When Cleantech met Proptech – The Cleantech Futures Conference

Believe you me, startups in clean tech and property can end up going to a lot of networking events. Experience has taught me that a small conference that tries to cover a lot of ground risks leaving its audience behind – ‘stretching’ the schedule can leave delegates listening to topics that don’t engage them. Cambridge Cleantech’s agenda for their 2016 event was ambitious, covering clean tech growth, ideas and innovation for Connected Cities, presented by 26 speakers in a single day.

So I was sceptical. And I was proved wrong.

This was a conference with a lot to say and a lot to do, and if the objective was to arm us with facts about smart cities and innovation, it certainly succeeded. A random selection of fun facts:

– The UK’s emissions have fallen by 36% since 1990, according to the Committee for Climate change. Following the policy pathway fixed for the next 7 years should see the reduction increase to 57% down.

– In the UK water industry 24% of water supplied is still lost through leakage. That’s 24% of pumping energy wasted

– In terms of the ratio of broadband speed to broadband cost, large Asian conurbations like Mumbai are streets ahead of European capitals.

Unexpected heroes – the real estate industry.

Unexpectedly however a common story came across from a number of different speakers. A story about the real estate industry, community and sustainability. Historically, real estate (I include developers, landlords and their advisors in this group) haven’t treated sustainability as a priority. This is now beginning to change, at first at the top end of the commercial markets, where Colin Lizieri from the Land Economy department at Cambridge showed us how green premiums and the poor risk profile of less efficient buildings was beginning to influence valuations for property portfolios.

Slides on sustainability and real estate

The real estate industry: 40% of the world’s energy use and 40% of the enthusiasm needed to do anything about it. Slide from Colin Lizieri, Department of Land Economy, Cambridge University

Coming in the other direction, Savills latest research (presented by Nicky Wightman and available online with a fun interactive model) on the most attractive cities to operate tech companies in emphasised the importance of quality of life in cities, and how efficiently they work. Remember, the value of any individual building is limited by how attractive it’s city is – by its context and the community which it sits in.

From building to city to community

And here’s the interesting part…what happens when developers start to think about not just individual buildings but how they work together to create effective cities, and even effective communities? A couple of great examples came from Rebecca Britton at Urban & Civic, developers of two substantial sites in Cambridgeshire (Alconbury and Waterbeach Barracks). Urban & Civic are spending a lot of time working with the existing communities around their developments to make sure that these developments enhance their lives and are sustainable.

These sorts of brownfield developments are small scale templates of how to integrate smart city solutions – for transport, sustainability, quality of life – and offer some useful lessons for anyone interested in larger smart city innovations and how they might get adopted. Particularly in how to work with the public to make sure existing communities feel a sense of ownership and interest in these solutions. Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth  made this point in his opening – smart city solutions need to be adopted from the grass roots up, and as with low carbon generation technologies, the most effective way to engage people is not to thrust top down solutions on them but to give them ownership of the technologies.

Smart city technologies

And yes, there was a lot of technology at this conference. It’s a smart cities conference in Cambridge, what did you expect? From a new marketplace in energy proposed by Origami Energy, to hyperlocal weather forecasts for bike commuters, there is a huge range of solutions just waiting for markets to mature and business cases to be made. This has been the case for many years in smart cities and while government initiatives in many countries have supported pilots there has always been a sense that wider adoption is just around the next corner.

Yesterday was the first time that I genuinely felt the industry might be turning the corner. A Real Estate industry which learns to build efficient high quality places, not just buildings, and is rewarded for doing so by a community that gets returns from these better cities – that’s a welcome step up from our current situation.

We’re looking forward to doing business with them.

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