Three days spent at Ecobuild last week underlined my long-standing view that it’s “a funny old event”.
And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean “funny” in the sense that, given how all-pervasive the environmental agenda is across the whole built environment sector, Ecobuild can still come across as being rather niche.
Perhaps it’s the name, because in reality the show is anything but niche. In fact, over the three days the show attracted a huge number of visitors looking at and discussing a vast range of environment products and services - from the smallest of domestic energy projects through to the biggest infrastructure activities and pretty much everything in between.
The main conference, for example, heard from the biggest names in housing – Berkeley Homes’ Tony Pidgley; in architecture – dRMM’s Sadie Morgan; in infrastructure – Skanska’s Mike Putnam; and from clients such as Marks & Spencer.
All of which underlines the major opportunity and major challenge facing the industry and demonstrates clearly just how much there is still to do across built environment when it comes to lower carbon, sustainable infrastructure solutions.
Yet it is fair to say that, like the businesses exhibiting, most of the visitors at Ecobuild last week were the converted - the professionals and home owners who already understand the long and short term value of investing in environmentally and economically sustainable solutions. And while there is no harm in such a like-minded gathering, preaching to the converted will only get us so far. To really grab the advantages of shifting towards a low carbon, sustainable industry and economy events like Ecobuild must include the whole industry as a mainstream solution to the global infrastructure challenge.
On the #ecoFringe we tried to hit this challenge head on. The aim was to create an open forum for professionals to gather and discuss the industry as it transforms from traditional, silo-based and construction focused activity towards a modern, customer and outcome focused industry embracing the talents and tools needed for a sustainable future.
A tough brief but one which I think we mostly pulled off. By inviting a range of speakers and panellists based not so much on their green and eco credentials but on their ideas for future industry transformation we were able to air discussion on how to make sustainable solutions part of the mainstream and intrinsic to creating vital whole life value across the built environment.
In particular, the panel session on identifying what society really wants from its infrastructure highlighted clearly how environment professionals were still too often employed to control short term project costs rather than on maximising longer term customer and environmental outcomes. How, despite all the social and environmental evidence to the contrary, clients are still too often forced to sacrifice long term operational benefit for the sake of short term capital savings.
Similarly, the session exploring solutions to the UK housing crisis highlighted the on-going challenge of a housing market driven by short term price rather than affordable long term value. It is an environment in which investment in better, sustainable, low carbon designs or construction techniques are too often overlooked in the drive for quick profit.
Both of these issues underline the major challenge facing the industry - and facing an event like Ecobuild - as it wrestles to confirm environmental, low carbon and sustainable construction as mainstream. It is the challenge of embracing innovative ideas and treating the transforming world as the opportunity that it is.
Fundamentally for me this hinges on the need to put customers first. To move away from the notion of sustainability as a nice, luxury add-on towards the reality that it is the only way for asset owners to serve their customers in the future and so sustain their profitable businesses.
From what I saw at Ecobuild this year, we are already starting to head down this path. The sustainable construction sector is now less hair shirt and more customer focused and it must continue to head that way.
To move rapidly from a funny old niche business for the few towards the mainstream economic powerhouse that it should be. All the content from the ACO Technologies supported #ecoFringe will soon be available to view online HERE