Technology will define the future of sustainability

Posted on: 21 February, 2024

Technology is going to make or break any attempt to achieve a sustainable built environment. Here’s why.

The built environment has a mountain to climb to address its impact on the planet. From the production of CO2 emissions to the amount of waste generated on construction sites, we’re frequently among the sectors causing the greatest damage to the environment, even if the likes of aviation, oil and gas garner the most attention.

Work is underway to reverse the damage. Through innovations like prefabrication, sustainable concrete alternatives,  the implementation of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and the lean methodology, efforts are being made to address sustainability concerns at each step of the building lifecycle.

However, these sustainability challenges are simply out of reach for many businesses, and too broad in scope to address effectively. There are a few key reasons for this.

The sustainability landscape is shifting rapidly

Sustainability isn’t static – it’s a constantly shifting and evolving field rife with innovation. This constant change can make it difficult to keep pace with the latest technological and theoretical advancements, let alone implement them effectively.

What’s more, sustainable innovation also precedes standardisation – in other words, we’re not at a stage where sustainability has as many industry-wide standards as other fields of study.

The shifting nature of sustainability also makes being completely sustainability literate impossible. While sustainability expertise is in high demand, individual environmental experts that are hired by businesses then have to try and implement change and understanding on an organisational scale.

Learn more: Why sustainability literacy is in such high demand

There’s a serious lack of green skills and expertise

Sustainability literacy is just one of the various green skills the built environment is in desperate need of. The acceleration of sustainability in corporate initiatives has created a gulf of understanding where new and existing employees simply aren’t being trained and upskilled fast enough to fill the skills gap.

The built environment is far from the only sector to face this obstacle, and just one of many competing to attract the latest talent. Traditional functions like business and IT are also scrambling to procure the next generation, meaning the built environment will have to work even harder to market itself appropriately and attract potential.

Learn more: Diagnosing the green skills gap: what skills is the built environment missing?

The colossal scale of sustainability data is an enormous challenge

It’s often said that what’s measured can be improved, and in the context of modern enterprise, it’s difficult to imagine businesses making progress on their goals and ambitions without the use of data.

The rise of ESG has made reporting an essential practice for organisations that take their impact on the environment seriously, but it hasn’t made the challenge of sorting through the enormous amount of data any easier.

The sheer volume of data a modern business has access to can be difficult to manage and store, let alone analyse and take insights from. What’s more, the quality of the data itself can be impacted by silos within organisations when departments fail to collaborate effectively, rendering it inconsistent, fragmented, and unsuitable for analysis.

Learn more: Why sustainability can’t exist in silos

6 key technologies that will make built environment sustainability a reality

If our sector is to realise its ambitions of becoming sustainable, we need to be making use of the latest technological innovations and tools. Here are some of the most important advancements that could make a difference to the built environment:

1. Cloud-based collaboration

The cloud is a form of computing that is delivered on-demand over the internet, reducing the need for physical data servers. It’s become ubiquitous with business in the wake of the pandemic, and the built environment is just one sector that can benefit from its potential.

By definition, the building lifecycle is a multidisciplinary process requiring close collaboration across individuals, teams, departments, functions and organisations. It’s also a process fuelled by data and measurements and consisting of multiple objectives, often in competition with one another. While other sectors have already realised the advantages of cloud computing, including improved collaboration and increased efficiency, there’s huge potential for this technology to be adopted in the built environment to great effect.

2. Data analytics

Improved data analytics and analysis can offer benefits for any industry, particularly the likes of construction. Regardless of where a business functions in the building lifecycle, analytics methods like performance reporting, predictive analytics and data visualisation can help optimise processes, enhance quality control, uncover valuable insights and drive informed decision making.

The above aligns closely with both sustainability and ESG reporting – two key drivers for built environment professionals, firms and stakeholders – while also helping businesses take advantage of the wealth of data available to them.

3. Digital twins

Digital twins are a digital model of physical asset, be it an object, person, or process. They’re used for the purposes of simulation in contextualised environments – in other words, monitoring and testing how they behave under different conditions.

Digital twins have proven popular among many industries, including manufacturing, healthcare and retail, but they’re also being applied to the built environment. Digital twins can help design future cities and infrastructure that successfully adapt to changing climates and weather conditions, while also enhancing data modelling and collection processes that improve the accuracy of energy consumption predictions.

Learn more: Building climate resilience into the built environment

4. Building information modelling (BIM)

BIM is the process of tracking and managing information from a project throughout the construction process. It ultimately produces a shared knowledge resource of information about a structure that can inform and track decision-making.

While BIM has become a popular buzzword in built environment technology circles, there are several very real and proven benefits of implementing this process, including:

  • Reduced project turnaround and cost
  • Increased collaboration
  • Greater quality control and safety
  • Optimised environmental and energy consumption performance

5. 3D printing

The applications of 3D printing have grown from simple items like fidget spinners and pencil holders to building materials, components, and potentially buildings themselves. In fact, its popularity in construction has grown so much that it’s predicted to be worth $680 million (USD) by the end of the decade.

3D printing works by making use of computer aided design (CAD) programs and BIM information to understand what it needs to create. The components it produces are typically made of a mixture of geo polymers, fibre, sand and concrete. This technology offers a variety of benefits for the built environment, including a significant reduction in waste and shorter turnaround times.

6. Energy modelling

In a similar manner to digital twins, energy modelling is a simulation technique that is applicable to businesses at every stage of the building lifecycle.

Whether an architect is assessing their initial designs or a construction company is beginning the retrofitting process for an existing structure, energy modelling is a crucial tool that can help optimise sustainability efforts. This tool can analyse everything from a building’s overall energy consumption and costs to system performance, peak demands and CO2 emissions.

Final thoughts

There are some considerable challenges facing the built environment in the coming years. To successfully address our impact on the environment while continuing to build and maintain the infrastructure people need, sustainability has to be more than a side benefit – it needs to be front and centre in any discourse and decision-making process. To make this a reality, keep up with the latest innovations and gain true value from sustainability data, being able to utilise the technologies, processes and tools listed above throughout the entire building lifecycle will be crucial for both businesses and environmental professionals.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want employees that inspire and action change in their careers, UCEM’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship will give your teams the skills they need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship – University College of Estate Management