Roundtable: How digital and sustainability can work together to achieve net zero
26th April 2023
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The National Audit Office suggests that more than a third of councils in England are aiming to be carbon-neutral 20 years before the government’s 2050 target. 91% of councils have adopted at least one net zero commitment.
These are ambitious targets. Yet, glaring challenges remain, particularly due to the budget pressures and lasting effects of the pandemic that local authorities are faced with.
It’s far more common to discuss what the UK is doing at a national level to curb these impacts. However, with outcomes from last year’s COP27 achieving little success around efforts to limit the average global temperature increase, it’s important to recognise where action is being taken elsewhere.
This roundtable was born out of the belief that digital plays a vital role in shaping sustainability initiatives, especially at a local level. According to Deloitte’s Tech for Impact report, the environmental impact of digital technologies is estimated to account for 15% of reductions in the UK’s greenhouse emissions between 2019 and 2030. However, we mustn’t become complacent, and should always realise where digital can continue to be improved.
Thus, we partnered with Local Government Chronicle (LGC) for a roundtable discussion aimed at exploring how digital technologies can help achieve greater sustainability in the context of these net zero targets.
Alongside leaders from a range of local councils, we considered the role of local government in achieving carbon reduction and sustainability goals through digital transformation.
Chaired by Martin George, Deputy Editor, LGC, the following themes emerged from the discussion:
- How digital can be used to drive sustainability at a local level
- How a culture of change needs to come from the top
- The importance of collaboration between public, private and third sector
How digital can be used to drive sustainability at a local level
The impact which digital has in helping local councils achieve their net zero goals cannot be understated.
Whether it’s through introducing new technologies which help reduce emissions or making use of data to digitally enable local communities and help the public sector make more sustainable choices, participants agreed that digital teams were essential in helping to reach sustainability objectives.
For Ceren Clulow, Connecting Cambridgeshire Programme Director, Cambridgeshire County Council (CC), emphasising the benefits of digital to the sustainability journey, especially when building a business case, was crucial. In order to do this, she detailed how her local authority’s committee reports include sections on significant impacts and global considerations. She is “now trying to add digital infrastructure or digital connectivity as one of those sections” so that it becomes an immediate area for collaboration.
Jonathan Tizzard, Head of Property and Asset Management, Basildon Borough Council, recognised how digital can help make positive changes in a more efficient way: “What I found with digital transformation is really being able to do things at scale. And quickly.” For example, “the number of social homes that were able to sort of scale up and retrofit wouldn't be possible without technology.”
At a local level, Paul Matthews, Chief Executive, Monmouthshire CC also suggested using “a higher quality of digital connectivity for some vulnerable groups.” This would both maintain the relationships between vulnerable patients and their carers, while also reducing the number of petrol and diesel vehicles needed for staff to make physical journeys.
However, even as we recognise the benefits of digital transformation, Glyn Peach, Director of Digital, Lancashire CC, highlighted how transparency on their own issues is key. Often, digital teams cite switching from a data centre to the cloud, but this, Glyn argues, “can look really environmentally friendly, because of the lack of full transparency of where the problems are”.
To combat this, Glyn highlighted the need to work together — “to use up our convening power or influence as shareholders to change how other companies behave.” Using their work in Lancashire as an example, he stated how they “try and bring people together, we share ideas that work for how we can become a better, greener, more environmentally friendly neighbourhood.”
Driving a culture of change from the top
There was consensus amongst the group that digital should be woven in as a normal part of the process and from as early as possible.
However, this needs to be enforced by a culture which supports the integration of digital across all levels of the business.
Paul Matthews stressed that digital’s position within a new business case is dependent on where it exists in the organisation’s wider culture. It is very dependent on whether the leadership team is willing to create a culture where digital and other innovative techniques are constantly considered. He called this the “socialisation” of digital, arguing the need for “absolute leadership capability, recruiting for it, and making sure that they're talking about this in their everyday communications with their people within their communities.”
