Digital solutions to the climate crisis, 9 February 2021 - summary and what next


Our webinar: Digital solutions to the climate crisis, was organised as part of the our green webinar series. It covered how local government can utilise technology to further advance their ambitions of reaching net zero and tackling climate change.

This overview provides a summary of what each speaker presented on, followed by the conclusions and next steps moving forward.

Over 170 people attended the webinar with four speakers presenting their thoughts and reflections on the impact of the pandemic on council climate change strategies. The session was chaired by Councillor Neil Prior, Cabinet Member for Transformation and IT, Pembrokeshire County Council and Deputy Chair of the LGA’s Improvement and Innovation Board.

Councillor Neil Prior began the webinar by outlining how the pandemic has caused an unforeseen switch in people’s behaviours and attitudes. There is a clear need to continue to embed technology into councils to consolidate and strengthen smarter working programmes, so they are working flexibly, agilely, and remotely. Pembrokeshire council has added a section on behaviours to their climate emergency working group because if we are to reach our goals we need it to start with the individual, and this married with investment into new technologies will be one way of reaching our targets. Organisations have had to adapt rapidly to working at home so smarter working is now a necessity. What kind of workplace cultures will we be returning to when we get past COVID-19? Many of the new ways of working that have helped reduce emissions must stick in whatever the new normal will be.

Susanne Baker gave a short introduction from TechUK and what they have been focusing on when it comes to climate change. The key issues are the sustainability of digital devices, sharing of best practice as members navigate their carbon strategies, and working with other sectors as they tackle their own net zero ambitions. They are focussing on the digitalisation of the carbon industry. The carbon white paper has made it clear that digital technologies will help support the complex energy systems that will emerge as we decarbonise further. Smart charging will be important in ensuring dynamic price signals, to help consumers sustain a stable grid without investing millions into improvements. The Smart Cities group has been launched with the digital twins group – supporting low carbon energy. Digital technology can help other sectors be more flexible, efficient, gather more data to inform strategies, instil trust and increase efficiency.

Ellen Wilson
Sustainability and Smart Cities Lead, Microsoft Public Sector UK

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the technology available.

The PwC and World Economic report proves that ten of the sustainable development goals can be positively impacted by digital tech. Microsoft has history in sustainability – carbon neutral since 2012 through internal carbon fees and experience in biodiversity through artificial intelligence for Earth. This gives technology to researchers and start-ups to help them address problems.

Microsoft revamped their sustainability approach – into four buckets (wastewater, energy, policy and carbon) and implement it through a circular approach to their business through:

  1. Products: Microsoft have built repairability into products to extend their life.
  2. Partners and customers: Microsoft’s partner ecosystem allow innovation to be driven for solutions that enable local government to be more sustainable.
  3. Operations: Moving to the cloud can be 98 per cent more carbon efficient and 93 per cent more energy efficient as Microsoft’s Data Centre’s will all be on green energy by 2025.
  4. Employees: Microsoft have worldwide sustainability communities – people who care and work together to come up with solutions.

A key takeaway from the journey has included moving to the cloud to reduce emissions.

Where do you start?

  1. Look at your operations: A Microsoft Azure Carbon calculator has been developed by Microsoft which allows customers to model a move from an on-premise data centre into the Azure cloud. Where do you get your energy from?
  2. Innovation: There is a need to invest in innovation – smart buildings and digital twins are not cost prohibitive anymore.

Councils can work with their citizens and businesses to foster innovation and engage with the change needed.

It is important to not keep data in silos – share the right data at the right time. It can be so powerful to do this and make a real impact on reducing carbon emissions. Sustainability for cities should be a melting pot – they need to work together through scenarios and show place leadership in this area.

Paul Brewer
Director of Digital Sustainability and Resources, Adur and Worthing Council

The messages around the cloud are invaluable as we make small gains in terms of reducing the impact on the environment. Moving to a fully online assembly, they needed to make sure they were delivering on the agenda to be taken seriously by citizens. The council declared a climate emergency and set out a carbon neutral plan for 2030. Taking a natural capitol approach to showing how it benefits the council as well as the environment. The established programme of activity was agreed, they looked to introduce a climate assembly to engage with people early on, though the pandemic caused disruption to this. They designed a fully online climate assembly. Commissioned suppliers to help and onboarded 43 climate assembly members. Digital shouldn’t be a barrier; it was a fully representative sample. They made sure to understand the levels of digital confidence and made sure that everyone could be included. Introduction to the tech, tests to hardware of what they did and didn’t have to make sure they were all fully engaged. They created a one-stop IT junction to help them, and they gave the IT to those who didn’t have it.

