There is a global surge towards designing greener – and more cost effective – buildings and cities and South Africa is in an ideal position to lay the foundations for it in Africa.
The smartest cities in the world are starting to use ingenuity, creativity and technology to save on resources, improve quality of life and reduce their environmental impact and running costs. And it doesn’t even have to cost the earth or be super high tech. Experts say that all it takes is a shift in perspective and incremental changes that lead to big impact.
Toronto uses the natural gas produced in landfills to power garbage trucks. Paris has its citizens sharing bicycles and electric cars in its Velib and Autolib programmes. Tokyo is planning the world’s first ‘eco-burb’ containing homes that integrate solar panels, storage batteries, and energy efficient appliances. Berlin is testing whether electric vehicles can also somehow become part of the city’s power grid. Hong Kong citizens use smartcards for everything: public transport, shopping, car parks, and accessing buildings.
“People are not reinventing the wheel in these places,” says Anthony Nartey, group CEO of Cape Town-based IT consulting and solutions company Innov8 Africa. “They’re looking at what exists, how people interact with all of it, and what can be harnessed differently in ways that reduce negative environmental impact.”
It starts with the buildings
“Many places within cities offer opportunities for savings and reducing environmental impact,” he says. “But it starts with buildings because, quite simply, they consume the most energy.”
Buildings currently consume over 40% of the world’s energy and emit more carbon dioxide than cars. By 2025, buildings will be the largest energy consumers on earth with energy costs alone representing about 30% of an office building’s total operating costs. What’s more, up to 50% of energy and water used in buildings is wasted on average. While 85% of companies say they are focused on sustainability, only 30% collect data with enough frequency to make changes needed to improve their building’s efficiency.
In South Africa, World Bank statistics show that 62% of the population lives in urban areas. This is predicted to grow by 1.2% annually. With more of the population living and working in urban areas across the country, and the energy demand expected to double by 2030, the need to create sustainable cities is becoming non-negotiable.
Building sustainability solutions practices
Innov8 Africa is investing heavily in building a sustainability solutions practice and recently partnered with the University of Cape Town – the first university on the continent to sign the International Sustainable University Network Charter – to make its campuses smarter by building on its existing IT infrastructure to introduce sustainability controls, of utilities and buildings.
The two are also in discussions to launch a first-of-its-kind postgraduate diploma in smart building innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business in order to lay the groundwork for an expected surge of interest in this area.
According to Nartey, the time is ripe to develop skills in this area. Recent studies by Pike Research show that the market for commercial building automation systems will double over the next decade, from 72.5 billion dollars in 2011 to 146.4 billion dollars in 2021.
But although smart building relies to a great extent on IT, for Nartey, it is more than just technology.
“Smart building, and smart city design is less about a revolution in technology and more about a revolution in thinking,” he says.
Someone who personifies this approach is Head of IBM’s Smarter Buildings initiative, David Bartlett. Bartlett says technology is an enabler within a larger movement to do everything smarter and is something to leverage in the eco-system we all live in.
Looking deeper for building revelations
“We need to look below the surface and change the way we look at buildings and at cities,” he says. “Most people have so much data coming from their buildings they just don’t know what to do with it. The technology exists now to harness that data to get insight into the physical world that just wasn’t possible before.”
Bartlett has been heralded as the “building whisperer” by the likes of Forbes and Facilities Engineering on account of his insight into smarter infrastructure solutions, how wasteful energy practices affect the bottom line and the enormous potential of sustainability practices for businesses of all sizes. He recently visited South Africa to share his insights.
He wishes he could find one single country leading the way in this field, but says a dispersed range of small initiatives are the ones actually driving the change. Universities, as UCT is demonstrating in the South African context, seem especially prone to this.
The University of Arizona, for example, has started to develop award-winning green residences. The buildings house students and include office suites, conference facilities, classrooms, multiple study and gathering areas, amenities and courtyards and are built in part from recycled materials.
