Built Environment Technology / New London Architecture Expert Panel
Meeting summaries 2021/22
The NLA’s Built Environment Technology Expert Panel brings together 15–20 London-based practitioners 3–4 times a year. As the inaugural and current Chair of this panel, I have also had the pleasure of summarising our conversations to date. Here’s an overview of these insights, first published by New London Architecture between September 2021 and November 2022. A full summary is available for NLA members.
#1 Built Environment Technology & The Future of London
First published by the NLA on Monday 13 September 2021
The interconnectedness between the built environment and the social, ecological, and economic performance of our cities is clear; well-designed places enable people to live, work, and enjoy life in full; well-planned neighbourhoods enable communities to connect and collaborate; and well-planned urban regions enable populations to thrive within the boundaries of our planet’s precious life support systems.
Technology has always played a key role in defining the nature of these relationships. In many ways, digital technology is just the next wave of tools — like telephones and light bulbs — to help us shape more liveable and sustainable cities. In other, quite fundamental ways, digital technology has created a whole new world of its own.
How should the physical and non-physical environments converge? The answer starts, and ends, with people.
On Monday 6 September, the NLA’s Expert Panel on Built Environment Technology met for the first time to discuss the development of new technologies and the better use of data to solve real urban problems. The panel is made up of diverse people from across the built environment industries, selected by the NLA, with expertise ranging from software development to urban policy. After initial introductions had been made, the panel was prompted to consider London’s most pressing urban challenges, and what role — if any — technology should play in addressing these.
At a macro level, issues such as climate change, economic volatility, and social inequality were front of mind. More specifically, the panel discussed technology’s role in creating a more democratic, pleasant, and sustainable city.
The Democratic City; In broad strokes, the democratic city is about using technology as a communication tool, to facilitate a more inclusive and informed dialogue between citizens and public and private stakeholders.
The Pleasant City is about using technology to improve the everyday environmental conditions and experiences of shared buildings, spaces, and mobility systems — for the collective as well as the individual.
And the Sustainable City is about using technology as an operational tool, ensuring the safe, equitable, and efficient distribution of material and immaterial resources today and for the generations to come.
What’s stopping us? Besides the lack of actual solutions available at the city-level, the panel brought to the attention issues such as skills gaps (in both public sector, private sector, and within communities), poor integration of existing solutions, poor visibility of existing solutions, low levels of engagement across sectors, a public leadership void in the space of defining urban technology for common good, and low levels of creativity in terms of how we use technology to unlock alternative futures.
And of course, there’s the greatest challenge of all: with so many possibilities and barriers ahead, where do we start? Once again, the answer is centred on people. In the next year, we’ll be starting the debate together with the NLA, aiming to push forward the most pressing of the aforementioned aspects — or perhaps the most actionable.
In doing so, we sincerely hope to engage the wider London community of built environment and technology practitioners, to use the NLA as a bridge between silos and as a platform for cross-sector collaboration. As one panel member pointed out, technology is neither good nor bad; it’s exactly what we make it. So — for the sake of our great international city, healthy blue planet, and shared urban future — let’s make it good.
#2 What do Smart London’s programmes mean for the built environment?
First published by the NLA on Tuesday 25 January 2022
London is already a well-established global hub for technology innovation and smart city solutions. While the public sector is driving initiatives to increase the volume of open data, develop online tools for citizen engagement, and prompt business-led innovation, the private sector is producing some of the fastest-growing tech companies in the world and continuously attracting record-high investments.
To further this development, the GLA’s Chief Digital Officer has created a set of key priorities for the 2021–2024 mayoral term. For the second meeting of the NLA’s Built Environment Technology expert panel, we interrogated exactly how this programme aligns (or doesn’t align) with the needs and ambitions of our industry.
Before we go into the details of this review, there’s an important point to be made about the panel’s area of expertise, which came out of our very first discussion; namely, that technology can only be an answer where there is a clear question to respond to. In other words, technology is a means to an end, never an end in itself. With this in mind, the panel is broadly interested on how to use built environment technology to unlock a more democratic, pleasant, and sustainable city — and this approach is reflected in our response to the GLA’s Smart London priorities.
