Built Environment and Infrastructure

Make It Green: Why Digital Innovation in the Built Environment is Key to a Green Recovery

Make It Green: Why Digital Innovation in the Built Environment is Key to a Green Recovery

By Sam Harrison

This year, StateUp has been collaborating with the Centre for Digital Built Britain at the University of Cambridge and a variety of other industry stakeholders on two major projects: Vision for the Built Environment—published today—which proposes a new way of understanding and managing the built environment, and a forthcoming guide translating its core ideas into the language of policy.

These two documents signpost a new direction of travel for the UK’s built environment sector: more interest in and use of digital innovation, a new focus on human and natural flourishing as a necessary outcome of built environment projects, and a consensus behind understanding the built environment as a “system of systems”, in which every project interlocks with every other in a vast system that itself connects in unpredictable ways with a variety of other systems.

One central purpose of this new approach is to use digital innovation to reduce the impact of the built environment on the natural environment, and where possible, ensure that it contributes to the renewal of the natural world. Buildings have an enormous carbon footprint: they account for 40% of the world’s total carbon emissions. In the wake of the pandemic, governments across the world have started talking about a green recovery: digital innovation offers a path towards this goal.

Used in the right way, digital technology is one of our most powerful enablers for stopping climate breakdown. Now our task is to manage digital innovation in the built environment carefully to contribute to the renewal of the natural world, while mitigating its potential downsides.

How can digital innovation facilitate a green recovery?

Digital innovation offers a variety of new ways to reduce the impact of the built environment on the natural environment. Using sensors and advanced models, we can track greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment and find ways of reducing them, as well as preserving biodiversity as the built environment changes and expands.

It can be used to reduce emissions in:

  1. Buildings: sensors embedded in a building can be used to detect levels of natural heat and light, and then increase or decrease its own temperature and the lighting accordingly.
  2. Traffic: private transportation accounts for 20% of all UK GHG emissions, and also causes air pollution, which is harmful to human health. Easing congestion can reap big gains for human beings and the environment. The city of Moscow has pioneered the use of digital technology for managing traffic flows: using devices in 2,000 traffic lights, 3,500 traffic detectors and 2,000 CCTV cameras, it has set up an adaptive system of intelligent traffic control.
  3. Electricity production: one barrier to the use of renewable energy sources is that they are typically less reliable than fossil fuels, especially those like wind and solar that are dependent on weather conditions. The use of digital sensors in a smart grid to detect and manage a drop or a surge in the amount of available electricity can help to mitigate these problems and make renewable energy a more viable alternative to fossil fuels.

We can also think on a bigger scale. Some companies are making use of digital innovation to optimise resource consumption. We can now use digital technologies to trace and analyse every resource and product as it passes through the world’s supply chains, allowing for circular economies in which products arrive only where they are needed, and waste is always repurposed. Some have suggested that digitalisation could make individual car ownership obsolete: rather than having most cars sit idle at most hours of the day, a single electric car could service the needs of multiple people.

This gives us an all new opportunity to reduce waste. Right now, construction and operation of the built environment accounts for around 60% of all UK materials consumption and 33% of material waste, making construction the most wasteful sector in all UK industry. But in a circular economy, all resources that are extracted are reused, and then their components recycled, for as long as possible to extract the greatest possible value from them over the course of their lives. Digital innovation also offers new means of repurposing spent materials: the Indian company Carbon Craft Design, for example, makes tiles out of upcycled carbon.

Digital technology can also be used to monitor global heating with unprecedented precision. Radar- and radio-based scanners can be used in satellites to track weather conditions. The most advanced example of this is the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Observing System (GOS), which collects data and transmits them to scientific authorities around the world using the Global Telecommunication System. Sensors and scanners can give us entirely new insights into the patterns of our climate, allowing us to predict and mitigate extreme weather events caused by climate breakdown.

Digital innovation can also be used to preserve ecosystems and ensure that people have access to green spaces. In 2017, the Ordnance Survey released OS Open Greenspace, an open dataset mapping green spaces across the UK for use by government organisations, businesses and housing associations. It provides information on the use of green spaces, including more granular detail like the location of footpaths, pitches, parking areas and flower beds.

What are the challenges to a digitally-enabled green recovery?

Digital technology will be an invaluable enabler in the shift towards a more sustainable economy. But we must be aware that digital technology creates its own environmental challenges if not carefully planned and managed, chief among them energy consumption and waste.

Digital energy consumption is rising rapidly, increasing the carbon footprint of digital innovation. And the more infrastructure we add to the Internet of Things and connected living, the higher it will go. In 2018, 8% of the energy generated in the UK was used by the internet. By 2025, the communications industry is expected to use 20% of the world’s electricity. 

The more information is moved into virtual storage, the more data centres are needed to store, process and distribute it. Globally these servers now account for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the aviation industry, and this is projected to rise to 14% in 2040. This trend has been obscured by the tendency to refer to online storage as a “cloud”, as if it were entirely insubstantial and divorced from the physical and natural environment. In reality, data have to be stored in a physical place, in vast computers that run on electricity and need cold air or water pumped around them at all times for cooling. 

Additionally, the hardware needed for digital technology presents its own problems. E-waste is particularly harmful because it often contains hazardous substances like cadmium, lead and mercury that poison soil and water. Whereas pre-digital waste, like paper, can easily be recycled, there is currently little provision for recycling e-waste. 

Reasons for Optimism

This should not discourage us: we have already made concrete progress on improving the sustainability of digital technology. In the UK, for example, the climate change agreement (CCA) struck in 2013 with data providers required the sector to reduce their emissions by 15% by the end of 2020. By September 2019, the sector had achieved a reduction of 17%, although this was not uniform across all data centres: more than half remained behind target. But the demand for storage is growing at a faster rate than these efficiencies can compensate for, and will continue to do so.

All of this serves to underline the importance of continuing to shift electricity production towards renewable energy sources. We are making considerable progress on this front. In spite of the disruption to the renewables sector caused by the pandemic, in the first quarter of 2020 the global share of electricity produced by renewable sources jumped from 26% to 28% compared with the previous year. The workhorse of global renewable energy is hydroelectric power, a reminder of how big built environment projects can play a vital role in ensuring sustainable development.

And we are moving towards more sustainable approaches to consumption and waste. The concept of the circular economy has become increasingly popular in recent years. UK Government recently announced five new interdisciplinary circular economy research centres, to develop more efficient extraction and recovery processes for industrial materials. The pandemic has offered new opportunities to stress-test circular economy initiatives like modular buildings, in which items can be easily repackaged and reused elsewhere. In Wuhan, for example, an emergency hospital was built in just ten days using modular units that were subsequently packed up again for use elsewhere.

So digital innovation in the built environment can contribute substantively towards a green recovery, provided that we are strategic in our approach. Digital innovation can work wonders for the environment: we just need to do what we can to reduce the carbon footprint of digital technology itself.

The UK is seeking to make itself a global leader in the fight against climate breakdown. As of Tuesday, it has the most ambitious targets on cutting emissions in the world, and at COP26 in November it will have the opportunity to negotiate international cooperation on climate action. The UK government has a strong record of driving digital innovation in the built environment sector, and it is in pole position to repeat this for a green recovery. Stimulating a green recovery in its built environment sector would set an example to the world of what can be achieved through the intelligent use of digital innovation.