How a Systems Thinking Approach Can Revolutionize Sustainable Building Operations

Sustainability has become a critical goal for businesses today. It is about restoring balance and looking for alternatives to the over-reliance on natural resources for conducting business activities and fighting climate change. As said by Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency and shared by the Confederation of Indian Industries, energy efficiency (ref 1) is the world’s “first fuel” (ref 2) and an essential tool for achieving ambitious climate goals. According to the Alliance for an Energy-Efficient Economy (AEEE) (ref 3), energy consumption in buildings in India is expected to grow up to 2809 TWh by 2047. As organizations strive to reduce their carbon footprint and optimize resource utilization, a systems thinking approach can be a strategic way to make building operations more sustainable.

According to futurice (ref 4), “Systems thinking is a powerful tool that helps us better navigate the complexity and delicate balance of the socio-political and natural ecosystems within which our businesses operate.” In other words, systems thinking is understanding how things work together. It considers all the interconnected parts of a system, and how they affect each other.

A systems thinking approach in sustainable building operations (ref 5) involves considering the interdependencies and interactions of various components and stakeholders within the building system. It considers the broader context (ref 6) and aims to understand the effects and outcomes of planning, design, and operational decisions.

Benefits of systems thinking approach for sustainable building operations

Using a systems thinking approach in managing building operations has several benefits, including:

Holistic Understanding (ref 7(8)): A systems thinking approach helps to understand the building, considering the interconnectedness of all factors involved. It makes it a powerful tool for addressing complex challenges in building operations. While organizations can make more informed decisions, it also helps build better stakeholder relationships and explore new opportunities.

Improved Decision-making (ref 9): By considering the impacts and outcomes of planning, design and operational decisions, a systems thinking approach can help in making more informed and effective decisions. It can help identify trade-offs and the unintended consequences of decisions.

Long-term Sustainability (ref 10): A systems thinking approach takes a long-term perspective, considering the life cycle of the building and its impact on the environment and society over time. It helps in designing buildings that are resilient, adaptable and sustainable.

Illustrative Example

Scenario:

A large office building is looking to improve its sustainability performance. The building operations team has identified a few areas where they can make improvements, including:

  • Reducing energy consumption and cost
  • Increase occupant comfort

Applying Systems Thinking Approach:

The team can use the systems thinking approach to identify the root causes of the building’s occupant comfort, energy costs and consumption ─ and design solutions that address the broader context. For example, they may find that the building’s HVAC system is oversized and inefficient. By optimizing the HVAC system, they can reduce energy consumption without sacrificing occupant comfort.

The team may also find that there are opportunities to optimize energy expenses. By implementing a demand-limiting program, they can reduce energy consumption during peak times, when the cost of energy is highest and avoid penalties or earn rebates.

The team can apply the systems thinking approach to make more informed decisions about how to improve occupant comfort and save energy costs and consumption in the building. This can lead to significant improvements in the building’s environmental impact.

Working at the Juncture of People, Processes and Systems:

EcoEnergy Insights’ BluEdge Command Centers operate at the intersection of people skills, digital innovation and a robust process to digitally transform building and equipment operations maintenance. By proactively intervening remotely, customers benefit from improved efficiency and operational optimization.

The team analyzes data from connected equipment and Building Management Systems (BMS), analyzes insights from its CORTIX™ platform, and proactively intervenes remotely or coordinates with retailers and their maintenance partners to act on the predictive insights. By adopting the systems thinking approach, the team solves building equipment operations problems holistically, using their equipment and controls knowledge, information technology and data analytics expertise. This addresses scope 2 (ref 11) of GHG emissions, associated with the energy purchased and consumed by a company. They focus on remotely resolving issues as much as possible, coordinating field dispatches only when necessary. They also optimize these dispatches to enable first-time fixes and combine work orders to reduce the number of dispatches to a building. The reduced number of dispatches thereby reduces operations costs and associated GHG emissions. This addresses scope 3 (ref 12) of GHG emissions, associated with activities from sources not owned or controlled by the company.

By applying the systems thinking approach for maintenance and energy management, EcoEnergy Insights has recorded over 87.4 million kWh (13) of energy savings for its customers in India, and over 5 billion kWh globally helping customers make their building operations more sustainable.

In summary, a systems thinking approach can enable building operations to be made more sustainable by helping businesses navigate complexity, identify feedback loops, address trade-offs and synergies, and promote resilience and adaptability. By embracing systems thinking, businesses can optimize their building operations and contribute to a more sustainable future.

 

Vikesh Mehta

Global Service Delivery Head EcoEnergy Insights

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