29 JUN 2021


Achieving sustainability is arguably the most complex challenge facing humankind. Not only is action needed, but we need to accelerate our actions to meet our targets and prevent potentially irreversible damage to the planet. Atkins’ Dr Wolfgang Schuster asks how can we get individuals, corporations, and government on board?

The pressures to act on climate change have resulted in the Committee on Climate Change publishing its Net Zero by 2050 report, which focusses on reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas net emissions (including carbon and water vapour emissions) to zero by 2050. 

Meanwhile, other initiatives such as the Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy, Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and Freeport initiative, set out the UK government’s vision of incorporating the expansion of low carbon initiatives into our national psyche. But achieving sustainability – let alone Net Zero – represents a collaborative challenge across a complex stakeholder landscape, with implications for both private and industrial consumers of resources.

So, how do we begin this sustainability transformation?

The answer is to take a holistic approach. All sectors will need to engage across a much wider stakeholder landscape, including sectors that in the past were perhaps not as intrinsically linked. For example, while the transport sector in the past was a consumer of energy, it is increasingly becoming a supplier of energy, creating a much more interlinked ecosystem. Similar trends apply to other sectors, which are all increasingly interlinked through the circular economy. 

To make this holistic approach successful will require a radical shift to a new type of regulatory framework. It will need to capture the whole lifecycle and include assessments that consider the complex interactions between mechanisms for achieving sustainability goals (such as carbon-reduction), including nudging, technologies and infrastructure, rather than considering each aspect in isolation.

There are two key approaches that support the realisation of the sustainability transformation: 

Firstly, systems thinking: this approach centres around the belief that a component part (i.e. each industry) will act differently in isolation than it would if working collaboratively to achieve the sustainability transformation goals. This approach would work across all stakeholders to bridge the gaps between customers, operations and infrastructure, and between energy and other industries spanning commercial agreements as well as behavioural influencing. All underpinned by data intelligence. 

Secondly, cross-sector strategies involve the need to undertake a series of complex, multi-topic and multi-sector impact assessments to ensure that the right sustainability actions are progressed. These should be enabled through the provision of policy, guidance and funding route advice to promote clean infrastructure and services across all sectors. The actions should also support the identification of innovative solutions such as human-centred design and whole-lifecycle pollution (e.g. emissions and chemical pollution) quantification tools. Enablers such as cross-sector master planning and programme management capabilities will need to be incorporated into this strategy, to plan, design, track and manage the widespread project delivery and installation of sustainability-enabling approaches and technologies, and to engender cultural shifts at the heart of the sustainability transformation.

Achieving sustainability is a complex system-type challenge that requires a rethink of our socio-economic model. A shift in culture – be it consumerism by individuals, siloed corporate cultures or the move to strategic longer-term politics – will play a core role in this transformation, informed and driven by cross-sector data intelligence.

Achieving this requires: 

Early engagement to generate trust between individuals, corporations and government. This will need to be underpinned by an appropriate regulatory framework.

Focusing on the whole lifecycle of resources and assets. By widening the focus to the whole system of resource generation, resource supply, and resource demand and consumption, a holistic end-to-end approach can be created. 

Collaboration and data sharing. We need to convene panels of experts, stakeholders and users, to consider the needs of all in delivering sustainability. The use of data can provide intelligent and informed decision-making to develop a holistic vision of what sustainability looks like. This can then be used as a blueprint for the entire lifecycle.

Adaptability in preparation for new technologies and socio-political trends that may be on the horizon. By considering the likes of insurance, legal, governmental and the regulatory frameworks that will underpin a change in approach, every area can be mapped out and prepared for via a dynamic action plan. 

All in all, a sustainability transformation can be achieved if we implement a clear and holistic roadmap that considers the needs of each sector and its barriers while driving towards a common goal. This is our collective challenge, and it’s time we find common ground and work together.

Dr Wolfgang Schuster, technical director, data intelligence, Atkins.


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