My understanding of sustainability has completely changed: a student profile with David Harris

Posted on: 30 April, 2024

“Sustainability is the biggest challenge our industry, our generation, probably the world has ever faced.”

David Harris is no stranger to managing study on top of his work. He graduated from the University of Southampton with a Master’s in Business Administration, one of several qualifications he has attained whilst in full-time work.

Since shifting from a role as an apprentice electrician to a career in operations, facilities and contracts, David has held roles at Kier Group and SSE Enterprise Contracting, later joining VINCI Facilities – a facilities management and building solutions provider – in 2019. He initially joined as Customer Director, before starting his new role as Operation Director with VINCI in January of this year.

Throughout these various roles, personal and professional development has been a key part of David’s trajectory. As such, this was a key driver for his decision to study a Master’s degree.

“It’s been a little while since I studied,” he told us. “I wanted to keep this going and continue both my professional and my personal development.

“When looking into what to study, sustainability was a key area because of my role in the built environment.

“Our sector has been heavily focused on sustainability, particularly the reduction of carbon emissions… sustainability is the biggest challenge our industry, our generation, probably the world has ever faced.”

Through his research, David identified UCEM’s new MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments as being aligned to the topic area he wanted to study.

“The content of course seemed particularly relevant to what I wanted to study. The title alone was a good fit for what I was looking for, even before looking at the content.”

He also identified the flexibility of online study as being advantageous for him, given his role at VINCI and the importance he places on family.

“The online learning has given me the flexibility to balance work, study and family life. When things get busy, I’m able to fit my study around all of that.

“Even if I’m not able to attend a live lecture and they overlap with work, the fact it’s video content means I can catch up relatively easy.”

“I’d say 30-40% of my time is focused towards sustainability initiatives.”

David received support from VINCI to enable his studies. Sustainability is a significant part of David’s role at the company, both internally and externally.

“I’d say 30-40% of my time is focused towards sustainability initiatives. Up until last year, my role was largely focused on sustainability from an internal perspective. In my new role, I’m going to have the opportunity to focus on the external aspect, and support customers in sustainability by helping them reduce their carbon emissions.

“VINCI is a huge global organisation that operates across the world. It has a huge capability to make an impact in the built environment. There’s a real proactive focus here on sustainability, which is different to where I’ve worked previously.

“I talked to my manager about this being something I wanted to study, and he was very positive about the idea.

“There are a lot of roles at VINCI dedicated to sustainability, but equally there are also a lot of cases where people are being upskilled and it’s becoming an important part of their existing role.”

“The programme has really changed my mindset on sustainability, and made me think in different ways.”

Despite only being in his second semester on the MSc, David has already found that the programme has had a significant impact on his mindset.

“It’s been very eye opening for me,” he said, “the fact that the challenge we have with sustainability is identifying what needs to be done to solve it and, more importantly, who needs to be involved in it, and how you can create these kinds of catalysts to make these changes happen.”

“It’s really changed my mindset and made me think about the bigger picture of sustainability – the fact that it requires a social and cultural change as much as a technological one.”

“What became apparent to me is that the changes are needed in the way we buy, use and construct things, and the fact that people are at the heart of this.

“Of course, the technological approach is crucial, but unless you actually get buy-in from people to adopt new methods of operations and actually use that technology, change is never going to happen. Graeme talks about this in his lectures – adopting a sociotechnical approach.”

When asked to compare his new understanding of sustainability to how it was before, David told us it was now completely different.

“It’s completely changed my understanding of sustainability, even in just the brief time I’ve been studying here. It’s given me a better insight from different viewpoints, because part of the course has led to me researching different studies in my own time and, as a result, developing a more holistic understanding.

“I came into this from an engineering background, so I already had some exposure to sustainability, how we need to reduce our carbon footprint and so on. Now, I understand the size of the problem, the scope and the complexity… the fact that there’s multiple levels to the change we need to make – it’s not just one silo.

“The problems have become far more complicated and far bigger in my mind, so if anything, my understanding has increased.”

David has been able to apply his learnings to his day-to-day work and influence the clients, teams and individuals around him.

“I attended a discussion with a government agency. We were discussing how fit for purpose their estate is for the future and how they can meet government legislation and targets for reducing their carbon footprint. We also talked about building climate resilience in the future – the impact that climate change will have on weather and how resilient their estate will be when there’s more floods, storms, droughts, etc.”

“My studies have made me better informed to have conversations in this area and really challenge people’s preconceived ideas about sustainability and climate change. I think Graeme and James would both be very happy to hear that.”

“The built environment needs to collaborate more.”

When asked what he wants to see change in the sector in terms of sustainability, David identified the need for greater collaboration.

“We need to get better at talking to each other. We’re very, very siloed, which is largely due to the structure of the built environment.

“In the UK, there’s a number of very large organisations, lots of SMEs, and not very much in the middle.

“We could do better in terms of the way we communicate, work together on sustainability and develop a long-term view.

“There are a lot of smaller, innovative organisations in particular disciplines that bring a lot of value – they’re able to test and trial innovations more quickly in terms of adoption. This is the area where change is going to come more quickly, so bigger organisations need to pay attention.

“In larger organisations, sometimes you have to repeatedly cover the same grounds to get the message to skin in. The key is working out what their drivers are, and what perceptions they have.

“People are always going to act in the way they’re incentivised to act, so if you want them to be more focused on sustainability, you’ve got to make it so that your budget and your sustainability initiatives actually support what they’re trying to achieve. You’ve got to make a compelling case for action that aligns with what they’re trying to achieve as well.”

“I want to continue challenging people’s perceptions and being a catalyst for change.”

Looking forward, David identified the Operationalising Sustainability module as something he’s particularly looking forward to.

“It’s been fantastic laying the theory and groundwork so far, but I’m really looking forward to Operationalising Sustainability, where we’ll look at the practical steps to create change in how a company operates, in order to make it more sustainable.

“There’s also the project at the end of the course, where you have the opportunity to bring all of this together.

“I’m looking forward to taking more of my learnings into my role at VINCI, and being able to have more of an impact – to challenge people’s perceptions and ideas and be a catalyst for change. I’ve already noticed a difference, and I’m certain that will continue.”

We will check in again with David later in the year to see how he’s progressing in his studies.

To find out more about UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments, visit the programme page here: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management