Data-driven decision-making for smart sustainability

'Collaborative action will be crucial to securing the changes required to reach net zero by 2050'
Data-driven decision-making for smart sustainability
Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (University of Cambridge), CDBB Co-Investigator (Centre for Digital Built Britain) and UKCRIC Thought Leader

Dr Jennifer Schooling OBE, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) and UKCRIC Champion and Thought Leader, calls for collaborative sector action to build a data-driven, low-carbon and low-waste future. 

To measure is to know. If you don’t measure it, you cannot improve it.

- Lord Kelvin, 1883

Before the current Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, my strategic thinking was very much focused on the global grand challenges of zero carbon, resource constraint and resilience. It still is. The crisis, rather than being a distraction from these issues, throws them into sharper relief. It represents both a major hazard and a great opportunity for achieving real progress against these challenges.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic having a dramatic impact on all our lives, its impact on global CO2 emissions has been relatively small (5-15 %)1. Our trajectory for recovery must not return to pre-pandemic levels – we must do more.

Collaboration is critical. If industry, government and academia work together, we can create a framework for recovery to embed low-carbon, low-waste outcomes into projects, with the potential for real transformation in industry practice. The stakes are high; if we fail, we risk creating an even greater burden for future generations to deal with.

In order to improve performance, we need to measure it. Learning from the real performance of our buildings and infrastructure assets to inform how we design, construct, operate and maintain our built environment is the cornerstone upon which CSIC’s philosophy rests.

Over the last year, we have been working with partners to explore how we can collectively help industry implement this approach to deliver on the zero carbon agenda. Our ‘Smart Sustainability’2 paper has gained real traction, and resulted in us engaging widely. Our round table event, held in March 2020, brought together policy makers, clients and the supply chain to address short and longer-term actions we can take towards ‘Achieving Zero Carbon’, with a focus on pragmatic solutions that can save carbon now. This group and a Cost and Carbon subgroup continues to meet regularly with a strong focus on supporting policy makers. A draft Carbon Code for Infrastructure/Public Sector clients is currently under consultation with industry groups.  

Momentum is growing – the UKCRIC ‘Rethinking Infrastructure and Cities for a COVID-19 World’ prospectus calls for the construction sector ‘to improve the robustness of its modelling of whole life costs in financial and carbon accounting’, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) State of the Nation report for 2020 is focused on net zero carbon, and i3P (Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership) identifies ‘preparing construction for a zero carbon world’ as one of four strategic innovation investment priorities. CSIC is supporting these and other initiatives.

The value of infrastructure in use is substantially greater than infrastructure in development3; smart infrastructure enables us to secure more from existing assets, supporting asset owners to increase capacity and resilience and improve services. Optimising the performance and resilience of our infrastructure estate also allows us to consider no-build solutions. Considering our infrastructure as a system of systems which enables human flourishing enables us to plan and manage infrastructure differently, setting objectives in terms of outcomes for people, society and the environment4.

Our sector needs to innovate rapidly to change the way we deliver, manage and operate infrastructure, bringing the outcomes of the best research into practice much more quickly, and at scale. Infrastructure and construction organisations must recognise the true value of data, adopt smart infrastructure solutions and apply data-centric engineering to operate more efficiently and productively – and embed whole-life value into everyday business. Such innovations offer a competitive edge to UK organisations competing in international markets in an increasingly resource-constrained future5.

CSIC is now planning its research focus for the next five to 10 years. Our future strategy will continue to bring together clients, industry, policymakers and academics to develop the emerging market for smart infrastructure solutions to address the grand global challenges of resource constraint, resilience and zero-carbon. We will work with our industry partners and associated organisations to identify barriers to implementing change, interrogate data and share risks, building upon our convening power to catalyse the transformation of infrastructure and construction at scale.

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that when we need to, we can overcome challenges and act quickly. We now have an opportunity to align our actions ‘with other priorities: climate change, Net Zero, circular economies, resource efficiency and security, loss of biodiversity and global poverty and inequality’6. There has been a swift and effective response from almost every organisation, changing the structure of daily operation to work productively and remotely, and demonstrating the use of technologies in ways that we would all have thought impossible just a matter of months ago. Achieving zero carbon requires this level of response too – we’ve seen the possible and now we have to keep working together to make the seemingly impossible, possible.

 

1 Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 647–653 (2020) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

2 Smart Sustainability: Exploiting data in engineering to mitigate climate change 2019 www-smartinfrastructure.eng.cam.ac.uk/system/files/documents/smartsustainability.pdf

3 Smart Infrastructure: Getting more from strategic assets 2017 www-smartinfrastructure.eng.cam.ac.uk/system/files/documents/the-smart-infrastructure-paper.pdf

4 Flourishing Systems: Re-envisioning infrastructure as a platform for human flourishing 2020 www-smartinfrastructure.eng.cam.ac.uk/news/flourishing-systems-re-envisioning-infrastructure-platform-human-flourishing

5 Infrastructure Carbon Review 2013 www.gov.uk/government/publications/infrastructure-carbon-review

6 Leach JM, Powrie W, Stringfellow A (2020) Rethinking Infrastructure and Cities for a Covid-19 World: A UKCRIC Prospectus. London: The UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC)

Image credit: Chris Liverani via Unsplash