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Students’ tech solutions to cut waste in Scotland

Robertson construction group invited students to investigate how the industry could use digital technologies to contribute to the circular economy

The ‘Uber’ of the construction industry, an AI tool to analyse building materials, and a waste prevention web platform were among ideas presented by University of Edinburgh students to reduce waste from the construction industry – Scotland’s single largest waste producer.

The 24 students were responding to a brief set by leading infrastructure company Robertson, who has partnered with the university’s ‘Students as Change Agents’ programme for the second time.

Robertson asked students to look at ways the construction industry could embrace digital technologies to contribute to the circular economy.

The groups were also asked to consider how the industry could adopt new technology following the Scottish government economy strategy, ‘Making Things Last’ that highlights that the construction and the built environment sectors account for about 50% of all waste in Scotland and over half of carbon emissions when the operation of buildings is included.

The University of Edinburgh and Robertson have pledged their commitment to reducing this figure by working in partnership and offering students the opportunity to create and pitch innovative waste prevention strategies designed to help deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

During the project, students were given access to Robertson’s waste management data using the Building Research Establishment (BRE) Smartwaste tool, of which Robertson is a licensed member. The groups then presented their recommendations to design out waste and drive sustainability across the entire construction process.

The four groups suggested an impressive range of solutions, including the use of intelligent technology to photograph and share waste information at the point of deconstruction, a peer-to-peer waste sharing app and a web platform that links key stakeholders in the construction supply chain advising of opportunities for waste prevention.

Tony Grundy, Robertson’s Sustainability Manager added: “This has been a really important and valuable project for Robertson to get involved with as at present there is limited take up of the circular economy in the built environment industry.

“As a business, we’ve already taken steps to help change this and in June this year we were announced as carbon neutral after reducing our carbon intensity by 25% over the last four years and then offsetting the remaining emissions through impactful projects. However, we recognise that not just new, but radical thinking is needed for wider impact to be made.

“Many of the current business models required to make the circular economy a success are perceived as too difficult, so solutions using digital technologies that simplify the process are urgently required.

“We were hugely impressed with the presentations and ideas put forward that bring new perspectives for how the built environment industry can work together to create long-lasting solutions.”

Al Powell, Students as Change Agents Project Manager, said “We have been really excited to provide a platform for our students to work with Robertson and its industry partners in tackling such a knotty and important challenge.

“The aim of Students as Change Agents is not just to provide amazing development opportunities for students, but to really effect social change and instil this as a long-term value of all participants.”

Comments from students taking part included, “I believe that it is important to tackle these issues at the system level to ensure maximum efficiency, with an end goal of sustainability”; “I am interested in how we can create more sustainable lives, products, production processes and supply chains through the force of innovative digital technologies” and “The circular economy model tackles not only the problems pertaining to single use and waste production from a quantifiable, resources perspective, but also forces us as individuals to reassess our perspective of the world and our place within it.”

Funded by Data Driven Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, Students as Change Agents is an experiential learning programme that brings students from different academic disciplines together to tackle real-world complex challenges and provides students the opportunity to learn new skills outside of the classroom to make a sustainable social difference.

Further support and input came from the Building Research Establishment, Zero Waste Scotland and POD Father.

The aim of Students as Change Agents is not just to provide amazing development opportunities for students, but to really effect social change and instil this as a long-term value of all participants