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Sustainable Digitalisation - how to find out what it means and the opportunities that exist

We spoke with Simon Carter of consultancy Morphosis about ‘Crossing the Threshold’, his new report on digital technologies published with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), to find out what technology may mean for the property, construction and infrastructure sectors.

1. Simon, it's great to see this new report released, so to begin with can you explain what 'sustainable digitalisation' means for the School’s members?

Firstly, ‘digitalisation’ is how we apply digital technologies - from Artificial Intelligence (AI), augmented reality and autonomous vehicles (AV) to big data, Building Information Modelling (BIM) and blockchain - to pretty much anything. The application of digital technology is a megatrend that is reshaping our world. And so ‘sustainable digitalisation’ is simply using these technologies in ways that are responsible, ethical and sustainable.

The concept means applying the basic principles of sustainability, such as identifying and managing environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues that are material to your organisation and stakeholders such as customers, employees or suppliers, now and into the future. This includes working with both the opportunities and the risks; at the moment many people would rather look at the opportunities than deal with the risks. Facebook’s recent USD119 billion one-day share price crash, the biggest in the history of stock markets, is an example of not managing the social issue of privacy.

2. It's been clear that the rate of change around technology has been getting faster - are these changes something to be feared, something to be celebrated, or a bit of both?

It's certainly a bit of both, as digitalisation will be simultaneously loved and hated. It is in humankind’s nature to embrace technology and it offers us enormous benefits in areas such as science, health, lifestyle and environmental sustainability, to name a few. At the same time, its risks are considerable. It is a double-edged sword and if not used with wisdom and care, it could be highly detrimental to cities, society and, ultimately, humankind.

One thing that does make me fearful is the careless, even flippant, way so many people talk about the negative side of digitalisation, and the enormous vested interests that exist. It reminds me of the earlier days of responding to climate change – with certain people and companies trying to confuse the discussion and avoid responsibility - although in the case of digitalisation, our timeframe for action will be much shorter. We urgently need to recognise it as a megatrend with both advantages and disadvantages, and ensure a mature, balanced public and professional discussion on the issues involved and the future we want.

3. How are digitalisation and technology likely to change the property, construction and infrastructure sectors most of all?

Digitalisation is set to transform these sectors with endless technological applications emerging. Let me pick out a few higher-level trends:

  • The property sector will deal in data as well as real assets and we will think in these terms
  • Our real assets will eventually all have a digital ‘twin’ in the form of BIM models and augmented and virtual reality experiences
  • The boundaries between the public and real estate will blur with stakeholders engaged in endless news ways with technologies such as augmented and virtual realities
  • Using big data and the Internet of Things, we will have remarkable levels of control over our assets and cities, with associated cybersecurity and privacy challenges
  • The sector, as will all others, will become super-transparent, with the ESG performance of organisations exposed using digital technologies, including through supply chains
  • Our cities could be reshaped for the better by AVs and shared mobility systems, or private AV models could lead to a worsening of many urban problems
  • And our wellbeing, especially mental, can be expected to grow in importance, as we transition into spending a large proportion of our time in digitalised environments, with alternate realities.

4. Your report acts as a primer - an introduction to the topic - as well as providing a Map of Focal Issues and a Framework for Action. How can readers make best use of this brilliant new resource?

Yes, Crossing the Threshold is intended to prime the sector to consider and discuss the ESG issues associated with the use of digital technologies in real estate and cities as well as how to take action and a leadership role on them. The Map of Focal Issues in the report outlines 24 key ESG issues for stakeholders; an excellent starting point for developing strategy. The Framework for Action provides eight simple things an organisation can do to build its capacity around sustainable digitalisation and begin to provide leadership in industry on it.

The primer has been produced to be an engaging and interesting read, but beyond that I invite readers to pull it apart and use it for engagement and strategy processes. Why not use pieces of it as primer material for workshops and take out the Focal Issue pages (the 24 ESG issues) to use as tools in workshops? What I hope for in return is feedback, so that Crossing the Threshold can evolve as a useful resource for industry. What do readers think of the 24 Focal issues, what others do they think should be included and why?

5. And your top three recommendations for those of us wanting to keep pace - and become more sustainable?

i) Change mindsets around digital technologies: Are you seeing digitalisation as a megatrend that is reshaping our world, alongside urbanisation, globalisation, climate change and resource security? Are you noticing the extent of digitalisation all around you and are you familiar with the technologies? Are you thinking about it in sustainability terms - thinking about both its opportunities and risks and about its short and longer-term consequences for your stakeholders?

ii) Participate in the discussion: Start questioning how we can deploy and use digital technologies. Are we deploying them for the betterment of our cities, communities and humankind, or is it technology for technology’s sake? Are we having a mature discussion in industry and the public realm, where stakeholders are broadly engaged and, importantly, the community is well represented? Are we fully acknowledging the risks while we celebrate the opportunities?

iii) Pause and think ethically: Find space to slow down and really contemplate what is happening with digitalisation. Technology enables us to go faster and faster, demanding more and more technology. We cannot really see what is occurring from within and so ground yourself in the real world and take some time to reflect on what is happening around us. Ethics, in simple terms, is ‘considering and doing what is right’. Digitalisation’s double-edged nature may mean extensive trade-offs – i.e. trading security and privacy for control and amenities. Establishing what is ‘right’ will not be easy and will require some deep thinking and collective discussion.

You can download the new report by Simon Carter and Morphosis, and published with RICS, here:

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