In a conservative industry like the built environment, it may be difficult for new technologies, skills and knowledge to penetrate. But the tide is beginning to change. Dr Tanya Filer and Samuel Harrison discuss the StateUp 21 report, which profiles some of the most promising up-and-coming tech start-ups that are working with public sector organisations to modernise the built environment industry
In 2020, the public sector transformed itself from top to bottom. Civil services shifted to remote work by default. Doctors’ surgeries turned to telemedicine. Digital supply chain management became a basic public necessity. In 2021, public sector organisations, from local authorities to national infrastructure agencies, are continuing to rely on digital and emerging technologies to enable almost every aspect of their work.
Start-ups are far from being the only engines of public sector innovation but there is growing recognition of the role they have to play. Yet high quality information on how start-ups work with public sectors is often hard to come by.
To address this gap, we have launched StateUp 21, the first annual publication to provide both data-driven insights into the international govtech landscape and deeply researched profiles of 21 sector-leading start-ups. These profiles are not advertorial; they are independently selected, researched and analysed, drawing from Nebula, our carefully curated, searchable database of almost 500 start-ups working with public sector organisations globally. StateUp 21 aims to help public servants to understand what technologies are available to them, and help entrepreneurs and investors better understand the government technology market.
Infrastructure and the built environment: Our govtech “subsector to watch”
This year, we have designated infrastructure and the built environment as our govtech “subsector to watch”. The evidence behind this decision is clear. The infrastructure and built environment subsector currently accounts for 10% of Nebula. These innovative companies with high growth potential develop and manage built assets and infrastructure (bridges, roads, homes, airports, etc) that will last for many decades. And we anticipate this share increasing as policymakers around the world look to the sector to encourage a green recovery in the wake of the pandemic.
The built environment is the natural industry to lead this green recovery: in the UK, built environment assets are responsible for roughly 40% of the country’s total carbon footprint. Internationally, more and more money is being allocated to address the outsized contribution of buildings and infrastructure to environmental harm. France, for example, has set aside €20bn to make buildings energy-efficient, revamp transport networks and upgrade care facilities, and 30% of the European Union’s €750bn (£650bn) recovery fund is dedicated to “green” projects.
Simple digital expedients like the use of sensors to monitor energy consumption can dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Innovative solutions to waste are being pioneered by digital companies: Carbon Craft Design (UK) upcycles air pollution into building materials. AMP Robotics (US), an inaugural member of StateUp 21, uses automation to make waste sorting more efficient and has attracted substantive venture capital investment. There is more momentum than ever behind the idea of digitalising core facets of our infrastructure and the built environment in order to benefit both people and planet.
Government and policy as enablers of change
In the UK, slowly but surely, the state is beginning to play a substantive role in this transformation. Efforts including the National Digital Twin encourage good data sharing practices – a boon for innovation. Industry-led supply chain and procurement reform initiatives, such as Project 13, which encourages outcomes-based procurement, may also bolster young companies looking to enter this “legacy” – dominated space.
The state also has a role to play as purchaser. Approximately a quarter of construction output is by the public sector, making public procurement a clear vehicle for change. The recently issued Construction Playbook recommends that contracting authorities should use the UK BIM Framework to standardise the approach to generating and classifying data, data security and data exchange, and advocates early market engagement, including with innovation-oriented SMEs.
The smart “enough” built environment
Our research found that 15% of infrastructure and built environments report that they use artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) as core to their innovative tech IP.
While there are many beneficial uses of these technologies for urban inhabitants (as documented in several StateUp 21 profiles) taking an exclusively algorithmic view of urban life will lead to cities that, as Ben Green describes in the Smart Enough City, “appear smart but under the surface are rife with injustice and inequality”.
We therefore support his idea of a “smart enough” city: able to embrace technology as a powerful tool when used in conjunction with other forms of policy development and social change. And we argue, the most impressive start-ups are deeply aware of policy and cultural context, and avoid “techno-universalism” – the belief that (their) technology alone can save the day.
Change in sight
Things are already changing. The $240m acquisition in late 2020, by Autodesk, of Norway-based Spacemaker, founded in 2016 to develop generative design software for outcomes-focused urban development, hints at an industry increasingly ready to rethink its design practices.
Companies that pair cutting-edge digital solutions with green credentials have potential to fare well in coming years. BeamUp (Israel) is one example of a highly skilled multidisciplinary team that leverages AI to bring innovation to the design and construction process, including for public buildings.
But construction is not the whole story: every part of the built environment lifecycle matters. Sustainable building maintenance services, like those offered by Infogrid (UK), a StateUp 21 member, and Plentific (UK), have already captured the attention of the public housing authorities, while Biobot (US) uses data extracted from a long-existing infrastructure system – sewage – to improve public health, revealing the value of data at every stage of the infrastructure lifecycle. Other companies monitor vital utilities: Spacept (Sweden), a StateUp 21 member, is working on a cost-effective platform for early warning and rapid response to vegetation induced powerline disruptions, using software driven by computer vision analysis of earth observation satellite data.
Digital start-ups are also contributing to the planning process. StateUp 21 member Commonplace (UK), for example, is a digital engagement platform that focuses on planning and the built environment. It is unusual in enabling collaboration between public sector organisations (eg local councils, national infrastructure management groups) and private construction firms on the creation of planning consultations. This cooperative approach may result in a more comprehensive understanding of all stakeholders’ points of view, and better outcomes for citizens and the local environment.
Dr Tanya Filer
Founder and director