The council identified different tools they would need – Zoom, Miro, Google Docs, Jamboard, Survey Monkey and Slido. In terms of session design and support, a quiet room with a host was provided which helped those who may be introverted. The workshops were quite intensive, so support was always available. Lunches were delivered and ensured well timed breaks were included to help people be renumerated for their time. Being fully online meant that people were able to access all the information easily, they set up a webpage for people to be able to see everything clearly and simply. There is an extensive library of YouTube videos of all the speakers – the level of content was easily and cheaply created. By making all the content and accessibility openly available to all members, the council was able to fully engage with the help of technology.

Ian Caveney
Head of Tech for Good, BT

There is a revolution around mobility and connectivity, but how can this support cleaner air and reduce emissions? BT are looking to build back better by investing in sustainable infrastructure as part of their work in regenerating the places where we live. The connectivity they provide can be critical in helping sectors decarbonise quicker and better and BT’s product and services have already helped customers save on carbon and encourage the sustainable revolution. However, building on these opportunities can be hard as smarter cities can be quite nebulous, you can’t buy them off the shelf. What is important is to look at different types of problems and challenges and build from the bottom up.

BT’s Green Tech Innovation Platform is an example of looking at problems in this way and brings in outside thinking and expertise. They have been running the platform to uncover SME scale ups who are developing new ways of using technologies to build solutions to help customers transition to Net Zero. The different workstreams are driven by product and marketing teams and the aim is to ensure that the carbon abatement benefits are positioned and focused on in addition to normal business case benefits. The different solutions are aimed initially at public sector customers as they are at the forefront of tackling a lot of the big issues that need addressing in respect to climate change.

They are working on solutions by looking to deploy proof of concepts with local authorities. They need to test and learn with partners to make it work in an efficient and sustainable way. There is a constant need to try new things, it is critical in the development of solutions. BT has also had to adapt and learn in the way it works; they need to learn from their partners as much as the other way round.

Brian Matthews
Head of Transport Innovation, Milton Keynes Council

Brian’s session centred around mobility and how Milton Keynes council (MKC) was able to grasp the innovation revolution in their transport and mobility. How are they tackling the issue of congestion with their new growth plans for the city? Some of the questions they asked themselves included how do we make transport electric? More sharing? More autonomy? And more activity?

The council used the city as a test bed to see in the real world how these systems can support the objectives. By doing this, they ensured improved safety, increased capacity, ensuring mobility for everyone, increase productivity and improved sustainable carbon reduction. They noted that delivery robots did not make people lazy, it reduced short distance journeys. Short range car journeys are being reduced by the electric scooters and bikes. Though, the drop pods didn’t work as they didn’t get used. Connecting all the systems was the issue so they have built their own 5G network – looking at new products and services and then looking at how they move into the commercial world.

5G is moving forward the ability they have in digital connectivity – it connects everything to everything else. The national 5G network might not concentrate on some of the aspects they wanted in the city. They were able to test their own capabilities to move the city forward. It has been challenging over the last twelve months, but they have achieved it and connected it to a data centre and built 5G masts. They are running an accelerator programme to exploit the network and its abilities. The project is starting to bear fruit in getting advanced services to test in the city, meaning more investment in the MKC environment. They are looking at specific capabilities and will deploy technology at scale in the city, working in collaboration with partners.

Conclusions

Councils need to work collaboratively to make these green techs work. Digital is a culture, and people have embraced the new way of working as well as discovering innovations. There needs to be real time data to drive efficiencies of this technology and make sure that it is always serving net zero ambitions. Key learnings from the webinar include:

  • Get the architecture right so that you can experiment and get the learning
  • You need to ensure inclusive connectivity is sustained into a new normal
  • Technology companies should be working in partnership with councils while they are exploring how to respond to the climate crisis
  • Collaboration across disciplines is vital because this work is all interlinked. Involving creatives will also make sure there are completely new ideas coming out which will disrupt our norms
  • Digital transformation is incredibly important. This involves new skills, new ways of working and so on
  • We need to make sure that even though we may be more connected than ever, we don’t become disconnected from our peers

Links

BT Digital impact and sustainability report

Microsoft sustainability calculator

Adur and Worthing Climate Assembly Webpage