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Our industry culture needs to evolve to become a force for good…

Our experience of the built and non-built environment shapes every aspect of our lives. The industries and sectors that shape and curate it are critically important to the lives of current and future generations and the potential to move to a thriving sustainable future.

I have worked as a surveyor for nearly 20 years. Over that time, I have worked with some amazing people and projects. The recent emergence of greater action on ESG and social developers like Stories who are challenging industry norms are encouraging but as an industry I don’t believe we show up on a daily basis in a way that reflects our huge responsibility to current and future generations.

· Are we leaving a positive legacy or are many of us just serving our individual and organisational financial bottom line?

· Will we be seen as good ancestors by future generations when they look at the built environment we have shaped?

· How will our grandchildren judge our choices and decisions?

I believe that as an industry we have in many cases lost our genuine connection to people and place.

Granted, the strategies that we read around net zero or wellbeing might say different but culturally I don’t see it and have never seen it. Culturally we are largely a transactional, growth-centric industry and it runs deep in the things we see and hear on a daily basis…

· We revere the agent who did the deal that billed the million-pound fee.

· We have ‘deal bells’ in offices that ring without a thought about impact.

· We reduce buildings and places to stories of yield and narrowly defined financial value.

· We ‘specify’ and benchmark our route to sound environmental practice.

· A common narrative around important affordable housing is as a hindrance to maximising value that should be resisted and dealt with as cheaply as possible.

· Rarely have I heard a mention of remarkable tree protected by a Tree Preservation Order or a great crested newt that wasn’t met with distain and a no-so-witty macho remark

People’s actions are heavily influenced by their social environment so is it any wonder that the property industry falls so short of its huge potential to be a catalyst of positive change?

Concepts like sustainability, ESG and Net Zero were born out of a desire to improve social and environmental impact but they are often treated as additional things to do or parallel workstreams.

Our single common denominator is the planet we live on, our shared environment. We are all part of humanity, a social fabric of connections. Our industry transactions take place within these contexts but in many cases, we act as if the earth and humanity needs to be subservient to the transaction, the deal. Surely, we have got it the wrong way round?

The Role of Sustainability and ESG

Sustainability and ESG are our lexicon for protecting the earth and working in the best interest of humanity. They need to be the frameworks within which everything takes place. Their very conceptual nature requires no less. They provide our frames of reference to shape that connection between people & place and between today and tomorrow.

There are amazing examples of social and environmental innovators who are taking ownership of our joint challenges. They are evolving how things are done in the industry with determination to find solutions to complex problems that work for people, planet, profit and the place where they come together.

Where toolkits, standards and benchmarks are not enough…

Our usual industry response however is to produce toolkits, guides and standards. There are brilliant industry bodies and organisations publishing great work but all too often they are not the whole answer that they are sometimes positioned as. If we write a good document or deliver some training, things will change…right?

As an industry we need to move beyond from our preoccupation with benchmarks, standards and technical solutions. That is not to say these aren’t important, but we need equal focus on a human intention to evolve what we do and how we do it. The challenge with benchmarks and standards is that the motivation is driven by the attainment or retention of a label or an award. This creates progress but has some principle shortcomings if pursued exclusively as the end point.

· Firstly, there is often a huge focus of management attention on attaining the standard or the point it might be lost. In the intervening period attention is often elsewhere which limits progress.

· Secondly, the assumption is that attaining a standard equates to systemic change and transformation of a business. Often it doesn’t.

· Thirdly, benchmarks and standards are examples of extrinsic motivation. The challenge with extrinsic rewards is that from a sustainability perspective they create a narrowly defined goal. This has the impact of limiting creativity and innovation…something that we need in abundance if the property industry is going to be a genuine agent of positive change.

How to we evolve?

The old system demands quick fixes and the industry often tries to ‘innovate’ through purchasing decisions and specifying its way out of trouble. ESG and sustainability are often approached as exercises in doing enough work to tick boxes. They need to become drivers of cultural change. We need to recognise this isn’t easy and it is as much about our individual and collective journeys as people as it is about the technical solutions. This is the way to shift the industry.

When was the last time we saw a case study about the human journey of a sustainable project and the deep collaboration required to make it a reality rather than the specification of the building.

We need to get to a place where ownership exists, not just in core sustainability and ESG teams but in everyone. We all need to develop the mindset that we have a unique and important role to play rather than waiting for our government or senior leaders to take the lead on change. This is about our daily choices, decisions and behaviours. Every project that rumbles on with the status quo is still taking a decision not to evolve and to continue to degenerate our planet. This is a challenge of responsibility, leadership and management for those working in build environment and one I believe needs more attention if we are going to rise to as an industry.

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