By the end of this month, 3.4 billion people will have access to the internet. And with 46 per cent of the world’s population connected to the information superhighway, digital technology is creating new and exciting opportunities for innovation and collaboration.

The internet permeates almost every aspect of our lives, and while ‘life online’ may have relegated the local video store to the pages of history, industries that embrace innovation are in a prime position to ride the digital wave toward greater efficiencies and more responsive solutions.

The sustainable development industry can cash in on this digital bonanza by harnessing the power of ‘big data’ and hitching our wagon to social media’s ever rising star.

Information is power

A recent study by the University of California-San Diego suggests that people are inundated with up to 34 gigabytes of information every day – enough to max out two smart phones. With so much data flying around, even the smartest among us are forced to be selective about the information we consider. And this can be a big issue when it comes to design.

We’ve all read about projects gone wrong (or extremely over budget) simply because key questions weren’t asked or answered, like the Intempo skyscraper in Spain, which didn’t incorporate enough space for lifts to all 47 of its floors. This is an extreme example, but most architects could tell you of some oversight that has compromised their design intent in one way or another.

Big data represents an incredible opportunity to remove our blinkers when it comes to environmentally sustainable design. Powerful new data-crunching programs are helping us discover problems that in the past may not have been revealed until long after construction was complete. These systems are paving the way for more responsive, resolved designs, delivered faster and with far less risk for owners and investors.

American construction company JE Dunn has partnered with Autodesk and Microsoft to develop software that is shaving weeks off the design development process while allowing project stakeholders to accurately assess the costs associated with design decisions.

The system integrates Building Information Modeling (BIM) with an estimating system to create LENS – a custom visualisation, estimating and quantity surveying tool. Every element of a design can be tied to a cost estimate, so when a client wants to add another floor, for example, they can immediately see the dollar cost.

Here in Australia, GBCA member Wood & Grieve is also harnessing the power of big data for better design outcomes. The firm’s new CChangeAP platform combines risk assessment data with ecology and climate inputs from the CSIRO to provide urban planners with location-specific risk management and adaptation advice. The system is already kicking goals, with two projects using it to achieve Green Star Climate Change Adaptation credit points in recent months.

The revolution will be digitised

Buildings are only as green as their occupants, and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are new weapons in the war on unsustainable behaviour.

The ‘Reduce Your Juice’ app is a great example. Developed by CitySmart Brisbane, the app is helping to change the energy usage patterns of young renters by combining social media, interactive gaming, email and SMS notifications. Reduce Your Juice rewards energy-saving achievements in a fun and immediate way, keeping energy-reduction goals front-of-mind.

The $6.8 million campaign has led to significant reductions in energy bills, with average savings of $220 per year for each participant.

CitySmart’s chief executive Neil Horrocks says the program has delivered a 22.5 per cent improvement in energy habits – more than four times as much as what is usually delivered from traditional mass advertising campaigns.

Horrocks says the success of the app lies in its ability to deliver “easily digestible, bite sized pieces of information very efficiently, in a fun and engaging way and over a longer period of time.”

Another example is the JouleBug app, which rewards sustainable decision-making – like riding a bike rather than taking the car, or remembering to bring a reusable coffee cup to the local café – with points and badges. Users can compete with their friends online and can sync the app with their utility accounts to track the financial savings associated with more environmentally-conscious behaviour.

From sustainability apps to resilience planning programs, digital technology is helping us to build better. It’s also helping us to adjust our behaviour – often the hardest part of the sustainability equation. And most exciting of all? These examples are just the beginning.