So much inspiration from nature: Michael Pawlyn, Exploration Architecture

On power, real power: that is, community, dialogue rational development and amazing inspiring people.

This week The Fifth Estate comes to you from Green Cities 2015 in Melbourne, the industry’s annual talk fest, sentiment barometer, and yearly adrenaline booster. But also from the Urban Development Institute of Australia national congress in Sydney in whose membership bosom we only last week discovered an emerging fountain of sustainability in residential development in the work of Darren Pearson of Diversified Property Group.

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We all know that urban developers are the ones that will shape our future for good or mess with it. Yes, they’ve got a lot of work to do to eradicate a history of shocking development. But it’s also our call – how we engage with them, share information, reveal changing consumer demand and help them erode the barriers they’ve forever been saying stand in the way of good development.

The question is how to capture their attention and that of the regulatory bodies, financial instruments and other structural elements that can help shape a new future. In other words, we have the know-how, the data, the technology, the money, the people. Even the business case. What’s missing is the politics – personal politics in particular.

What we found in Pearson’s work was a man who responded to personal politics and allowed concern for his daughter’s future to change the way his family’s traditional development company does business. That and the blunt challenge of a Harvard professor who looked him in the eye and asked him what he was doing to leave the world a better place.

When we finally meet Pearson we see that the humility he revealed by telephone last week was not for show. He again immediately credited his team for the work. Especially Abdul Khan the property selling consultant who re-engineered his skills to understand sustainable development and CSR whose people worked with passion and huge commitment to get new sustainable products to market.

Rosario Marin with Darren Pearson at the UDIA national congress in Sydney

We won’t pretend, we were pretty chuffed to find that after reading these articles in The Fifth Estate (we saw the email for ourselves) both Pearson and his chief sales consultant Abdul Khan have been invited to a workshop on national housing sustainability organised by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

But there was more delight. Keynote speaker at the UDIA Congress on Thursday was Rosario Marin, a former Treasurer of the United States under George W Bush, who also chaired the Californian Building Standards Commission when it declared California would go uber green in all its buildings.

This amazingly inspiring woman, who is a friend of Pearson and who was encouraged by him to come to Australia, held the entire auditorium in rapt attention – and some emotion – with the story of her personal trajectory from poverty in Mexico.

She afterwards told The Fifth Estate that the Pearson articles had also made it to the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra. Marin knows because she was there on Wednesday to meet Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

On Abbott, Marin (a Republican) declared him a “very nice man” but during question time she showed why she rose so high in world of politics. Michael Corcoran, vice president of the UDIA, asked Marin, who is a strong proponent of environmental action, if she had asked Abbott about climate change during her meeting. The audience nearly choked; so did MC and NSW chief executive Stephen Albin, asking if Corcoran had cooked this up in league with The Fifth Estate. (No, but we certainly clapped delightedly).

Marin diplomatically declared she didn’t have time to discuss all the issues she would have liked with the PM.

“The short answer is no,” she said.

But she later generously shared more of her time and views on politics and green issues in a private interview that we will cover soon.

Green Cities

At #GC_2015 there was inspiration in plenty. One of the best and most popular sessions was on biomimicry on the first morning of the conference. The presentation format was a 40-minute video – something the organisers must have dreaded, given the potential for technical disasters when you least expect it and the often cold nature of these global hookups. Instead the audience was galvanised, speaking volumes for not just the engaging delivery style of the presenter Michael Palwyn (pictured) but to the enthralling topic of how nature can provide answers to human dilemmas.

Memorable lines included that animals don’t have access to fossil fuel when they want to keep warm or cool.

So what’s a good solution to developing a big data centre that generally chews through masses of fossil fuel to keep cool?

Look at what animals and insects do and find a home with stable temperatures. Put the data centre in a disused underground marble mine in Norway that has 90 kilometres of tunnels with a steady temperature of 5°C. Build some exhausts up to ground level to evacuate heat.

Another favourite line: “The fossil fuel industry corrupted democracy to promote its own industry.” Absolutely. For those who prefer to avert their eyes at unsightly politics, we’ll bet Palwyn had Australia or Canada in mind with that.

