Digitalisation: Shaping the Sustainability Agenda

accelerating agenda sustainability construction digitalisation

Organisations with ambitious sustainability targets are engaging with clients and colleagues to deliver a better world. In a recently published report from Autodesk titled Digital Sustainability: The Path to Net Zero for Design & Manufacturing and Architecture, Engineering, & Construction (AEC) Industries, companies that are advancing their sustainability agenda are turning to digitalisation to achieve this.

To launch this new report which was developed in partnership with consultancy Frost & Sullivan, a virtual event brought colleagues from across the AEC and manufacturing industries together to discuss how organisations can accelerate sustainability to deliver better outcomes without harming the environment. 

I hosted the session titled Digitalisation: Shaping the Sustainability Agenda and invited speakers to share their own experiences of implementing, measuring and accelerating sustainability in their own organisations and the crucial role technology plays in this. 

Dale Sinclair, Director of Innovation, AECOM, Marius Jablonskis, Technology Manager and Janicke Poulsen Garmann, EVP for Norway and Sustainability, Norconsult joined me to share their experiences of implementing, measuring and accelerating sustainability in their own organisations and the crucial role technology plays in this. 

The time to act is now

Back in the early 2000s, the construction industry spent a lot of time talking about Business Information Modelling (BIM) – exploring what constitutes as BIM, how it can be applied and how to use it correctly before action was taken. Marius Jablonskis, Technology Manager at Norconsult, believes we cannot do this in regards to sustainability. We do not have the luxury of time when it comes to global warming and rising carbon emissions globally. For Marius, Covid-19 has sped up the digitalisation of the AEC industry and interestingly, with the world at a standstill we saw a slight reduction in carbon emissions but not enough. He stressed that we must do much more if we are to respond to the climate emergency, and Marius recommends doing this incrementally project-by-project rather than waiting until we have the perfect method which is ready to apply across all projects. 

A common data environment is key – for project data and the people using it 

For Norconsult, the design and construction phases on many of their projects happen simultaneously. This means a common data environment is absolutely critical when it comes to delivering projects safely, on time and on budget. Using Autodesk’s Forge platform, they have been able to apply entirely digital project delivery methods adhering to BIM Level 3. 

Working in this way allowed the team to reduce 95% of the additional drawings traditionally produced for design and construction on a particular highway project in Norway. They connected more than 100 documents and drawings to their BIM model so project collaborators could access everything digitally. Rather than printing out copies of drawings over and over again, the team worked entirely digitally and, as a consequence, reduced project-related carbon dioxide emissions by 20%. 

For Janicke Poulsen Garmann, EVP for Norway and Sustainability at Norconsult, building on employee advocacy when it comes to sustainability is a key ingredient for success. At Norconsult, all employees understand the company’s sustainability agenda and use this to influence their clients to see the benefits of more sustainable practices on their projects too. When the team are able to see how their sustainable ways of working are making an impact to reducing project-related carbon emissions, they’re inspired to think further about pushing the needle forward even more. Working digitally has many benefits but for Norconsult’s employees working on the highways project, seeing the benefits impacting the world around them for the better were huge. 

Technology needs to be integrated, scalable and data-driven 

Using technology to support and drive forward sustainability means that many companies must also look at how they use integrated, scalable and data-driven practices.  Marius believes measurement is not a goal in itself. Having sustainable practices is key but companies must focus on the overall picture, not just on the sustainable methods that can be measured. 

For Dale Sinclair, Director of Innovation at AECOM, horizon thinking plays an important role in developing a company’s sustainability practices. Technology that supports horizon thinking is particularly valuable – as an example, intelligent sensors in buildings can be used to monitor the sustainability of a building while it’s in operation but it can go much further. It can be used to inform more sustainable methods of working when a similar building is being designed. Being able to share data readily will unlock the door to standardising more sustainable ways of working. 

Energy efficient buildings and moving towards a more circular construction economy are big factors when it comes to sustainable construction practices, but they create complex challenges during the design phase of a project. For clients and asset owners, understanding the benefits of working differently could be the key to unlocking funding for more sustainable methods of working earlier on in the construction process. If clients and asset owners understand the savings a more energy efficient building could deliver during the building’s operation lifecycle – sometimes far greater than the cost of a project – then they may be more willing to invest during the design phase.  

Beyond asset management: The call for a more circular economy

When it comes to technology, Dale believes the convergence of industry and technology is where the real opportunity lies when it comes to sustainability. Nearly half of construction companies who participated in Autodesk’s research study, Digital Sustainability: The Path to Net Zero for Design & Manufacturing and Architecture, Engineering, & Construction (AEC) Industries, are using lean construction (47%) and the majority see its role growing in the future. By minimising waste and increasing quality, lean and modern methods of construction can support sustainability and deliver better outcomes for clients. Access to data is key to realising the benefits lean construction can offer —a common data environment gives teams access to real-time information, streamlining design and construction, and making projects more efficient.

Dale recommends that the engineers designing sustainable buildings and infrastructure should stop using CAD and instead create a 3D ecosystem of drawings. This means that data can flow easily between every stage of the project lifecycle and the AEC industry in total must double down on driving forward reliable data standards. For Dale, the benefits of this are huge – the more you can connect, the more you can automate meaning engineers and designers can focus more time on solving complex issues rather than dealing with a data minefield on every individual project. 

In addition, setting up data in the right way means it can be used in a manner that is sustainable and informative. If we connect data more freely, we can capture feedback from the buildings and infrastructure created that will influence the development of future buildings and infrastructure by applying best practice as well as learning from processes that didn’t go so well. 

There’s no doubt that digital is a key enabler of working in a more sustainable way in construction. Working more collaboratively across industries, supply chains and projects while putting data at the heart of the business will mean sustainability is not perceived as a barrier but instead engaged as an enabler. 

Kristina Poluyanova

As a Senior Product Marketing Manager for EMEA, Kristina brings a rich blend of experiences and insight to Autodesk. With six years deeply immersed in the construction industry across Europe and the Middle East, and a decade navigating the dynamic SaaS landscape, she has a robust understanding of the industry. With a diverse background spans across customer success, product marketing, sales, and strategy, Kristina excels at understanding your challenges, conveying them back to Autodesk, and transforming them into tailored messages that resonate with specific markets. Her global perspective is broadened by residing in three different countries, where she now calls London, UK, her home. Always open to forging new connections, Kristina welcomes networking opportunities. So, if you're in town, don't hesitate to reach out!”