Digital technologies offer huge potential to accelerate efforts to increase environmental sustainability and achieve a more circular economy. However, digital technologies themselves have an environmental cost. Therefore, solutions to both improve the sustainability of digital technologies and to enable application of digital technologies to drive towards a more sustainable and circular future are needed.
This funding opportunity is intended to do just that by bringing together academics, industry and, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to collaboratively build solutions that deliver against UK net zero, environmental, and digital futures targets.
This EPSRC funding opportunity aims to fund up to eight collaborative research programmes that contribute to the development of a digitally enabled circular economy and more sustainable digital technologies.
Through this funding opportunity, we are looking to invest in two interlinked areas of research:
- sustainable information communication technology (ICT), research addressing novel approaches to the development of more environmentally sustainable and circular digital and communication technologies
- digitally enabled circular economy (CE), research developing digital solutions to enable a circular economy. Research in this strand may support a circular economy in any sector and is not limited to the digital sector
Proposed research may integrate the two areas into one research programme.
Grants given under this funding opportunity will form part of a broader investment to build connections and research capacity in this area. In addition to these research grants, a network funding opportunity will launch later in 2023. Networking across and beyond the funded projects, the network will drive further collaboration, relationship and capacity building at the interface of CE, ICT and materials.
Our expectation is that grants funded under this funding opportunity will collaborate with the network investment.
This strategic EPSRC investment will bring together UK world leading capabilities in ICT, materials science and engineering, and CE research. Harnessing the opportunity for collaborative research across these interfaces will deliver significant impact for the UK, supporting EPSRC’s engineering net zero and digital futures priority ambitions. Find details of this in our strategic delivery plan.
Through our engineering net zero priority we aim to deliver systems approaches and solutions to:
- use the Earth’s resources as efficiently as possible
- eliminate pollution and contributions to landfill
- help deliver a sustainable zero carbon future
Through our digital future’s priority, we aim to deliver digital software and hardware tools or solutions that:
- enable a resilient, environmentally sustainable and secure by design digital future for the UK
- enable positive economic impact for the UK
The successful projects will address EPSRC’s strategic aims by delivering against the following objectives:
- deliver world leading and impactful collaborative research, which is co-created across the circular economy, materials, and ICT communities
- build capacity and foster relationships at the interface between the circular economy, materials, and ICT communities, increasing understanding and consideration of circularity and sustainability in the ICT and materials communities
- support the development of new circular ICT products, technologies and business opportunities which have a reduced environmental footprint and more resilient supply chains
- support the acceleration of the transition to a circular economy through the development of digitally enabled circular technologies, products and systems
- embed consideration of a circular economy into the sustainable development of future materials
- support the longer term uptake of circular economy and sustainability considerations and practices by industrial partners
What we expect to see in applications
This cross disciplinary funding opportunity will support programmes driving knowledge exchange and collaboration across ICT, materials science and CE communities to deliver a more sustainable, resilient and circular future.
The proposed research must demonstrably lie primarily within EPSRC’s remit. However, we welcome and encourage the involvement of researchers from other disciplines (including those from other UKRI councils). Programmes should be co-created and co-delivered with appropriately interdisciplinary collaborators who can provide further understanding of the contextual factors that influence the systems.
- address a timely research challenge focused on one, or both, highlighted areas of research: environmentally sustainable ICT or a digitally enabled circular economy
- demonstrate a coherent strategic vision and bring together a collaborative and world leading academic team with relevant stakeholders to address it
- drive added value as a core focus of the programme by demonstrating synergistic connectivity between disciplines
- take a systems approach, considering the wider context in which the proposed research and research outcomes will sit, as well as the risks, costs and trade-offs associated with different materials, technologies, processes and approaches; use tools and approaches such as life cycle analysis and impact assessments where appropriate
- include appropriate co-creation and collaboration with stakeholders such as industry, policy and the third sector to identify and develop a timely and strategically important research application
- identify and embed clear, realistic and proportionate routes to enable environmental, economic and societal impact, as appropriate for the project, as well as translation pathways that will maximise demonstrable impact from the programme in the short, medium and longer term
- develop the skills of the researchers and partners involved, embedding equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) as well as accessibility throughout the programme, and supporting development and training for all project staff. Their management plan should reflect the investigator teams’ approach to career progression planning for all grant staff including administrative, technical and academic
- embed environmental sustainability throughout the programme, both in research outcomes and in programme operations
- deliver its programme of work in a responsible fashion according to best practice in responsible research and innovation
- proactively engage with the network, other investments made under the funding opportunity and the wider portfolio. Building in resource to appropriately engage and network with the wider grant cohort and associated network investment over the grant’s lifespan is expected
Novelty and excellence can be accomplished through bringing together expertise and addressing the areas in new ways as well as through furthering the state of the art.
