Business as unusualPosted by ed in blog June 6, 2012
This is a guest post written by Ed Gillespie, Co-founder of Futerra, for the UK-GBC . The original article can be found here.
The mantra of the twenty first century’s ‘tweenager’ years is ‘it’s time for business as unusual’. Recession, a rapidly accelerated pace of change, looming resource constraints and stagnation of many traditional practices have left many sectors pondering precisely where on earth reinvigorative growth might come from. The UK’s built environmental industry is obviously no exception.
On Wednesday the UK-GBC launched its new report ‘A Plan for Growth in a Resource Constrained World’ and I was privileged enough to sit on an esteemed panel of ‘expert listeners’ to respond to the five key ideas a cleverly crafted creative, consultative and collaborative process had come up with.
Beforehand I was ruminating on the words of one of Nike’s senior team who said businesses now have three options in terms of resources. Firstly ‘business as usual’, in which case you will hit a resource ‘wall’ fairly quickly, secondly ‘efficiency’, where you still hit the wall…but just a little bit later! Or thirdly, you genuinely innovate and begin to transform your business to thrive in a new context.
The lessons for those businesses that fail to see the writing on the wall (pun intended) are stark. I think within a few years the well-known phrase ‘A Kodak moment’ will come to mean something very different to it’s original intention – the treasured photographic memories captured and lovingly collected in an album. Instead ‘A Kodak moment’ will become synonymous with situations when businesses or whole sectors of the economy are in flat denial of dramatically shifting circumstances. As UK-GBC’s report points out Kodak not only dismissed the direct threat of digital photography, turning a $10B business into a bankrupt one, it also failed to predict how the technology would ultimately transform the entire way we capture, store and view imagery. The question is, is the built environment sector on the cusp of it’s own ‘Kodak moment’?
I think it is. A short-termist, speculative, patrician industry predicated on people buying property and habitually passing the buck on responsibility for fundamentals of sustainability like energy generation and consumption doesn’t look healthy. Energy price hikes, population growth and capital constraints are only likely to exacerbate the whole situation. So what gives?
Well the Plan outlines five imaginative solutions to defibrillate the heart of the industry from its current economic cardiac arrest. I won’t go into the detail of these here, the report does that eloquently enough, but for me the power of these ideas is that almost all of them have already succeeded at ‘proof of concept’ stage, through existing small-scale, localised projects.
Take the ‘Community Collaborators’ localised energy schemes for example. We KNOW these work. From California’s ‘One Block Off Grid’, to my neighbourhood’s ‘Brixton Solar’, via ‘Energy4All’s’ numerous schemes, the game is changing. And it’s going to change much much faster once programmes like ‘TrillionFund’ start to fly. This is about people reclaiming power, generating their own local energy, using it wisely, bypassing sluggish, mainstream capital and getting a return on their investment to boot!
There’d be an estimated initial fund set-up cost of £27M to fast-track the ‘one-stop-shop’ for planning, legals and insurance etc that local community energy schemes desperately need. Which as my co-panellist Paul Golby, who in his former job as CEO of E.oN was considering investment decisions of billions on nuclear power stations, rather drily pointed out is ‘chicken-feed’. It’s also about a quarter of the cost of the recent controversial cancellation of the ‘pasty tax’ if you want to understand Government priorities a little better.
The other ideas involve everything from a more bespoke, customised ‘self-build’ housing model, where everyone can channel their inner Kevin McCloud, through to a mixed tenure, mutualised part-purchase, co-ownership scheme for house buying. Again the former is widely practised on the continent and we think nothing of leasing models on things like cars and the groovy gang at Gentoo are already pioneering this model through their ‘Genie’ scheme.
Personally I liked the ‘Liveable Places’ portal idea that would allow prospective buyers to learn about their potential future locality’s amenities, from transport to community activities. As the Guardian’s Tom Dyckhoff’s ‘Let’s move to’ column already does. If you’re thinking of moving to Chipping Norton you might want to know a bit more about the neighbours.
But for me the real winner was the possibly killer ‘Kodak’ creatively disruptive idea of ‘Use Space Well’. This radical platform could transform our notion of ‘space’, maximising the efficiency of use, turning offices into open tele-working and networking sites or even hotels at night, reducing commutes and generally turning an industry on it’s head. For me this is a genius solution to an industry’s ‘why’ – it’s sense of purpose. Is it a construction industry? Or is it a space-making industry? It is clearly fundamentally the latter, thus ‘Use Space Well’ might just be the key to unlocking the enormous national potential of under-utilised, serviceable space we already have – and monetising it in the process!
As we at Futerra have always said – sustainability is not about incremental, hair-shirt efficiency tweaks, its about the smartest, sexiest, most innovative game in town. The UK-GBC’s Plan I think demonstrates this. None of the ideas is totally innovative (even ‘Use Space Well’ has a precendent in the now $1.2B business ‘AirB&B’ but at scale they would be radically transformative. Or as the sci-fi author William Gibson puts it ‘The future’s here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet’.
By putting people back at the heart of property the profit will no doubt come. But maybe we also need to accept more modest profits, but profits nonetheless, in order to do the right thing. Either way, a customer-led collaborative process that creates better houses or spaces, where we want or need them at a price that’s affordable is possible and this Plan hints at some of the ways forward.
But don’t just listen to me and the UK-GBC, listen to Warren Buffet, the ‘Sage of Omaha’ – “In a chronically leaking boat, energy is best spent swapping vessels than patching leaks”. In a year from now you’ll wish you’d started today…or perhaps be ‘enjoying’ your own Kodak moment.