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ODI and Arup collaborate on data-sharing initiative to help companies reach net-zero goals

The built environment is responsible for 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint. Better data sharing could be the key to reducing that

Arup and the Open Data Institute (ODI) are working on the next stage of their project to improve net-zero data sharing to make building projects more sustainable.

Engineering and development consultancy Arup and the ODI have extended their 11-year strategic partnership for another three years to accelerate net-zero data-sharing initiatives in the built environment sector.

The ODI is a non-profit body that works with organisations to build infrastructure and strategies that create trust in data, and was founded in 2012 by Tim Berners-Lee and artificial intelligence expert Nigel Shadbolt

Many countries and sectors are developing strategies to reach net-zero – cutting carbon emissions to as close to zero as they can. The built environment – all of the infrastructure created by humans, from houses to bridges – contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint.

According to a report published by Arup and the ODI last year, that’s made up of a mix of “embodied” carbon baked into new construction, and “operational” carbon used to heat and power existing buildings.

Once you add in the emissions from road and rail transportation, it becomes clear that the scale of our carbon footprint is decided by choices made in designing and running buildings and infrastructure. Finding a way to reduce the carbon impact of buildings over their lifetime could therefore have a significant impact.

And while companies are getting better at recording this data, the report warned it’s often in scattered spreadsheets, ad-hoc research projects, proprietary databases and conflicting calculations, which means targets are hard to both set or measure. Even with the expansion of AI powered by big data, the internet of things, sensor networks, real-time data sources, and questions over standards, privacy and governance can limit data sharing and reuse, it warned.

Read more net-zero initiatives

In the next stage of the project, Arup and the ODI are looking to simplify and accelerate the flow of net-zero information across the value chain that runs from design and construction through to running infrastructure and even demolishing it.  

There are already a number of data-sharing initiatives in the built environment working to reduce carbon emissions, including the Open Climate Data Initiative and Open Net Zero. The idea is not to create another initiative, but to help connect existing initiatives, and if needed, develop new data-sharing infrastructure.

Josh D’Addario, project lead and principal consultant at the ODI, said organisations are already trying to align their internal data strategies with their net-zero and sustainability strategies. A big part of what that means in practice is sharing data they produce and collect.

“There’s a lot of desire to be involved in more data sharing and a lot of desire to have access to net-zero data that will help organisations hit their targets, and we want to help with that,” he told Computer Weekly.

“There are lots of new initiatives out there looking to tackle many different goals across the net-zero space, from improving carbon reporting to enhancing investment in renewables,” added D’Addario. “However, there are still silos between these initiatives and a desire and need to share more data across these initiatives and organisations.

“We are data-sharing experts; we are working with Arup to be like a connecting thread across different initiatives,” he said. “So, in this phase, we want to understand how to best break down silos between initiatives, encourage further data sharing and ultimately help reduce carbon emissions in the build environment.”

Part of that involves connecting with organisations, and understanding the existing data flows and services. “What we want to do is talk to these organisations and understand how they are sharing data right now: how they want to share data, and what problems they are trying to solve,” said D’Addario.

Collaborative data innovation

It helps to have external organisations map that out, make those connections, and see where there might be synergies, efficiencies and opportunities for more data sharing or more collaborative data innovation around net-zero, he added. “We know that there are organisations doing bits of this; we know that there are lots of silos and fragmentation, so we are here to do our part and see how we can further connect this very nebulous and complex ecosystem,” said D’Addario.

Better data and more data sharing should help organisations to understand how to reduce their carbon emissions – whether that’s through using more renewable energy or lower carbon-intensive products, or simply being more efficient with building projects.  

That might mean sharing data about materials and design, or running costs of various types of infrastructure. While some of that data is held by organisations involved at different points in these projects, it’s often not shared.

“Within the whole life cycle of carbon required to build, maintain, run and demolish a building, you can generate loads of insight from that activity, so that requires a lot of data sharing in that lifecycle across a number of different organisations, and that’s rarely been shared in any detail outside of that neat project,” said D’Addario.

And while some organisations can have concerns about sharing the data they have more widely, there are lots of ways to share data in a non-sensitive way so that others can benefit from those insights to reduce carbon impacts more broadly across an entire city or sector, he said, adding that concerns about sharing can usually be overcome.

As the initiative develops, it could see the emergence of new data infrastructure to support companies. That may take the form of new data standards that organisation are sharing data to or publishing data to make those insights clearer, or new data on new platforms.

On the plus side, the organisations involved with building projects tend to be very good at measuring and recording data. That means that now they are focused on reducing their carbon emissions, measuring their actual progress towards those goals should be easier. “You have some serious engineering chops and mathematical and scientific capabilities there, so we see that once they are focused on carbon as a target or improving other elements of their carbon footprint, there’s a lot that can be done,” said D’Addario.

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