Why the UK’s ageing infrastructure might be an advantage in the digital revolution

Kings Cross redevelopment_Matt Kieffer via FlickrThis post is by Chris Fry, director of infrastructure and regeneration at the engineering, design and consultancy company Ramboll. It first appeared on BusinessGreen.

As a global company with a strong Scandinavian heritage, we have long focused on sustainable buildings and infrastructure.  Being based in the UK arm of the business, I am in a uniquely privileged position as we embark on the next technological revolution in infrastructure.  Progress always comes through collaboration and the trading of ideas and technologies with other countries and the UK has unique characteristics that could make it an important player.  I will highlight the UK’s innovation strengths, and they are well known, but I will start with the challenges.

New technological solutions in the UK will have to be embedded into a combination of the old and new infrastructure that supports our complex and capacity constrained housing market, transport system and energy network. This challenge makes the UK a perfect testbed for optimising what we have while improving our environment.

I recall how quickly in my early career the conventional approach to designing flood defences and drainage systems in urban areas was completely overhauled.  Numerous other design and technological breakthroughs since, in renewable energy, transport and city regeneration, have fundamentally changed my industry.  Looking ahead, I think they will be dwarfed by the scale and speed of change we are about to see.

The digital revolution is a powerful route to unlocking immediate benefits in sustainable infrastructure and buildings, and more liveable cities and towns. Green technologies also offer a clear opportunity for reshaping and growing industries, contributing to the global transition to a low carbon economy.

Technology will help the transformation to greener living
There are numerous exciting possibilities where cleaner, more resource efficient technologies could contribute to industrial transformation and greener living. Think, for example, of on-demand electric mobility, automated, resource efficient agriculture and climate resilient infrastructure, such as blue-green streetscapes designed to handle different storm water conditions.

Let me illustrate by looking at a couple of specific technologies.

Offsite construction is seen by many as part of the solution to the ongoing gap between the demand and supply of quality affordable homes for the UK’s growing population.  Using digital design with modular offsite construction significantly reduces carbon and waste whilst creating safer and higher skilled jobs in new high-tech factories.  One modular homes factory in Yorkshire aspires to reduce vehicle movements to construction sites by 90 per cent compared to conventional construction. This will ease congestion and pollution in urban centres that need new homes but already suffer from poor air quality.

Fourth generation district heating is another opportunity to improve urban liveability by heating homes affordably. Technological advances now make it viable to harness many otherwise wasted secondary sources of heat. The second phase of the Bunhill heat network in London will expand its reach to heat another 1,000 homes, capturing waste heat resources via a London Underground ventilation shaft. The proposed Heat Networks Investment Project should see many more district energy schemes like this popping up across the country. The challenge will be to ensure they are designed, like Bunhill, to serve existing homes and businesses as well as new developments.

The UK needs smart solutions to meet its environmental targets
Over a third of the UK’s housing stock is pre-war, perhaps, as a result, more people here live in homes with leaking roofs, damp walls, floors or foundations than the average for Europe and over 40 of our major towns and cities exceeding air pollution limits.  There is a pressing need for the UK to find smart solutions to meet our very ambitious building and heat targets.

Ramboll has joined the new Tech Task Force, convened by Green Alliance, which aims to pinpoint these opportunities and create a policy framework to accelerate their adoption. There will be inertia and practical barriers, so we will be looking at how to overcome them and identify the specific policy levers that can help markets to establish more quickly.

The UK has a long history of applied ingenuity in designing buildings and infrastructure, and making complex and congested networks function, like our busy and ageing roads and railways. Digital technologies create more space for ingenious solutions. And with our world class university and industrial research base, and collaborative approach to working with the best new ideas from around the world, we have strong foundations for the UK to become a world leading eco-innovation hub.

Ramboll is a member of Green Alliance’s Tech Task Force, along with HVM Catapult, Innovate UK, Gambica and Schneider Electric. 

[Image of Kings Cross Gasholder Park, courtesy of Matt Kieffer via Flickr Creative Commons]

One comment

  • The reason for the lack of affordable housing is property speculation and councils getting rid of council housing, including the demolition of thousands of properties, to make way for new-build, which is less energy efficient than the properties they replaced.

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