This area welcomes research addressing novel approaches to the development of more environmentally sustainable and circular digital and communication technologies.
Each application in this area must have a primary research challenge that is driven by the challenges of delivering more circular and environmentally sustainable digital and communication technologies, from a hardware and/or software perspective.
Environmental sustainability may include consideration of such broad areas as:
- reducing carbon emissions
- protecting and enhancing the natural environment and biodiversity
- waste or pollution elimination
- resource efficiency and circular economy
Environmental sustainability is complex and there are often conflicting drivers. Applications may consider any one or more of these areas as a core focus, but all are expected to consider the circularity of the proposed research output as part of the programme. We particularly encourage applications that consider tighter loops of circularity, retaining components, materials and resources at their highest value for as long as possible.
The proposed research under this area may include, but is not limited to, the development of:
- hardware-software co-design
- novel materials
- tighter loops
- modular and interoperable systems
The following articulates some key research challenges involved in delivering more environmentally sustainable and circular digital and communications technologies, one or more of which may be addressed by an application. It is not an exhaustive list and applications need not be restricted to these areas:
- design of novel materials, components and products for circular ICT, including consideration of extending life, end of life, re-use, repair, disassembly and remanufacture
- recovery of products and materials from in-use ICT components for re-use in novel ICT, so as to retain value in the system
- research into more environmentally responsible ways to store, use or share data from a hardware and software perspective
- concurrent design of hardware and software to enable more energy efficient ICT systems, including hardware and software codesign and AI/ML enabled software -hardware codesign
- novel software, software engineering or improved existing software designed to reduce environmental impact, for example, in terms of the environmental impact of the software itself via reduced energy usage or similar
Digitally enabled circular economy
This area welcomes research addressing the development of digital and communication technologies to support the transition to a circular economy and the economic, social and environmental benefits it enables.
There are many different definitions of a circular economy. At its heart, UKRI considers it to be about:
- producing less
- keeping the products, materials, and resources we do use and produce in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible
- recovering resources after use
Applications in this theme will have a core vision and primary research challenge driven directly by the challenges of delivering a circular economy and the economic, social and environmental benefits it enables. We will accept applications in any sector or sectors or considering any resource flow or flows. Applications solely focused on the development of ICT which could be used in the CE but where enabling a CE is not a core focus and vision are not eligible.
Applications could include:
- use or application of:
- digital tools
- technologies such as:
- artificial intelligence
- machine or deep learning
- sensors or other hardware
to develop new technologies, products, processes, tools and materials required to realise the environmental, economic and social benefits of a circular economy.
The following articulates some of the key digital challenges to achieving a circular economy, one or more of which may be addressed by an application. It is by no means an exhaustive list and applications need not be restricted to these areas:
- design of new digital tools to support more efficient recycling technologies including more effective separation and sorting of mixed waste streams
- development of digital product passport technology for tracking components through life
- new digital software, tools, technologies, models or application of data to enable:
- effective and appropriate life cycle analysis across the innovation lifecycle
- more efficient material flow analysis to identify waste that would go unaccounted for in conventional economic monitoring systems
- better and more efficient decision-making at the end of first life
We particularly encourage applications that consider tighter loops of circularity, retaining components, materials and resources at their highest value for as long as possible.
Digital technologies are not without an environmental cost. All applications should consider any environmental trade-offs of the proposed approach, as well as the circularity of any proposed technology or system as part of the programme.
