It's Time to Rethink the Built Environment
By Kevin Bygate
The location of the concept of homelessness in a Kumu ontology map of the universe
The UK government has designated "finance" as today’s theme for the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The focus is well placed. Rebuilding or adapting our infrastructure so it will be more sustainable and resilient will cost far more than governments will be willing or able to afford, so we'll need a lot of innovative private investment. One of the themes on Nov. 11 is "the built environment." Another key issue. Unless we sharply reduce the operational carbon footprints of our buildings, old and new, and use less energy to build new ones, we won’t be able to deal with climate change.
I'm mashing these two themes together because I believe we have to change our attitudes toward the built environment even while we reimagine finance.
First, concerning the built environment: We can’t afford to obsess only on bricks and mortar and steel and glass. If we are to fend off the worst potential miseries wrought by climate change, we have to first consider people’s needs. We have to rethink the built environment based on the wellbeing of the people who inhabit it.
I came to this conclusion only recently. I spent most of my career as an executive in the building materials industry—mostly steel. My degrees are in engineering. So I’m a bit surprised to find myself advocating a different approach and accentuating the “soft” side of buildings. By soft side I mean the lives of the people who live and work and shop in them, the social conditions and pressures they face, and our systems for helping them live and work better.
The COVID pandemic has awakened people to the interconnectedness of natural and human-made systems. Government and business leaders are coming to realize that we can’t solve complex problems with the same-old simplistic approaches, and we won’t be able to meet net zero carbon goals unless we change the way we operate as societies.
My thinking changed radically because of a pro bono project I’m involved in. For months, I have participated in a global collaboration called Pivot Projects, which was organized at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis with the goal of using collective intelligence, systems thinking, and AI-based research tools to help communities become more sustainable and resilient. I led a workgroup focused on changing the way we design, build, and operate buildings. We talked a lot about creating new sustainability standards focused on the way construction projects are managed, but our first opportunity to engage with society came from a surprising direction. Our big engagement breakthrough came when we were invited by the Welsh government to help them take on homelessness. (I live in Wales so I was able to introduce Pivot Projects to them.)
Pivot Projects is presenting an event in Glasgow during COP26, It's Time to Pivot, an element of the Malin Group's Spotlight series. It will take place in person and online starting at 1:45 pm UK Time on Nov. 6. The event is a conversation and a call to action to individuals and groups who want to pivot to a more sustainable future. Please join us!
Here's a blog post about Pivot Projects and the event, with a link to registration.
Here's the registration page.
Homelessness in Wales is just a first step. We hope to use Pivot Projects’ ideas and tools to help governments address a wide range of built-environment sustainability issues. I’m taking on this project along with a small cluster of wonderful change makers: including Amanda Milliner and Jonathan Huish, my colleagues in the change-management consultancy Capital People, and two associates from Pivot Projects, Ian Abbott-Donnelly and James Green. We invite others with expertise and funding to join with us. If you want to connect, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2015, Wales took the lead globally in advancing a movement that is now catching on around the world. The country’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which the legislature passed in 2015 The act is like an addendum to the country’s constitution. The act puts the wellbeing of citizens at the center of each level of government—whether national, regional, or local. It requires government officials to consider the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other; and to address or prevent problems such as poverty, health inequities and climate change.
The Welsh government invited us in to serve as adviser-consultants to help them address a number of these issues, starting with homelessness. The idea was to use homeless as a pilot project to develop a methodology for fostering community-government engagement and addressing other climate-related problems.
At its core, our goal is to identify “green swans,” a phenomenon described by John Elkington at Volans. Here's where finance comes in. You are probably familiar with the term “black swans,” which are hard-to-predict events that affect financial markets. Green swans are new approaches that help governments, non-profit agencies, businesses, and communities come together and move more quickly to solve social and economic problems related to climate change.
We started working on the homeless project in July—a group of us engaging with leaders responsible for addressing homelessness in the Trivallis housing authority in the Rhondda Cynon Taf county borough. We started by exploring the “system” of homelessness in the country borough with the hope that we can find novel solutions.
I’m not going to go into detail on this project because it’s still in early stages. Instead I want to rise up to the 30,000-foot level and talk in some more detail about the green swan approach to collaboration, innovation, and financing that I believe can help us humans address the wellbeing issues related to climate change. I believe that by using the new generation of collaboration and research tools that Pivot Projects has pulled together, partnerships involving government, communities, businesses, and non-profits will be able to quickly spot non-obvious ideas, methods, and technologies that they can then put to work to improve wellbeing.
Private investment is a critical component here because governments alone won’t be able to afford to pay for the massive investments that will be needed to address climate change. So we need impact investing from private investors. But government also plays a critical role by creating incentives and direction for private investing and in helping to set up revolving funds that diversify and de-risk investor’s portfolios. They also play an important role in requiring that projects put people and their wellbeing at the center, and in laying out ecologically-focused, performance-based specifications for infrastructure projects. The third critical element is people in communities. They must be involved in projects from the start—helping to design the interventions that will have such powerful impacts on their lives.
So let’s get to work creating green swans. If we work together we can accelerate collaboration, innovation, planning, investment and action—improving the wellbeing of the people of today and the people of the future. We don’t have a minute to lose.