Mark Thomson

It is natural to change things when you see that they are not working, however our Australian society seems set on charting a course to an unsustainable future.

There are many reasons our “business as usual” approach is fuelling significant political, economic and environmental disasters, all of which we’ve become somewhat oblivious to.

The dangers of BAU are covered by Judith Bardwick in her acclaimed book Danger in the Comfort Zone. Bardwick outlines the concept of “entitlement” and the problems associated with such a mindset of thinking, which distorts acceptance of the reality of the situation.

But how can we drive change? Scott Anthony writing for the Harvard Business Review identifies six key points that are common for transformational change in an organisation or society:

  1. A crisis or some kind of “burning platform”
  2. A clear vision and strategy
  3. Recognition that transformation is a multi-year journey
  4. The need to put people in the centre of the transformation equation
  5. Demonstrating to sceptics that different actions can lead to different results
  6. The need to over-communicate to employee’s customers, stakeholders and shareholders

Australia is facing looming economic, social and environmental changes, and the current business as usual approach is likely to expose tipping points, resulting in forced change.

Sadly, it is natural only to consider change when confronted by a disaster. People change aspects of their lives for one of three reasons – described as pain, pull or push forces.

Being pulled can often result in change that isn’t sustained. Arguably our society has been pulled to adopt energy efficiency measures such as home insulation and grid-tied photovoltaic systems. As the pull factors have eased these measures have lost some traction.

The push approach breeds resentment and although this approach may have benefits, again the result may not be sustained if people return to business as usual once the pressure for change has relaxed. For example, we have been pushed to accept increased petrol prices. This hurts, but it has not substantially altered our behaviour regarding petrol consumption and fossil fuel use.

Interestingly, the pain of increasing electricity prices will most likely be effective in increasing energy efficiency, as it is only natural to find ways to reduce our economic discomfort. As this discomfort may not ease, the change is likely to be sustainable.

Cuba’s transformation

A visit to Cuba in November 2009 to attend the EcoSUR Ecomaterials conference provided the evidence I needed to understand why transforming our business and community thinking is our only hope for providing some optimistic legacy for our children and the future.

Cuba provides an example of hope and possibly an example of how to deal with change, with pending, and some would say inevitable, social, economic and environmental problems. It is transforming itself from significant past crises including an economic embargo, social revolutions and environmental disasters (comprising 13 devastating hurricanes in the past 10 years) to a growing economy and a resilient society.

In just one example the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation announced in June its financial support to the EPFL-led consortium that is developing a new blend of cement that promises to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete by up to 40 per cent.

Applied globally, it could help bring down future global CO2 emissions by several per cent.

Innovation springs adversity

Innovation also springs from adversity. Professor Fernando Martirena from Santa Cruz University, Cuba, is at the forefront of the development of the new eco-cement. Many Australians have heard Professor Martirena’s amazing story on his visits to Australia in 2008 and 2013 sponsored by the Australian Green Development Forum, where he outlined how people develop resilience and innovate to develop practical solutions that can be transformational.

Australia can innovate too

Australians instinctively are resilient and can innovate, however the “lucky country” mentality we have developed is also likely to be our downfall, should we not understand the consequences of our current BAU approach. Our actions must balance social, economic and environmental issues and not solely focus on the economic.

I was extremely privileged to travel around Australia with Professor Martirena in 2008 and 2013 for AGDF roadshows and witnessed an amazing transformation in Townsville.

Greg Bruce, executive manager of the Integrated Sustainability Services Department of Townsville City Council, hosted Professor Martirena and me on both occasions.

In 2008 Professor Martirena commented on the benefits of light coloured roofs after seeing the growing trend in dark coloured roofs in Australia, and asked why someone would use a dark roof in tropical Queensland.

This comment triggered the Townsville Residential Energy Demand Program – Cool Roofs Community program, which five years later has transformed the Townsville roofscape and now is a formal part of the Townsville Solar City initiative. Professor Martirena outlined a vision and Greg Bruce developed the clear vision and strategy for Townsville.

Regenerative design

The Australian Green Development Forum has changed its vision and strategy over recent years inspired by Professor Janis Birkeland’s book Positive Development. Understanding that the language of sustainability is requiring change, we are now discussing regenerative design,  for econstruction, biophilic principles and principles of resilience to ensure we achieve net positive outcomes.

More transformational drivers are necessary. The ideas are already out there, but what is missing is the practical implementation in the development industry. Let’s break away from a business as usual mindset and use the economic and environmental changes in Australia to forge a better future for us all.

Mark Thomson is creative director of Eco Effective Solutions. He has 30 years’ experience in sustainable commercial design as a practicing architect, interior designer and sustainability consultant. He is a faculty member of the Green Building Council of Australia and current president of the Australian Green Development Forum