Sustainability is an incredibly broad and popular term in our modern, developed society that encompasses everything from people to nature and, generally, rethinking the way we approach current procedures. It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint where to begin, what to look for and how to navigate through the various complexities that make up sustainability.
For instance, we can start by looking into the built environment and what sustainability means for it. Cities and communities face complex challenges such as housing, climate change, energy efficiency and urban mobility. Yet, more solutions are being offered to address the aforementioned challenges, with digitalisation and technological advancement at the forefront of tackling such challenges.
Through technological advancement, cities and communities are transforming themselves into smart cities. However, can we conform to more sustainable and ethical development methods while still maintaining the status quo?
Well, not exactly: the built environment still contributes an estimated 38% of total global energy related C02 emissions, even when energy consumption from building operations has remained at a steady pace. To achieve the coveted Net-Zero by 2050, the International Energy Agency has estimated that direct building CO2 emissions need to fall by 50% by 2030, which equates to 6% per year.
Moreover, rapid urbanisation remains a key challenge, as an estimated 68% of the world population will be living in cities by 2050. Ultimately, the sustainability and inclusivity of all society must remain a top priority for governments around the world.
This article examines four critical areas that can help the built environment transition to become more sustainable in the future.
Governmental Incentives and Active Involvement
Academia and Educational Institutions
Governmental Support through
Initiatives Government initiatives on cleantech development should create pilot projects to test new technology. Furthermore, governments can use technology to focus on data-driven policymaking, pinpointing areas that need more focus and attention.
Sustainability in the built environment continues to be a significant issue facing policymakers, planners, developers and designers internationally. More emphasis has been placed on green, sustainable development, which has contributed to the intake of cleantech solutions being gradually introduced into the built environment’s fabric, with greater investment being placed in cleantech development. The adoption of cleantech has not only been spearheaded by industry but also has been facilitated by policy and legislation from governments and local municipalities that wish to encourage sustainable development. Both support and direction from governments and local municipalities are critical in directing sustainability within the built environment.
March 2021 saw the European Commission commit itself to producing a sustainable strategy for the built environment by adopting new circular economic strategies for industries. This entailed revising new construction product regulations to introduce new recycling content, including life cycle assessments in public procurement and the EU Sustainable Finance Framework. Lastly, the EU is considering revising its waste legislation to focus on material recovery targets for construction and demolition waste. In this way, legislation and sustainable frameworks will promote a focus on better, more sustainable construction methods.
Transparency, adaptability and better data that can be utilised throughout the built environment sector require input from governments and the private sector to become efficient. Therefore, more trust needs to be garnered between governments and the private sector. Providing free, open-sourced data creates trust and transparency between companies, governments and the public, knowing what their data is being used for.
Additionally, it allows and equips developers to venture out and develop innovative applications, technology and projects that will, in turn, stimulate economic growth within the built environment and society. By creating open-sourced data platforms, companies and individuals who wish to focus on sustainable projects can do so without having to pay premium prices to obtain and create datasets that can be used to develop their smart technology projects. However, it is evident that a large portion of the open-sourced data platforms are still government-led, though increased incentives are pushing the private sector to release and open up their data to become transparent due to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
Sharing datasets between companies can help reduce risks, provide solutions for complex challenges in the built environment and facilitate collaboration between companies and governments that share similar challenges. By identifying high-risk areas in construction through data sharing, each stakeholder can avert risk and become mutually more efficient through the project. The main challenge of creating an open data platform to which both the public and private sectors can feed information is the increased competition between companies that operate within the same sector.
However, to circumvent this, people are encouraged to openly discuss heightening innovation through data inclusion, which will provide substantial commercial and social benefits that far surpass the barriers. Lastly, it also gives companies operating in different sectors an insight into the challenges facing the built environment and positioning their unique perspective on such matters, which is incredibly important when including emerging technological solutions within the built environment, specifically startups that focus on sustainability.
Inclusion of Technological Advancement
Technological adoption can help industries become more sustainable by reducing waste, time and cost. More specifically, this includes the adoption of the IoT, electrification, AI, robotics and 3D printing. The built environment, driven by both sustainability and technology adoption, is critical for the development of future cities.
Technologies such as virtual reality, 3D printing, electrification, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are just some technologies that will help shape a more sustainable built environment by amassing more data to help people make better-informed decisions. Technology has enabled the built environment and relevant industries to transform and reinvent existing business practices, becoming more agile in their approach and thinking. Big data has allowed architects and engineers to easily create and share simulated data.
This has contributed to fewer errors during the design and construction phases of buildings. Furthermore, using data in a shared open-source platform will allow reused project data to be curated by collecting data from different projects that can be applied to future projects. The transition towards a digital economy is fundamental in enabling the built environment to meet carbon neutrality by 2050. Having diverse and close relations between humans and infrastructure using IoT has allowed a better understanding of building performance, which in turn has resulted in smarter designs that specifically suit the end user, reducing the overall carbon footprint. It is also essential to consider smart mobility’s uptake within the built environment and its means for sustainability.
Mobility has transitioned towards more electric methods of transport in recent years, with industry leaders such as Tesla, Audi and BMW, to name a few, developing their business strategies to accommodate more electric cars. This has been supported by the public sector as a whole, with more governments developing their infrastructure to accommodate more electric accessibility. Smart mobility is one example that has impacted how we think about transportation systems in cities, which has led to the shift from fossil fuels to more renewable energy.
Importance of Academia and Education
Education is a process that can help bridge the gap of emerging technologies within the built environment. Adopting sustainable methods of technology, materials, processes and frameworks will allow for more thought, dedication and understanding of how to make the built environment more sustainable. As previously mentioned, digital and technological advances such as Brain-Machine Interface (BIM), big data, and IoT will continue to make huge advancements in industry, changing the landscape and reconstructing the way we previously thought about traditional construction norms. However, this transition cannot just be learned when students and young professionals enter the built environment.
Rather, the educators’ role and the importance of including digital and smart technology in their curricula are essential in bridging the gap between traditional construction and technology companies that have tools that can revolutionise the way we think about construction. Providing a healthy co-adoption of technology in schools so students become better acquainted with technology will help the speed with which the revolution of technology is progressing; however, university and academic institutions may find it challenging to include technology in their curriculum due to cost constraints, disbelief and timing.
Therefore, it is critically important for national policies to promote technology’s potential in the learning processes through appropriate support, guidance, and financial opportunities. Merely imposing policy decisions will often become irrelevant from a teacher’s perspective, as it is not enough to encourage the uptake of technology in educational institutions.
The road to a sustainable built environment is a marathon and rather than a sprint. It will face many challenges throughout that journey. However, with the adoption of new technologies, rethinking the way we perceive the built environment and working with all relevant stakeholders will act as a helping hand throughout the process.
Many challenges face the uptake of digital technology within the built environment, perhaps due to a lack of understanding and knowledge from the construction sector, causing the construction industry to fall behind other sectors. Therefore, it will need to take a multi-sectoral, government-backed approach in positioning incentives to industry leaders, companies, educational institutions, start-ups and SMEs and offering pilot projects showing them the benefits of incorporating smart technologies into the built environment. Only then will the built environment start to transition to more sustainable methods of construction, from supply chain to demolition and recycling, thus creating circular economic models rather than linear models.