By Simon Carter

It’s about the future, baby

We are businesses and people who live by incremental change. But we now enter a time of transformation in which we are being forced to examine the full systems that inhibit us existing sustainably, rather than just addressing the symptoms of our unsustainability.

It is clearly a time of reinvention. Our global financial system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Obama has declared his commitment to have the US no longer importing oil from the Middle East or Venezuela within 10 years and America’s previously mighty automotive industry is going back to the drawing board.

It’s clear 2009 is proving to be the turning point from which many of the rules of the old industrial economy will go out the window and the rules of the post industrial era are created. So, what might this profound shift in the world mean for the Australian property industry and our green building movement?

Even pre Global Financial Crisis, our green building movement had found itself at an interesting and challenging juncture. Over the last decade we have made considerable progress. Amongst our achievements, all new investment grade office buildings are now green as defined by Green Star ratings, government is providing incentives and also regulation in sectors like residential, and our major landlords are implementing programs to improve the performance of their whole portfolios. In fact, given the relatively small amount of regulation here and innovation by industry, the Australian green building movement has been truly world leading.

But, we still haven’t verified that these new green buildings actually perform as intended; we still have a long way to go with building types other than office; we still have relatively weak demand from the tenant market; we have to green the infrastructure of our cities; and we still have not really made a dent in our primary challenge, dealing with existing building stock.

These and others are issues that have been discussed for some time, and while some progress has been made, it is negligible in relation to what we know needs to be achieved. Industry continues to move forward incrementally, so many of it’s members checking what competitors are doing, inventing a slightly greener initiative and then validating at conferences and on their websites why they are the ‘industry leader’. Unfortunately, this approach not only means we are failing to achieve the deep reduction in our built environment’s ecological footprint that we urgently need, but it also means that we miss out on the majority of the value that the movement we call ‘sustainability’ can bring to our businesses.

To much of the Australian property industry, ‘sustainability’ has been reduced to a check list of actions that can be taken in order to comply with new market and regulatory demands. Now this is valid as prudent risk management practice and it also helps to underpin increasingly higher green standards in the industry, but it is still only reacting to the demands of today. There is no real sense of where all this work is going. Few companies are defining their future as they would like it, rather than as isdelivered to them. The industry has no vision for sustainability.

Sustainability is an absolute thing, we are either sustainable on this world or not. Our businesses are either sustainable in the face of the accelerating change that we are facing or not. Therefore we cannot begin to really address sustainability, as opposed to just unsustainability reduction, without the creation of a positive vision for ourselves of where we want to get to.

This vision can turn the game on its head, we are then working towards what we really want, rather than what we don’t want. We so often hear cries of green fatigue and many of those companies less advanced in sustainability have chosen to put all of their green endeavours on hold in this time of financial crisis. It is not surprising as the way in which we relate to ‘sustainability’ today is not inspiring, it is not drawing us all forward to a terrific future. It is largely fear-based and as such can motivate in the short term but then become very tiring. Our sustainability movement is unsustainable for the very people it’s trying to sustain.

To create our sustainability-based vision we may even need to drop the word ‘sustainable’. This is a term synonymous with conservation. Do we really want to simply conserve what we have now, or do we want to create a much better world, one that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, but is also one that is also spiritually sustainable, uplifting what it means to be a human being living life?

To create such a vision we need to look into the question of why we are doing it; our purpose. This is our own personal purpose, but also the purpose of our industry as a whole. Sure our industry is a vehicle for financial growth, but what else is it? Many would say that we are the shapers of the built environment, the built environment which shapes the lives of now the majority of people on this planet and so powerfully impacts personal and collective quality of life. We do not want to get into an either-or conversation about this.

Why cannot the property industry both be the champion of a profound transformation in the quality of the built environment and also grow and sustain profit? Can we not shape a society and economy around which will sustain us, which in the event of financial catastrophe, will feel empathy for the developers who go bust, because they are now understood to be in service of society?

The creation of commonly shared vision for the future is not something a group of execs or a peak industry body can simply write and deliver. It is something that emerges from within the community as individuals or organisations explore their own visions and the myriad of connections emerge between them. As such powerful shared vision is in fact a universe of individual visions and is an ongoing and unfolding process, not an exercise for one retreat.

As the Australian property industry moves into the next phases of its green building movement this vision, created via nurturing a universe of visions will be vital. It will provide real definition around what ‘sustainability’ means for both individual people and organisations, and the collective. It will enable industry members to fully understand what the full range of risks and opportunities for themselves are. It will enable our industry to much more powerfully engage government and leverage stronger positions with regulation and other stakeholders who we need to have come on the journey with us in order to be prepared to support and invest in what we are creating.

Lets ask ourselves why we personally, as a business, as an industry and as a society really want to pursue sustainability and then what that will look like. What does a sustainable property industry look like? What are the core principals underpinning it? What will the rest of Australia and the world know us as? What old industrial economy mental models to we have to transform and what new relationships do we need to create. These questions and many others are part of a long ongoing process of enquiry. The people, organisations and industries that meaningfully embark on that journey now are likely to be the market setters as it turns and the post industrial economy emerges. They will be the ones ready to lead the next generation of the green building movement.

Simon Carter is director of Morphosis, a consultancy helping businesses leverage greater sustainability opportunities both today and tomorrow