Akila Leverages Data and Technology to Improve Companies’ ESG Efforts
Akila is a digital twin platform built to revolutionise sustainability, performance and human-centricity in the built environment, while also streamlining ESG reporting for C-suites.
By Joseph Low
Akila is a real-estate data and management platform founded in 2021 that uses digital twin and AI technologies to empower data-driven decision making and ESG for large and multinational portfolios. How was the concept of Akila nurtured?
Akila started with a group of people from different fields related to the built environment: 3D design and simulation, system engineering, energy, construction, IoT and smart buildings, and facility management. What united us was a recognition that buildings contribute a massive share of all carbon emissions, approximately 40 per cent in fact, and that the sector still ranks bottom three for digitalisation. This simply must change. So, we were resolved to create a platform capable of driving a sustainability transformation in the built environment. This is a transformation oriented around data, digitalisation, improved performance and ESG. It very much includes the luxury industry and its built assets — mining operations, factories, warehouses, retail spaces, yachts and more.
There were many steps to get us where we are today. We took a lot of inspiration from the example of our strategic partners, Dassault Systèmes. From the 1980s onwards, they completely transformed manufacturing in the aerospace and automotive industries, using digital twin and 3D simulation to move from an analogue and paper-based system to one that was fully digital and model-based, leveraging the concept of a single source of truth from design through production and operation.
Now we want to do the same thing for the built environment, helping businesses and portfolio holders achieve massive decarbonisation across their holdings. We can achieve this because the Akila platform is an enabling technology capable of optimising across the value chain from design and construction to operations, all the way until decommissioning. In Akila, we are confident we have built a unique digital twin platform, carefully designed for the age of ESG.
Tell us about the close relationship between Akila and Aden Group?
Aden Group was the incubator of Akila and remains one of its three main strategic partners, alongside Dassault Systèmes and Microsoft. From Aden Group, we have been able to draw on 25 years of hands-on expertise managing complex operations at large facilities — factories, industrial parks, commercial space, retail space, etc. That experience has greatly informed the development of Akila because, alongside ESG and performance dashboards for high-level decision-makers, Akila is also designed as a solution for operational teams at sites. So, the functionalities of Akila have been very deeply informed by Aden’s decades of experience understanding client needs, resolving their pain points and making their buildings into high-performing, high-comfort, human-centric spaces.
Another exciting thing is that our partnership with Aden Group opens up opportunities to collaborate on net-zero carbon projects with other entities under the Aden Group umbrella. I am thinking especially of Tera Energies, the clean-energy JV it co-founded Total-Eren, and NXpark, a series of turn-key Industry 4.0 industrial parks that it is developing in China right now. Simply put, we are stronger together, and able to make an even stronger push for decarbonization and optimisation.
How instrumental has Dassault Systèmes been in the definition of the data to be collected and overall process of these?
As I mentioned earlier, Dassault Systèmes are truly pioneers in the field of 3D design and simulation. Over the past 40 years, they have become global leaders in software for advanced simulation and 3D modelling. Having Dassault Systèmes as one of our three main strategic partners has greatly expanded our capabilities in two areas especially.
First, Dassault Systèmes is central when creating and maintaining what we call the “digital thread” of a site in the built environment. This ensures that a single source of truth is preserved for a project through design, construction, commissioning, and then the Akila integration makes sure that this digital thread is maintained through operations. Only by having accurate data inputs can you have accurate outputs — otherwise, as the saying goes: garbage-in, garbage-out. Dassault Systèmes ensures the integrity of all structural data that goes into our platform.
Secondly, Dassault Systèmes software enables advanced simulation of an enormous range of scenarios for a building or asset without limitation. This includes things like energy simulation, thermal comfort simulation, carbon footprint calculation and more. In effect, we are able to merge the virtual and physical world for a continuous loop of optimisation and “see into the future” in ways that facilitate smarter and more sustainable building design for greenfield projects. Then, during the operational phase of a building, this simulation capability enables critical carbon-reducing features like predictive maintenance — this means we can target potential issues before they impact operations and cause unnecessary environmental impact.
Who are the key members of the Akila team?
Honestly, too many to name. Since our founding, we have grown from a team of five to 80, and we’ll see that number continue to rise. Our founding team is multicultural and multinational, bringing together high-level tech, business and sustainability experts from across a range of global tech, consulting and industrial groups. Our backgrounds cover ESG, energy, engineering, construction, PropTech and LEED. We started in China, but we’ve been expanding fast in Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, with two main divisions: SaaS as well as an Architecture & Engineering Technologies division.
Akila’s Energy Savings Tracker: a smarter, simpler way to measure impact. What specific solutions is Akila providing?
Many companies are already undertaking energy-savings projects but lack the tools to successfully conduct and measure optimisation at scale. For instance, some companies don’t have a clear picture of how much energy they are consuming and where the inefficiencies lay — they can only compare energy bills side-by-side, for the crudest measurement of energy consumption. Or, they have undertaken energy optimisation projects, but they are still working off massive Excel sheets, dependent upon manual input and management. This limits how often measurement can take place, brings the risk of human error, and proves enormously difficult to coordinate across sites and borders.
These are the problems Akila Energy Savings Tracker addresses. The platform uses IoT to create a transparent energy-consumption baseline for each site, down to the level of individual pieces of equipment. Then, it tracks all subsequent energy consumption in real time, in the same digital space, using the same metrics. That means that at any point you can measure in exact terms how much energy has been saved for any equipment, facility, or portfolio over any period of time, and also calculate the change in carbon emissions that has been produced.
