By Elena Bondareva

Elena Bondareva: Call for a new vision for the green building industry

Shortly after Green Cities 09 (a major Asia Pacific green building conference run jointly by the Green Building Council of Australia and the Property Council of Australia), I was having a drink with a couple of colleagues and they mentioned that they felt  that the green building movement is not strategic. Interestingly enough, this conversation mirrored scores of other similar conversations I have had recently, (although, for some reason, no one is raising this issue publicly). This has started me thinking: would the movement have its inarguable success if these people were right? How do we reconcile a ‘no’ with the evidence mounting from these conversations, and the calibre and range of people concerned?

Perhaps the expectation for ‘strategic’ has changed. Perhaps today, it needs to come with a vision which is focused on our future.

In the beginning of the green building movement in Australia, arguably signified by the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the strategy was to shift the building industry towards sustainability. This has been achieved, with remarkable leadership. Nine years later, every sector of the industry is in motion.  We seem to be all busy being busy. However, the question is: are we being productive? Or are we just like mice in a wheel running frantically and not actually getting anywhere? Our strategy must change; it must articulate where we are headed.

Vision might seem like a futile or idealistic issue to tackle in this time of economic crisis. But it is precisely now that it is essential. Many good operators are using the time of slower activity to refocus their business; and the the green building movement should do the same to ensure that once things ramp up again we are all headed in the right direction.
It is now that a vision is most necessary. It will save us the inevitable embarrassment of explaining why vital initiatives were made ‘redundant‘. Both the latest science and public opinion indicate that we won’t be able to write this off on the economic crisis if we compromise our transition to sustainable development.

A vision would define success, currently a relative measure based on how far we have come, not on how close we are to our destination. This resulting proliferation of greenwash is half the problem. Looking back takes our eyes off the future and inhibits genuine innovation. As a result, we’re still primarily fixing what we have, not creating a future we want. While at any point in time the two strategies may look similar, they originate from, and lead to, very different places.

Let’s then design a vision of a green building future.

I suspect many may feel unsettled at this point and I can hear the concerns already: ‘butwe could never agree’. In fact, our lack of vision may not be completely accidental. I‘d even suggest that many would hope that they don‘t have to live in the green building future. Deep down, most of us don’t want any future that comes with a qualifier ‘sustainable’ because that strips it of the life we enjoy. So how can some remain inspired?

Successful quantum shifts, which is what sustainability demands, have the following in common: timing, the ‘what’s wrong’ and the ‘what the future could look like’. For us, the economic crisis might tick the ‘timing’ box’. And we’re getting the sense of what we’re doing wrong. But without a vision that offers a viable alternative to our current reality, we grow defiant from all the ‘slaps on the wrist’.

Which is why we need to design the vision of the future we want. Globally, we have all the ingredients and locally, all the intelligence to ensure that the best possible future can be a sustainable one.

If we do nothing, the future will still happen. We have an opportunity to make it fantastic: lucrative triple bottom lines, self-respect, great lifestyles, delightful communities, safe cities, healthy ecosystems, greater international harmony, the list can go on. If articulated, it will present a desirable alternative and inspire many to pursue it.

In addition to putting us on track for a desired destination, a vision would have value even before it is developed. The process could restore collaboration and knowledge sharing in an industry that has otherwise, as a result of its success thus far, in places become quite political, secretive and fragmented.

Our industry is rich in informed and visionary people. I invite them populate this debate so that we can envision a desirable future for our industry. Tremendous victories have been won within the green building movement. Let’s not slip. Let’s define success. Let’s use this unique and timely opportunity to articulate an agreed vision of where we want to go.

Elena Bondareva is senior consultant, Thinc Projects