Could low-tech be the key to a sustainable future ?
On 20 February 2019, the OID (Green Building Observatory) organised a conference in the La Française auditorium on applying the “low-tech” movement to the real estate sector. The conference began with a presentation by Philippe Bouix* as part of the Real Estate & Outlooks cycle.
- Why low tech?
The conversation around low-tech is being fuelled by an undeniable truth: the depletion of resources leads to the overconsumption of energy and a vicious circle which is untenable in the long term. Mines that can be easily accessed have been exhausted, and in those currently open, the resource concentration rates are much lower, with ever-expanding amounts of tech investment and energy required to operate them, as illustrated by the use of shale gas.
Renewable energies, which do not run out, appear to be an answer to the growing need for energy. But the paradox is that producing, storing and processing this energy in increasingly large volumes requires resource-hungry technology, particularly in terms of rare metals.
At the same time, the “circularity” of the materials or objects produced and used today is very low. These resources are utilised in a “dispersive” way; for example plastic, as it can only be recycled a few times, and metals, because of how they are used. High-tech objects are made from numerous components that cannot be separated at the end of their lives. For more everyday objects, the problem stems from the number of different alloys used. Lastly, their use in micro or nano format makes them unsuitable for recovery: in the case of titanium, for example, 95% is used in chemical form (in paint, make up, creams, etc.).
The development of “simple” or low-tech solutions represents an opportunity to address the higher energy consumption of digital technologies. Recycling, modularity, repairability, simplicity and restraint are the watchwords of low tech. This allows for the involvement and autonomy of individuals, and makes it possible for communities of interests and skills to develop. The principles of frugal innovation, resilience and the circular economy are also pertinent. This is not just an issue of technology: we are talking about far-reaching societal change.
- Low-tech and real estate
The time has come for the real estate sector, which is a major consumer of resources (materials and energy), to ask itself the right questions. To reduce its impact, and use low-tech in a smart way, there are some interesting and disruptive possibilities, such as:
- Shared use of buildings. The building with the lowest impact is the one that isn’t built, and offices are only used for around 30% of the time overall. And buildings that aren’t used also have an impact on the environment, due to the raw materials, carbon footprint and harmful effects of artificial surfaces.
- Construction that factors in future demolition. Aspects such as re-use, redeployment, recycling, the circular economy, storage and the recovery of materials should be taken into account from the building design stage and need to reflect the local context.
- Build local. This means removing our dependence on the geopolitical climate by no longer sourcing from Africa, Asia or the Americas. Using sustainable human labour that is available locally rather than unsustainable resource-consuming machines.
- Working on resilience, to ensure the sustainability of buildings that can withstand increasingly severe climate events.
As described, the low-tech movement is not a purely technical issue, but a socio-technical, organisational and cultural phenomenon.
* Author of: L’âge des low tech : vers une civilisation technologiquement soutenable
Download Strategy & Sustainability