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Technology and Social Changes for Sustainability

technology or social change, the right path towards sustainability

Introduction

The ubiquitous fallout of the over exploitation of natural resources, inadequate land use, deforestation, contamination of sparse water resources, global warming and climate change are all matters of pressing concern. The environment is deteriorating at a rate higher than ever before due to humans and our detrimental activities. The advent of technology has revolutionized every facet of human life. Education, healthcare and medicine, communication, transport and industry have all reaped the benefits. Global population is increasing and a major chunk of it is now migrating to urban areas for varied economic and social factors. This puts tremendous pressure on the land and natural resources. Governments are left with no choice but to espouse ecofriendly solutions such as renewable energy and efficient automobiles and bring about a radical change in policy.

Household and residential energy consumption accounts for a quarter of the energy consumption in the EU. Most of this energy (79%) is used to meet the heating needs (Space 64% and water 15%). The rest is used for lighting and electrical appliances (14%), cooking (5.4%), cooling (0.3%) and other miscellaneous uses[1]. Technological advancements can provide both, a lowered environmental impact and an improved standard of living. There is a necessity not only to cut down on consumption of fossil fuels and move to renewables, but also simultaneously lower the overall energy use. Intelligent/smart home solutions use the integration of meters, sensors and monitoring systems into the house, to work with the various systems and appliances to monitor energy use and optimize performance. Passive and efficient design can further optimize performance. With the reduction in energy consumption, renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass can be used to meet the now reduced energy need. We must also take into consideration the feasibility of generating energy using renewable sources, based on cost of installation and maintenance, climate and geography of the site. These changes are not just required for new constructions but also existing establishments which need to be retrofitted.

Governments are considering revising their regulations to meet the needs of today and to reduce our long-term impact on the environment. Policy makers have to consider several aspects before creating and enforcing regulations. Several bespoke examples of smart and passive houses have proven their ability to help curb energy use, but there is no consideration for occupant behaviour in most of these cases. Technology that is used primarily for occupant comfort, might not meet the required energy consumption goals. This is what results in the gap between the actual and designed energy performance of buildings. Most of the ecofriendly solutions today encompass technology application and design strategies. There is an oversight of the transition required in attitude, lifestyle and society. A transition to a less resource demanding ways of living especially in urban and affluent parts of society is needed. Home owners, as the end users of the technologies have little to no information on the merits and demerits of their options. There is a need to educate and encourage the masses to bring about a change in society as lifestyle and awareness also contribute to the overall energy use. A pragmatic approach is required to consider all the factors and establish the viability of sustainable homes. Therefore this research will look into the technological and social problems and assess the merits and demerits of each.

literature review

Global energy demand has been rising at an alarming rate and so has the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) and carbon dioxide (CO2). This has put the environment at risk and the phenomenon of global warming and ozone depletion are an imminent threat. Buildings are major contributors to the environmental problems, consuming enormous amounts of energy and accounting for about 35% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficient buildings with low energy demand and zero emissions, where the required energy is generated on site through renewable sources (wind, solar etc.) thereby cutting down dependence on the grid are the need of the hour. There is a significant increase in land, material and energy use which adversely affects emissions as well and can be owed to change in lifestyle and urbanization (Ürge-vorsatz, 2014). Rise in population, economic growth and change in lifestyle today has made the provision of energy, a primary necessity for all. Recent concerns over rising energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions has coerced the government to address energy and carbon impact of buildings (Koeppel, Urge-Vorsatz and Czako, 2008). Smart and passive buildings are being embraced by many policy makers.

The modern epoch has been termed as the “Anthropocene”, a period during which human interests have been the leading influence on climate change and the environment (Hale, 2018). At the same time, it is believed that technological advancements and innovations will provide a solution for the social and environmental problems (Reid, 2013) and a transition towards more sustainable modes of production and consumption (Manning and Reinecke, 2016). These efforts are not new, research conducted in the 1970s considered a different way of living where, water collection and treatment and food production were integrated with the predominant idea of energy production and efficiency (Vale and Vale, 2010).

Energy is an indispensable factor for socioeconomic development. Measures for building efficiency can be categorized as, reduction of HVAC energy, passive design measures, usage of renewable energy and energy management. Among these methods, passive design and energy management are the most fundamental and effective (Sadineni, Madala and Boehm, 2011; Rodriguez-Ubinas et al., 2014). Passive design has tremendous scope for improving energy efficiency (Tian et al., 2018). Well designed passive buildings will have reduced heating/cooling and lighting needs thereby reducing HVAC and lighting energy consumption (Omrany and Marsono, 2016). Parameters of building envelope characteristics and passive strategies such as natural ventilation, overhangs, shading devices and daylight aim to reduce lighting and thermal demand while maintaining thermal comfort. These will lead to a considerably lower energy demand in addition to the lifecycle cost. Specific building designs have to be adopted based on climate, topography, landscape and utilization (Harkouss, Fardoun and Biwole, 2018). A clear understanding of the pros and cons of passive designs is needed which will be tacked in this research.

