DUBAI: As digital solutions and technological advances permeate through the business world, some look to technology for sustainable solutions.

But that is not the necessarily the case.

James Arnott, MD of Capital Project Services at Accenture, is a strong proponent of new technology, but even he regards it as a mechanism for sustainability, rather than a sustainable process.

He said, “We see an enormous opportunity from a growth perspective in terms of how digital solutions can drive towards more sustainable developments, and I think that is very much in line with the recent agreement that was signed earlier this year with respect to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.”

Arnott refers to the Paris Agreement, signed in April by 174 countries, including the UAE, aims to strengthen the Rio and Kyoto protocols, with nations agreeing to adopt ever more stringent carbon-reduction goals, reviewed every five years, along with a number of other priorities aimed at keeping global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

“Digital and the drive associated with the opportunities associated with the focus on these 17-odd priorities is going to provide fantastic opportunities for growth and provide a mechanism where sustainability can thrive,” said Arnott.

Adrian Bliss, Mott MacDonald’s technical director, environment and sustainability for the Middle East, is more cautious. He sees potential for smart monitors and the use of data analysis to highlight areas to improve, but believes sustainable solutions need not be technological.

He highlights the increasing use of building information modelling (BIM) in construction, software capable of analysing large amounts of data from design, to construction and operation of a building. If your aim is to reduce carbon, he says, the BIM can produce a carbon map incorporating the cost of sourcing and shipping materials as well as operational usage.

The BIM can also highlight design flaws — he cited a project in Egypt in which the BIM found 6,000 design errors ranging from clashes n piping to doors not fitting frames, allowing them to be fixed before construction began.

Both he and Avanceon CEO Bakhtiar Hameed Wain cite projects where smart monitors provide instant feedback on energy usage through the internet of Things (IoT), allowing firms to reduce their energy requirements.

Bliss remains convinced, however, that technology must be evaluated for its effectiveness in meeting sustainability targets. It is a tool, he says, and not the solution.

“Technology can solve a problem if you know what the problem is that you want solved,” Bliss said.

For a non-technological solution, Bliss points to a project Mott MacDonald undertook for UK-based water utility Anglian Water, who sought to cut their carbon emissions by 50 per cent.

“We didn’t make 50 per cent,” Bliss said, “but we made 40 per cent — and we saved them 25 per cent of costs in doing so.”

One aspect of the work involved a new way of laying water pipes. Traditionally, water pipes in the UK are laid in gravel beds in trenches, which are then backfilled. Most of the carbon burnt in the process of pipe-laying came from the gravel, which had to be quarried, cleaned, transported and laid down.

When asked, the utility said the gravel was necessary to hold the pipes steady. “We said, ‘Why not make the trench V-shaped?’ So that’s what we did. It meant less cut and fill from the trenches and you don’t need the gravel any more — that cuts 70 per cent of the carbon from that particular operation.”

Furthermore, Bliss says, reliance on technology could bring its own problems. Buildings relying on advanced technology were complex to operate, and often the personnel involved in choosing and installing it moved on.

“Some of the assets are full of great technologies, but they haven’t been installed properly, they haven’t been commissioned properly and nobody knows how to operate them, which then means your building doesn’t function as it was supposed to — and actually might function worse than a building without technology where you can just open the windows and doors.”

But here too, he said, information management through BIM systems can help produce manuals enabling the technology to be used as intended.