How digital technologies can help landscape architects become carbon neutral


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

In January, the Landscape Institute held the Digital Integration and Transformation event where specialists from industry and academia presented several ways that digital technologies can be used in urban design and landscape architecture practices.

There was a host of talks and workshops about playable cities and urban play, data and democracy, decentralised article publishing, new platforms, tools for democracy, collecting data, analysing data, and communicating data, amongst many subjects.

I had the pleasure of running a creative workshop that focused on employing inclusive design and digital technologies to make the public realm more accessible – using insights gained from two of Calvium’s projects—UCAN GO and NavSta.

It was the call by landscape architect Romy Rawlings that spurred me to write this article. She said that all firms should commit to stopping climate change and act upon this commitment by becoming carbon neutral.

So, today I’ll explore some of the many ways that digital technologies could help us to stop climate change. As the World Economic Forum states, ‘the grand challenge for humanity is to ensure that groundbreaking technologies have a clear purpose for our planet and everyone on it.’

Climate Change and the Global Climate Emergency

According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, with causes ranging from malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and heat stress.

A 2018 IPCC report, meanwhile, claimed that we only have 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Once we go beyond that, the risks for floods, extreme heat, drought, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people significantly increases.

In her talk, Romy noted that the evidence is unequivocal – heatwaves, extreme rainfall and wildfires worsening – and the urgency to change is loud and clear. Yet, inaction seems ubiquitous, with leaders of some of the world’s biggest polluting nations refusing to acknowledge climate change.

It’s clear that as a profession intimately involved with shaping the built environment, urban designers and landscape architects cannot stand on the sidelines.

Digital Technologies Helping With Designing Better Living Spaces

Urban areas are among the hardest to be hit by the effects of global warming. However, a study in the journal Science of The Total Environment reveals that cities encounter issues that hinder them from taking action, such as the lack of policies and programmes, old and failing infrastructure, and low-income levels.

Since 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, urban policies can tip the scales significantly and reduce our carbon footprint. In the face of climate change, how can digital technologies help people design better living spaces, especially in an urban environment?

Let’s take a closer look at some solutions that we can adopt, in our professional or personal lives:

1. Energy-efficient buildings

As we heard at the event, the building sector is the biggest single contributor to world energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings and construction account for 35% of the world’s energy consumption (heating, cooling, lighting) and produce 40% of our total carbon emissions.

The choice of using green construction technology such as solar power, biodegradable materials, sustainable sourcing and green insulation reduces carbon emissions. Smart technology and digital twins also offer new ways to design, build and monitor buildings plus the spaces in between – whatever the scale. As John Adams says about digital twins, “Rather than creating a replica of a built asset, the purpose is to obtain new insights and improve outcomes by using the unique properties of a digital model, in ways not possible with a built asset. New ways of understanding how people use our built environment can be uncovered by connecting, dissecting and analysing these digital twins.”

2. Water-consumption tracking

According to McKinsey, smart technology can deliver a better quality of life in urban areas. However, the consulting firm maintains that “municipal leaders are realising that smart-city strategies start with people, not technology.” The idea of ‘smart’ technology goes beyond the installation of cutting-edge tech; rather, it’s about the purposeful usage of technology and data to improve people’s lives.

When it comes to reducing water consumption, McKinsey found that advanced metering with digital feedback messages can encourage city inhabitants to reduce their consumption by as much as 15%. These sensors and analytics can also reduce water wastage due to leaking pipes in developing countries by up to 25%. 

Meanwhile, pay-as-you-throw digital tracking (like waste management company Biffa’s collection brand called ‘Skoup’) can reduce solid waste per capita by 10% to 20%. With these technologies in place, McKinsey says 25 to 80 litres of water per person every day can be saved and 30 to 130 kgs of unrecycled solid waste per person every year can be reduced.

3. Apps

Of course, the ubiquity of smartphones can be used for the greater, greener good. I’ve previously written on how these apps can contribute greatly to help mitigate the effects of climate change, from monitoring data to helping individuals lead more sustainable lives. 

Here are a few more apps that we can use:

  • Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer — This free Google tool can map a city’s total emission through the use of the search giant’s data sources and modelling capabilities. Think of it as an emissions inventory of 122 cities (as of this writing) around the world. The aim is to help those with resources (e.g. policymakers) create more research and solutions for climate change.
  • JouleBug — This five-star Apple and Android app helps users develop habits that can contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle. JouleBug features video guides, resource links, stats, tracker, and even includes gamification by challenging a user’s friends to reduce wastage. 
  • Buycott — Also available for Apple and Android devices, Buycott tells users which brands are following sustainability standards so they can make informed choices. With its barcode-scanning feature, consumers can discover how much impact on the environment each product brings. They can even share their findings on social media.

4. Tackle air quality issues

Air pollution, by the WHO’s own figures, causes seven million deaths per year with 9 out of 10 people breathing in contaminated air. Meanwhile, more than 80% of urban area residents breathe in polluted air that exceeds the WHO’s guidelines, including the UK

To address this issue, London-based Umbrellium built Pollution Explorers Toolkit (PET)—a set of tools that uses wearable tech, machine learning, and citizen engagement to allow Tower Hamlet residents figure out air quality issues and encourage them to act upon it. 

Umbrellium worked with 300 residents for two years. They found that residents can accurately assess the air quality compared to digital sensors by up to 75%. Even more impressive is the fact that 90% of participants were found to be consistent in their commitment to take action and improve the quality of the air they breathe.

This seems to me to be a tremendous example of real community participation  through the use of a digital platform, and demonstrates how those involved in designing for the built environment can engage productively with communities to design and deliver socially and environmentally sustainable places.

An opportunity to create sustainable neighbourhoods

Responding to the climate emergency is not just a moral obligation but it can be a real opportunity to deliver a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable future for the planet – via our neighbourhoods.

We have many tools and choices available to help us achieve carbon neutrality, digital technology being one of the keys to the toolbox.

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