Understanding and supporting the UK’s clean air tech sector

Woman wearing a respiratory mask out in a polluted city

The UK, like the rest of the world, faces a challenge with air pollution, but has an innovative technology sector capable of developing global solutions.


Air pollution is a global issue which impacts on wellbeing, health and mortality. World Health Organization data shows that almost all the global population breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants, with lower income areas suffering from the highest exposures.

The UK government produced its Clean Air Strategy, and the Chief Medical Officer has more recently published his annual report setting out the health impacts and the scale of the task of reducing harmful pollution.

Outlining the size of the challenge and opportunity

The UK has an internationally respected innovation ecosystem well equipped to develop new products and services to address strategic challenges of this nature. Complex and systemic issues of this nature require the participation of research bodies, government agencies, community groups, technical specialists, and businesses from a huge range of domains, areas, and sectors.

Understanding the potential for creative collaborations, and the support required to enable them, might not only deliver better health outcomes. Along with significant economic and environmental benefits for the country.

To better understand the position and potential of the clean air tech sector Innovate UK commissioned Urban Foresight to conduct a research exercise to gather new information and insights. This research was funded as part of the Clean Air Strategic Priorities Fund programme through which the government has invested £42.5 million on high-quality, multidisciplinary, research and innovation.

Defining the clean air tech sector

The aim of the research exercise is to gain insights into clean air tech in the UK, define the sector and set out recommendations for future growth, cohesion, and prosperity. The project began with a range of desk-based activities. These sought to create a foundation on the context and strategic direction underlying the clean air tech sector, and the current maturity of the UK’s market. This involved reviewing relevant policies and literature, mapping key stakeholders, and producing a systems map.

A definition for ‘clean air tech’ for the purposes of this work was established as:

Any application of technology which monitors harmful air pollutants or results in cleaner air, both indoors and outdoors, through prevention, mitigation, or control of harmful airborne pollutants.

Programme of engagement

The activities and definition framed a programme of engagement with the sector. Urban Foresight interviewed 35 stakeholders including technology providers, policymakers, academics, health professionals, third sector bodies, and wider industries. A further eight key stakeholders participated in an online workshop. There were also 150 responses to a questionnaire from a variety of organisations that considered themselves to be in the clean air tech sector.

The programme of engagement secured a key understanding about the clean air tech sector. It is evident, that there are many companies working on clean air solutions. However, individuals working on air quality-related matters don’t necessarily consider themselves to be in the clean air tech sector. Thus, it might currently be considered a fragmented or emerging sector. A survey respondent wrote:

This is the first time that we have considered ‘Clean Air Technology’ as a sector. Up until now, we would not have considered ourselves to be a part of it – moving forward, we will.

The final output is a report outlining the current state of the sector (PDF, 6.6MB), and the key forces that shape its growth. Driving and restraining forces shaping the sector were identified in six key themes:

  • evidence base
  • relationship to market
  • application to technology
  • policy landscape
  • data
  • social aspects
Woman wearing an anti-smog face mask and checking current air pollution with smart phone app

Credit: humonia, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

No industry can tackle this alone

Despite obstacles to the formation of a cohesive sector, there are clear opportunities supporting its growth.

The word cohesion appears throughout the report, importantly it emphasises that clean air tech is applicable to everyone, there is not one industry that can tackle air pollution alone. Thus, recommendations are provided for Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation, the UK government, industry, and health professionals to bring the clean air tech sector to life.

Clean Air Business Accelerator programme

There is notable activity already underway to support this sector. Impact on Urban Health are a part of Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation Charitable Trust. They are focused on addressing the health effects of poor air quality on the more vulnerable, particularly children, older people and people with heart and lung conditions.

In an effort to stimulate more business innovation they have been collaborating with Growth Studio to launch a Clean Air Business Accelerator programme. This Breathable Cities accelerator is dedicated to reducing air pollution in cities by helping early-stage startups get investment and scale their businesses.

There is enormous potential in the UK’s clean air tech sector, but there is work to do to stimulate and energise cohesive and impactful innovation activity. Innovate UK will seek to develop further opportunities for meaningful collaborations and invest in projects and businesses through its various support instruments.

The Clean Air Strategic Priorities Fund programme will also continue to produce research and innovative solutions until 2025. Hopefully this activity can help the UK take a leading role in in providing the innovative solutions to tackle this global issue.

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