Digital factory cogs concept

The low-code route to hitting green targets

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New approaches to automation can help organisations achieve their net zero ambitions by creating workflows that don’t rely on the traditional teams of specialist developers.

The UK has fallen behind on adapting to climate change. A recent Climate Change Committee report highlighted how the gap between the level of risk and mitigation efforts is widening at an alarming rate. Despite having capacity and the resources needed to respond to risks, the UK is failing to prepare for the inevitable, with the report going on to lay bare the urgency and scale of changes needed across the infrastructure if the country wants to reach its new 2050 net zero target.

The utilities sector is pivotal to meeting that objective, as is the role of digital innovation across sectors. Some 90 per cent of utility sector leaders surveyed in a recent study said that their commitment to net zero has initiated or triggered a sea change in their organisation. Forty four per cent went further, saying they were extremely confident in their organisation’s ability to reach its net zero targets in a timely way.

The established approach to meeting such a significant challenge is to make big ticket technology investments to deliver innovation in isolation in the hope that they are later adopted at scale. However, around 89 per cent of executives surveyed understand that a new approach to digital transformation is needed to accommodate the kind of changes that are necessary to reach our climate goals.

What’s needed now, as we prepare for COP26, are incremental but important changes to operational processes that contribute to an organisation’s day-to-day carbon footprint. We’re talking about process automation. Survey respondents felt technologies such as advanced data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence are the fields that will be most critical in unlocking those near-term net zero wins. Sixty per cent also recognised the potential of low-code automation to support agile delivery of their net zero ambitions, both in terms of automation for now (day-to-day operational processes), and automation for the bigger picture (carbon modelling to make better investment decisions, for example).

One of the common pitfalls we hear from energy organisations of all shapes and sizes is that legacy data systems don’t play well with new investments – or new investments take so much time to bed-in that they are no longer relevant across the business once fully deployed. One of the biggest internal barriers to achieving net zero ambitions is a lack of robust data with which to drive focused and effective decarbonisation initiatives – 77 per cent of survey participants highlighted this.

There’s another issue facing the industry: a skills shortage amongst developers and IT professionals. And, when it comes to realising the intent of carbon neutrality projects, the IT department is often at a distance to the business areas most keen to see them through. This disconnect between available skills, legacy systems and the desire to move at speed to meet net zero goals is at risk of leaving companies frozen, despite their desire to act.

An organisational stance on unifying and orchestrating data sources with people and systems is needed. Automation through a low-code development platform is proving to be a viable solution to these challenges by allowing workflows to be designed, deployed and revised without relying on teams of specialist developers.

With low-code – a new way to create applications that arguably entered the mainstream in 2020 – business and IT can work together to describe and implement new workflows without relying on line-by-line coding. That saves time – vital now when we all need to make inroads on net zero projects – and can bring governance and compliance around the same table, ensuring that workflows are created to truly meet their goals.

Anglian Water is one company leading the way in its use of data and low code to move towards its net zero goals through its Capital Carbon Programme. Using carbon models based on 2010 carbon values, Anglian assesses the carbon intensity relating to its materials and construction processes to come up with a value during its design period called the capital carbon. This information is then used to continually iterate asset designs, with reduced carbon capital having been found to have a direct relationship with reduced cost, through the use of low-code and solid data integration. And it’s effective – as of 2020, Anglian had achieved a 61 per cent capital carbon reduction on its 2010 baseline.

There is a clear recognition that digital innovation will play a major role in the decarbonisation journey, but there is a gap between organisations’ longer-term vision of their net zero carbon future and the lack of pragmatic steps they are taking to lay the foundations for that future. Low-code platforms and automation offer a clear way to bridge the gap. Organisations should start to think of smaller, incremental changes such as automations that, when repeated over longer periods of time can add up to substantial change, rather than looking

If data collection and collaboration are critical to how these transformation plans pan out, then the sharing of data will be a necessary factor, too. The only way to reach net zero carbon emissions is for utilities to become an ecosystem of companies that work hand in hand to move forward together.

Michael Heffner is VP of solutions and industry go to market for Appian

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