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Digital tools for collaborative net zero placemaking

Guest blog: Natalie Record, Housing Lead at Connected Places Catapult on the critical role of systems thinking and digital tools to deliver net zero places.

At a time of declared climate emergency, and ahead of COP26, the UK built environment industry is becoming ever aware of the need to transition towards the creation of net zero places (both existing and new) through a process widely known as ‘placemaking’.  

For this transition to be successful, decision makers need to move beyond the market-led approach to placemaking that has been adopted since the 1980s, towards a longer-term systems thinking approach - one that recognises the complexity of the built environment and the cumulative long-term impact of placemaking decisions upon people, places and the economy.  

This will help the industry to progress beyond the existing simplistic tick-box sustainability exercises which limit sustainability dimensions and social equity to secondary considerations within decision making. 

Digital tools enable integrated systems thinking and data-led decision-making. 

systems thinking approach to decision making requires the use of real data to model impacts to ensure decisions maximise the prevention of environmental harm, whilst securing economic stability and social equity. 

Whilst there is a wider need for built environment industry to equip practitioners and leaders with the skills to understand and analyse data to support this transition, there are a number of digital tools available today (including from the Property Technology (‘PropTech’) SME market) that leaders can harness to make data-led decisions relating to the built and natural environment without being trained as data scientists. 

These digital tools help to model and visualise long-term impacts of different scenarios in a simple and accessible way to enable leaders to make climate-smart decisions.  

Digital tools can help leaders to meaningfully engage and collaborate with citizens in the pursuit of net zero neighbourhoods.  

Public concern for climate change is rapidly increasing. Citizens are recognising that decisions made in relation to the built environment impact the natural environment and their futures. This is increasing the desire within communities to meaningfully engage in bottom-up and top-down built environment decision making. 

Digital citizen engagement tools and platforms allow for new innovative ways for leaders to communicate transparently and co-create future neighbourhoods together with local communities. Digital citizen engagement tools also help communities to understand their own roles and responsibilities within the community to support the transition towards net zero neighbourhoods.  

Local authorities can test and pilot new digital approaches for net zero neighbourhoods. 

A digital approach unlocks the opportunities for local authorities to test and pilot new technologies to be used in the design and delivery of net zero neighbourhoods. New technologies can be deployed in testbeds and living labs to demonstrate and iterate different approaches to creating net zero places, using real data, with real people. 

Local authorities can decide how to scale the approaches and where to focus their next financial investments. They can also share valuable insights with other local authorities and national governments to support others in their transition to net zero

There is great potential for the use of digital tools to help leaders, built environment practitioners and citizens transition towards the creation of net zero neighbourhoods across the UK.  

The next step will be for willing local leaders to begin to test and pilot the integration of new digital tools in their built environment decision-making practices, integrating systems thinking and data insights to co-create long-term healthier and more resilient net zero neighbourhoods across the country for future generations.  

There is also now a spotlight on national governments to provide the trusted data infrastructure that is needed for built and natural environment data sets if a data-led approach for net zero placemaking is to be sustained.


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