On Sustainability – not drowning,  waving

5 October 2012 – Could it be that the great ructions of the GFC are making way for some structural shifts in the way many people work, consume and socialise?

Siobhan Toohill for instance recently left her role as head of sustainability for Stockland,  after nine years with the company.

Since August Toohill and her partner Adrian Wiggins have been sending out invitation to their monthly “Final Friday” gigs at their inner city home in Sydney.

The invite is by way of a software widget. When the quota has been reached, you’re politely told it’s a “sold out” event.

Only 30 people are invited.

But what a group.

The first event was on the digital world and its potential interface with places such as art galleries and museums.

Speaking in a casual, bunch-around-the couch session after dinner and wine, were the switched-on boffins of our time. On their time out. Their personal time.

People from deep within the corporate world, government and high-level consultancies.

The next session on sustainability had speakers Sally Hill from Sustahood, Ben Pearson from Greenpeace

and Richard Boele from Banarra One guest was Gabrielle Kuiper, ex Investa and ANZ, now with the Prime Minister’s department.

It’s hard for the corporate world to replicate the level of authenticity available at such personal “at home” events.

What’s going on here?

We looked around to see if there is a pattern.

Toohill is not alone.

The GFC it seems ­– with its round of retrenchments and refocus on dollars rather than more long term values such as sustainability – has shaken open the cages of the big corporate silos and released a bevy of talent that is now freelancing.

By freelancing we mean in the conventional sense and also in the sense that unnerves Liberal Leader Tony Abbott, when errant Nationals in his Coalition stray into independent thinking and commentary.

Anything could happen.

These talented people, often in the sustainability space, are setting up on their own, with a friend, working lean and green. They’re coming together for project collaborations.

They’re offering the same services as before but for a fraction of the cost two months ago when they were still inside the big bulky corporates with all those mouths to feed.

Along with Toohill there is a bunch of top notch talent suddenly out in the freelance space.

Maria Atkinson and Ché Wall for instance. These two really kicked off the green building movement in Australia and were most recently in some high flying jobs with Lend Lease. Wall has already set up one, Flux Consulting, with long term engineering colleague Matt Jessup and more could be on the way. Atkinson also has interesting plans.

In Adelaide, Paul Davy and Deborah Davidson left Cundall to initiate a new consulting firm, dsquared.

Elena Bondareva is out of Thinc Projects, freelancing and consulting we understand to various entities such as the Russian Government on green buildings and some US clients, as well as to help enable the disruptive Living Building Institute by joining its Australian board.

Suzette Jackson, previously a long term senior staffer of the huge Hassell practice is also freelancing and a director of the Living Building Institute.

Suzie Barnett, another sustainability boffin, in business development, recently left the Green Building Council after seven years and is freelancing (and in a small way for The Fifth Estate.)

Enabling this new way of working is more sophisticated and accessible technology.

But these freelancers are not just offering the same service they were previously.

Paul Davy points to the practical advantages:

“It’s about being smart and finding solutions, instead of burning hundreds of hours on fees,” he says.

“Now everyone can work so quickly and because of the way we communicate. Literally an intelligent person with a lap top in any service industry can pretty much work anywhere. You almost don’t need an address.”

Davy also points to the speed of decision making that is possible – the opportunity to be nimble and seize opportunities rather than go through the boardroom yawn.

Yet there’s something more intriguing going on.

But we couldn’t quite put our finger on it.

The answer came in a flash at the Net Balance event a few weeks ago on the topic, The End of Growth and the Upside of Down.

Facilitating the session was Paddy Manning, energy writer for Sydney Morning Herald and founder of Ethical Investor, Paul Gilding a former Greenpeace leader and author of The Great Disruption and  peak oil expert and author of “The End of Growth”,  Richard Heinberg

Also speaking was the new recruit for Net Balance, the impressive Eva Neitzert (more on Neitzert soon we hope).

The talk was about how to restructure the world’s economies so that they cease to rely on ever greater use of natural resources.

On this Heinberg was clear; it would be small independent and family companies that would shift the way we do things on this planet.

Heinberg noted that listed companies are hostage to the mantra to grow shareholder funds, regardless of the toll on everything else, and sometimes (often?) their own declared corporate values.

The result is often ridiculous work hours, a dreadful toll on family and community life, health and so on. All of which add up to a less sustainable personal life. People who work long hours say they have little time to source and prepare fresh food, to think carefully about their purchasing patterns or to catch public transport instead of drive.

Heinberg says the rise of independent and smaller companies and businesses offer at least the choice to change the paradigms that control behaviour in the corporate world.

This businesses might also chose a different measure of success, beyond monetary.

Could all this be a structural shift under way?

Toohill could be an early and strong exemplar in the sustainability space.

She remains influential. Toohill has retained a number of important roles such as deputy chair of the Green Building Council and she has a few more on the way.

In her new day job she has joined forces with Wiggins, a digital strategy wiz, in a new company intriguingly called Pure and Applied, to blend their interests in technology and placemaking.

Among their first clients is NSW Historic Houses Trust and her other big engagement was a just-completed personal whirlwind tour to a bunch of cities and renewal experts to feed her appetite for better understanding of what makes better urban spaces.

As a freelancer this makes Toohill very interesting – and along with a bevy of her peers – brilliantly placed to influence a new direction in sustainability in ways not previously imagined.

Is sustainability floundering?

No, sustainability is not drowning, it’s waving.

Down the rabbit hole we go with Alice, the buses, the traffic and …Dante’s Inferno
The latest fiasco in the determination to make meaningless and wasteful anti-sustainability statements comes from NSW with the ridiculous idea to put buses underground in the Sydney CBD, and drop Parramatta Road a bit lower into a trench.

This is rabbit hole thinking at its worst.

This is what happens when one side of politics gives up its mandate to be a viable opposition.

A benign dictatorship can work. An out of control pseudo democracy that refuses to be rational will waste our money and our time.

Mining slowdown
Reports of the death of the mining industry could be (sadly) greatly exaggerated.

But even a slowdown could do for Australia what the fear of a looming rust bucket did for South Australia, an opportunity that former premier Mike Rann recognised and seized with vigour.

As we will report in our upcoming ebook and story on our recent political “salon dinner”, Rann opted for the logic of sustainability when the reliance on manufacturing and heavy industry stopped

The Reserve Bank has been telling us for years that the rest of the country must suffer deflationary signals to make room for the mining boom and within weeks of the miners declaring the boom is over we have an interest rate drop.

It could make you nervous. Until you remember there is a truckload of under-utilised human resources along our east coast that is perfectly capable of being creative, interesting and sustainable.

Collaborative consumption, car sharing and the new second hand chic
For those in the know, an alternative economy is already creating its own GDP.

There is a growing number of people who avoid rampant consumerism (by choice or by necessity), who join in crowd sourcing, crowd funding, collaborative consumption, and the second hand culture, now chic.

The City of Sydney this week recently proved the trend with encouraging research from SGC Economics and Planning that shows a major jump in car share schemes.