The quality of people’s lives is fundamentally linked to the vitality, sustainability and resilience of the built environment. This needs to be recognised and managed to improve social outcomes, argues Clare Wildfire.
Today the total mass of the built environment exceeds that of all living things on Earth. Our built systems are resource-hungry and wasteful, vulnerable to environmental, social and economic pressures, and at risk from security breaches and system-wide shocks. They must become sustainable, secure and resilient.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the need. After jumping species boundaries, the virus spread via global travel and grew in densely developed cities, ultimately affecting every community in every country. Disruptions to and stresses placed on essential services including health and education have shown the requirements for greater efficiency and resilience, and capacity to deal with the unexpected. Through vaccination programmes, it has also shown that good, early decisions prevent problems later on and the benefits of focusing innovation on broad-based human needs.
In our management of the existing built environment and our decisions about its future development, we must think carefully about outcomes. The quality and performance of social and economic infrastructure in particular are fundamental for achieving progress towards seven of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – good health and wellbeing; quality education; clean water and sanitation; affordable clean energy; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; and climate action). And because the SDGs are so interconnected, it has a bearing on them all. Reliable, continuous performance – the quality of service delivered and value provided – is strongly influenced by key processes: operation, maintenance, investment, planning, design, construction and integration. In carrying out each of those processes, we must better understand the needs of users, communities and nature.
This is so important it’s worth saying again: Our industry absolutely has to stop acting as if it knows all the answers. Citizens live with the consequences of our decisions and interventions. So it’s essential that our industry gets better at gathering and acting on citizen feedback – as New Zealand water and wastewater services provider Watercare and Auckland Council have done using our digital solution, Safeswim. It provides Aucklanders with real-time information about coastal water quality; their experiences and opinions, gathered through consultation, shaped the business case for investing in sewer improvements.
We must identify and articulate outcomes that are desirable for all – ‘invisible’ minorities as well as the usual, well-represented groups – and be aware of the broader and interconnected spectrum of impacts, as represented by the SDGs.
This point is articulated by a ‘Vision for the built environment’ published in April 2021 with endorsement from 75 industry leaders, and a paper from the World Economic Forum in June, ‘Infrastructure 4.0: achieving better outcomes with technology and systems thinking’. Both make the case for an outcomes-focused approach to the built environment, based on improved understanding of how it is composed and performs, from the scale of assets to infrastructure systems, including the connections and dependencies between systems.
When we know how the built environment is working and affecting people, we will be able to find ways of managing it purposefully – with desired outcomes setting objectives – and sustainably. It will involve gaining better performance from infrastructure and buildings in use; seeing when new assets are needed and how to deliver them for greatest benefit; and improving the interaction between the built and natural environments – including the adoption of nature-based solutions to social and economic needs and challenges.
A method to the madness
To bring about change, we need to ask what kind of industry we should become, how our organisations must evolve, and what new skills our people require.
Process: We need to define desirable outcomes and use them to set objectives, policy, strategy, planning, delivery, ways of working (operating models, partnerships, contracts), performance levels and outputs. This requires more collaborative, outcomes-oriented ‘enterprise’ ways of working along the lines of a delivery model known as ‘Project 13’, which has been used by organisations including the UK’s Anglian Water, Tideway, Heathrow and Network Rail’s Wessex Capacity Alliance to achieve project and programme successes. We also need dynamic partnerships between government, industry, academia and users of the built environment.
Organisation: We need ‘smart clients’ and capable supply chains, with clear purpose, strong leadership, culture and behaviours, with the right knowledge, capability and capacity. We also require innovation in the way we finance enhancement of the built environment, using capital to realise value for society and the environment, as well as investors and shareholders. This is something that Bankers Without Boundaries, a global network of investment bankers, is leading with neighbourhood-wide programmes to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, develop renewable energy systems and promote environmental regeneration.
Technology and information: We need digitalisation. Digitalisation is fundamentally about generating, gathering and managing the right data to produce information that enables better decisions, with better decisions leading to better outcomes. The industry’s digital transformation will involve embedding digital technology in physical assets to create an increasingly cyber-physical system. Skill and expertise are required to apply the right technologies in the right places to generate the right data.
Meanwhile, information needs to be produced, managed and used to improve the quality of service provided by the built environment to society, and enhance the value of infrastructure assets and systems in terms of increased revenue and reduced risk. Among other ways, this can be by tracking performance, providing the means to manage capacity, enabling complex system-scale challenges to be understood, showing where and when to carry out interventions, and revealing cause and effect relationships.
Why do it?
Everyone shares the prize: Better performance and value from what we have already built. Efficient delivery and integration of the right new assets to meet society’s current and future needs. Purpose-led technology, not technology-led change. And resilience, sustainability and regeneration, encompassing society, the economy and the natural environment.
We can secure better outcomes from the built environment and create the future we want: wellbeing for people and the planet.