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Business spotlight: using data to answer the big questions

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 06 Aug 2020

Jo Muncaster is Project Finance Lead at City Science. She says making the change to a sustainable and profitable post-COVID environment requires data and modelling to answer big questions from business and the public sector.

City Science was born out of the imperative to decarbonise. Energy use and transport are the focus of its efforts and much of its work revolves around answering questions – based on data – that result from those two activities.

From the transport point of view, the questions City Science seeks to answer are ‘how do we make transport more efficient’ and ‘how do we make it easier for businesses to make low carbon impact decisions’. Its main aims include reducing congestion and car usage, increasing active travel and showing how accessible towns and cities are.

“We have built a model in which we can field all these ‘what if’ scenarios – look for least impact, or define the impact,” says Muncaster. “We are also looking at freight – how we decarbonise freight is one of the big questions.”

Energy efficiency is similarly challenging. “How do we build our buildings smarter, improve efficiency and add energy efficiency measures?” she says. “How do we use nudge theory? How do we use the technology we already have like smart lighting and our phones?” There are so many questions, so much data to collect, scenarios to model and improvements to be made.

Pandemic consequences

Various research projects support City Science, not least a project (funded by a COVID research grant) which helps SMEs undertaking deliveries as a consequence of the pandemic to map the most efficient route taken by different vehicles at different times. The data underpinning the tool is constantly updated in real time by users, thereby making it a valuable resource in these changing conditions. It will be rolled out in the Autumn.

All these types of tools enable companies and public bodies to collect data, understand the impacts they are making and make better decisions. “Clearly what we don’t want are unexpected impacts resulting from our decision-making,” says Muncaster. “We have all this data and it is accessible in many ways, and now we have to use it”.

Bigger picture

Even owners/managers of small businesses will have a heightened sense of corporate responsibility in the light of the pandemic, she points out. Doing the right thing is very much in the interests of staff, as well as the environment: COVID-19 has made us well aware of that.

Under the prevailing conditions, employers will be thinking about the bigger picture associated with the location of workplaces and accessibility by safe methods of transport that accommodate social distancing. And it is not just safe travel that will be top of the agenda. Safe air conditioning, windows that open, office planning with lifts and stairwells that accommodate social distancing and all sorts of other considerations are now on the agenda.

Muncaster also points to the potentially massive cost-saving of doing the right thing. Less mileage, less congestion, lower carbon and reduced travel expenses are becoming a reality for companies and public bodies alike as they shift their mindsets and become increasingly carbon friendly in doing so.

Technology, not travel

Going forward the question, says Muncaster, is ‘how do you incentivise everyone to continue the low carbon approach, and how do you keep those costs low?’

Changing behaviour is the name of the game, at the same time as being safe. And perhaps, the use of technology instead of travel has made us more inclusive, not less. Can we continue to capture all that going forward? “Maybe this way of working improves accessibility for everyone,” she says, pointing to team members who were less involved in meetings before the pandemic than they are now.

Other gains are quantifiable too. “If everyone continues to work from home for just two days a week, the impact of that per person is a reduction of almost a tonne of carbon a year. That’s a massive impact.”

Another impact of COVID is the realisation that smart building management put in place before the pandemic does not work well under pandemic conditions. “Just because there is no one in the building does not mean less energy will be used,” she points out. “Buildings work to an optimum temperature that someone, at some point, set, based on a certain number of bodies being in the building at any given time. Now the numbers of staff present will clearly be much lower and this will affect the temperature. Erratic hours will be a further complication.”

In essence, freeholders, leaseholders and tenants will need a better grasp on what is happening inside their buildings and make the appropriate adjustments – and potentially benefit from savings if they make the right decisions.

Public sector analysis

Turning to the public sector, we all know we are going to see some public bodies struggling following the costs of the virus, so how can ideas from organisations such as City Science help with that? “It all comes down to the risk of getting things wrong,” says Muncaster. “How do you demonstrate that the decisions you have made are good decisions with minimal impact on the rest of the existing infrastructure?” Data and modelling can help.

City Science is currently working on a model in Exeter exactly along these lines, adding in lines of data and scenarios to test assumptions, make good decisions and work economically.

“There will be changes,” she says. “For example, months of parking charges have been lost and now local authorities are having to forego charging where they want to give the high street a chance. If you have the right level of data, you can model what the local impact will be and build positive outcomes.”

In the final analysis, there is going to be a lot of change but we need to tackle these changes head-on - and we are on a deadline.

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