Sustainability – The Big "S" View

Highlights from this year's Verge Conference
Nov 7, 2014 2:30 PM ET
Campaign: Sustainability

At Balfour Beatty Construction, we take a broad view of sustainability; we refer to it as sustainability with a big “S.” Big “S” sustainability represents a holistic view of the economic, environmental, and social concerns that are so intrinsically linked to every project we touch. Our vision of sustainability is a balance of concerns for profitable markets, environmental limits, and healthy communities. That’s the only way to build things that endure for generations.

That is why the Balfour Beatty Construction team was excited about this year’s VERGE conference that took place at the end of October in San Francisco.

“Sustainability’s Next Tipping Point” was the theme. 1,200 people from corporations and utilities, thought leaders, and city, state and federal officials came together for an essential conversation:

What are today’s new and “radical efficiencies and huge opportunities” for sustainability? What is now possible through new and interconnected technologies? How can we better converge the tech industry with sustainability?

We knew we were in the right place; that’s the same conversation we have at Balfour Beatty Construction every day. So you can imagine the great benefit of connecting to leaders from other cities, other companies, and other agencies that are also immersed in these ideas.
We saw several trends that are gathering critical mass on a very large scale. And, of course, we saw the value of these trends for our clients, in ourown communities and within our collaborative projects. Here’s a short overview of those trends:

Increasing urbanization. Experts predict that 70 % of the world’s population will be urbanized by 2050. The positive side of that trend is that people living in cities have smaller carbon footprints and their quality of life can be increased by easier access to services and resources.

However, the negative side is daunting. The infrastructure of most cities was not designed for this population growth; its use cycle is now far beyond the planned lifespan of 50 - 80 years in many places. In some cases, where the infrastructure is as old as the city, the capacity simply will not support future populations.

Therefore, a very large investment must be made in infrastructure and that investment must be smart. That is, of course, driving the Smart Cities movement – making cities smart by using information and communication technologies to maximize the use and lifespan of the infrastructure. For example, cities may install sensors to know when roads need to be repaired, to track the location and severity of water line leaks, and to provide the real time shifting of traffic to other routes, etc.

In addition, programs (like the Better Buildings Challenge) and mayors across the country are now setting sustainability targets for critical items including energy, water and waste. All that will help the cities meet their long-term resiliency goals. The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events (like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy) have taught cities about the failure of our current electricity grid and the true cost of how long it takes to get back online after catastrophic events.

Everyone knows that those disasters cost many lives and billions of dollars in physical and environmental costs. So mayors and city governments are getting serious about mitigating the impact of climate change on their cities.

The sharing economy – think Air Bnb, Zipcar, Uber, Taskrabbit, Rent the Runway, etc. – is changing our culture’s view of ownership, liability, community, borrowing, etc. Of course, a sharing economy will thrive most in cities, at the concentration of needs, goods, services and skills. That concentration of human needs and the approaching 70% urbanization factor are expected to increase the sharing economy.

Skillshare, a primary example of the sharing economy, is a new concept of sharing knowledge and skills with the larger community. It essentially connects experts with those who desire to learn; it is a digital and open marketplace for knowledge. In fact, it’s also becoming a strategy that city planners are using for the economic & social well being of their citizens. And the digital approach creates less impact on the environment.

Biophilia and biomimicry is taking cues from nature for the design of technology, buildings, infrastructure, and cities. That also means that cities should protect, restore and grow nature and then provide means by which they connect people to the natural world. Biophilic cities provide abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites. One example of biomimicry is the new paint developed by the German company, Ispo, to mimic the properties of the lotus flower and its ability to stay clean. Similar to the lotus flower petals, the micro-rough surface of the paint repels dust and dirt thus diminishing the need to clean the painted surfaces, say on the exterior of a house. To read more on this very exciting breakthrough, check out this site.

Renewable energy. The prices for renewable energy products such as photovoltaics (PV), wind, geothermal, and hydro energy are decreasing. In addition, we are at the cusp of a breakthrough in the storage of power for solar and wind power. Thus the price point of renewable energy is moving toward parity with conventional energy sources such as natural gas and coal.

However, fighting climate change will require radical changes in the utility industry, energy regulatory environment and the adaptation and securing of our current power grid system. As an example, Lisa Jackson, former EPA administrator, now VP of Environmental Initiatives at Apple, told the VERGE participants that Apple is now using 100% renewable energy to power all of their data centers.

Sensors, technology and data mining. The data on climate change is being used to help fuel innovation to measure and manage vast arenas and disciplines. Therefore, one of the “radical efficiencies and huge opportunities” is that the cost of computing and data is now at an all-time low. The data provides knowledge that we must share throughout the value chain. Therefore, it is imperative that we now interpret what it means and act accordingly. 

For example, Anheuser-Busch InBev and other agronomists are using technology to help farmers achieve higher yields. They do so through greater understanding of soil and weather and better management of water. 

All of these trends will impact the construction industry as the solutions apply to the built environment. Naturally, as technology quickly changes we will need to adapt and be more solution driven.

Over the years, our industry has taken a lead role in sustainability for everyone. We had to; we consume the energy and resources, employ the people and touch our communities through the built environments. To do this in the most sustainable way possible we believe we must use all the resources available to us, including technology, to their best and highest uses. Technology will allow us to conserve resources, build smarter, and, yes, deliver the best construction experience for our clients and for our environment.
For more information about these topics and VERGE:
Click here for more detail on the conference’s six program tracks and variety of breakout sessions within each track.