The Digital City


Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire


Our forum 'The Digital City' was held this week looking in more detail at discussions taking place at COP 26.


Panellists tackled issues around reducing carbon emissions, digitising the planning system for greater collaboration and for environmental benefit, and the value of harnessing data to aid research work into protecting the planet.


The following questions were asked: How can gathering data from space help to protect the Earth? How can digitising museum collections prevent pandemics and disease? How can digitising the planning system help to ensure that environmentally-sound decisions are taken around housing and infrastructure developments?


The Chief Executive of Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire, Stuart Grant, Ruth Norman-Johnson, Director, SiteSolve (Ramboll), Watford Borough Council's Infrastructure and Technical Support Manager (Place Shaping), Semeta Bloomfield, .Amber Infrastructure's Principal, Peter Radford and Simon Payne, Founder of Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge all joined the discussion.


Scientists at RAL Space, Harwell in Oxfordshire, have received investment from the UK Space Agency to develop trailblazing technology that will help tackle climate change and predict global disasters using satellites. In total, eleven UK organisations have been awarded a share of just under £7 million of government funding to put into action the latest advances in space innovation. The majority of the projects focus on climate change or environmental management, with others designed to secure our telecommunication systems and protect digital infrastructure against cyber attacks.


STFC RAL Space, in a consortium with NanoAvionics UK, STAR Dundee UK and UK Met Office has received over £80,000 to develop a new small satellite observation system using microwave sensors that will enhance our ability to monitor our planet's increasing weather variability. These observations will support meteorological services to deliver accurate and timely weather forecasts and better react to climate change.


Other projects receiving the cash boost include Global Satellite Vu Ltd, which will build a compact high-resolution infrared camera for satellites to measure thermal emissions form our homes, schools and places of work, helping to improve energy efficiency. The Open University in Milton Keynes will develop the mission concept for ''TreeView'', a forestry and management tool that will support a nature-based solution to tackling climate change by monitoring the health of trees from space.


Stuart Grant commented:


'Harwell is a 100 acre campus with a focus on the energy, tech, space sector and life sciences, and where government collaborates with business and academia. We have 30 universities here as well as private organisations where the quantum sector is new. There is a £180 million allocation to move the Natural History Museum's species and digital resource collection to Harwell. I think 30% of the NHM collection is already digitalised and it will take around three to four years to complete the building of the centre. This will allow scientists all over the world to access the data and will be there for future generations to review. There will be hundreds of thousands of specimens from which scientists can work on tackling our climate challenges.


' There are already 6,000 people working here and £500 million to be invested over the next few years. We want to move forward with homes for our campus people with good amenities, where they can walk across the cricket pitch to work. There is already the plan for 300 homes for rent as well as a hotel with pubs and shops. It will be a unique place with a mix of uses and have a large village or town atmosphere. Brookfield bought into Harwell last year and we expect to grow the number of people working here to around 15,000 over the next few years.'


Is digital innovation the key to making the Mayor of London’s heat infrastructure projects successful in tackling fuel poverty and combatting climate change?


Following the Mayor of London's announcement at COP 26 that he will commit £30 million to the Mayor's Energy Efficiency Fund (MEEF) over the next two years, Amber Infrastructure which runs MEEF, joined Future Cities Forum's climate and data debate to discuss the success of the fund.


The Mayor's statement gives the clear aim that the funding will support projects that further his aim of making London net Zero by 2030. The new investment means the fund could secure over £500 million of finances in its five years of operation, until 2023. Projects will deliver new low carbon technology to upgrade existing buildings through interventions such as retrofitting and installing heat pumps and supporting clean transport through the provisions of electric vehicle charging hubs.


The funds will also help tackle inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. London has some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the country with one in nine London households unable to meet the cost of heating their homes. MEEF's energy efficiency and low-carbon heat projects help reduce energy bills and improve living conditions for thousands of Londoners. They will also support Londoners with the skills they need for jobs in the green economy, rebuilding the capital post-COVID so that it's cleaner, greener and fairer.


The Mayor has been clear that public sector finances alone will not mobilise the investment required to achieve his targets of net zero by 2030 but MEEF demonstrates how London can accelerate climate action through a combination of public and private sector capital investment. Latest estimates show that upgrading London's infrastructure to make it zero carbon could cost £100 billion with retrofitting buildings, heat pumps and delivering a zero- emission vehicle fleet.


On the value of data and new investment into MEEF, Peter Radford said:


'I am delighted to say that MEEF has had a 30 million pound commitment announced at COP 26 by the Mayor of London which will allow us to invest in further projects and deliver energy savings across the capital. It is a big commitment from the Mayor and is made because the previous investment has shown itself to have been successful, so we can now have confidence in investing further. We need that growth in data to demonstrate the success of infrastructure, if we are going to deliver at scale and we have to build on the best examples of those that have been successful. We have just closed a contract with a cab company which has telemetrics embedded so that we can see how far a car moves and how much carbon it has emitted, so that adjustments can be made. it is amazing how data has made all this possible. There are heating start ups that are designing data solutions to optimise and reduce heat loss in your home, and industry should make use of all this data coming up.