Speaking of money, another favourite was the topic of finance and the capital markets in a great session after lunch on Day 1 that showed what happens when you dangle a few billion green dollars in front of the world’s largest investors. You guessed it, they don’t give a hoot about politics – political agnostics (just like us) one and all.

MCSI’s Michael Salvatico says ESG is essential

Speakers were Michael Salvatico, vice president, environmental social governance research – client coverage, MSCI; Ruben Langbroek, head of Asia Pacific, GRESB; Tiernan O’Rourke, chief financial officer, Stockland; Rowan Griffin, head of sustainability – investment management, Lend Lease; with moderator, Nathan Fabian, chief executive, Investor Group on Climate Change.

We heard climate and green bonds were on a wonderful upward trajectory from $39 billion last year to $100 billion this year. That indices and measurement was increasingly important and that environmental social governance was critical in investment. Michael Salvatico said if you want to know about ESG you could not do better than read the detailed speech from GBCA chief Romilly Madew published in The Fifth Estate.

Another big hit was Craig Davis with his “Humanising the workplace” topic and there was much after-session chatter saying how inspiring he was.

The chatter

We heard one of the organisers says he loves the yearly conference because it’s one of the few days where he feels he’s swimming with the tide instead of against it.

Hear hear.

We reckon the delegates felt that way too, especially this year. You only have to remember where we were on the political spectrum last year to know things are vastly better.

At GC 2014 the Abbott government was flushed with blood lust after striking the most vicious blows to all the green, sustainable and climate programs in its path. Coal was good for humanity the PM said, stopping short of putting on children’s menus to prove his point.

This year Abbott seems merely punch drunk and stumbling like a pugilist who’s been in the ring just a tad too long.

The underlying fear factor seems to be gone. It was amazing how many people gratuitously shared the most disparaging remarks about our PM; not a soul spoke up to soften the blows.

“He’s the gift that keeps on giving,” said one, wondering what hilarious slapstick he would regale the populace with next. Each day a new insult. Mostly to our intelligence. Thursday’s was the possibility of a double dissolution to forestall a challenge to his leadership.

Delegates last year betrayed some underlying worry and nerves about the future. This year there was a greater sense of calm that comes with knowing the future belongs to logic and reason.

Sustainability consultant Simon Carter who works with property companies on strategic issues is always a source of sober balanced views.

Manchester United?

So it was good to sit next to him at the quiet front of the bus on the way back from the Sundown Soiree at Albert Park Lake. Mind, it was a bit hard to hear at time, such was the rousing chorus from the back of the bus sounding increasingly like Manchester United.

Peaks and troughs are typical of the market, and others during the breakout sessions said the business world in general is more cautious, yet Carter ventured there was a shift, a definite trajectory going up. Companies were refreshing their commitment on sustainability, and others were entering the sustainability reporting for the first time.

According to Carter some of the action has been spurred by the questions of investors, asking where the sustainability report is, and if not available, why not.

More than a few though, seem to have been jolted into action by Mirvac and its dramatic if not audacious “This Changes Everything” campaign. Never mind that even Mirvac at the time wasn’t sure how it would achieve its targets, the important signal was the public declaration that it was happy to put the targets up high and public and its progress would be there for all to see or scrutinise.

We think this is worth squillions as a gift to this industry.

Carter says several property people have specifically named Mirvac as the reason they think it’s time to do so some sustainability reporting and stake a claim in the susty field. Put their money where they’d love their mouth to be.

This is such good news. It’s a huge change to the nervy tradition among property people to get all the metrics correct, double checked and audited before they dare breathe a word on their sustainability programs. Why the shrinking violet? Property developers invented the edifice complex. You have to be pretty self-assured to build towers and buildings that will last 50 years or hopefully more.

So we just don’t buy this too self-conscious “it’s all about me” attitude and “I can’t bear to be found out that I’m not perfect”. None of us are perfect (far from it) but it takes more guts to show imperfection but good willingness that to be Mr and Ms 100 per cent. Sooooo boring.

More reporting on the conference in coming days.