Glocalising decarbonisation: from community participation & blended finance to offsite construction

8 min read

The glocal, net zero carbon transition is on. Its aim is no less than carbon-detoxing our homes, neighbourhoods, towns and cities. Collaboration at the level of neighbourhoods and cities can help bridge the hyper-local ( reactivity such as ‘Yes In My Backyard’ (YIMBY) or ‘Not In my Term of Office’ (NIMTO) with the global weak pulse’ of events such as COP26. In the good old spirit of Agendas 21: “Think Global, Act Local”. Below are five complementary examples of net zero carbon policies, initiatives and trends that can help decarbonise the built environment in a more collaborative way.

Participatory local climate transition, made in France

Together with stellar colleagues at Democratic Society and at partnering organisations (led by the European innovation agency EIT Climate-KIC), we contributed to the participatory design of a participatory process to help connect community initiatives with Orléans metropolitan agency’s climate action plan (aka Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan). Preliminary insight about the participatory process was published on Carnegie Europe’s blog, and how it relates to other unique French-bred participatory initiatives. The process was coined Assises de la transition écologique, and took place between January and June 2021. It enabled to take stock of existing initiatives led by community groups, local government and other key local stakeholders, with a view to raise awareness and build capacity. The process centered around 9 themes that underpin the climate action plan, ranging from sustainable food and biodiversity to renewable energy and mobility. Over the course of 6 months, the wide range of workshops, keynotes and hybrid participatory events identified 800 attractive solutions and involved 2,700 local residents. Although modest, the participatory process was unprecedented, and enabled to involve all local councils / municipalities across the metropolitan region.

  • picture of riverside of Orléans from the bridge, with cathedral towers in the back.

More broadly speaking, an ‘Assises‘ process can be loosely described as a deliberative forum where issues are explored and solutions envisioned among people with common interests. It has origins in both Ancient Greek and medieval deliberative and legal procedures. In contemporary deliberative practice, it can last anything from a day to several weeks, or even months, as was the case in Orléans and Angers, another city further down on the beautiful Loire River. A staple feature of such deliberative processes is to learn from each other, as a potential first step toward doing together.

A plethora of other participatory processes contribute to the local climate transition in a French context. One can mention: participatory budgeting, neighbourhood assemblies, and grant funding for a wide range of community initiatives at the neighbourhood and city level. One must also cite the much-discussed national Climate Citizen Assembly, which, to say the least, generated high expectations among participants, the general public, the mass media as well as a wide range of national and international domain experts. Although it was carried out at the national level, the outcomes of the assembly can be expected to shape public perceptions of other government-led participatory processes at a variety of spatial and jurisdictional scales. The experience is now available for all to learn from, and adapt as appropriate.

A less obvious form of community participation is social entreprise. Indeed, it takes participation to another level, away from the constraints of public consultation into the realm of community value creation. From durable hipster fashion to upcycled furniture, social entreprises come in many shapes and forms. The combined stresses of the covid pandemic, the Great Resignation and tightened personal finances have supported the growth of DIY community groups and businesses, community-led renewable energy, zero waste food shops and other intentional start-ups keen to engineer a more enticing ‘new normal’.

Blended finance for place-based retrofits

A landmark report that showcases the cross-sectoral, long-term value of public-private finance for neighbourhood retrofits is the City Investment Analysis Report by the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission (UK CCIC). Read this brief blog post on the topic. Leading actors in that complex field include Bankers Without Boundaries, among many others. Besides observable promising trends in ESG reporting, big institutional finance seems increasingly set to invest in the low carbon transition at the local level, in line with net zero carbon policy objectives for 2050 in the UK and beyond. One the cases showcased in the report is the City Leap sustainable energy partnership led by Bristol City Council.

A systemic and cross-sectoral approach to neighbourhood retrofits can also support the wider DLUHC’s Levelling Up White Paper that is fresh off the press (as of 2 February 2022).

Snapshot of Bristol, by Nick on (taken 2011)

Retrofitting the social housing stock

Thanks to stellar collaborators at Northumbria University, I was able to contribute a state-of-the-art report about retrofits in social housing for industry partners. More about it in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that the next frontier for upscaling affordable, energy-efficient retrofits is toward:

  • One-stop-shops that help connect integrated supply chains with clients
  • Performance-based agreements that go beyond EPC models that fail to consider variations between properties of a similar type as well as occupant behaviour in terms of energy consumption
  • A ‘fabric first’ approach, when whole-house / deep retrofits are not immediately affordable due to the large upfront investment costs
  • Effective and innovative customer engagement are essential to achieving net zero targets in social housing, because user behaviour and perceptions are inseparable from wider technical, technological and policy considerations
  • Neighbourhood- and place-based retrofits fueled by Green Finance and backed by mature ESG reporting, to integrate and further incentivise retrofits of the affordable housing stock

It is still hoped social housing retrofits will help achieve large returns on investment arising from energy savings, help further structure supply chains, and upskill the industry at all levels, from construction trades and suppliers to retrofit coordinators and investors.