You must place your research in the context of the wider system (technological, economic, social, cultural, and environmental) in which the proposed research outputs would sit. These aspects should inform and influence the research direction of the proposed programme throughout its lifetime.
You are not asked to research the entire system or necessarily carry out systems engineering but should:
- define the system or systems they are developing
- consider the systems that their system will sit within and interact with, and the feedback loops this may generate. These may be upstream or downstream of your system and at similar or different scales
- consider the wider social, legal, regulatory, economic and environmental context
You should consider questions such as:
- how does your research influence or impact other parts of the system you are developing?
- how could other systems influence or impact your system, technology or process?
- what further research might be needed for your technology or process to have the desired impact in a current or future system? Your programme may not necessarily deliver this further research, but it should look to identify it and consider the implications of it
A shift to a more circular economy provides an opportunity for the UK to achieve more sustainable and clean economic growth and prosperity. However, implementing it within the current UK system may not always be the most appropriate approach.
Programmes will need to take a systems approach to enable consideration of the trade-offs, risks and mitigations associated with different approaches using tools and approaches such as life cycle analysis and impact assessments where appropriate.
We encourage you to engage with research users in the conception and implementation of the proposed projects to maximise research impact where appropriate. These can include:
- industrial partners
- research institutes
- third sector organisations
UKRI’s environmental sustainability strategy lays out our ambition to actively lead environmental sustainability across our sectors. This includes a vision to ensure that all major investment and funding decisions we make are directly informed by environmental sustainability, recognising environmental benefits as well as potential for environmental harm.
In alignment with this, UKRI is tackling the challenge of environmental sustainability through our ‘building a green future’ strategic theme. This aims to develop whole-systems solutions to improve the health of our environment and deliver net zero, securing prosperity across the whole of the UK.
Environmental sustainability is a broad term but may include consideration of such broad areas as:
- reducing carbon emissions
- protecting and enhancing the natural environment and biodiversity
- waste or pollution elimination
- resource efficiency and a circular economy
EPSRC (on behalf of UKRI) expects programmes to embed careful consideration of environmental sustainability at all stages of the research and innovation process and throughout the lifetime of the grant.
Programmes should ensure that environmental impact and mitigation of the proposed research approaches and programme operations, as well as the associated project outputs and outcomes, is considered. Programmes must also seek opportunities to influence others and leave a legacy of environmental sustainability within the broader operations of their academic and industry partners.
The duration of this award is up to three years.
The full economic cost of your project can be up to £1.8 million.
EPSRC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.
What we will not fund
We will not fund research if:
- the majority of the research is outside of EPSRC remit; we will reject applications deemed to have a majority remit within another UKRI council: EPSRC reserves the right to make such remit decisions without reference to peer review
- the majority of the research programme fits to a singular discipline, with other disciplines being secondary, ‘add on’, or not integral to the research project
- in the digitally enabled circular economy area,k work is focused on the development of ICT that has the potential to be used in the CE, but where enabling a CE is not a core focus and vision
We will not permit substantial changes to the application’s aims, vision or core focus between the outline and full stages without our prior permission.
Equipment over £10,000 in value (including VAT) is not available through this funding opportunity. You should list smaller items of equipment (individually under £10,000) under the ’Directly Incurred – Other Costs’ heading.
For more information on equipment funding, read EPSRC’s approach to equipment funding.
Supporting skills and talent
We encourage you to follow the principles of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and the Technician Commitment.
If your application includes international applicants, project partners or collaborators, visit Trusted Research for more information on effective international collaboration.
Upcoming network opportunity
We will establish a network to support the creation of a new research community at the CE, materials science and engineering, and ICT research interfaces, and to bring together the projects funded through this funding opportunity. The network will support communities working along the same or similar research themes, but will have a stronger focus on community, skills and impact.
The network funding opportunity is scheduled to open in August 2023. Applicants to this research opportunity will also be eligible to apply for the network grant. We expect that projects funded under this funding opportunity will collaborate with the network investment. Applications should build in resource to appropriately engage with the associated network investment and the wider grant cohort over the grant’s lifespan.