Few people would dispute the fact that the planet is fast-approaching a ‘tipping point’ when it comes to carbon emissions, which explains why achieving net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050 isn’t just a UK target, but a legally binding responsibility. This ambitious decarbonisation commitment will force multiple industries to undergo transformational change, and a shift in mindset is key among organisations large and small. But what role will digitalisation play?
Laura Wood, Digital Growth Leader at Costain, explores…
Digitalisation – alongside climate change – is one of the most significant developments currently shaping our fast-evolving world. Fourth Industrial Revolution innovations such as 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI), are not only key enablers in business – but they also have the ability to accelerate action to stabilise global temperature increases well below 2°C.
In fact, on the path to climate neutrality, they can promote climate protection, clean air, and the preservation of biodiversity, through greater data collection and transparency, collaboration, control, and informed decision making.
The scale of the potential impact on our climate goals will strongly depend on how digitalisation is managed, what we make of the technologies, and whether we put them to good use. To have impact, digitalisation must be integrated throughout organisational procedures, business models, human behaviour and political action, so cross-industry cooperation will be paramount.
In creating solutions that address the national climate debt and future emissions, Costain has seen a shift in how infrastructure is being designed, managed, and maintained. With more change to come, three key learnings have helped us to lead our customers through this transition.
1. Think ‘big picture’
With all the digital tools and data analytics platforms on the market, it may be tempting to choose the first thing on the rack. By going down this route too early in the process, you’re limiting your solution and not looking at the collective needs, or the broader possibilities. Keep an open mind. A well-considered design solution ensures that you are not dictating how to solve a problem, but that the problem is driving the technology choices instead.
Costain is technology agnostic, meaning that our team purposefully approaches digitalisation projects without preconceptions surrounding which model or configuration will work the best.
This neutral approach promotes agile and exploratory thinking throughout, which typically leads to more optimum decarbonisation outcomes.
2. Look at your data
The outcome of digital modelling is reliant on the quality of the data input, so understanding your dataset is key. Your data must be trustworthy, secure, and resilient. Professional external support may be required to source, prepare, and make best use of the data, but get this right and the results will be just as powerful as the technologies themselves.
Technological advancements in AI and machine learning can then be deployed to maximum impact, increasing the scope, accuracy, and usability of your data. Through implementation, data can pinpoint exactly where emissions are produced, and the actions required to lower or eliminate them. Analytics can also be benchmarked for sharing with others, stimulating more widespread progress, and enhancing the ability to coordinate collective efforts.
3. Make intelligent decisions around efficiency
Greenhouse gases continue to be produced as a result of the ‘business as usual’ operation of on-demand energy systems. With such demand varying frequently, it’s crucial to gain better insight into energy usage, and to optimise the efficiency of these systems to avoid over-generation. This means doing things differently.
‘Digital twins’ – technologies that use real-world data to simulate possible product or process performance – will prove a significant ally. They can model generation peaks, predict maintenance requirements and monitor energy flow in real-time, leading to a reduction in embedded carbon and energy consumption during operations.
For example, it’s possible to model energy systems and infrastructure within smart districts and utilities – even entire national networks if upscaled – by creating digital twins of the as-installed and as-planned grids. Already extremely popular in energy management, electrically powered public transport, and sector coupling, it can play a vital part in any decarbonisation roadmap.
While digitalisation has a huge role to play in helping the UK hit its net zero goals, new technologies will not automatically result in a positive effect on the environmental balance, simply as a result of implementation alone. However, cleverly leveraging the power of digitalisation and designing solutions that can proactively contribute to achieving the UK’s climate-neutral goals, will be critical to achieving net zero and move us forward from where we are today.
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