UK Summit - Viral and Thomas

Viral Desai (associate director, Atkins) and Dr Thomas D Krom (environment segment director, Seequent) will be joining a panel discussion at the UK Business Summit (22 June, London), where they will explore how digital innovation can transform future environmental projects and data management to accelerate the net zero transition. Here, they offer some insights ahead of the event.

EA: How is digital innovation making a difference to sustainability, environmental and energy projects?

TK: All of these types of projects are typified by a massive increase in the amount of data as well as their urgency. Digital innovation is enabling more timely and quantitative use of this data as well as enabling more efficient workflows. The result can be, among other things, a reduction in risk around the projects, as well as enhanced transparency regarding analysis and decisions.

These affect sustainability, environmental and energy projects in a number of ways:

  •  The data revolution – more data, higher resolution data, increasingly collected in real time – means that our understanding of problems is improved. Digital innovation also means that we can have improved understanding in our hands much more quickly – and we can more easily communicate that understanding more transparently to stakeholders.
  •  All of those together mean we can make more timely and better decisions and can get more done with our available human resources. Everyone knows how busy everyone is.

While we are at the very beginning of this, we are already seeing that the increase in data means these sectors are seeing the application of machine learning, with the aim to do two things: first, to improve operations and secondly, to determine patterns that are either computationally challenging or impossible with classical analysis. This means we can get step changes in efficiency.

VD: Digital innovation is ensuring that the environment and sustainability are being considered at the outset of projects. Often in projects I have experienced environmental mitigation as an add-on or after-thought to the design. As projects and tools have become more digital, allowing early assessment and analysis, this is happening earlier, making sustainability and environmental issues more integral to scheme design and development. There is a long way for this ‘environment-led design’ to go and be embedded as business as usual, but strides are being made and this can only mean more efficient, less retrofitting, less abortive work and lower costs for clients.  

EA: How do you envisage this will develop over time – what sectors, practices or services do you imagine will undergo the biggest transformations? 

TK: I think the biggest transformation will be enabled by the increasing integration of IoT and remote sensing into all sectors and practices at all project stages. This in part will be driven by the fact that more and more data types will be "IoT" in character. For example, today we can collect an amazing amount of information while we are drilling, regardless of the type of problem, that is in principle digital when collected. That information goes to the cloud while it is collected and is available for analyses. Naturally there is a need for quality control and analysis, but this can be automated to some degree and machine learning can also assist with that crucial task.

Expanding that idea across the project life-cycle, regardless of sector, means we will see a radical change in how we operate at every stage. These changes will make projects more efficient, improving ESG performance, and also allow better planning so that better decisions, from an ESG and sustainability perspective, can be taken. Naturally it is those areas that are laggards where the greatest gains can be made.

Together these will enable a fundamental change in how operations, i.e decision making and project planning/execution, can and will be undertaken. 

VD: I think the built environment as a whole will feel the transformation. It’s an industry that lags behind in terms of change, but once the various digital practices are embedded and become business as usual, it will open up a world of positive change. Planning, the sector I work within, is a good example. Consultancies have all the tools at their disposal to complete more effective stakeholder engagement, use digital twins, use data to make more effective decisions, but currently, due to a lack of regulatory reform, it lags behind significantly and we are still working very much in an era of documents and 10Mb maximum document sizes. There is a need to illustrate what buildings and spaces will look like, we need the data from the surrounding schemes and applications to help make decisions and we need to understand the change that could happen much more quickly using technology.

EA: What are the implications for improving supply chain management, especially in the light of new rules on reducing scope 3 emissions to achieve net zero?

TK: Since forward planning will be improved as will be problem understanding, supply chain management ought to become more efficient by reducing waste and in general better material management. Furthermore, data transparency and availability will make it easier to find materials with a smaller scope 3 footprint.  The most significant gains however lie in the potential to reduce the footprint from the production and transport of the materials.  Some of that gain can be achieved by making processes more efficient, e.g via digital innovation, but large gains in many cases will require completely new processes.  Some of those processes are probably not feasible without a digital transition/disruption.

EA: Where do you see the greatest challenges to deploying digital technologies in service of sustainability and climate goals?

TK: I see us confronted by two challenges to deploying digital technologies: change of mindset and the digital infrastructure.

People need to not only accept that digital technology is coming, but they need to embrace it and accelerate it. As people usually worry about change, this is hard.

The developing world needs to be lifted to the same level as elsewhere since this is where the greatest growth will be seen in the coming decades. Currently, the digital infrastructure in the developing world significantly lags behind more developed countries. There are also some sectors that lag others, all sectors need to be lifted to best available technology if we hope to fulfil sustainability and climate goals.

VD: I think people – the digital change curve seems to be the hardest to overcome in the industry. Cost is a big issue for both consultancies and clients. Until digital stops being a siloed concept and one that is embedded into projects, with no further costs, it won't be able to achieve its net zero credentials. One important measure I have seen as a consultant is the "so what?" test. "Why should I test this on my project? What benefits will this solution hold for the price? Is it a cheaper solution?" The mindset and behaviour change around digital is required, and illustrating that it is a more efficient way to achieve your goals is important to ensuring that digital is embedded in projects.

EA: What digital technology is likely to have the most disruptive impact on the sustainability sector in coming years, and why?

TK: As we collect increasingly massive amounts of data via IoT, remote sensing and more, it will enable more robust machine learning that will collectively enable disruptive impacts on workflows, supply chain management and facility operations. How the disruption takes place will vary across the different parts of our industry. Just look at what machine learning has done to chess. For example, could machine learning be used to design microbes that could "eat" PFAS?  I think the limits of the disruption lie in our fantasy and ability to collect and collate data.

VD: For me as a planner, it's all about using the tools to create a digital application. So for me data management and how we present that data to the public, to decision makers (Local Planning Authorities and National Government) is key. We need to illustrate to so many different audiences not just the final product but how we looked at alternatives and got to this solution. We need to be able to show transparently how we came to the environmental mitigation needed, and that the solution is by good data management through the lifecycle of the project along with a ‘lens’ at various points to demonstrate that due process has been followed and decisions have been taken. This is often done spatially with databases sitting behind them. Whether you look at land assembly, environmental assessment or stakeholder engagement, data management is key to ensure that these can be presented spatially. This will be disruptive in the planning sector, because it will allow people who are affected by the decisions see how and why practitioners have come to these sustainable solutions.  


Hear more from Viral and Thomas on 22 June at the UK Business Summit: Leading Together for Net Zero Success, where they will be participating in a panel discussion focusing on how digital innovation can accelerate the net zero transition.

Join other business leaders, senior executives, clients and stakeholders, committed to achieving real environmental progress and secure your place at the Summit today.