Opinion

Digital's role in a sustainable built environment

6 November 2020

We, as society, policy makers or decision-makers in the built environment have an opportunity to build back better – learning from the past and present. Four Futures, One Choice

As part of the Construction Innovation Hub’s transformative programme, the Centre for Digital Built Britain has just published Four Futures, One Choice: a report that presents four possible future scenarios for what the construction sector of 2040 could look like. The scenarios suggest actions that can both aid the sector’s Covid-19 recovery and lead to a more sustainable built environment in the long term. Here are highlights from the executive summary.

Global pandemics, political unrest and environmental disasters have all contributed to 2020 being, for the majority, the very definition of 'unprecedented times'.

Where the negative events that have blighted us thus far in 2020 are classed as 'unprecedented', it’s worth remembering that unprecedented need not only have negative connotations. We are also in an unprecedented time for making positive and remarkable improvements.

We, as society, policy makers or decision-makers in the built environment have an opportunity to build back better – to learn from the past and present in order to be able to shape a future that can protect us and help us thrive.

Four Futures, One Choice presents us with a future lens enabling us to view, with clarity and detail, four scenarios of what Britain could look like in 2040, depending upon the decisions that are made now, in these unprecedented times of opportunity. The four compelling scenarios provide us all with an insight into how we can strategise now, taking swift and decisive actions, that will not only aid the Covid-19 recovery, but also help develop a built environment that supports a ourishing future and reduces our negative impact on the global environment.

Four scenarios

Four Futures, One Choice presents four plausible future scenarios designed to help you make better decisions now that will shape the future you choose. In order to develop the scenarios, experts who specialise in the built environment and how it relates to technology, the economy, design and society, came together to imagine, organise and describe different future states.

Scenario A: A legacy of hope

  • The climate crisis is coming under control thanks to rapid decarbonisation and aggressive legislation protecting green spaces and biodiversity.
  • The built environment has been adapted to meet the needs of an ageing population on a warming planet.
  • More communal green spaces for exercise, growing food, volunteering, outdoor socialising.
  • Widespread uptake of digital construction with a focus on human wellbeing and refurbishment, green infrastructure rather than new build.
  • Digitalisation has focused on elder care and supporting a smaller workforce through automation.
  • The green information economy is shaped by the smaller workforce, so efforts are focused in high-priority areas.

Scenario B: Generation zero

  • The climate crisis is coming under control thanks to rapid decarbonisation and aggressive legislation protecting green spaces and biodiversity.
  • The built environment has been highly reconfigured to promote human and environmental wellbeing using green infrastructure.
  • Widespread uptake of digital construction and transparent, secure integrated digital services.
  • The large workforce has been educated in digital skills to ensure a thriving green information economy and civic engagement.
  • Cities and towns are filled with smart devices supporting various needs, e.g. transportation, health care, education, environmental monitoring, infrastructure performance and security.

Scenario C: Resigned to our fate

  • We have passed climate tipping points, meaning that global heating and related environmental crises are out of our control.
  • Uptake of digital construction techniques outside of the early adopters has been low, and the carbon footprint of the sector is still high.
  • Buildings and infrastructure procured to restart the economy in the early 2020s have locked us into decades of carbon emissions.
  • Market-led development of digital technology has narrowed to focus on elder care and automation, but without a clear guiding strategy or focus on public benefit.
  • There is a small workforce, supported in places by automation, but not by interoperable data and systems.
  • Supply chains are still characterised by operational and informational silos.

Scenario D: Too little too late

  • We have passed climate tipping points, meaning that global heating and related environmental crises are out of our control.
  • The built environment has continued to develop with business-as-usual predating 2020, although digital construction has been taken up by industry leaders.
  • Buildings and infrastructure procured to restart the economy in the early 2020s have locked us into decades of carbon emissions.
  • Market-led development of digitalisation without clear guiding principles has led to a wide distribution of smart devices, but low interoperability and low public benefit.
  • There is a large workforce, but a deepening wage gap as resources grow scarce.
  • We are trying to design our way out of a crisis, but have to react to the latest disaster rather than solve the deeper problems. 

Image: 186766181 © Michal Bednarek | Dreamstime.com

Long-term tips

While we can't guarantee, with any certainty, the outcomes our decisions as society, policy makers or decision-makers in the built environment will have, exploring future scenarios helps us identify the direction we would prefer and ultimately which way we should steer. The following are some recommended actions that experts have suggested would result in a fairer, greener future for all.

Thoughtful investment in digital technology

  • People and planet first: setting benefits to people and the planet as the core purpose of the built environment.
  • Value-led procurement: procuring against our own values to change the behaviour of the supply chain, and taking a future-focused approach to procurement to create legacy value.
  • Moral and ethical principles: being held accountable for upholding moral and ethical standards for the data, automation and AI we use, ensuring that it does not discriminate or disadvantage.
  • Build smarter: using smart technologies (such as digital twins) to build efficiencies into the lifecycle of the built environment, enabling improved performance, reduced cost, higher quality and longer-lasting assets.

Prioritise decarbonisation and biodiversity

  • Modern methods of construction: researching and adopting methods that substantially reduce the carbon footprint of the sector.
  • Built vs natural: valuing the nature in equal weight to the built environment in order to drive decarbonisation of the built environment.
  • Circular economy: taking into account how materials and resources within the built environment can be repurposed beyond the life span of individual assets.
  • Join forces: forming strategic partnerships with other industry players/policy makers to deal with the complexities of sharing data and collaborating to develop a built environment that benefits all.

Governance today for a better tomorrow

  • Individual flourishing: making ourselves accountable to future generations for all the decisions we make today.
  • Green information economy: having better data and insight, which can be easily shared, is vital if we are to have a more humane economy where decisions are taken that allow future generations to live a healthy, happy life on this planet.
  • Green new deal: create green jobs that will help to design, build and operate a digitally-enabled and sustainable built environment for tomorrow.
  • Digital democracy: supporting wider participation and engagement of UK citizens, through the use of technology, in the decisions that directly impact them.

Of the four future scenarios presented, there are two that are clearly preferable – focused on a sustainable, equal and diverse world within which Britain’s economy, society and environment can thrive. Given the unprecedented opportunity we’ve been presented with, we can’t stand still any longer. We have the choice, let’s make it now.

To read the report in full, go to:https://www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk/files/20201102_cd_11_2040_summary_document.pdf

The report authors are:

  • Didem Gürdür Broo, Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge; Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge; Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge.
  • Kirsten Lamb, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge.
  • Richmond Juvenile Ehwi, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge; Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge.
  • Erika Pärn, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge; Cambridge Service Alliance, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.
  • Antiopi Koronaki, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge; Centre for Natural Material Innovation, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge.
  • Chara Makri, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge.
  • Thayla Zomer, Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge; Cambridge Service Alliance, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.
Image: 186766181 © Michal Bednarek | Dreamstime.com