Brian Hills, CEO of The Data Lab, Scotland’s innovation centre for data and AI, discusses the role of AI in tackling the climate crisis and the development of a new tool that will help housing associations and developers to make their properties more energy efficient

Artificial intelligence (AI) is something that many businesses still feel apprehensive about; often concerned that it is overly complicated, expensive or requires a skill set that doesn’t exist internally. Education around AI being a helper and not a hindrance to organisations has been a journey to alleviate such concerns.

Can AI help with tackling the climate crisis?

When deployed well, it has the potential to increase productivity, enhance existing services and expand the reach of an organisation. From detecting fraud to automating data analysis, AI is firmly becoming a route to creating a competitive advantage for organisations globally. But identifying the “sweet spot” where AI can benefit the business is often one of the biggest hurdles.

The climate crisis and the race to net zero are high on the agenda for many organisations (with net zero targets to be achieved by 2050 for the UK and 2045 for Scotland). Accomplishing the latter will require a herculean effort from government, businesses and individuals in changing behaviours and processes. While prioritising the circular economy and changing consumer behaviours will play their respective roles, reports from McKinsey and The Alan Turing Institute detail how climate technology that makes use of AI could be critical in stopping climate change.

Energy use in homes is responsible for 14% of UK emissions

When it comes to the built environment and construction industries, energy management is a must in tackling the climate crisis. In 2019, the Committee on Climate Change published a report noting that energy use in homes accounts for about 14% of UK greenhouse gas emissions – a major contributor to the climate crisis. Better insulation of properties is one route to reducing this figure. But while this is something easily done in new build properties, it is less so for existing housing stock.

It is in this case that we are supporting Dundee-based IRT, which works with housing developers and associations to make their property portfolio more energy efficient through thermal imaging data capture and analysis. The organisation already has a unique framework to process and analyse thermal images to estimate heat loss in homes for the 300-500 properties it processes per day. Processing and analysing these images, which includes removing unwanted elements such as windows and doors (where currently reflections could be confused for heat loss), or neighbouring houses and cars, has been a highly time-intensive job for its team.

AI solution that can speed up pre-processing of images by 10x

IRT was keen to develop an AI solution to remove this “manual lifting” from its team workload. The company, therefore, engaged us and Robert Gordon University (RGU) to gain access to funding and skills to create a solution that is expected to speed up the pre-processing of images by 10x. RGU is now building this solution with a team of data scientists headed up by Eyad Elyan, professor of machine learning and computer vision. Once complete and live later this year, the IRT team will be able to focus more of their time on analysing the processed data and enabling them to drive more value across the organisation.

The AI solution will also benefit IRT’s customers, as they will be able to understand the energy performance of their portfolios faster than ever. Should they find that any of it suffers from excessive heat loss, the new solution will give comprehensive insight to shape and strengthen future retrofit funding applications through a data-informed approach, securing increased validity on the retrofit need and result per property. It is hoped that IRT’s solution will accelerate the decarbonisation of the UK’s built environment and improve the quality of housing stock in the UK while reducing energy bills for consumers.

Creating social, economic and environmental change

It is projects like this that we are pleased to fund that create societal, economic and environmental change. When The Data Lab – Scotland’s innovation centre for data and AI – was established in 2014, it was to champion innovation as well as build skills and grow talent. The team has established an extremely strong network in that time, which includes businesses, public sector organisations and universities, all working together with a clear focus on making Scotland the global leader in data innovation.

Scotland’s innovation centre ecosystem – of which there are seven centres – regularly collaborates to share insights and learning. From AI, healthcare to industrial biotechnology, the centres bring together academia and industry to solve challenges seen in industry. The climate emergency and journey to net zero are two such topics we are looking at across the ecosystem and The Data Lab and Built Environment – Smarter Transformation are exploring the role of AI in supporting the built environment to work towards finding solutions that benefit all.

Tackling the global climate crisis requires pioneering collaboration across sectors and nations. In partnership with our innovation centre network, Scottish innovation ecosystem and beyond, we are determined to use data and AI to create new insight, action and opportunity that enables us to move forward in the face of the biggest challenge we face today.


Brian Hills

tackling the climate crisis


The Data Lab

Tel: +44 (0) 131 651 4905

Twitter: @DataLabScotland

LinkedIn: The Data Lab Innovation Centre

YouTube: The Data Lab

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