UCEM INSPIRE: key considerations for sustainability leaders

Posted on: 11 October, 2023

This article is the fourth in our series of posts covering our second INSPIRE event this summer. Read our previous piece on long-term sustainability – UCEM INSPIRE: ensuring long term sustainability performance in the built environment

Earlier this summer, UCEM hosted another of its ‘INSPIRE’ events focused on the need for effective leadership in the quest for a more sustainable built environment. This in-person event brought together sustainability leaders and experts from leading organisations in the built and natural environment sector, including property owners, developers, designers, consultants, contractors and managers.

UCEM’s ‘INSPIRE’ events are themed sessions that enable collaboration between influential stakeholders to consider the various challenges facing the industry, bringing together INfluence for Skills, Productivity, Industry, Research and Education.

The event was supported by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and the Construction Leadership Council (CLC). It was run in partnership with the Edge, a built environment think-tank.

Over 15 built environment experts spoke or sat on panels during the event, this article summarises the Opening Address and Keynote. These covered competition, collaboration and the need for sustainability efforts in the built environment to accelerate.

Opening address: Hannah Vickers

Competition vs collaboration

The event’s Opening Address was given by Hannah Vickers, Chief of Staff, Mace and Construction Leadership Council’s Steering Co-Ordination Group Member.

Hannah posed a compelling question, which would go on to lay the groundwork for her overarching message: “When to lead and when to follow?”. Since COP26, the global community has made significant strides towards understanding sustainability, yet there is still much to uncover. The built environment, in particular, is at the commencement of a crucial transition. Key standards, regulations and partnerships remain undefined as we inch closer to a net zero future.

With a nod to Mace, where sustainability is central to their strategy, Hannah emphasised the importance of humility and collaboration. It is easy to get caught up in the rush to be first or best, but in this shared journey, it’s more about the collective effort than individual accolades. The transition to net zero is not about outdoing competitors but ensuring a better future for everyone.

Hannah introduced the Construction Leadership Council’s Construct Zero programme, a strategic effort to streamline the sector’s path to net zero. In the run-up to COP26, the Council attempted to pinpoint what steps were crucial for reaching net zero. They identified three primary areas: transport, buildings and construction activity. Below these categories were nine priorities, forming a blueprint for businesses at different stages of their sustainability journey.

“The built environment sector needs to establish partnerships to facilitate its transition to net zero. We are at the very start of our journey and therefore it is not surprising if do not fully understand how to lead our way through that together.”

This framework is a roadmap for action. Its success hinges on collaboration across sectors and industries. Hannah emphasised how many sectors, even those that believe they are unique, share common challenges and goals. For instance, fleet and commuting standards or efforts to shift concrete and steel industries require consistent commitments across the board, not just single organisations seeking to gain a competitive advantage.

The push for collaboration is not limited to businesses. Trade associations and professional bodies also need to determine where competition ends and collaboration begins. In some areas, such as design and construction methods, competition can be beneficial. However, this competitive spirit should exist within a broader framework of sector-wide collaboration.

In closing, Hannah left attendees with a thought to ponder: “When am I leading and when am I following behind someone who is going to be leading that collaboration for the specialism that I work in?

Her speech underlined the necessity for a balanced approach: compete where differentiation matters and collaborate where collective effort can make a difference.

Keynote: Madeleine Gabriel

Accelerating sustainability

Keynote speaker, Madeleine Gabriel (Mission Director: A Sustainable Future at NESTA) began by outlining how social innovation charity NESTA, collaborating with industry partners, local governments and NGOs aims to significantly reduce carbon emissions from homes.

Madeleine contended that there is a prevailing challenge faced by all in the built environment sector – the need to dramatically hasten the pace of change.

A recent report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) highlighted a concerning fact: to be on track with carbon reduction targets, we need to increase our efforts by four times in the upcoming seven years. Although there’s been notable progress in the residential sector, with emissions dropping by 6%, these achievements might not be sustainable in the long run. The commercial sector lags even further behind, with just a 2% reduction in emissions.

Madeleine then reflected on three things that had moulded her perspective on sustainability leadership over the years:

  1. Focus on large-scale solutions: We need to address the big challenges head-on. Small incremental changes, while valuable, will not achieve the drastic transformations we require. As an example, Madeleine told the audience about how she had seen the organisers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament introduce sustainability initiatives such as offering plant-based cream for spectators’ strawberries, installing more water fountains and offering reusable cups. Madeleine acknowledged that the organisers might be doing other things in addition to these initiatives, but that, in isolation, such schemes were extremely unlikely to make any noticeable difference to the tournament’s carbon emissions.
  2. Accept the trade-offs: Madeleine quoted economist Thomas Sowell, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs“. Our journey towards a sustainable future will require us to make tough decisions. Not every approach will be perfect; we need to understand the trade-offs and choose the most impactful ones. Madeline cited the retrofit sector, where there was a choice about whether to cut energy usage in buildings, cut heat demand or switch to renewable energy. Madeleine suggested there is no right answer. Some approaches will get us there faster, some will be more publicly acceptable and some will cost less.
  3. Avoid ‘agenda hitching’: This concept, originally proposed by Canadian academic Prof Mark Jaccard, argues that, as much as possible, proponents of environmentalism should try to remain as value-free as possible and avoid ‘hitching’ calls for sustainability into wider political debates around things like the need to reform capitalism, or, from the other end of the political spectrum, suggestions about always using free market mechanisms to solve the climate emergency.
“Being an effective sustainability leader is about always asking if initiatives are big enough in scale to make a difference that’s meaningful, and if they’re not, being willing to let go of things.”

In practical terms, Madeleine suggested that these reflections imply a necessity for cross-sector collaboration, prioritising tasks, ensuring scalability, reviewing progress regularly and being adaptable.

Furthermore, while there are glaring policy gaps in our industry, as build environment organisations have a significant role in setting the narrative. When industry makes strides, it provides a precedent, making it politically easier for governments to act.