'Councils are getting round to using data but industry needs to get more people comfortable with new technologies, as well as seeing how the right data is being collected and interpreted correctly. It is an education programme. It is important for the public to be able to see that for example a ground source heat pump is working and to be able to see new green technologies physically, so they can be better understood.'


Watford Borough Council is one of the local authorities that the UK government has chosen to test new digital technologies to improve the planning system. In June this year, the government announced a £1.1 million fund to test the use of digital tools and data standards across 10 local areas. The planning white paper, 'Planning for the future', published in August 2020, proposed reforms to the planning system to streamline and modernise the planning process.


Watford Borough Council's Semeta Bloomfield, described the aims of its particular pilot, which is to increase engagement with the public around planning through data:


'The foundation of our digital programme is around planning publicity and we want to increase it and make it relevant to citizens. Often the public is notified of developments but the information is too difficult to understand. We want them to proactively get alerts for planning which is usually just by letter or a sign on a lamp post, in the same way that they register for elections, helping them to empower themselves. There are so many things that happen during planning process that they need to know.


' With more information available there are environmental gains to planning development, but we want this made more suitable for all our residents. It tends to be presented on text heavy web pages and not always suitable for lay people and those with low literacy skills, so we have developed a new interactive platform and 3-d modelling to give a full picture and link back to local plan policies.'


The use of digital technology may create greater understanding of local areas according to SiteSolve (powered by Ramboll), which states that its digital tools can quickly appraise the environment and social credentials of a design to understand the financial implication of following different strategies. This means more design solutions can be explored and optimized in a virtual space to really find solutions that work environmentally, socially and economically. The level of details of digital map-based local plans would change the way local authorities can visualize and make assessments of their areas, and with centralized digital context-models, making it easier to make holistic decisions around local strategies for developments. It adds that the move to digitalization brings the promise that it will aid collaboration and communication on a cross-boundary level, particularly around infrastructure. This is important as various infrastructure services, such as transport, are connected to a wider system, meaning improvement for one area may be negated by lack of improvements in another.


Ruth Norman-Johnson of SiteSolve explained:


'With our programmes we aim to bring more information into one place. Our technology can help with understanding key facilities in a city and key pieces of land and help with looking at solutions to problems. It can help explore buildings and the cost effectiveness of sites. It can be hard to understand a particular scheme but through our technology you can play with it and increase your understanding of what it will give you in its surroundings. It allows for better consultation and options across areas and regions and with the impact of developments.


' We are trying to reduce the time it takes people to explore all the information and also provide opportunities to discover green scenarios, for instance in managing flooding. The technology shows how to manage water where trees and green spaces already exist and helps clients, through simulation, adjust their plans from the limited options they already have.'


Simon Payne reacted to the debate:


' I have been in planning since 1974 and it is extraordinary how things have changed, but we must remember that technology is simply a tool - like a pencil - and to concentrate on what are we trying to do. In planning terms we want to engage with people for climate change and quality of life but there are risks in this. It can create paralysis with huge amounts of data to go through. People have different thinking skills and the way in which we present information must vary in order to deliver their needs.


'Some of my work is in Heidelberg in Germany and there is an intelligent energy network run by a company but owned by the council, with data being used to reduce carbon emissions. The energy store is at the Energiepark at Pfaffengrund (a Heidelberg suburb) where, on sunny and windy days, surplus renewably generated energy is converted into heat and stored in the storage tank in the form of hot water (see image below).


' On general when talking about data, it is interesting that there are more constraints in Germany where there is concern around privacy. We are more relaxed here in the UK but I think the Germans' autonomy in running things with council powers to get involved and lead all the infrastructure, water, and waste, is better than our system in the UK.'


The event finished with discussion around the importance of sharing data for future outcomes. Stuart remarked that a strength of Harwell was the cross collaboration on gathering and sharing data and that practice has created a booming life sciences sector. He mentioned the value of the UK having a single health provider and that meant that important data was being gathered every day.


Ruth questioned how the UK could foster better collaboration on data sharing between the public and private sector, while Peter warned that there might be a commercial impact in that, if some data from particular projects wasn't looking so positive. Simon commented that it was still important that the public has more access to data for fairness, while Semeta concluded the debate by pointing to Watford Borough Council's work with the Land Registry. She said that because of digitisation the public do not have to come into the town hall to access information and because the data is being linked up to banks and the property conveyancing teams, this is speeding up the house buying process.



Below: Energiepark in the suburb of Pfaffenburg, Heidelberg (Picture credit: Tobias Dittmer)




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