Solving Sustainability: Are Digital Technologies the Way Forward?

As global growth surges, it is important to acknowledge, understand and react to the strains that industries place on our environment.

Whether these strains be on the environment itself, existing infrastructure or on individuals – effects are becoming more noticeable with the massive growth we have seen across industries in the last few decades. By 2040, the global population will grow by almost 2 billion people, requiring a combined $94 trillion of new infrastructure investment. Understanding the effects of this massive expansion is important for long term sustainability, as it poses significant challenges. Infrastructure companies need to consider environmental indicators like air quality, water usage and resource wastage and doing so is impossible without the help of computer-aided analysis.

With regulatory bodies setting environmental standards for organisations to maintain – there is a clear benchmark for them to reach. In the UK, the government has determined to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, and to halve them by 2025. Yet, if the need for domestic housing, commercial properties, and infrastructure is to be met, the infrastructure sector will need to expand. Fortunately, we are already seeing computer-aided analysis being used in the sector and environmental impact reduced. In the construction process we have seen the use of deep, data-driven analysis in measuring environmental impact. As an inherently physical industry, infrastructure, like many of its peers, lacks the automation and transparency that has allowed more digitally-focused online industries to reduce their environmental footprint. This has left it as the only sector to see no productivity increase during the digital age and it’s therefore a contributor of a staggering 61% of total UK waste.

Digital twins – digital replicas of real-world locations, and a form of this computer-aided analysis – are changing this. Infrastructure projects using digital twins have been able to closely monitor and predict their environmental impact thanks to real-time data. Through infusing data from a wide array of sources, infrastructure developers can provide an accurate, digital model of what is happening in a real-world location. Data can be shared from any IoT device to provide comprehensive real-time information on everything from foot-traffic, temperature to carbon emissions. This real-time data holds infrastructure developers accountable as they have constant availability to the impact their projects are having. Another consideration is that digital twins enable data capture 400x faster than traditional means. In practice, this means that developers have instant awareness of any impact they are having.

An exciting application for digital twins is their use in areas traditionally inaccessible by conventional methods. Digital twins are developed through a wide variety of data inputs, including drone or satellite imagery and LiDAR, allowing for digital surveying of areas that have traditionally been impossible for human surveyors to access. This, in conjunction with analysis, can be used to monitor how a site progresses over time. For example, by monitoring the loss or gain of foliage in an area – infrastructure developers can be held accountable for potential pollution caused by construction. These same principles can be applied to other sectors.

An example that we are already seeing in practice is using digital-sensors in retail spaces. These sensors can be used to generate detailed, real-time data models that can monitor the temperature of the store to regulate it and reduce waste. But this is just tapping the potential that these sensors offer. They can also be used to monitor water usage, carbon emissions and waste from the entire building.

We’re also seeing innovation in different areas equally promise to reduce environmental impact. One such process is modular construction where components are manufactured and pre-assembled before they are installed on-site. Once modules are delivered to site – pre-fitted with plumbing, heating, electrics etc – they are carefully assembled into position on-site.  This reduces vehicle transportation emissions and energy consumption through machine usage. Another innovation is the increases we have seen to material longevity, with an increasing usage of recycled building materials, particularly copper and steel. Elsewhere, new materials are being developed that will last longer and create less need for replacement – one of the most interesting, and promising, is self-healing concrete. Concrete is the world’s most popular building material, however all concrete eventually cracks, and under some conditions, those cracks can lead to collapse. Self-healing concrete would have the ability to repair itself using bacteria without the need for human intervention.

Computers and AI are necessary for accurately analysing the real world’s innumerable daily interactions. The amount of data needed to draw a comprehensive view of how infrastructure is impacting the environment is simply beyond the capabilities of people. The benefits for the infrastructure industry will naturally draw them to these data-driven solutions. However, innovations elsewhere in the materials and processes being used will go hand-in-hand with these solutions. By increasing productivity and efficiencies, reducing costs and improving brand image – there is clear incentive for them to become greener. As organisations adapt to meet environmental responsibilities, it will be interesting to see which digital technologies are used and how they are complemented by other practices.

About the Author

James Dean, Founder and CEO of SenSat. James is a technology entrepreneur fascinated by the way the world works. He founded SenSat in 2017 to enable the greatest step change since the internet; the digitisation of the physical world. SenSat’s mission is to build the third platform, an intelligent eco-system that translates the real world into a version understandable to AI. This technology will help us to build a more sustainable future, using the wealth of new insight to help people make better decisions.

Featured image: ©Malp