“Our house is on fire”. These were the words of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg addressing international leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of the year. Two months later, the same words echo in a conference hall along the IJ river in Amsterdam. “She’s not wrong – saying what a lot are thinking, but afraid to speak out. This house is on fire”, Mahesh Ramanujam, President & CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, adds with urgency, as he opens this year’s Greenbuild Europe in Amsterdam.
Just a few days earlier, more than 1.6 million children and young people around the world took to the streets, marking March 15, 2019 as the day of the “Global Climate Strike for Future”. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysforFuture school strike, their strong presence and colourful banners were calling on the world’s leaders to wake up from their collective climate coma. “But what are we giving these children in return for their protests?” Mahesh Ramanujam goes on to ask. “It is not enough to believe in them – we need to start sharing stories from the frontline of creating tangible sustainable structures and communities”.
Telling a better story is key to solving the climate crisis
Word cloud generated from documentation of the conference key notes and sessions, with the key words being: sustainability, story, data, people, design, change and systems.
“Sharing stories of change”, “elevating the conversation”, “speaking in tangibles”, “continuing to give feedback”, “walking the talk”: A recurring theme at this year’s Greenbuild Europe was the value of better story-telling for solving the planetary crisis. In light of the conference theme ‘Human x Nature’, the red thread that carried itself throughout the invigorating key notes and input sessions was the engagement in the intersection of humanity and the built environment. Which stories do we need to tell here, and more importantly how? Some of the main underlying themes that marked the visions and propositions put forward were:
Employing systems thinking, systemically
In the process of making sense of the world, we employ mental tools of reductionism that make us ignorant to the systems around us. This is evident in the societal systems we have created and normalised, which have led to the unsustainable, waste-based cultures we now find ourselves in. What we need to do instead is to equip ourselves and most importantly, our children, with a systems mindset that allows us to see the world as an interconnected, dynamic set of systems. This enables us to look at problems differently and identify otherwise overlooked opportunities and leverage points. While systems thinking is nothing new, having been championed by environmentalist Donella Meadows in the 1970s already, the current path we are headed on clearly demonstrates the need of mainstreaming systems thinking, especially in our schools.
Going about the challenge of reconciling our society’s development goals with the planet’s environmental limits, we need to recognise the often forgotten fact that as humans, we are a part of the natural system. And nature is essentially optimised for success. As such, we can use nature as a learning tool to improve our capacity to understand the system interactions that cause our current environmental problems. Employing a systems and life-cycle mindset ultimately makes us understand the full story of our everyday lives.
Making better design decisions, disruptively
At the heart of striving towards a balance between human development and sustaining the planet’s life-supporting systems lies the realisation that each one of us, albeit at different levels, carries the responsibility to collectively limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees. In this process, design plays a big role: while we are the products of design and our creations, we ultimately also partake in designing the world through the everyday choices we make. In this way, one could say, everyone is a citizen designer that can use design as a catalyst for change, disrupting preconceived notions and systemic lock-ins.
The designer is in all of us, because as a species, we look for tactile experiences, constantly seeking to challenge and be challenged. Therefore, we need to apply our agency to creatively and optimistically push the boundaries for environmental and social change. In this endeavour, systems thinking and life-cycle thinking are ideal tools to make better design decisions and build system interventions that will lead us towards more sustainable trajectories. Most importantly, design is not just design – it represents a fine line between breeding collaboration and shared stories on the one hand, and non-cooperation and discouragement on the other.
Making data more accessible and relatable
The importance of data is immeasurable to the worldwide green building movement, whose foundation rests on building guidelines and certification standards that require rigorous quantitative analysis and benchmarking. While data is critical for the sustainability journey, there also exists a large need to talk about data quality, which, if not ensured, can actually lead to hampering development towards a greener future. Here, the challenges lie in the sheer scale of data collected as well as the variability of data across countries and markets. Moreover, we need to take into account that while financial data has historically been measured for more than a thousand years, the notion of measuring environmental and social data is a fairly new one, raising questions of suitable data interpretation as well as of cooperation for enabling better quality and trustworthy data.
Green building professionals also find themselves in the quest to make data more relatable for people outside of the sustainability realm. As Mahesh Ramanujam asked the professional green building audience, “would you feel more affected if the math affected you?”. This is an essential question to ask, seeing the divide that exists between people’s awareness of climate risks and their environmental behaviour. For people not to feel numbed by the numbers and figures, these need to be made more relatable to our own, shared human experiences. What does that specifically mean? Take for instance these five pieces of data presented during the conference – instead of simply looking at the numbers, which personal meaning do they carry and which human experiences are linked to this data that you can connect to.
- In a word-association study carried out by USGBC, only 11% of people associated green buildings with strongly relating to the environment. Words like ‘recycling’, ‘water conservation’, and ‘resource conservation’ ranked much higher.
- In Europe, 90% of our time is spent indoors.
- 3 trillion trees are still standing today, while 3 trillion trees have been extracted since modernity.
- Spending a three-day-weekend in nature produces 50% more natural killer cells.
- Victims of forced labour exploitation in construction generate US$ 34 million in profits per year.
The EnviroSustain Video Lounge: Sharing stories and visions of sustainability
In the context of better storytelling for people and the planet, EnviroSustain launched the ‘EnviroSustain Video Lounge’ at this year’s Greenbuild Europe in Amsterdam. Conference participants were invited to share their stories and thoughts on sustainable building and living in this creative, digital space. The video gives insight into the visions and thoughts guiding the sustainability professionals’ daily practice.
The next Greenbuild Europe will take place coming year in Dublin. We are delighted to be joining Europe’s flagship event for sustainable building once again as sponsor and look forward to many new, innovative ways of storytelling for sustainability!
In the meantime, we will continue our journey towards Healthy, sustainable space. For everyone.