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12 innovations driving ‘sustainable disruption’ in cities

A week on from the latest UN climate report, PlaceTech looks back on a report identifying impactful, scalable and investable tech that can power urban decarbonisation.

Written at the time of the COP26 climate conference last year, Osborne Clarke’s Sustainable disruption: 12 decarbonising technologies for cities report considered the “arsenal” of green tools available to cities – areas which account for more than 70% of global carbon emissions.

Technologies that support efficiency across key sectors, such as heat pumps, will have the greatest impact on decarbonisation, the report found.

Meanwhile, “smart” technologies like autonomous vehicles and digital twins could also reduce emissions, but evidence on their efficacy “can be patchy”.

The report, written by Economist Impact, broke down the technologies into three categories: buildings and construction, city infrastructure and transportation. Each one was evaluated for its potential impact, scalability and level of investment.


Buildings and construction

Technologies

  • Building automation systems: equip buildings with sensors that scan and adjust operations for maximum efficiency
  • Digital twins: digital representations of a physical object, process or service, which assess what is happening now and what could happen in the future
  • High-efficiency heat pumps: extract heat from the air or ground, transferring it to either heat or cool buildings
  • Low-carbon cement and concrete: alternatives to traditional cement, which have the potential to cut between 1.7 and 2.9 Gt of carbon emissions per year

Benefits

  • Efficiency: heat pumps have the potential to reduce emissions by 1.8Gt annually in urban areas
  • Cost savings: although the cost of procuring and installing BAS globally would cost the commercial real estate sector between $225-312bn, lifetime savings were estimated to be between $1.8-3.1tn
  • Predictive analytics: digital twins can monitor performance in real-time and help planners make decisions about existing and future problems

Challenges

  • Low investment: due to high up-front costs and complexity, BAS have attracted just $324.7m of investment from fewer than 500 investors as of 2021, while private investment in low-carbon concrete totalled $47.8m
  • Awareness: the report argued that while low-carbon concrete is available, there is a lack of market awareness and motivation to change practices
  • Difficult retrofits: heat pumps, for example, require new infrastructure in commercial buildings, such as larger radiators or underfloor heating
  • Cybersecurity: digital twins could be prone to cyber attacks

Osborne Clarke Report


City infrastructure

Technologies

  • District heating & cooling systems: channel hot or cold water to multiple buildings
  • Smart grids & smart meters: enhance communication, automation and connectivity in power networks, predicting and responding to energy use
  • Unified communications: the equipment, software and services used to power communication between and within companies – including voice, video and messaging
  • Waste robotics: tech that sorts recyclables, for example by dismantling electronic equipment

Benefits

  • City-wide efficiency: replacing individual boilers with district heating can lower operating costs and reduce emissions by 6.3-9.8 Gt between 2020 and 2050; smart grids were the only technology to score high on impact, scalability and investment in the report
  • Lower management costs: through automation, smart grids and meters can reduce operational costs for utilities
  • Enabling remote work: better communications technology makes working from home possible, potentially leading to lower carbon emissions, especially by reducing travel
  • Circular economy: waste robotics could slash the amount of new products and materials through automated recycling

Challenges

  • More funding needed: public funding for communication and waste robotics has been relatively low
  • Pre-existing infrastructure: one of the biggest challenges for district heating is working around existing infrastructure in urban areas with minimal disruption – the report suggests using GIS models to choose optimal pipe routes

Transportation

Technologies

  • Autonomous vehicles: self-driving vehicles that rely on AI and sensors
  • Hydrogen transport vehicles: vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel
  • Mobility as a service: apps that give users a range of transport options, from public transport to ride-sharing and e-scooters
  • Vehicle-to-grid technologies: systems that allow EVs to charge and discharge their energy into a power grid

Benefits

  • Understanding mobility patterns: by accessing data on people’s transport habits, public authorities can better understand their cities’ needs and plan for them
  • Source of renewable storage: because some renewable sources of energy depend on weather patterns, energy storage is becoming increasingly important. V2G tech potentially turns car batteries into another form storage
  • New income streams: V2G tech could also give EV owners an additional revenue stream, creating another incentive to go green

Challenges

  • Benefits could backfire: while transport apps could make it easier for people to use fewer cars or decide not to own a private vehicle, there is also a risk that in some cities they could actually lead to more vehicles on the road
  • Security and privacy risks: apps that track people’s movements and habits will raise concern among some users and require adherence to strict data protection regulations from app providers
  • Conflicting evidence: AVs are still being developed, which means there is not yet enough data to determine how much – or even whether – they could cut emissions
  • Hydrogen production: concerns about the cost of producing hydrogen could be preventing investment on a wider scale, and while production can be sustainable, it still often relies on fossil fuels

Claire Bouchenard, IT, IP and data partner at Osborne Clarke in France, said: “Many of the featured technologies are underpinned by connectivity, data flows and software systems. Tech procurement contracts can be a less obvious corollary of a net zero strategy.

“Digital regulation is increasing in scope and volume, so legal and compliance risk from digitalisation may require attention, as will cybersecurity of the business or a digitalised supply chain. Of course, with change comes extraordinary opportunity.

“The global investment community is already focusing on green tech and climate tech. Intellectual property frameworks will continue to protect investment in innovation and help to secure the revenue streams that will power these technologies yet further.”

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