Old hierarchies and culture of fear blocking industry shifts on climate

Sara Edmonds is lead technical consultant at Built Environment – Smarter Transformation (formerly Construction Scotland Innovation Centre) 

Twelve months ago, we heard at COP26 that it was our last chance to reverse the impact of climate change, but with the follow-up United Nations summit on global warming now underway, we have to ask ourselves, how much has changed? In the built environment especially, despite its well-known role contributing to the problem, there is still too much resistance to change.

“We are in the throes of a fundamental crisis and need to start focusing all attention on the solutions”

We have had countless warnings. In 2015, the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, remarked that we were the last generation with the chance to address climate change before it was too late. As time keeps ticking on, we are only getting closer to that point of no return.

It’s too easy to reiterate what needs to be done; we know the time for action is well and truly upon us. The sooner that each and every one of us working in construction and the built environment commits to making change, the better.

We have a range of important tools available right now to make the world around us more sustainable. However, the most valuable of them isn’t a new material or piece of technology – it’s the people we work with, the way we work with each other, and how we treat and value the next generation of talent.

We often hear how young people will come through with fresh ideas and be the driving force for change. But there is a danger here of laying too much responsibility on the shoulders of a generation who are not responsible for this mess we find ourselves in. More than half of 16- to 25-year-olds who responded to one international survey last year said they thought the planet was ‘doomed’, which only proves that they understand the sense of urgency and the need for action all too well.

In every sector, you come across resistance to change, a perspective based on the fear of the unknown. In our industry, it is frustrating to witness instances where bruised egos result in energy being spent on bringing others down, or excluding the widest range of voices. Such activity merely detracts attention from what is really important. There really is no time for personal agendas or egos. Instead, we need to funnel that energy into collaboration and creative disruption, where the built environment works together to make a meaningful difference.

Hearing fresh perspectives

In some organisations, there is still a culture of fear and a hierarchy that supports business as usual. Fresh perspectives from those at the early stages of their careers are not valued. Rather, we see instances of exploitation by way of unpaid internships, or young people deemed fortunate to have secured the position at all. It’s time for this kind of condescending practice to stop.

With the climate emergency front and centre, it is time to accelerate the move to inclusive and equitable working cultures. Discrimination and bias against any underrepresented group must not be tolerated – that goes without saying. But for all young people, it is important that we show them they are valued, take the time to listen and aim to eradicate any kind of culture that prevents inclusivity. 

Of course, we were all young, fresh faces once upon a time. However, the next generation has a totally different perspective on the world and often entirely different motivations compared with the generations before. Purpose and impact tend to carry greater weight and influence than purely financial benefit. This is a shift that all sectors can learn from.

Taking personal responsibility

If you really want to build a sustainable organisation, then encourage participation, show willingness, own what you know, but more importantly, also own what you don’t know. For employers, showing people that their opinions are valued doesn’t need to be complicated. It might be a case of simply changing the way you speak to people, or changing the format of meetings to allow for open discussion and active listening.

For young professionals, it’s about finding your people. Understand that you have more power than you’ve been told, and you deserve to be heard. Whatever your passion or motivation, there will be another group of folk out there thinking the same thing. Seek out opportunities to join forums like the Built Environment Change Makers, or start to form your own networks to champion a shared value.

We are in the throes of a fundamental crisis and need to start focusing all attention on the solutions. There has never been a greater invitation to be creative; to be inspired by the opportunity to take action and to embrace the scale of the challenge; to reimagine a future where we thrive within planetary boundaries. As American author Toni Cade Bambara said, the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible. To build a more sustainable future, we must all be the artists.

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