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Finding harmony is about more than going green

Last November, the World Bank published a report somewhat alarmingly entitled Turn Down the Heat. By the end of this century, it says, we’ll see the globe warm up by 4C unless policymakers intervene. The stage will be set for widespread environmental chaos. This is getting serious.

For businesses involved in large projects, the responsibility has never been so great. The case for sustainability is morphing from a box-ticking exercise into a meaningful commitment. Sustainability must now be incorporated into project planning as well as organisational culture to stay ahead of the game.

Construction and industry are historically the bad guys in this arena, but in recent years the key players have started to step up. The corporate construction race gained momentum in 2011 when two of the world’s biggest accounting firms, PwC and KPMG, went head to head to deliver flagship sustainable office builds.

Solutions included not just the usual suspects, such as solar power, but also some clever and more unusual solutions, including power generation through recycled biofuel and green roofs that attract and protect wildlife. The bar has been well and truly set for other firms to follow suit.

In response project managers are deploying new tools to assess the environmental impact of construction. Concrete mixes, for example, can now be analysed to predict the environmental impact at each stage of a building’s life cycle.

Preserving local resources, protecting human rights and reinvesting into local communities are embedded in project planning

Business information modelling technology – the newest kid on the construction block – is transforming the ability to analyse the future impact of a building even at the planning stages. Not only does this help businesses to achieve those all-important green credentials, it also helps to anticipate risks and plan future-proofing measures to ensure that today’s green builds are up to tomorrow’s challenges.

For those operating on the global stage, sustainability now goes way beyond the nuts and bolts. Preserving local resources, protecting human rights and reinvesting into local communities are embedded in project planning.

Particularly in controversial industries, such as oil and gas, business leaders themselves are being held more accountable for their practices. A spate of newsworthy controversies – privacy invasions, tax evasions and man-made disasters – has focused the media and government spotlight firmly on those at the top. This means boards must have their finger on the pulse at every stage of a project and, as a result, the supporting technology is evolving to facilitate project-wide communication at a highly sophisticated level.

For modern businesses committed to sustainability though, it’s not just about where we work and live any more. It’s about how we work and live. Business leaders are increasingly recognising that performance and staff retention are key to sustainable development, not just environmentally, but financially and socially as well.

In 2012, PwC published a report which found that 80 per cent of business leaders believe innovation drives efficiency, which in turn drives commercial growth. Approaches like serendipity theory and social capital embrace the notion that innovation comes from people, therefore people should be nurtured within a working environment that enables flexible, imaginative interaction.

Innovation champions Nesta, for example, has introduced randomised coffee trials. Staff who would never otherwise meet are randomly connected and encouraged to chat in informal one-to-one meetings. The result? Hundreds of new connections in just a few months, each one potentially generating new conversations and new ideas.

This is just one way in which project managers are adapting to modern times and creating a culture where people are seen not as expendable resources, but as the beating heart of business growth.

Professor Herbert Girardet, co-founder of the World Future Council, recently suggested that we should throw the sustainability concept out altogether. Better, he argues, to focus on regenerating our natural resources – soil, forests and water – than to flog finite resources that are already in a sorry state. Ventures into this area can be seen in projects, including Crossrail, where 4.5 million tonnes of excavated clean earth are being reinjected into an RSPB nature reserve at Wallasea Island, Essex.

Admittedly that’s a lovely public relations story for Crossrail. But it’s also a solid regeneration step, tipped to combat rising sea levels and protect the very environment that Crossrail will serve. In addition, Crossrail has injected financial planning into the project to ensure that environmental risks, such as the discovery of protected sites during excavation, are anticipated before they happen and can be dealt with in a sensitive way.

There’s a long way to go to find genuine harmony with our planet. But the signs are encouraging. One thing’s for sure: today’s green expectations mean that the project manager’s responsibilities will never be quite the same again.