Similarly, participants recognised that this culture was driven by the abilities of people within the organisation.
Jonathan Tizzard recognised the difficulty in getting older members of the team, alongside older residents within the community, digitally engaged.
He suggested training as a solution. “Showing different ways of working, but also explaining [digital] from a non-technical way, really understanding the benefits from day one,” is a crucial step in allowing non-digital teams to understand its benefits when building a business case.
Similarly, Beverly Mullooly, Head of Service Programme, Housing Services, Sheffield City Council, argued that amongst an “ageing workforce…who are a bit frightened of technology – not only digital technology but new ways of working,” it’s about “engaging staff throughout this process and making it real”. There is a frequent disconnect between the people writing strategies with digital and sustainability in mind, and the frontline staff, which needs to be addressed, she stated.
And even within the local community, digital teams play a role in simplifying digital for the overall benefit of the population. Paul Matthews brought up an interesting point regarding visualisation. The power which digital has to tell real time stories and shift the population’s outlook is important in being able to justify digital transformation journeys even within local councils.
The importance of collaboration between public, private and third sector
Collaboration was an incredibly important factor to all members of the roundtable. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, there needs to be a collaborative effort not only between council’s themselves, but also between the public and private sectors to make the most of existing insights.
Jonathan Tizzard recognised the importance of collaboration. He stated that “there's a lot of work that needs to be done through public, private and third sector collaboration, to support and win over people and demonstrate the power of digital in sustainability.”
Ceren Clulow also highlighted this point, stating that “councils need to work collaboratively, even across other councils as well, to make these green techs work and embed these cultures and embrace the new ways of working into our lives”.
Glyn Peach made a similar statement, calling for a more standardised approach which will help local authorities achieve sustainability success sooner. He argued, “we're going to have to find a common way of measuring each other and measuring our progress.” Having these metrics will “help us compare ourselves with each other and see who's doing the best.”
Virgin Media O2 Business’ partnership with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) provided useful insight into the importance of collaboration across sectors.
While initially focused on digital inclusion, the efforts have developed to also look at exclusion within social housing. This has not only allowed us to bring in other private sector organisations, but also work with Liverpool University to develop a greater understanding of the issue. And in gathering insights from this work, we can apply it nationally.
Indeed, Gyln also highlighted the importance of taking inspiration from outside the local community. He stated, “We focus on local a bit too much sometimes when we all do very similar things. And we should find more efficient, sustainable ways”. “If we need our traffic cameras to talk to our control rooms, someone should help us do that really efficiently. And then we need to share that,” he stated.
Digital solutions are the backbone for local authorities on the road to net zero
Tech and connectivity are essential. They enable the scaling up and retrofitting of social homes, improved public transport, digital inclusion and create insights which are helpful in educating people of its value. These are the foundations of reaching net-zero aims in local authorities.
However, the championing of its use needs to start internally at councils. It was encouraging to hear participants agree on the power of digital in sustainability goals, and how they are driving the belief within their own organisations that digital teams needed to be incorporated into business cases from the beginning.
But it is also on leadership teams to highlight the importance of digital throughout their organisations both through recruitment and learning and development opportunities for their staff.
In doing so, digital solutions will become normalised amongst local government. By encouraging internal and external communication and collaboration between sectors, local councils will be able to make the most of their digital teams to accelerate progress towards net-zero targets.
Thank you to all those who took part in the roundtable:
- Martin George, Deputy Editor, LGC
- Ceren Clulow, Connecting Cambridgeshire Programme Director, Cambridgeshire County Council
- Paul Matthews, Chief Executive, Monmouthshire County Council
- Beverly Mullooly, Head of Service Programme, Housing Services, Sheffield City Council
- Glyn Peach, Director of Digital, Lancashire County Council
- Jonathan Tizzard, Head of Property and Asset Management, Basildon Borough Council