Homes England development, Northstowe in Cambridgeshire

Carbon crisis or zero carbon opportunity?

We live in a new reality of a climate and ecological emergency. We need new thinking and new tools to enable us to build more new homes, at the same time as reducing our carbon emissions.

At a workshop on 17th October, co-hosted by Homes England and technology pioneer, we explored ways in which digital technology can help us deliver sustainable communities. The backdrop for the workshop was Homes England’s own flagship development at Northstowe, Cambridgeshire.

So what is the new reality? 

We are in danger from the collapse of global society from the impact of climate change within the lifetime of people alive today. The seriousness of the situation has been laid out by Professor Mike Berners-Lee, carbon expert and author of ‘There is No Planet B’. In May 2019, our government responded to this clarion call: parliament declared a climate emergency. In June the government signed legislation requiring the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. However, the latest science tells us we have to do even better than that. 

We are stuck on the horns of a dilemma

We need more homes but these end up contributing to our carbon emissions. Building new homes today increases carbon emissions from the fossil energy they consume and the lifestyles they support. But as Mike Berners-Lee points out, zero carbon communities, which run on renewable energy, and where walking and cycling is the norm, can be better than the communities being built today.

As we re-think how to build sustainable communities, can new digital technologies help us? 

We heard from technology entrepreneur, Dr Stephen Hill, how Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence may help us process data to support better planning, construction and estates management. Chris Jackson from EsriUK showed us the potential of digital twin data – linking projects to global ecological data. I promoted network (‘graph’) database technology, which enables us to see the data through its connections. This is essential as we start understanding the interconnectedness of our lives with the rest of our living planet on which we depend.

Digital technology is already transforming the industry. Individual technologies, from digitally enhanced off-site construction to smart home energy management systems, are being deployed, and increasingly rapidly. However, one area ripe for reinvention is the planning system. It is still fundamentally based on 20th century processes and is cumbersome, expensive and tends to stifle innovation. It is not flexible enough to accommodate feedback, learning and societal changes over the course of projects – particularly over the 10-20 year timeframe for large masterplanned communities. 

We need planning to be more coherent and able to leverage data. We need to elevate the process from being a political football to a team activity.

So, in our workshop, we explored how emerging technologies such as AI, digital twin and network database technology, combined with emerging democratic process such as Citizens’ Assemblies, might create a process which builds trust and harnesses data is a way people can understand and enables team-spirited decision-making between the landowner, developer and citizens.

Is now an opportunity for Homes England to take this particular bull by the horns and show the industry the way out pf dilemma of more homes meaning more carbon? A tough challenge, but if not Homes England, then who? We live in a time for heroes. would like to thank Homes England for their enthusiasm for engaging with industry experts to explore such an important subject; and for the all the participants and contributors who gave up a day in their busy lives to think about the future.