Opinion

One Vision for people, nature and the built environment

28 April 2021

In the same way that the janitor at NASA was putting an astronaut on the moon, this line of sight can provide a real sense of purpose for all of us who work in the built environment. Melissa Zanocco, Infrastructure Client Group

Melissa Zanocco outlines the key points of the Our vision for the built environment manifesto launched on Earth Day.

The pandemic has taught us important lessons about how deeply our wellbeing is tied to nature as well as the built environment. At the same time, the focus on Net Zero means that we can no longer afford to ignore the impact of what we build. Crucially, both of these problems have highlighted the fact that the greatest challenges of our generation are systemic and interdependent and cannot be solved in silos.

If we wish to breakdown the silos, then we need a unifying vision to align the current and future initiatives and strategies across the built environment. We cannot achieve the future we want for the sector if we have not articulated it. The sector has recently therefore come together in a cross-industry collaboration to debate, articulate and endorse Our Vision for the built environment (https://indd.adobe.com/view/f2092c85-cd16-4186-9035-e2a63adc2bf9).

The Vision is for a built environment whose explicit purpose is to enable people and nature to flourish together for generations. To achieve this, we need to manage the built environment as a system of systems, with the purpose of delivering better outcomes through the services it provides. For the first time in our history, we have the tools and technology to work together to manage the built environment in a way that addresses the biggest challenges of our time.

Achieving better outcomes for people and nature

Outcomes are the changes experienced by people, communities and the environment when a service is provided. People do not need roads or bridges; they need to get from A to B. It is this focus on the use of the built environment, rather than the output/asset, that must determine how we operate, maintain, plan, design, construct and reuse it.

In a post-pandemic world, we now more urgently than ever need to get more from the buildings, infrastructure and natural resources that we already have. This approach to the built environment provides the opportunities to achieve the desired outcomes through better management of what we already have. Where new assets are required, it ensures we integrate them effectively with the existing system.

Development of the built environment must take place within a context where these outcomes are aligned from top to bottom: from the global UN Sustainable Development Goals and national strategic priorities, through local requirements, to investment decisions for individual interventions. In the same way that the janitor at NASA was putting an astronaut on the moon, this line of sight can provide a real sense of purpose for all of us who work in the built environment. It can also help to inspire the next generation into the industry as they understand the difference their contribution can make.

Systems and services

The built and natural environments are complex and interconnected systems that are essential for our wellbeing. This Vision builds on Flourishing Systems (https://www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk/news/flourishing-systems) to describe the interconnections between built systems, natural systems and the emerging cyber-physical systems, where the physical and digital worlds meet. We must therefore develop systems-based policies and strategies that enable us to understand and coordinate the built environment as a system of systems, whilst ensuring it is sustainable, secure and resilient.

The connection between the outcomes we desire and the systems we use to achieve them is the services that the built environment provides, like shelter, mobility and sanitation. The bridge itself does not get us from A to B, rather it enables that movement. We therefore also need metrics that address the performance of the built environment - how well it is achieving its purpose - not just metrics for how productively we add to it.

The critical role of natural systems

The position we find ourselves in today, where the total mass of the built environment exceeds that of all living things on earth, means that we are not fighting for the existence of the planet – it will continue to exist in some form – but for the delicate balance of conditions that mean that all current living things can exist, including the human race. As the Economist puts it: “A mix of inputs that generates output on Earth will not on Venus.” The built environment must work with and within the natural environment.

We need to shift towards consciously making a positive environmental impact with everything we do in the built environment, including integrating regenerative and biophilic design, ecosystem services, natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions. The Treasury’s: The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review (http://bit.ly/biodiversitydasgupta) argues that services provided by nature are an indispensable input to economic activity.

Enablers

Managing the built environment as a system of systems with a focus on delivering better outcomes requires greater integration across the industries that serve the built and natural environments. Working more closely together requires new skills, capabilities and more collaborative ways of working. It requires the sharing of processes and information across traditional silos.

As the built environment becomes increasingly cyber-physical, we need to improve capabilities (like information management and data science) and tools (like Internet of Things and connected digital twins) in order to understand and intervene effectively in complex systems.

Digital transformation is fundamentally about enabling people to use the information that comes from data to make better decisions, improve processes and apply technology wisely.‚Äč The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about socio-technical change -  ‘technical’ because technology is such a key enabler, but ‘social’ because technology alone is not sufficient. We need purpose-led technology, not technology-led change.

Effective information management requires the right people to have the right information at the right time to make better decisions, in order to achieve these better outcomes. BIM plays an important role in information management and leads the way for digital twins.

The next steps are to translate the Vision into policy, strategy and action. The Infrastructure & Project’s Authority’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, which will be published later this year, helps to translate it into policy. Each of us needs to be asking ourselves what role we are going to play in making it a reality.

The development of Our Vision for the built environment (https://indd.adobe.com/view/f2092c85-cd16-4186-9035-e2a63adc2bf9) was supported by more than 35 cross-industry bodies and more than 75 key industry leaders from industry, government and academia. The Vision is not owned by one organisation but was deliberately published simultaneously on the same day (22 April) by organisations across the built environment, to demonstrate that it is “for us, by us”.

Melissa Zanocco, head of programme, Infrastructure Client Group, was part of the team that created the Vision.