saipem and its subsidiaries are now developing more solutions for the offshore floating wind segment, as well as a floating solar park concept.

Along with advanced wind farms, Saipem invests in innovation opportunities in emerging marine technologies, such as wave and tidal power, along with energy storage and renewable hydrogen. The company is also looking to reinforce its presence in non-energy related markets such as infrastructures for sustainable mobility, water pipelines and environmental services.

Meanwhile, the company is taking steps to increase the efficiency and sustainability of its existing operations within the oil and gas sector, by exploitation of natural gas and by managing the overall CO2 value chain.

“Targeting progressive energy decarbonization, Saipem is pursuing diversified actions to reduce its own CO2 emissions and, even most importantly, to enlarge the offer to its clients in less climate-impacting fields, acting as an innovative solutions provider,” said Dr. Marchionna. “Technologies and innovation are among the keys for reaching this goal and gaining a competitive advantage.”

The company’s strategic plan reinforces its commitment to innovation. “Innovation, one of the main pillars, is leverage for strengthening and consolidating the company’s competitive positioning to tackle future challenges,” explained Dr. Marchionna. “The new innovation model is in fact the synthesis between the urgency to implement concrete solutions in the short term (mostly driven by current commercial projects) and the need to develop novel solutions reflecting the evolving macro-scenarios—especially the energy one.”

3 ways Saipem makes innovation a part of its culture

As the company invests in technology and operational improvements, Saipem is also taking steps to infuse innovation into its overall company culture—and this may prove to be the most lucrative investment of all. The following three examples illustrate how Saipem creates space for an inspired workforce to design technical solutions that can move the needle forward on the speed and quality of the company’s work.

  1. The Innovation Factory

Saipem launched the Innovation Factory in 2016. This idea incubator and fast-prototyping lab aims to tackle problems holistically and develop ground-breaking responses to challenges in the oil and gas sector.

Through the Innovation Factory, Saipem team members convene for design thinking sessions in a physical and digital space, where they discuss solutions to the pressing challenges identified by the company’s top management. The cross-functional team—selected from within the company according to their propensity for lateral thinking, creative problem-solving, entrepreneurship and collaboration skills—then presents their ideas to the group in the form of storytelling.

Senior managers, who serve as project sponsors, select the most promising ideas on which to concentrate prototyping efforts “ . . . on a ‘scale fast or fail cheap’ basis,” Dr. Marchionna said. “The objective is to modify behaviors through viral change, while at the same time trying out innovative technological solutions.”

This physical and cyber network environment stands in contrast to the traditional office. It engages team members at all levels of the company in innovation and problem-solving, while assessing potential prototypes quickly and efficiently. “The key to success is the human factor of in-house innovative thinkers and the external ecosystem,” Dr. Marchionna added.

“Constant collaboration with external stakeholders, such as universities, R&D centers, startups, and traditional and non-traditional partners, is a key pillar,” Mr. Marchionna continued. “Also, collaboration, internally in Saipem, is even more relevant in order to overcome the silos and the comfort zones with little sharing of data that are usually found in big companies.”

  1. Innovation Trophy

With its Innovation Trophy, Saipem seeks to reward employees who have made their marks by bringing their innovative spirit, advantages and concrete results to the company.

Since its inception in 2003, attention was mostly directed toward technology developments. “And, a few of them have laid out Saipem’s most important successes in the recent past,” Dr. Marchionna told 3p.

In keeping with the company’s new innovation strategy, the scope of this employee engagement award has expanded in recent years to include process innovations, such as changes in workflow, work tools and management practices. In 2015, the company also introduced a special award to acknowledge the sustainability value of its operations. 

  1. Technology Days

Saipem hosted its first Innovation and Technology Days in 2017. The company opened the doors to one of its technological hubs in Marghera, near Venice, Italy, to representatives of the media and financial community to present new projects and technologies for the oil and gas sector. This event further signified the creation of company value through innovation.

“Other Technology Days were held in 2018 in Cartagena, Spain, about our offshore wind capabilities, and in Algeria, mostly related to our distinguished know-how in LNG [liquified natural gas] technology,” Dr. Marchionna said.

The bottom line

In the oil and gas sector, the focus on innovation not only helps companies like Saipem contribute to the global sustainable development agenda under SDG9, but it also allows them to maintain a competitive advantage and remain relevant in a rapidly changing world.

For its part, Saipem continues to seek out cutting-edge ways to bring projects to fruition. “By scouting out new technologies within and outside of the oil and gas industry, we are able to identify disruptive emerging technologies as opportunities that could have a high impact on Saipem’s business,” Dr. Marchionna said.

Image credit: Saipem