Some key resources on the topic:

  1. The Sustainable Renovation Guide by Chris Morgan of John Gilbert Architects
  2. The ESG Reporting Standard for Social Housing
  3. A review of business models for energy efficient retrofits by Donal Brown, 2018 – open access journal article.
  4. Energiesprong UK – a comprehensive, performance-based method and business model to deliver affordable housing retrofits at scale
  5. The leading example of delivering retrofits at Nottingham City Homes
  6. The EnerPHit standard for retrofitting (affordable) housing to high energy efficiency performance
  7. The Landscape Institute’s ‘Greener Recovery‘ policy report to help deliver a truly sustainable new normal from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first Energiesprong net zero pilot in the UK procured by Nottingham City Homes, and delivered by Melius Homes and Studio Partington. Photo credit: Energiesprong International (2019) on

PlanTech and PropTech

The #PlanTech conversation is in full swing, and its contribution to the Levelling Up agenda is formally acknowledged. In practice, however, capacity is building incrementally. In a nutshell, PlanTech denotes the determination by central government, local authorities and tech businesses to help digitise planning processes, if not the planning system at large, to ensure the speedy and effective delivery of planning applications and public consultations. Note that planning applications (the process of getting planning proposals approved) and public consultations (engaging local residents about these proposals and higher level urban/regional issues) are two distinct activities. Each follows a specific logic, internal dynamics and technological needs.

In policy briefs, the #PlanTech and #PropTech conversations somehow coalesce – the much-discussed Planning White Paper is a prime example of where the two terms seem to converge. To be proper, PropTech can be said to denote building-related technologies, for example Building Information Modelling (BIM) and IoT-based services and devices. PropTech therefore seems to focus on building and property management. PlanTech, on the other hand, is more concerned with making sure that what gets built at the neighbourhood and city level is decent enough, whichever way this might be defined in local development plans and design codes. Both PropTech and PlanTech can help deliver sustainable, inclusive and healthy places. They are complementary but distinct. Professionally, property and planning also remain distinct disciplines, although the two will meet to negotiate requirements for building permits and planning approval, which technology promises to facilitate and simplify.

The future will tell how the two actually develop. At its core, PlanTech can constitute a stepping stone toward City Modelling Information systems and people-powered smart cities, although technology may also take some of that alleged power from people. As with all technology, perhaps, power is in the arms of the wielder. The technology promises to help reduce inefficiencies in planning processes and help provide more high quality housing and neighbourhoods. For example, semi-automated planning applications could help to implement design codes that integrate sustainable development considerations such as indicators related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (see for example the RIBA Sustainable Outcomes Guide). 3D city models, furthermore, can help visualise and monitor quality for design and impact assessment purposes. However, embracing PlanTech and digital data will require getting to grips with what ‘data-driven decisions’ really means, as I explore in this series of blog posts.

PropTech, on the other hand, is moving toward smart buildings powered by near-ubiquitous sensors, BIM and Digital Twins, location-based intelligence and linked data across the built environment for the whole life cycle of buildings and assets, including design, operations, maintenance, acquisition, and demotion/repurposing. One should probably also add some FinTech in the PropTech mix of technologies for the sake of good measure, as the two can/should/could/would go hand in hand.

The following resources gives a good overview of the stakes in PlanTech:

  • ‘How to code planning rules’ fresh blog post by planner and PhD candidate Claire Daniel. From Australia, but highly topical nonetheless. Which could prompt the following: “Does the code plan the rules, or do the planning rules shape the code?” to which one might reply: “Which code?”
  • A Digital Planning manifesto, setting the joint vision laid out by RTPI and Connected Places Catapult in 2019
  • The work by Jorge Gil, particularly around City Information Modelling, laying out all the opportunities and interoperability challenges
  • The challenges around built environment data interoperability, an industry report by Gilbert et al (2020) that dives into issues surrounding the integration of IFC, CityGML and LandInfra data standards to help bridge geometry with geography and empower linked data across the built environment.
Showcasing a 3D model of London by VU.CITY, demonstrating how to visualise development schemes and their planning approval status. (Image credits: All rights reserved VU.CITY Limited).

Offsite / modular construction

Last but not least, offsite construction promises to deliver both greater efficiencies and quality at scale for both new builds and retrofits, and enable both greater standardisation and bespoke components across different projects. A platform approach to design, manufacture and assembly (P-DfMA) is one such approach that builds on advanced digital processes and collaboration, helping to optimise value, quality and predictability. The high demand for public works is expected to shape the market and supply chain, in a similar way as social housing acts as a testbed for domestic retrofitting approaches.

The following resources stand out:

Modular homes at Gateshead Innovation Village, showcasing a wide range of construction, energy and smart home applications for affordable housing. Picture credit: Constructing Excellence with BRE.

Upscaling: the new glocal

What does blended finance have to do with zero community waste, PlanTech, and offsite construction? Everything, and nothing, at the same time. Which drives home the point that cross-sectoral collaboration will be critical to upscaling individual and collective experiences to entire neighbourhoods, cities and regions, and indeed glocally, to make the local and global ends meet at last.

So hurry slowly! There might not be any jam tomorrow.

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