What’s Smart, Green and Can’t Be Ignored?

It’s more than a buzz word. It’s more than click-bait.  It’s more than fear-mongering and the responsibility doesn’t fall at one single person’s doorstep.  These statements aren’t hot takes; they are indisputable – that much is all too clear now.

In an article published by Unissu on Infabode, Sonny Masero makes a call to action for PropTech to work with Clean Tech as a matter of urgency, as we have ‘less than ten years to act before the damage to our planet’s ecosystem reach the point where it becomes irreversible.’  This rallying cry is particularly important to the property industry because ‘[m]ost of the electricity and energy we consume is used in buildings.  This is one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.’  To put this into context, over 50 tonnes of CO2 is produced when building an average UK house.  The number rises for apartments.  On top of this,40% of UK emissions come from households.  That’s just households.  Now consider the office buildings,restaurants, shops, et al.  Over 50% of these emissions are produced by heating, electricity and waste.  So, it stands to reason that property developers, in both commercial and residential sectors, hold the keys to influencing the general populace in our quest for sustainability.  But, I repeat the earlier sentiment – the responsibility doesn’t fall at one single person’s doorstep.  The property industry can certainly help to set a new standard, but it relies on the application of green innovations from homeowners, tenants, office workers, companies, and so on.

Thankfully, the wheels are in motion; they maybe just need a little more traction.  Masero notes that technology powerhouses have dedicated significant investment to Clean-PropTech solutions, such as Google’s Startups Accelerator for the Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft’s AI for Earth and AI for Good, and MetaProp’s portfolio of companies such as Aquicore, Blueprint Power,
Connect-Homes and Enertiv.  The Times recently distributed an independent publication by Raconteur – Future of Proptech.  This collection of articles includes Nicolette Loizou’s Giving Owners the Keys to Sustainability.  Accompanied by a dramatic photograph of a heavily flooded street in York and an alarming graph that demonstrates the upward trajectory of the projected UK residential CO2 emissions that contradicts claims that we are on the right path to tackling dangerous climate change, is Loizou’s case for sustainability being a collaborative endeavour between technology and humans, and between property managers and occupiers.  Loizou points to arbnco software that ‘analyses,tracks and benchmarks building energy consumption data to enable organisations to identify energy savings and aid retro-fitting.’  Sensorberg, a German PropTech company, is introducing technology that can provide similar information to residents.  Some of the technology is automated and some requires input from occupants, again highlighting that the importance of the human element proves that PropTech should be considered the tool, but we are the solution.  In reference to the role landlords, property managers and office managers will play in the roll out of this type of software, Freddie Pritchard-Smith, Chief Executive of We Are Savvy, is quoted as saying ‘We believe that a smart building requires bothhuman connectivity and technology to successfully analyse the performance of a building.’  Loizou follows this sentiment up by concluding ‘Proptech may be a vital tool in the battle against global warming, but to win the war humans must occupy the frontline.’

A commercial feature by Infraspeak in Future of PropTechechoes Loizou’s sentiments, suggesting that an obstacle facing PropTech and its mainstream adoption is confusion as to the contextual definition of ‘smart’:‘[F]acilities managers may invest in LED lighting that can be turned on and off using smartphones, thinking it will make their buildings smart.  But in fact, LED lights themselves are not smart unless facilities managers are monitoring the lighting system, collecting data and using insights to make informed decisions on future maintenance events.’  The suggestion here is that smart is a three step process – the availability of technology, the physical implementation and the receptiveness of the humans who will ‘interact and deal with technology on a daily basis who need to be aware of how smart can benefit them.’  Sticking with the example of LED lighting that can be controlled from a smartphone, the solution is only as smart as the people who use the system effectively.  Some residents may see it as an opportunity to leave lights on for pets or turn them on when they are away from their home to make it look occupied.  The smartness therefore relies on the resident not simply leaving the lights on and forgetting about them.  From a commercial perspective, smart LED lighting couldn’t be considered smart if people leave lights on in conference rooms not being used.

Many PropTech innovations may lead you to believe that smartphones are the answer to marrying PropTech with CleanTech; however,according to a study conducted by McMaster University in Canada in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the Information and Communications Technology (ICT)industry is expected to be responsible for over 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2040 – up from just approximately 1% in 2007, with smartphones exceeding the carbon footprint of desktop computers, laptops and displays this year.  So, maybe looking to smartphones to solve the problem of carbon emissions isn’t as black and white as it may seem.  Sure, it can help reduce domestic energy consumption and even promote sustainable lifestyles, but at what cost?  When the solution becomes the problem, where do we go?  The energy used to produce and operate devices is expected to create 764 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent this year – over three times the amount in 2007.  Emissions from smartphones themselves is expected to reach 125 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent this year.  When one considers that the UK produces approximately 229.2 megatons of carbon dioxide from cars per year, it is clear that the ICT industry should be held to the same standard as the industries it is expected to help go green.  The article in Anthropocene Magazine notes that several studies have found that less than 1% of smartphones are recycled. As seems to be a trend here, the responsibility must be shared.  Since 2007, Apple has released at least one new iPhone per year.  Apple has received much bad press – deserved or not – for the durability of their devices, in particular,the fixed batteries.  Juggernauts like Apple should perhaps place greater emphasis on long-term quality than quantity,or revise their commitment to fixed batteries. At the same time, consumers should endeavour to curb their obsession with having the latest [insert manufacturer and model here], or at the very least, recycle their previous device.

It could be argued, then, that CleanTech and PropTech can only go so far without each other.  CleanTech needs PropTech to fulfil its potential and PropTech needs CleanTech to protect its reputation and ensure its goals line up with the planet’s most pressing crisis.  While this union of industries seems inevitable, education is an equally important part of the puzzle.  The promotion of autonomous products gives consumers an idea of passivity or absent responsibility.  This could set a dangerous precedent, whereby products are only used to a fraction of their sustainable potential.

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