Another effective solution is a smart home which is a consolidation of communication devices and digital sensors that communicate with each other seamlessly and provide more control over energy utilization, comfort and ambience, health monitoring and security within the house. A smart building is very energy efficient and utilizes renewable sources, either onsite or from the district system to cover its low energy demand. Residences with connected appliances and information communication technology can be remotely controlled and monitored and also respond to explicit needs (Balta-Ozkan, Boteler and Amerighi, 2014). Smart homes can be considered as interacting elements of an energy system (BPIE, 2017). This can greatly benefit both the household and the energy system and provide significant data on energy availability and consumption (Darby, 2018). Electrical devices and services can be integrated and provide remote control to the occupants or other agents (Robles and Kim, 2010). Systems can also act independently and change control based on learnings after observing the occupant’s needs and preferences (Das and Cook, 2006), such as the learning thermostat or smart lights. These systems can also aid with network and grid management which greatly benefits the practice of distributed generation, storage and demand response (Darby and McKenna, 2012). Smart home technologies will result in energy management at the grid or network level and also within the home. The distribution of control between humans and technology is a crucial factor and cannot simply be handed over to the intelligence as it influences consumption and occupant satisfaction. A smart home system that is employed primarily for comfort and convenience ceases to be efficient and cannot reduce energy demand. In many cases energy efficiency and consumption take a back seat and homes are classified as smart purely on their electronically networked nature (Gram-Hanssen and Darby, 2018). For instance having a smart phone or a smart TV facilitates a link between the home and the outside, but does not necessarily help curb energy consumption, although these appliances would classify as smart. It is assumed for the most part that the occupants cannot or will not alter their lifestyle (Cherry et al., 2017). A clear understanding of the perks of smart homes as energy monitors and how an occupant uses the smart home features is required which will be looked into in this research.

There is a lot of pressure on the government and policy makers to bring about change. The construction of several bespoke examples of smart and zero energy homes demonstrates their feasibility, yet there is a sparse evidence to prove that such standards would be economically viable, especially when scaled to large housing and development projects where conditions may not always be ideal (Berry and Davidson, 2015). Most of the literature available focusses on technology application and design strategies. A Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) is created before new government regulations are introduces. The RIA  provides a methodical assessment of the possible impacts of the new regulation, a net present value (NPV) and whether the desired objectives can be achieved. Net zero energy homes have been linked with high construction and low energy consumption costs (Leckner and Zmeureanu, 2011). Research has established that market transformation has increased energy performance and decreased cost over time (Jakob and Madlener, 2004). According to Leckner and Zmeureanu (2011), energy prices would have to increase by 13% annually or technology prices fall by comparable amount or a combination of both for the standards to become cost effective over time.

Home owners are mostly deprived of the knowledge and facilities required to pursue their green house goals in spite of being the majority stake holders in the building sector. The course of setting up a green house primarily involves two groups, the non-professionals (owner and occupants) and the professionals (architect, engineer, etc.). Assessing a project can be challenging even for the most seasoned professionals (Li and Froese, 2017). Zeroing in on the most sustainable option is not easy, especially when the environmental factor is not the only one in play and social and economic factors have to be considered. A tool that could help an individual execute a sustainability, cost and benefit analysis taking into account monetary and social constraints does not exist. A solution that is perceived to be green, might not necessarily yield the expected gains.

Urban housing concepts and building performance are the current discourse in the sustainability movement, while neglecting the serious changes requisite for lifestyle and society. In order to address the issues, we need a change in attitude, apart from the mainstream technical eco-friendly solutions (Hagbert and Bradley, 2017). A limited approach to sustainability entrusts technical solutions rather than social ones (Jensen et al., 2012), which would result in an informed consumer and encourage efficient use of resources. Our daily activities and interactions are linked to the environmental and social benefits and detriments. Research has observed that there is a serious gap between the designed and actual energy performance of buildings which can primarily be credited to the occupant behaviour (Strategia et al., 2016). Research on energy consumption from the social science viewpoint and the need for integrated strategies is now being recognized (Ellsworth-Krebs, Reid and Hunter, 2015; Sovacool et al., 2015). These were neglected in the prevailing technology focused approach (Schweber and Leiringer, 2012).

Construction of eco-efficient and transit oriented developments today are commendable, but fail to address the core threats of climate change and environmental injustice (Keil, 2007). Thus, there is a need to express and bring to light the other possibilities of sustainable living (Swyngedouw, 2010). An anti-consumer or anti-capitalist approach is required to address affordability. Cohousing projects can result in economically, ecologically and socially resilient communities that live together and share resources and space (Jarvis, 2011; Sanguinetti, 2014). The tiny house and simplicity movement provides varied social critiques and introduces ways of attaining what is perceived to be improved quality of life, all while considerably lowering energy consumption (Alexander and Ussher, 2012). There are several hurdles in bringing about societal changes, and building professionals like engineers and architects will play a curtail role in the process (Janda and Parag, 2013). In order to be truly sustainable, we have to deal with the aesthetic and behavioural aspects of how a space operate, look and feel along with the technical systems (Gill et al., 2010). Design is an essential tool that can be used by professionals to forge a positive change in the occupants about energy conservation (DiSalvo, 2009). Persuasive technology can be used to influence human behaviour both intentionally and unintentionally and can promote sustainable behaviour (Fogg, 1998). It can alter attitude and/or behaviour through interactive computing without using deceit, manipulation and coercion as defined by Fogg et al (Fogg, Cuellar and Danielson, 2007). Fogg’s Behaviour Model (FBM) that explains the aspects affecting the outcome of persuasive systems suggests that human behaviour is product of trigger, motivation and ability (Fogg, 2009). For example, the instrument cluster in some cars display efficiency in real time which otherwise might not be available. The display may also change colour based on how the car is being driven. These act as motivation and trigger to promote economical and efficient driving. Although, motivation and trigger alone are insufficient to accomplish the desired outcome in the absence of ability.

A universal sustainable living society where people live I harmony with each other and the environment is the ultimate goal. True sustainability requires the transformation of all energy system to 100% renewable. This will require a strong workforce of professionals and practitioners, and an informed society (Middleton, 2018).

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[1] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat



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