1. Many pieces do not always make a whole
To enable London’s “smart” future, the GLA has outlined an impressive list of initiatives, ranging from an update of the London Datastore to the launch of open innovation challenges to the promise of an Emerging Technology Charter.
Yet even with the Smarter London Together Roadmap, it is still largely unclear how these pieces are going to come together, and to what end.
As one panellist put it, “the initiatives read like a list of solutions looking for a problem”.
From a built environment perspective, there’s no shortage of problems to address; areas at risk of flooding, housing shortages, struggling high streets, toxic levels of air pollution; the list goes on. How do these very real challenges connect with each of the Mayor’s initiatives, and what’s the ultimate (citizen-centred) aim of our city’s “smartification”? In our next panel discussion, we will aim to establish some of these link, providing guidance on how the Smart London programme could bring built environment objectives into sharper focus.
2. Data and insight are not two sides to the same coin
The London Datastore is a repository of more than 700 data sets, making it one of the largest publicly available city data platforms in the world. As a single source of diverse information, the Datastore is uniquely positioned to unveil synergies across the city’s operating layers, theoretically providing citizens, planners, and policymakers with the evidence they need to make sound decisions.
In reality, the impact of any platform is always going to be limited by the quality of its contents, functionality, and user friendliness.
“The world is awash with data, but useful information is hard to come by,” said a panel member with long-term experience working in the public sector. What are the data sets that we need to make better decisions for the future of our city, and how might we present this information as true insights that are easily accessible to everyone, from expert to citizen?
In conversation with our colleagues in the NLA network, we’ll be discussing the potential for the London Datastore to become an “Insightstore” for city-shaping projects.
3. Greater connectivity cannot make up for missing links
At its core, digital technology is a communication tool enabling information flows between people, products, and places. The GLA’s list of priorities are all built on the assumption that greater connectivity unlocks collaboration and innovation, which in turn will benefit the city and its citizens. To a certain extent that may well be the case, but it’s not a solution that goes all the way.
Issues ranging from a high degree of loneliness reported amongst urban dwellers to the massive amounts of carbon still being emitted by the built environment industry all point to a missing link between technological innovation and actual patterns of information-sharing and communication.
“While we’re globally connected, technology is not creating a sense of local community,” one panellist rightly pointed out, while another remarked “we don’t know enough about how to scale green tech in the built environment.”
In working with the NLA’s other expert panels, we’ll be aiming to shed a light on some of these key missing links standing in the way of our industry using smart technologies to achieve the city’s wider socio-economic and environmental needs.
Unlocking the potential of London
Between our first and second meeting, the panel has identified a set of objectives for the development and use of built environment technology, and a series of opportunities and gaps in relation to the GLA’s current programmes and priorities.
In our coming meetings, we’ll be focusing on aligning our own ideas with the thoughts of other expert panels, and on drawing up clear recommendations to inform the NLA’s work on a New London Agenda.
#3 Aligning with the technical competency and net zero panels
First published by the NLA on Tuesday 13 September 2022
The meeting on Tuesday, April 19, 2022, marked the third and final meeting of the NLA Built Environment Technology panel in the 21/22 cycle. This was also our first in-person meeting, hosted at The City Centre.
Previous meetings identified a desire to align with the agendas of other expert panels. For this reason, Arita Morris, Director at Child Graddon Lewis and chair of the NLA Technical Competency Panel, and Ashley Bateson, Head of Sustainability at Hare Lea and chair of the NLA Net Zero Panel were invited to join us.
Technical competency & technology
Morris kicked off the meeting with an overview of key topics for the Technical Competency Panel, in relation built environment technology. The focus on technical competency in the detailed design and delivery of buildings in London started with the Grenfell Fire and its aftermath. As a result of this strategy, a Competence Steering Group backed by the Government, the Industry Safety Steering Group, and Dame Judith Hackett was set up, leading to the publication of “Setting the Bar” in 2020. Morris highlighted the report’s focus on skills, knowledge, and essential training required to carry out specific roles, in addition to a call for general culture change in the industry.
Morris went on to outline the potential impact of tools such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) and DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) on architectural quality and construction efficiency and safety. This brought on considerations for changes in materials and specifications, particularly in relation to meeting sustainability objectives and circular economy principles.
