What can architects teach us about sustainable development strategies?

Lukasz Bochenek

May 21, 2018

Last week, I was on a panel discussion about “Sustainable Business Models” at the European Economic Congress in Katowice (picture), Poland. It was an interesting place for the discussion because COP 24 will be in the very same complex later this year. The panel had usual suspects: a board member of an energy company, a senior executive from a research institute, me… and architects.

What a funny choice, I thought. What are they supposed to talk about? It became clear when the discussion started.

We have a tendency to talk about sustainable development from a broad and global perspective. Big ideas, big numbers, big contributions, tough targets. But what does it all really mean? How does it translate into day-to-day operations? How can we convince clients, customers and shareholders that being sustainable is not optional and that it leads to a better business?

Well, architects share the same struggle. They operate in an extremely cost-sensitive world and have to fight for every decision. What is the overall weight of the materials? How long will they last? What is their energy performance? It’s not that far from a holistic view of an entire supply chain.

The beauty of the discussion was that the big concepts were boiled down to examples everyone can relate to.

And an architect doesn’t operate in a vacuum. A city or a town is an ecosystem in which different utilities and functions need to be combined. In order to create this sustainable ecosystem, you need to work together with town planners, who in turn  need to work with local politicians. They need to operate in the system driven by laws and regulations that are voted at national level. Elected politicians are influenced by civil society, NGOs and their electorates. Government officials are influenced by the global trends and frameworks. Everything is interconnected.

Here come the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 11 talks about Smart Cities and Communities, and the underlying targets refer precisely to the way cities are planned and built and it was fascinating to see how it translates into the real life of constructing a building.

SDGs still suffer from relatively low awareness among the general public. Companies and organisations need to do better, and can learn several lessons from architects about how to define and communicate their SDG engagement:

  1. Define the concrete contributions of a product, looking at both the internal and supply chain perspectives
  2. Measure the impact of your organisation’s actions. Connect the coals you contribute to with concrete targets
  3. Talk about your actions in a simple and understandable way; SDG conversations typically suffer from over-complicated language
  4. Don’t get analysis paralysis. Doing the right things is exactly … right. And it brings both tangible and intangible benefits in a medium/long term
  5. Use that long-term positive impact as your core reason for acting on the relevant SDG(s)

Explaining your sustainability strategy can be as easy – or complicated – as explaining how to build a house.