Achieving net zero with a smart campus

Building of University of Birmingham

How the University of Birmingham is building the campus of the future with digital technologies – and the right partners.

The University of Birmingham has big plans. It wants to make its campuses in Birmingham, UK, and in Dubai the smartest campuses in the world. Digitalization will lay the groundwork for gradual decarbonization, and integrating the university infrastructure into the Internet of Things (IoT) will provide new educational and research opportunities. Siemens is supporting the university on its journey toward a smart, decarbonized campus.

The university landscape is undergoing a transformation – and has been for some time. Global trends like digitalization, the increasing connectivity of our societies, and the growth of international competition are ushering in new challenges. Schools have to align their educational programs with future social and technological developments and position themselves in such a way that they can attract mobile international students as well as renowned researchers and professors. The key is the presence of a modern infrastructure that works for education, research, and university life. At the same time, sustainability – in the social, ecological, and economic sense – has become an important competitive factor.

We want to improve our students’ experience and create new opportunities for research, while significantly reducing our carbon footprint.
Professor Tim Jones, Provost and Vice-Principal of the University of Birmingham

The COVID-19 outbreak changed our view of our universities’ physical infrastructure. Suddenly digital communication and collaboration tools became essential to the continued operation of universities. It also brought up questions about the future importance of a campus as a physical venue for research and learning, collaborations, and exchanging ideas. How can the digital and physical worlds ideally complement each another, and how can they be meaningfully interwoven?


The University of Birmingham has been addressing these questions with increasing intensity over the past few years. Founded in 1900 and steeped in tradition, it is now one of England’s largest research intensive universities with a student body of roughly 38,000. Since 2018, the university has also been present in Dubai, where it opened a new, state-of-the-art campus for more than 3,000 students in spring 2022.


The university has big plans for both locations over the coming years. “Our goal is to deliver the campus of the future by using the latest technologies to make our Edgbaston and Dubai campuses the smartest worldwide,” says Professor Tim Jones, Provost and Vice-Principal of the University of Birmingham.


By comprehensively digitalizing its infrastructure, the university is pursuing several goals: “We want to improve our students’ experience and create new opportunities for research and innovation, while at the same time significantly reducing our carbon footprint,” says Jones.

23,000 sensors supply the data needed for a net-zero future

But how do you decarbonize a time-honored campus with over 200 buildings, some of which are over 100 years old? To tackle this challenge, the University of Birmingham is working with Siemens, a partner with whom it has a lot in common. “The activities of both the University and Siemens are focused on innovation,” says Faye Bowser, Head of Energy & Performance Services GB&I at Siemens. She and her team have already helped other universities in the UK reduce their carbon footprint and are now able to draw on these experiences.


“In previous projects, we developed a method for gradually decarbonizing a campus,” says Bowser. “This involves three phases: reducing energy consumption, digitalizing the infrastructure, and generating renewable energies in-house.”

The activities of both the University of Birmingham and Siemens are focused on innovation.
Faye Bowser, Head of Energy & Performance Services GB&I at Siemens

The inital step will be to install about 23,000 Enlighted IoT sensors on the Edgbaston campus. This will make the University of Birmingham the world’s first university to introduce Internet of Things (IoT) technology on a broad scale. “We want to acquire new knowledge from the data that we’re able to collect,” says Bowser. For example, the sensors provide information on building utilization, heating, and power consumption. With the help of software, it is possible to analyze where, how, and how much energy is being consumed and whether its use is justified. For instance, there is no point in heating a space that is unoccupied for the entire day. In the future, building operators will be able to detect and correct these inefficiencies.


In addition, the university is working with Siemens to generate a digital twin of the campus energy system, which will also increase transparency and provide a basis for optimization decisions.


“The project’s first goal is to minimize energy consumption,” says Bowser. “It makes no sense to install an expensive generation and storage infrastructure before reducing demand to a minimum.” It isn’t just a matter of electrical energy, we also need to address heating and mobility – in other words, there will be a comprehensive optimization of the entire energy system. “There’s no single technology that can turn an existing campus into a net-zero campus,” Bowser emphasizes. “It’s all about understanding and optimizing a highly complex system.”

Collaboration with a partner like Siemens is the first step toward a net-zero campus.
Tim Jones

“Collaboration with a partner like Siemens is the first step toward a net-zero campus,” says Jones. “We’re going to make the ways we use the campus, how we utilize the infrastructure, how people work, and how they learn more efficient. And as the smart campus and the available data teach us more about these factors, they’ll contribute to a change in behavior that will hopefully take us to exactly the place we need to be.”

Living Lab provides new opportunities for applied education and research

In addition to reducing the carbon footprint, the joint project is creating new educational and research opportunities. In a Living Lab, students will investigate energy demand and power generation based on live data from all the locations – on the system level and on the levels of the individual power generator, consumer, and prosumer. Both the university and Siemens are hoping that this will provide new insights, based on the project’s dimensions. The combined area of the Edgbaston and Dubai campuses is equal to that of a major city, with equivalent energy requirements. “The project offers students a unique opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom to real life and acquire new insights based on the campus infrastructure,” says Bowser.


At the same time, the project is creating a platform for cutting-edge research. Siemens will sponsor a team of PhD students at both the UK and Dubai campuses whose research projects will be co-designed by Siemens and the university to address important challenges in the areas of data, technology, urban systems, and the net-zero goal.

The project offers students a unique opportunity to acquire new insights based on the campus infrastructure.
Faye Bowser

Reaching net zero one step at a time

In all of these ways, the university is helping shape its own future. The roadmap for achieving net zero that was developed in collaboration with Siemens still doesn’t provide concrete answers to every question. What will a sustainable mobility concept for the campus look like? How and where will renewable energies be generated on campus? What potentials do electricity, gas, water, and heating networks offer? These questions will be systematically answered over the next few years, in part by leveraging the new data sources.


As the term partnership implies, Siemens and the university will take these steps together. Siemens will operate a 10-year office for energy and IoT services to provide the university with technology and industry expertise. The University of Birmingham has already proven the extent of its commitment to decarbonization. Over the past few years, it’s substantially improved the sustainability of its operations, including achieving its 2020 target of reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent. And with its vision of the smart campus, the university has now set its sights on the remaining 80 percent.

May 24, 2022

Picture credits: Siemens AG