The last point that was put forward was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our understanding of wellbeing in the built environment. Issues such as ventilation, thermal comfort, and mental health have risen to the top of the agenda, with the potential for digital technology to help optimise building performance.
The panel responded to Arita’s presentation by pointing out issues of trust in the adoption of new technologies, and the disconnect between the speed of change in (digital) tools development and the rate of upskilling in the labour force.
Candice LeMaitre commented: “There needs to be a focus on skills and education for people to trust technological and informational outputs.”
On the challenge of improving the complex information management skills of everyone from the steel worker on site to the developer in an office tower, Dr Adam Blaxter Paliwala reminded us that, “humans might be the best technology we have.”
Net zero & technology
Ashley Bateson joined us remotely with a presentation on technologies and techniques for reaching net zero carbon. Starting with the sobering fact that the built environment accounts for half of UK carbon emissions, Bateson presented new policy tools relating to London’s Net Zero by 2030 goal, such as the “Be Seen” energy monitoring guidance, and requirements for “Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessments” and “Circular Economy Statements”.
Digital tools are already instrumental in the creation of embodied and operational carbon analyses, and their importance and use will only continue to grow as we strive to decarbonise the built environment.
New built environment technologies can also help us develop less carbon intensive alternatives to concrete and steel, with engineered timber as a popular contender.
Finally, there’s the opportunity to run buildings more efficiently, with integrated resource management systems, and smart controls that respond to user needs and behaviour. This latter point is especially poignant as Bateson revealed that 50% of operational carbon emissions in buildings are from tenant use of IT & appliances.
The panel was curious to understand what’s driving the net zero agenda in the built environment industry. Bateson listed investors and tenants with strict ESG obligations, and city governments. The commercial sector with high-value investors and long-term business models tend to be at the forefront of the net zero agenda, while the residential sector lags somewhat behind.
Arita Morris, Chair of the Technical Competency Expert Panel, observed that there might be a disconnect between our environmental consciousness for the buildings in which we work versus the buildings in which we live.
Generally, there is a lot that technology can do to help everyone make more informed decisions. With a greater understanding of the environmental impact of different types of buildings, users (from employees to residents) would be better equipped to push developers, investors, and local authorities towards a net zero future.
The meeting’s recurring theme was a view on digital technology as an information management tool, and the issues that arise when a) it’s unclear what we are communicating, b) information is inaccessible to those that need it, and c) information flows are cut short by a lack of integration between project phases, data platforms, and diverse stakeholders.
In order to raise the bar for both technical competency and net zero, it is therefore imperative that we get better at communicating the use of communication technology.
#4 Kicking off the second cycle of panel meetings
First published by the NLA on Tuesday 08 November 2022
The second cycle of the NLA’s Built Environment Technology Expert Panel kicked off on October 31 with an engaging in-person meeting in The City Centre. While returning panel members shared their reflections on the previous year’s experience, new panel members brought fresh ideas and perspectives to the table, altogether enriching the discussion about the role that digital technology might play in shaping our capital’s future.
Barriers to adoption, the importance of metrics, and the opportunities for using digital technology in the context of community engagement emerged as recurring areas of interest, while issues associated with ownership structures and hardware implementation surfaced as new focal points demanding further exploration.
The latter two points are, of course, intricately connected, and both play an important part in enabling (or restricting) the further digitalisation of the built environment sectors.
As our reliance on data and digital systems increases, so do the physical requirements that this technology relies on. We need data centres to house servers and cooling systems, cables under our streets transmitting 0s and 1s, and a myriad of devices to continuously capture and report on the state of spaces, systems, and services. Every component has an owner, and every owner has considerable capital and operating costs to consider and potentially recover, for example by charging users (G. Network) or through advertising (Google). In addition, there is a carbon cost associated with all this technology infrastructure, which makes the continuous expansion of data storage and exchange increasingly unecological.
It may be time to question to what extent a system which is primarily owned by private organisations can operate in the interest of public good, and time to interrogate to what degree the business models that currently dominate within the sector are compatible with public interests, planetary boundaries, and wider definitions of value.
We meet again on February 22nd to continue this conversation alongside our other focus areas.