Why the signposts point to sustainable digitalisation

27 Nov 2019

People are starting to question the responsibility, ethics and sustainability of digitalisation, says Morphosis Managing Director Simon Carter. As they do, an emerging movement is growing to ensure we get digitalisation right. What does this mean for sustainability specialists?

It’s been a year since Simon Carter and RICS published Crossing the Threshold: A primer for sustainable digitalisation in real estate and cities.

Since then, disquiet around digitalisation has grown, Simon says, pointing to a host of examples from that “uneasy feeling when clicking 'I Agree’” to the “weaponisation” of social media during the Christchurch massacre, and from the growth of “surveillance capitalism” to the ongoing story of the Sidewalk Labs “smart city” project in Toronto.

In response, big tech is trying to demonstrate it is responsible and trustworthy, governments are creating frameworks for ethical AI and technology, the Australian Human Rights Commission is examining the impact of technology on human rights, and universities are creating centres of excellence around technology and social impacts.

Speaking at the launch of the Sustainable Digitalisation Project (SDP) in late October, the Green Building Council of Australia’s CEO Davina Rooney reminded us that a core outcome of the banking royal commission – the application of an “ought before can” approach – should also be applied to digitalisation. 

Led by roundtables of sustainability and digital leaders in Sydney and Melbourne, the SDP is driving a new conversation about digitalisation in real estate and cities; one that is responsible, ethical and sustainable. 

The SDP is working in partnership with the GBCA, ISCA, GRESB and RICS, and is focused on five objectives: to grow awareness, build a coalition of leaders, bring greater definition to the agenda, help organisations put sustainable digitalisation into practice and set a long-term strategy for the agenda in industry and cities.

Three important initiatives are already underway. The first is to establish a set of goals that “define what the responsible, ethical and sustainable use of digitalisation in cities looks like, especially for the community”. 

The second is to assess the level of responsibility with which technology is used in properties. And the third activity is the development of a set of “sustainable digitalisation indicators” that can be used by investors and investment managers.

Simon has spent two decades championing sustainability in the built environment and observes several significant parallels between sustainable digitalisation and the green building movement.

“Twenty years ago, green building started with a loose agenda, a lack of definition and tools, little regulation, and an industry that largely didn’t care about it. But leaders came together and formed a vibrant fraternity,” he explains.

“We created principals and definitions. Universities played a leading role. Tools – including Green Star and what is now NABERS – were rolled out and institutions like the GBCA established. 

“The business case tightened, education grew and one-by-one the many organisations in the real estate sector joined the movement – first a trickle and then a torrent. And now it is mainstream.”

Many long-serving sustainability champions will recognise this familiar story, and Simon argues that “digitalisation is just an extension of what we have all been doing for some time – identifying, understanding and responding to emerging ESG issues. We have a number of new ones, driven by digitalisations.”

Simon is encouraged by the GBCA’s current work on a credit to embed privacy into the Green Star for New Buildings rating tool. This credit would reward projects that consider privacy during the procurement of smart building technology.
“The proposed credit is ground-breaking and exciting,” Simon adds.

“Privacy is just one of the many ESG issues associated with sustainable digitalisation, but it is rapidly becoming a lightning rod social issue. It is a human right that we forget about in our comfort and complacency, but we need to urgently think about what privacy means to us in a digitalised world. 

“The way in which privacy is addressed as we accelerate the deployment of intelligent building and city technology, and digitalise our organisations, could have great consequences for the feel, amenity, desirability and competitiveness of our businesses and cities.”

While the terrain is rocky, Simon remains optimistic that industry has the skills, experience and know-how to navigate a safe course. 

“At the SDP’s launch, the City of Sydney’s Director of Sustainability, Chris Derksema, noted that this is the scary time for many people as much of the agenda is new, unclear, and without definition or structure. But this is where movements start, and we are finding the leaders required to progress quickly. It’s very encouraging.”

Learn more about the Sustainable Digitalisation Project or reach out to Simon Carter to get involved.