Contractor aims to help urban sectors come together

Sensemaking / Contractor aims to help urban sectors come together

"We have every ingredient to create smart cities, we just need a smarter plan", says Jennifer Clark, Director of Environment at Skanska.

By Futures Centre / 05 Nov 2013

She is discussing the construction company’s growing interest in cities as systems, exploring the interconnections between their component parts. For Skanska, this means projects that reach beyond property, considering the wider context for each development. “Many developers concentrate on building one property and meeting the minimum environmental requirements, but we need to consider community, infrastructure, power sources, surrounding buildings and bio-diversity”, says Clark.

The smart cities movement has gathered momentum over the past three years as governments set carbon reduction targets, such as the EU’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, and the UK’s long-term goal of an 80% reduction by 2050. Proponents include IBM, through its Smarter Planet initiative, as well as Siemens, GE and other technology companies – which are excited about bringing big data analysis and systems thinking to the built environment. Skanska sees its role as connecting its diverse list of clients from the highway, rail, water, power, commercial building and domestic housing sectors, so they can collaborate.

“Until now, these sectors haven’t needed to talk to each other”, says Clark. “Since we are a link between them, we can help build relationships.” As a starting point, Skanska is running events to bring together industry leaders, clients and government. This includes its sustainability masterclass series, which invites senior executives to envision future urban scenarios, and days that highlight the latest green thinking across industries.

Skanska founded the Supply Chain Sustainability School, in collaboration with its peers, with the aim of improving the sustainability competency of the industry’s supply chain. This unites 2,700 unique members from companies that supply Skanska and its competitors, and teaches aspects of sustainable design and building.

Clark recognises that this is the first step on a long road. “We need to get [people to connect] much earlier in the planning process, to take a bird’s eye view of how buildings interact with transport, power and communities.” Of course, there’s only so much Skanska can do: shifts in planning policy and strategy will be needed to make a difference at scale. Last year, President and CEO Mike Putnam became co-chair of the Green Construction Board, which was formed in 2011 as an interface between Government and industry. The Board’s co-chair is Michael Fallon, Minister of State for Business and Enterprise, while other members include Anglian Water, Arup, Barratt and Jones Lang LaSalle. “Being at that table with a holistic view of the industry is really important in gelling the different silos together”, says Clark.

Martin Hunt, built environment lead at Forum for the Future, is enthusiastic about Skanska’s opportunity, but is waiting to see how much leverage it will gain with Government to influence planning policy. He recommends Skanska “makes the business case [for a systems approach to urban development] very clear”. For Clark, it is both compelling and straight forward: “If you try to add smartness after the design or development stage, it will cost more.” Whereas, she adds, if you begin with a joined-up approach, there will be long-term economic gains: “In the case of commercial buildings, smart and sustainable increases work productivity.”

Skanska believes that the business world is moving into a new era of collaboration that we have not seen before. Fluctuating resource prices and availability will force a new way of design and construction in order to make one cubic metre of concrete go further than it has done before.

Clark hopes that by engaging the next generation, we will not only attract the best talent, but find out what kind of cities they want to live and work in, in the future. “A smart city needs a smart plan and a lot of smart collaboration”, she says. – Emily Pacey

Skanska is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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