Data collection, coordination between different urban infrastructures, support to decision-making processes: these are the sectors in which digital and sustainability technologies can provide crucial support to public bodies working on the transition toward sustainable development.
The union of digital technologies and sustainability has become a critical success factor for territorial organisations. But why are digital tech and sustainability often combined? And why are they so important for territorial organisations?
The answer begins with performance: according to a study by consulting services company Accenture, presented at the 2021 World Economic Forum, in the next 12 post-pandemic months the “leaders of tomorrow” predict an increase in profits with a likelihood 2.5 times higher than for other companies, thanks to their capacity to jointly accelerate the transitions to digital tech and sustainability.
If we look into the reason behind such a close relationship, three basic abilities emerge that link the drivers of sustainability to digital technologies:
1. field data collection;
2. ecosystem resource management;
3. hybrid decision-making.
Let’s try to contextualise these three abilities for territorial organisations and especially for cities, attempting to illustrate their concrete potential.
1. Field data collection
This is the ability to collect and normalise “granular” data from the field. These operations are based on IoT, Big Data, and 5G technologies (in combination with devices, sensors, and GPS). Spread throughout the life cycle of the system, product, material, or energy source, these technologies enable more efficient use of natural resources and a better understanding of consumer profiles (“precision” economies). The collected data feed into the two subsequent levels of ability.
2. Ecosystem infrastructure management
This is the ability to coordinate and manage urban infrastructure thanks to collaborative and transactional technologies such as blockchain and eCommerce (often in a cloud-based environment). These allow interoperability between heterogeneous agents that operate within the ecosystem. It is a diversified and complex framework, structured over several levels.
• Mobility. Achieving sustainable and multi-modal mobility requires control rooms that use cognitive tools for simulation and control to manage traffic and flow systems. Implemented solutions include smart location tracking for unused parking spaces, car-sharing programmes, and location services for electric car charging points. There are endless examples, such as the “mobility-as-a-service” management initiative in Helsinki or the Nugo app for public transport journeys.
• Energy. To support the energy transition, local public bodies will have to conduct energy efficiency interventions like, for example, remote and on-demand regulation of street lighting depending on external conditions. But there’s more. They will also have to support the spread of distributed energy micro-production and the use of renewable energy sources as a service, thus facilitating access thanks to blockchain solutions. Even in this case, there is no shortage of examples: TenneT, an energy utility, has launched a pilot project that incorporates storage batteries for electric vehicles into the energy distribution system, while BBoXX is a company that produces, distributes, and finances decentralised solar power plants “as a service” in developing countries.
• Buildings. We can discuss energy efficiency and predictive maintenance interventions but, more broadly, we can think of buildings as the nodes in an intelligent grid that optimises spaces through position sensor and regulates installation management through artificial intelligence and automatic implementation systems, in accordance with atmospheric conditions and residents’ requirements. During the construction phase, the creation of a digital identity or passport for waste and/or surplus materials originating from building sites generates a secondary “material bank” marketplace (such as, for example, the one set up by construction company Royal BAM).
• Waste. Digital technologies help us collect, select, differentiate, and separate materials thanks to intelligent, automated Visual Recognition system. This is the case with BURBA (Bottom-Up selection, collection, and management of urban waste), Europe’s intelligent waste collection project, or with multi-utility company Hera, which optimised waste collection thanks to a management solution based on IoT/Rfid. It’s also possible to collaborate directly with citizens, as in the case of Plastic Bank, a startup founded in 2013 that uses blockchain to support its recycling activities for plastic collected from the sea.
• Green spaces. Safeguarding and expanding our planet’s green lungs is undoubtedly an important goal, that can be reached by getting private companies and citizens involved with “reforestation” activities by buying a tree, receiving updates about its life cycle and working out its ecological footprint. It is possible to do so through autonomously activated web portals or by accessing existing cloud services (Treedom www.treedom.net/en/ and others) – like some local communities and energy companies in Italy are already doing.
• AgriFood. Supporting land cultivation and the supply of local products with digital “precision farming” solutions can guarantee the traceability of crops, the automatic and intelligent distribution of nutrients, a targeted (and reduced) use of fertilisers/pesticides, and timely detection of soil degradation signals. Once again, there are many examples of these practices: Norwegian chemical company Yara, Italian IT company Abaco, the business initiatives by Bonifiche Ferraresi or by Finnish energy company Neste, which traces and certifies the components that feed its biorefineries using blockchain.