Maximum natural light & low energy use
They also make use of passive water harvesting, drought tolerant landscape design. Smart thermometers in the student rooms reduce energy use and ‘green outlets’ shut off the power when rooms are empty. Windows are designed to maximise natural light and ventilation. Solar panels provide for hot water needs and web-based software is installed that can be accessed by students for monitoring energy use in the building. During construction, 7000 tonnes of construction debris was diverted from landfills and 2 500 tonnes of it was recycled.
Another example is Boston University’s Sustainable Neighbourhood Lab. The initiative aims to create more sustainable environments and smarter cities.
Researchers test Smart City concepts and technologies through the lab, a living laboratory, in several Boston neighbourhoods, in partnership with the private sector, local community and non-profit groups, the municipalities and local utilities.
One such project, headed by BU professor Nathan Philips, measured how much natural gas was being lost in Boston neighbourhoods due to old and leaky gas pipes.
By placing sensors on the roof of his office building, and driving around Boston with a methane sensor in the trunk of his car, Philips set out to measure what he calls the ‘urban metabolism’ of Boston – the CO2, water vapours, and methane in the city’s atmosphere. The figures are alarming.
It was found that as little as 700 000 to as much as 3.6 million tonnes of methane are lost through leaks, old pipes and faulty or ageing equipment; enough gas to service 18 000 homes. That equates to 38.8 million dollars passed on to ratepayers. Even more striking is that the findings suggest that efficiency measures put in place to save gas are not working efficiently enough. The measures save approximately 1 097 million cubic feet of methane while 1 725 million cubic feet is wasted.
“Universities are thought leaders and they have a way of driving transformation through research and instruction,” says Bartlett. “Because they are by and large trusted by the community, they lead by example.”
He says they are so strong at this because of their ability to think laterally. And thinking laterally is what is required for future cities and buildings. Smarter buildings and systems is all about connecting the dots.
“If we could approach city design and buildings the way biologists and ecologists approach living organisms and eco systems, and see how everything is linked then our thinking could be informed in ways that promote an all-encompassing sustainability and well-being,” he says.
“We’d also see that buildings and cities are not just inhabited by humans, but animals too.” He tells an amazing story about how in May every year for a brief period swarms of tiny hummingbirds waft through New York City along their migratory routes.
“In everything we do from now on, we have to be mindful of the entire eco-system in which we live and work, and try our best to preserve it all,” he says.
IBM’s own endeavour to save energy, which is being driven by Bartlett, has been remarkable in that, by using smart building technology, the company saved 5.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity between 1990 and 2011, reduced CO2 emissions by 3.7 million metric tonnes, and saved 442 million dollars.
SA businesses should take note
“This is a powerful example of how businesses can participate in saving energy and conserving the environment while improving their bottom line,” says Nartey. He says South African businesses and state organisations should take note.
According to the International Energy Information Administration, the country is the 12th highest carbon emitter in the world, and number one culprit on the continent. In 2012 the Department of Environmental Affairs reported that the country emits 511 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Eskom reported that 0.99 kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted for every single kilowatt hour of electricity used. But the commitment to reducing this is there.
In 2011, the National Climate Change Response White Paper was published which established a carbon budget for high emitting sectors, carbon taxes and compulsory green house gas reporting for ‘entities’ that directly emit, or indirectly through electricity usage, 100 000 million tonnes of CO2 annually. One report showed that some of the top 100 JSE-listed companies use electricity resulting in more than 300 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
“The country is showing some commitment to addressing these issues and that is very positive, but still there is so much to do,” says Nartey.
“With UCT leading the way, and innovation already happening in several key corporates, South Africa is ideally positioned to lead the continent towards smarter planning and energy conservation; developing a competitive advantage in this field that could put African cities on a par with the best in the world. It makes business sense and people sense as well.”
David Bartlett thinks this is more than possible: “I see Cape Town as the next big story.”
Anthony Nartey, group CEO of Innov8 Africa.