Digital EIA: When does the future become the present?

1st June 2023

Luke Barrows and Alfie Byron-Grange look at the barriers to adoption of digital environmental impacts assessments

A digital new world

For most of us digital technology is an integral part of our lives, facilitating communication, social media, banking, shopping, entertainment, exercise, education, navigation, news, and networking. In 2020 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 92% of adults in the UK were recent internet users[1]. Indeed, as of April 2020, Ofcom estimated the average daily time spent online among UK adults peaked at 4hr2m – one quarter of our waking time is spent online[2].

If that weren’t enough, the Covid-19 pandemic, for all its ills, was the digital accelerant of the decade. Research by leading customer engagement platform Twilio suggests Covid-19 “accelerated companies’ digital communications strategy by a global average of 6 years, with 5.3 years being the UK average.” The pandemic also fundamentally altered our relationship with work; now more than ever ‘work’ is something we do, rather than somewhere we go. The ONS reports that between December 2019 and March 2022 homeworking in the UK more than doubled from 4.7 million to 9.9 million people[3]. In light of this we ask ourselves where is digital EIA?

Barriers or speedbumps?

The barriers to digital EIA adoption are well documented, with Fothergill and Murphy’s The State of Digital Impact Assessment Practice[4] describing the current landscape. A review of available literature reveals a consensus that digital EIA adoption is curtailed by four primary barriers: EIA staff’s lack of digital competency; lack of standardisation of digital EIA approaches, technology, and methods; regulatory challenges; and the increased cost to the proponent.

But are these barriers sufficient to explain the continued low adoption of digital EIA in the UK? Environmental consultancies conduct more than 800 EIAs in the UK each year[5]. An extrapolation of AECOM’s portfolio would suggest that fewer than 10% of these are conducted digitally. Furthermore, digital EIA penetration is almost exclusively limited to development consent orders (DCOs).

The counterarguments to these digital EIA adoption barriers write themselves. EIA practitioners are highly educated professionals and off-the-shelf digital EIA platforms now provide an intuitive user-friendly experience. Speaking of the technology, the major players in the UK EIA market have all invested heavily in digital impact assessment platforms. From a regulatory standpoint the first electronic-only DCO was submitted in April 2019 and the Planning Inspectorate’s November 2019 Advice Note Six no longer requires applicants to submit printed copies of ESs[1]. So where does this leave us? With an argument centred around cost - and we believe, value.

Cost vs value

Digital EIAs cost more than their conventional counterparts. Understandably, EIA consultancies offset the upfront capital investment in their digital platforms by passing those costs on to the client. But is it the cost of digital EIAs, or a perceived lack of value that is affecting uptake? Whilst EIA practitioners hold positive views on the benefits of digitising ESs4, has the value of digital EIAs been successfully communicated to project proponents? Some developers seek to meet the regulatory minimum at the lowest possible cost, viewing EIA as “burdensome and costly”[2] - an outcome rather than a process.

Therefore, digital EIA may be being hindered not by the technological and regulatory challenges discussed above, but simply by its marketing, or lack thereof. Even within the industry, digital EIA is mythologised – it’s the future of EIA, and whilst that continues maybe it can’t become the present.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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