Introducing ‘The Urgent Remarkable’

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This post is written by Jonathan Smales, Executive Chairman of Beyond Green.

We’re all sustainable now aren’t we? Perhaps not, but we all know about sustainability. How could we not? Sustainability and its offspring – resilience, durability, ‘zero carbon’, ‘green’, ‘eco’ everything – are ubiquitous. We have sustainable Olympics, codes for sustainable homes and buildings, sustainable schools, sustainable procurement (when we just keep on procuring?!), sustainable energy, sustainable cars, sustainable economies and industries, whole cities dedicated to the concept; we even have sustainable summitry.  We’re awash with it.

Has this overfamiliarity with the term bred laziness? Are we beguiled into thinking that just because we use the word so often we’ve dropped the bad habits of an unsustainable world?

I’ve certainly done my own share of sustainability punditry… With the best of intentions I was MD of Greenpeace UK, founded the Earth Centre, commissioned several significant green buildings and advised the Mayor of Hanover on the 2000 World EXPO. With a desire to up the ante on applied sustainability I co-founded Beyond Green in 2001. We’ve written sustainable development strategies for the Housing Corporation and CABE, founded the government’s programme on the public understanding of climate change, advised the City of Manchester on its climate change action plan, been a lead adviser on several major city and urban extensions & had a sustainability hand in the three largest real estate and regeneration projects in London.

When Beyond Green hit its 10th anniversary I began asking myself what lessons could be learned from these practical and applied projects. The conclusion was that the fundamental problem is in city strategy, planning, design, real estate, investment, infrastructure and design we’re still working in a system based on false assumptions. We’re collectively still not facing up to the magnitude or speed of change that’s needed. There’s a fundamental dissonance between what’s being done in the name of sustainability and the nature and scale of the challenges we should be addressing – as well as the opportunities that potentially lie in taking bold action.

In his seminal book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy Richard Rumelt argues that good strategy is “not just deciding what to do, but (is properly concerned with) the more fundamental problem of comprehending the situation”. Good strategies have a diagnosis, a guiding policy and coherent action. 

Sadly it seems that for ‘sustainability’ in the hands of most there’s no accurate or cogent diagnosis of the situation we’re in. Without this how can we formulate appropriate guiding policy or coherent actions? Little of what we do is integrated and fit for purpose.

What does ‘zero carbon’ really mean? In relation to what? Why is it important? When is a building or a transport strategy or a neighbourhood sufficiently sustainable given global megatrends such as rapid population growth, the Westernisation of consumption habits and lifestyles or escalating climate change? How many car journeys (electric or otherwise) or plane journeys can a world of 9 billion support? Can everyone eat a high meat-protein diet and use water as recklessly as we do in Britain? In Thomas L. Friedman’s words the world really is suddenly, ‘hot, flat and crowded’.  We urgently need to live differently – within environmental limits.

In Beyond Green most of our work is in one way or another connected with cities. Our strapline is, How shall we live?’ and we’re primarily concerned with how cities (now our principal human habitat) can be remade in ways that will inspire and enable all to live well that is, safely, healthily, actively, with pleasure, civility, tolerance and freedom – all within tightly bounded environmental limits.

The New City: What city infrastructure does this? Which ways of getting around, what type of real estate, which designs, what architecture, streets and other public realm could make this way of life possible? If 2050 is a tipping point how can we finance the rapid transformation of all world cities in the next crucial 37 years? Which economic models and investment strategies will work best? How can we make the necessary changes affordable and which versions of whole-life economics will do the job? How should we communicate with and engage people in these changes? What brand values should we espouse?  Which political policies and programmes should we create or support? And where do we look for inspiration in this cacophonous world?

Could there be any upside to getting this right? And what if there were a growing body of evidence that the cities that are already making these changes were becoming safer, more liveable, easier to move around in, that they were attracting disproportionate amounts of human talent, were more successful economically, were cleaner and more equitable? Wouldn’t that be remarkable?

With all this in mind at Beyond Green we’re working on a new world view regarding how we might live well (and that means sustainably) in the future and how we might transform cities to enable us to do so. We’re calling it the urgent remarkable. Urgent because of the unremitting global challenges we face and the need for an accurate and cogent diagnosis. Remarkable because global society must move remarkably quickly and boldly to address the challenges and seize the opportunities; and as we make the breakthrough changes to city fabric and city living we (hope) we’ll discover how remarkably well it all works.

The urgent remarkable world-view is being launched via a series of lectures at Cambridge University School of Architecture in February and March 2013 under the heading, The New City.

This will be followed by an international Summer School at Pembroke College in 2014 aimed at leaders from different sectors and disciplines from cities around the world.

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