A new study developed by experts at the Centre for Digital Built Britain examines four scenarios for how the construction sector and the built environment will look by 2040. Lead author Dr Didem Gürdür Broo discusses how the choices we make today can shape a better future
While many worried that automation would lead to unprecedented levels of unemployment, the built environment in 2040 is powered both by a growing skilled workforce and supported by automation. More people than ever are now in employment, a change that happened rapidly in response to the Green New Deal and other post-recession measures. The challenges of sustainable digital transformation have drawn Generation Zero into careers in the built environment. They are the products of an undergraduate curriculum focusing on digital literacy and sustainability across disciplines. The stable workforce has enabled an increase in green building and infrastructure projects, such as the change to resilient micro-grids running on 100% renewable sources. This generation is comfortable working alongside AI as partners in decision-making and, thanks to the undergraduate curriculum, continuing professional development and lifelong learning, is highly literate in using data securely for the public good.
If this vision of the future of our built environment is something that you want to see become a reality then the choices we make today are crucial. The arrival of 2020 has brought with it some of the most turbulent global events experienced in generations. Global pandemics, political unrest and environmental disasters have all contributed to 2020 being, for the majority, the very definition of “unprecedented times”.
Driving forces that may affect how the future will unfold
Four Futures, One Choice, developed by experts from the Centre for Digital Built Britain, a core partner of the Construction Innovation Hub, presents four future scenarios for what the construction sector of 2040 could look like, depending on the choices we make today.
Available now in summary form and published later in December as an ebook at www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk/fourfutures, the publication provides a future lens enabling us to view, with clarity and detail, four scenarios of what Britain could look like in 2040, depending upon the decisions that are made now, in these unprecedented times.
It presents us with four scenarios that provide us with an insight into how we can take swift and decisive actions that will not only aid the Covid-19 recovery but also help develop a built environment that supports a flourishing future and reduces our negative impact on the global environment.
In order to develop the scenarios, experts who specialise in the built environment and how it relates to technology, the economy, design and society, came together to imagine, organise and describe different future states.
The four scenarios were developed by identifying potential driving forces and factors that may affect how the future may unfold. These were focused on:
- The SDGs – Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals set by the United Nations that envision a world where the built environment is a platform for the flourishing society and the natural world.
- The Age Dependency Ratio: The number of dependents (aged zero to 15 and over the age of 68) compared with the total (working age) population.
Actions to achieve SDGs
Whatever the demographics of 2040 look like, there is clearly a broad spectrum of actions needed over the next 20 years in order to achieve the SDGs, keep us within targets for carbon emissions and global heating, and save ecosystems from collapse, all while ensuring people are supported through the likely long-term economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In all the scenarios, greater digitalisation is taken as a certainty – the difference between the scenarios is how it is utilised based on the economic model, governance and most pressing need. For example, where the climate emergency had become more acute and there was an ageing population, digital technology has to be deployed primarily to support a shrinking workforce and predict the next disaster.
These are grouped into three areas:
Thoughtful investment in digital technology
This includes a call to make a commitment to build smarter by using smart technologies (such as digital twins) to build efficiencies into the lifecycle of the built environment, enabling improved performance, reduced cost, higher quality and longer-lasting assets, while avoiding algorithmic biases that would exclude people from accessing these benefits.
This points to the need to put people and planet first in decisions about digital technology. Investment in digital technology for its own sake, or for financial value alone, can lead to exploitative, exclusionary systems. It is for that reason that ethical frameworks and standards are so vital to enabling “data for the public good”. The Gemini Principles were developed in 2018 to guide the development of connected digital twins and the information frameworks to support them in order to make better decisions that create flourishing systems and better outcomes for people.
Prioritise decarbonisation and biodiversity
Included here is a focus on Modern Methods of Construction, researching and adopting methods that substantially reduce the carbon footprint of the sector and valuing the natural environment in equal weight to the built environment in order to drive decarbonisation of the built environment.
Starting at the beginning (and end) of the building lifecycle, we can prioritise design for reuse and remanufacture, wherein materials from decommissioned assets are repurposed for future assets. The carbon footprint for reusing steel components, for example, is much lower than for creating new ones.
We need to improve our ability to recycle these components safely and reliably, as well as create a market for previously used materials. This would be part of a larger effort to create a circular economy, in which buildings, services and consumer goods become less and less reliant on the input of newly extracted or manufactured materials and before a product is created there is a known route to reuse or remanufacture it.
Similarly, innovative Modern Methods of Construction, such as offsite and modular construction and a platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly, may offer opportunities to dramatically reduce the waste created and energy used during construction. Digitally managed operations using a BIM methodology and/or digital twins may also help reduce the carbon footprint of assets while they are in service by giving better data about energy use and other aspects of performance, enabling smarter maintenance and longer life.
Governance today for a better tomorrow
In order to achieve this, we need Digital Democracy, which supports wider participation and engagement of UK citizens, through the use of technology, in the decisions that directly impact them and legislation that protects the wellbeing of current and future generations.
Governance can hold organisations accountable for social and environmental wellbeing, especially at times of economic difficulty. While the SDGs set targets for reducing poverty and environmental destruction, Green New Deal-style policies attempt to address both crises simultaneously. If this legislative route were selected, the UK government could increase employment rates while simultaneously upgrading our infrastructure to reduce future carbon emissions.
While we can’t guarantee with any certainty the outcomes our decisions will have, exploring future scenarios helps us identify the direction we would prefer and ultimately which way we should steer. The book sets out suggested actions that experts have suggested would result in a fairer, greener future for all.
Of the four future scenarios presented there are two that are clearly preferable – focused on a sustainable, equal and diverse world within which Britain’s economy, society and environment can thrive. Given the unprecedented opportunity we’ve been presented with, we can’t stand still any longer. We have the choice, let’s make it now. To follow the progress, or learn how to improve our chances for a better recovery please visit: https://www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk/fourfutures
Dr Didem Gürdür Broo
Lead author, Four Futures, One Choice
Centre for Digital Built Britain
LinkedIn: Centre for Digital Built Britain