Real-time data and analytics in a user-friendly dashboard — is that the key message delivered to decision makers?
Akila workspace energy matrix. Image: Akila
Yes, it is one of the key messages. Akila is designed to facilitate faster, better decision-making among C-level leadership. We believe that centralising key information relating to ESG and building performance into a customisable “portfolio performance cockpit” is one of the best ways to achieve this. Importantly, this is not just a static report, but a dynamically updated one, so that leadership can be updated immediately if there are any irregularities at a particular site and ensure that they are followed up on in the fastest manner possible.
Is the Akila team acting as an adviser — can the team support clients in high ESG risk industries to develop their climate transition strategies?
In these cases, Akila is the enabler and we work with specialists to produce a detailed report. Those specialists can be either the company’s in-house experts or can be drawn from one of the consultancy firms in our own network. Either way, when this groundwork is done, Akila parametrises its solutions to meet the specific recommendations and needs of the company. We are then able to greatly simplify the execution of tour clients’ climate transition by automating the collection of data covering Scopes 1, 2 and 3.
Which clients have started implementing the various Akila solutions?
We are working with American, Japanese and European multinationals, many of whom are currently running pilots in China and Southeast Asia as a first step towards a global deployment. One of our biggest contracts for ESG and decarbonisation is in the retail sector (expect a public announcement about this very soon), but to date the largest share of our client base has been in industry and manufacturing, including automotive, construction equipment, electronics, and petrochemicals.
The beauty of the platform, though, is that any building or asset in any sector produces data, and Akila can help harness and scale this data collection, no matter what type of building or sector. We also have used Akila to help clients link and optimise multisite portfolios covering commercial buildings, warehouses, even hospitals and international schools.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has just recognised Akila as a fast rising player in the ESG space. The highly selective award recognises annually the top 100 early- to growth-stage worldwide that are shaping the future by advancing technologies. How such an award impacts on the whole team at Akila?
Yes, we were selected as one of 100 global startups to join the WEF’s 2022 Technology Pioneers cohort. Needless to say, this was a big milestone and will really help us connect with high-level audiences and partners in our mission of decarbonisation. To us, it is an indication that the things driving Akila — the climate crisis, the rise of ESG, digitalisation as the key to decarbonisation — are also resonating with a wider audience and people at the highest levels of business, technology and government.
As members of the Technology Pioneers cohort, we are able to connect directly with the WEF through working groups (we have just joined the Digital Twin Cities Advisory committee in Beijing, for example), as well as WEF events and networking in a group whose alumni include Google, Airbnb, Spotify, Wikimedia and many other massive tech companies.
Do you see growing number of companies integrating ESG into their investment process?
Absolutely. And this makes good sense because ESG has always been structured from an investor point of view — making it easier and more reliable for investors to assess different companies on sustainability and best practice metrics. Looking at the luxury industry today, different companies are in different places on the journey, but the trend towards ESG is clear and lasting. It’s safe to say that in the coming years, sustainability — based on transparent, quantitative ESG data — will be one of the key markers of a premium brand, right alongside traditional measures like the grade of materials, craftsmanship and design, etc.
What is driving this is a real convergence in different sectors. On one hand, there is a wave of tougher government and industry regulation, but just as important is the market pressure coming from consumers themselves. This makes the robustness of a company’s ESG and sustainability policies a major strategic concern. Buyers today think about sustainability and carbon impact more than ever before and have been empowered by a new wave of apps and other tools to do their own research on a company’s impact. And, they are spending accordingly. In the past, companies have been able to pay lip service to sustainability and just greenwash, but ESG really takes an axe to that. The new reality is that companies which proactively adopt ESG policies will win, while greenwashers will pay. There will be nowhere to hide.
Overall, what should a company do to make sure its social and governance-focused targets are credible and ambitious?
They must put a premium on the transparency of their data. How do you achieve this? It requires digital transformation, carried out systemically across whole portfolios and across the property lifecycle — concept to operations all the way to operations and decommissioning. For credibility, companies also need third-party auditing of their data. Akila enables the needed traceability, and is designed to ensure a coherent structure of ESG data, making this process transparent and smooth.
As for ensuring that targets are ambitious enough, that needs to be taken on a case-by-case, looking at the clients’ specifics and taking into account industry benchmarking. It’s also important to remember that ESG is not something you start today and finish tomorrow — it is a process, and continuous improvement is the name of the game. Akila is the tool that lets companies document this trajectory in great detail. And by working with organisations like SBTi (of which Akila is a partner), targets can be set in both an ambitious and scientific way.
Where do you see Akila in five years?
Well, by 2027, we won’t need to explain what a digital twin or ESG are anymore, because both will have become so prevalent in business and life. Our ambition by that point is to have become one of the defining digital tools of this ESG era, and to have accelerated a substantial change in the carbon emissions of buildings and cities.
How do we get there? Our Asia-first strategy and the fact that we are operational inside and outside of China will be very important. Asia will remain the world’s most dynamic economic zone. Then as now, it will be the place where MNCs have the freedom to pilot new technologies ahead of their global rollout. We have already begun this process with many major global clients, and we see this as a path we’ll continue on over the next five years: in short, we’ll be taking Akila from Asia to the world.
The other aspect we will see developing more is Akila’s open Ecosystem — a space we can conceptualise as a kind of app store for buildings and assets in the ESG era. Akila is designed as an open platform, so that partners with strong vertical specialisations can offer integrations inside the Akila platform. We have already begun this process by working with partners in industries like AR (augmented reality), but in five years we should see this really coming to fruition.