Sam Mostyn

The future of place is sustainable, and it’s time for business to move into the “opportunity space”, sustainability advocate and corporate leader Sam Mostyn, told the Business Enterprise Sustainability Forum held at the recent Engineers Australia Convention, where she was facilitator.

The forum covered a range of issues from financing development and placemaking to  smart cities and infrastructure.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate after the event, Mostyn says her aim is to apply the sustainability lens to all of the topics raised and to identify what sustainable behaviour looks like in terms of engineering and construction, and also how our cities will look in the future.

“What is this debate we need to have about how to do more with less? Is it about productivity? Is it dealing with the concept of growth within different parameters of success?”

It starts with a proper understanding of what the end result should look like, and how it works, she says. With office energy efficiency for example, what are the low hanging fruits? And how can the commercial property sector engage with its potential to help Australia meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets through energy efficiency, given improvements in that space could actually come close to meeting the entire nation’s Kyoto target?

There’s the question of fitout, and the degree to which clients work with suppliers to improve the footprint of materials and products.

Mostyn says major gains can come through a “mass change to activity-based design”, which brings with it different fitout and different technology. It results in “dynamic sites”.

“The future of design and development is [to take] the most efficient option, the one that places least pressure on the environment,” she says.

In the residential sector, the future is about efficient living, with energy-efficient lighting and cooling, the use of greening and shading, rooftop solar and rainwater tanks. Mostyn says people want “a sense of engagement” with sustainability in this sector, and that this is being seen in the masterplanning for some new residential apartment projects, where there is a strong focus on passive efficiency measures rather than mechanical solutions.

And if planners and designers take a place-based view of communities, and think about “how a place is used” by those who live in it, then public transport that is integrated with residential developments and considers things like access to retail and community infrastructure is “critical”,  Mostyn says.

The other aspect that requires focus is how to bring all the right parties together, including bringing engineers in at the front end to assist with smart design, rather than at the back end when problems have begun to emerge.

“It will require great collaboration.”

At the federal level – if it re-embraces the cities agenda – it is possible to bring all the stakeholders together, including state government, local councils and “cultural influencers”.

This thinking also needs to consider regional cities, and allow for the very different factors including climate, geographic orientation, economic base, and manufacturing industries that are points of difference, as well as the things that unite cities.

“There is a great will and a great interest [in what a sustainable Australia will look like], but a piecemeal approach will result in outcomes that are sub-optimal.”

Let’s have a proper conversation

Mostyn says there also needs to be a “proper conversation” with communities about how to get cities right and deal with issues including sprawl, urban infill, medium-density and high-density development, and getting services and infrastructure right.

“We have to understand the costs of [poor planning and sprawl] – there’s an energy cost, and there’s a social cost including access to transport, education, social and sporting opportunities – all of these are harder in outer areas of cities,” she says.

“It’s about engaging in conversation, we have to get much more trusting about how we share information with communities in future. We have to put all the issues on the table and think about how our planning systems and development systems can lead to better places.”

The planning also needs to take account of ways in which climate change and severe weather events are making it more difficult or unappealing to live in certain areas.

“In solving all of these issues, you can be in the opportunity space, for example with energy systems,” Ms Mostyn says.

“We can reform how we think about the built environment and its impact on the natural environment. We can reform workplaces so they can be more flexible.

“This can all turn into great opportunities, but it requires preparedness to embrace change. We live in a time where we have got to be comfortable with disruptive change. And we have to be welcoming of brand new businesses that challenge how we work.”

C-suite cottoning on

Mostyn says the corporate boards she sits on – which include Virgin Australia, Transurban Group and Citibank – and the senior executives of many firms are increasingly engaging with the issues around a sustainable future.

“There is a greater awareness in the C-suite in broad terms,” she says.

Corporate social responsibility and governance reporting is becoming more mainstream, she says, and many firms are measuring it better and integrating it into their business.

This also has implications for their standing as potential employers for Millennials, who Mostyn says “want to work for companies that stand for something”.

There is a need, she says, for firms to also tackle the gender disparity issue.

“They need to remove the lenses and deal with unconscious bias. That is how you lead [as a company] and take the next step.”

The need for practical solutions and innovative design that can deliver a sustainable future also has implications for primary and secondary education in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines. These require more focus.

“We have to make adjustments [to STEM education] to take advantages of global market changes or we will cede the advantage to other economies.”

“The Australian economy is moving into the services sector, and we need to be creative about where Australia can be delivering services including in sustainability [consulting and engineering], energy efficiency and tourism, so we can take advantage of new markets.”

Students in secondary school should be exposed via the curriculum to the whole set of sustainability challenges they can solve and aspects like energy efficiency, design and planning in cities, she says. Engineering in particular which she says is a “great field of study”.

“I could hope engineering retains its importance as a career in terms of how it integrates into the future and how we manage our planetary limits. Engineering is one of the fields that is critical to the future.”