3. Hybrid decision making
This is the ability to define guidelines for sustainable development by planning an integrated infrastructure ecosystem that is able to guarantee the efficient use of natural resources for new business models aimed at reuse, service, and asset sharing. It uses cognitive tools operating on diverse and heterogeneous sources, with structured and unstructured data. Concretely, it involves the following actions.
• Planning a city’s varied infrastructure (construction, mobility, energy, green spaces, waste…) in a synergic and circular way, using virtual 3D models and graphical display systems for the data collected in the field, with options (Virtual or Digital Twin) for simulating scenarios, as happened, for example, in Singapore. Possibly the most important aspect is the possibility to collaborate in the planning phase with the various stakeholders (architects, designers, urban planners, companies, citizens, trade associations) so as to achieve a consensus on the territory, designing cities based on the experiences of those who inhabit them.
• Using advanced analytics tools to analyse and interpret the data on resource use and consumption, but also to monitor and check environmental performance consistently with the planning phase. This, for example, can be done using the Circulytics measurement tool developed by the MacArthur Foundation.
• Evaluating development strategies in terms of “natural capital”, between different goals, constraints, and dependencies, requiring advanced artificial intelligence solutions. We must aim for an economic balance that can enhance assets and transactions while also managing complex trade-offs between environmental, social, and economic performance – as set out by the Natural Capital Coalition, a change in step compared to ESG accountability.
In addition to operating in a direct way, public bodies can also operate “indirectly” through their supply policy and awareness-raising campaigns. This approach is no less important, and is coherent with the provisions in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, published in March 2020.
• In terms of public procurement, the selection of suppliers has to take into account their respect for environmental legislation and whether they have an adequate reputation. Furthermore, public bodies will have access to green reputational analysis and analytical scoring tools, based on artificial intelligence – such as RCS Group’s “responsible sourcing” solutions.
• The greatest challenge is creating a widespread sustainability culture by helping and incentivising citizens to virtuous resource consumption behaviors. Ways to achieve this include adopting social media communication to convey messages, creating educational mini-videos, and deploying gaming mechanics to be downloaded through apps… Think for example of the video game Trash Tycoon, developed by US company TerraCycle, which educates users via Facebook regarding recycling, or of Giacimenti Urbani (Urban Deposits), a website providing maps and search tools for people in Milan to find local companies that offer recycling services. And there’s more: starting from individual consumer profiles, it is possible to activate mechanisms incentivising virtuous behaviour, such as, for example, waste management or energy use via blockchain solutions.
Digital technologies as extensions of the physical infrastructure of the city
Urban organisations are vital for sustainable development, considering that the incremental urbanisation process and the increase in per-capita consumption will lead to a significant increase in cities’ ecological footprint. Therefore, the role of public bodies becomes pivotal for designing and managing local infrastructure in support of citizens and companies, enacting and sustaining a cooperative model for development and territorial regeneration (operating in support of communities and SMEs), and communicating with citizens, directing them towards responsible resource consumption behaviors.
Digital technologies and connectivity support this role and have a twofold impact for public bodies: on the one hand, they represent a new infrastructure, access to which must be guaranteed, while on the other they represent the “virtual” extension of other “physical” infrastructure.
There are considerable opportunities, and – to take advantage of these – companies are transitioning from limited use of these technologies (typical of the launch phase) to a structured, systemic approach at the “platform” level, integrating data and expertise orchestrated by cognitive motors – as suggested by strategic consultancy McKinsey and by IBM, a major player in the IT market.
Still, it remains unthinkable that public bodies can conduct these initiatives on their territory autonomously, and more stakeholders in the local context should get involved to promote the “community effect”. Citizen involvement, education and awareness of environmental issues, and a network of support for companies, communities, and businesses are examples of “bottom-up” social innovation that digital technologies help activate.
Work must start from afar, and has to assume the features of a “virtual” urban design of local infrastructure toward sustainable lifestyles. The goals that drive this approach are the conservation and regeneration of the natural capital that is available to communities. In this systemic vision, public bodies act as the motor of a collaborative transition.
Italy is already home to excellent examples that combine digital tech and sustainability, which aim with determination for harmonious territorial development in all its components. The case of Loccioni, a community company developing “smart land” practices in the Marche region, Central Italy, was summed up well by journalist Marco Frittella’s in his book Italia Green, a brief manifesto for the great potential we find in our territory: “[...] the bucolic Marche countryside combined with the digital tech of industry 4.0, energetically cutting-edge and socially inclusive”.