Science fiction or science fact? - The future of sustainability

Written by Niki May Young on 26 September 2012

Smart cities received kudos earlier this year as some of the biggest conglomerates in the world met with CoreNet Global for the Corporate Real Estate 2020 forum. The result was the production of eight reports outlining expectations for smart city implementation. Niki May Young assesses the project's sustainability output.

I'm often drunk on a curious cocktail of intrigue, humour and admiration when I watch Back to the Future, Blade Runner, Terminator and the like - to think that thirty years ago that's how people thought we would live. We'd use hover-boards to travel our cities, we'd have fantasies artificially embedded in our brains, robots would drive our cars and technology would have advanced to an extreme point of artificial intelligence, and turned on us. At least for the latter prophecy, we should be grateful that such advances are fanciful. But in truth, what has stopped any of these becoming a reality?&nb

CoreNet Global's Corporate Real Estate 2020 Sustainability report makes some (self-confessed) 'bold statements' about a possible 'clean' future for the office environment. These include: “Buildings, sometimes connected by micro grids, will be both consumers and producers of energy. The evolutions in energy storage will impact building operations, transportation and planning.” And: “Sustainability experts will play an important integrative role within the organization to meet enterprise-wide targets and goals.” 

On the face of it, these claims are not quite as outlandish as electric cars that travel up and down buildings and park themselves 20-floors up. But for an organisation whose membership includes 70 per cent of the Fortune 100 to say they are 'bold statements' provides an insight into both their importance, and the existing scepticism of their potential. 

The report is not baseless. CoreNet Global began its research in August 2011 at the AT&T headquarters in Dallas, where a group of more than 70 senior thought-leaders convened to discuss the business environment in the year 2020. Corporate Real Estate 2020 examines a wide range of external and macro-economic, societal, political and other influences to ascertain a true picture of what can be achieved in business to accommodate the changing nature of work. The project is divided into eight reports of which sustainability is one. Participants include the CBRE, Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard, Shell Oil Company and T-Mobile. Eight research teams were formed, bold statements were made for each of these, materials analyzed and surveys held. Research continued until May 2012 when the final reports were published.

So, without wanting to preach to the choir, why does 70 per cent of the Fortune 100 care about sustainability? And why should you? To answer this lets strip down the word to its basic meaning, before it was hijacked as an eco-mantra. Sustainability actually means “able to be maintained”, which would make it a close cousin to ‘resilience‘. Sustainability isn’t just about saving the world, it’s also about ways to lower cash output and remedy the reliance on ever increasing costs, ensuring that whoever is purchasing your office block is getting a good long-term deal. As the market for ecologically sound, passive and even energy producing buildings increases, the need to entertain these values to retain stakeholders increases. 

Lack of unification

Yet, despite the involvement and collaboration of such internationally monolithic brands in Corporate Real Estate 2020, CoreNet Global pointedly states that “Sustainability initiatives – their existence, robustness and rate of adoption – can vary significantly at the global level, even within the same organization.” 

This lack of unification offers the first barrier to implementation. But it works in tandem with others presented, if a little subtly, throughout the report. The next barrier is disbelief... 

A survey of real estate professionals conducted during the report found that 46 percent of respondents agreed and 27 percent strongly agreed that by 2020, real estate portfolios will include buildings that are not only consumers of energy but energy producers as well. That leaves 27 per cent of real estate professionals that either do not agree, or are not sure if portfolios will include passive buildings. Analysing the wording is key here. The statement doesn't say 'all portfolios', it doesn't say 'all buildings', it says, generally, 'portfolios will include'. So what creates this level of disbelief that prevents real estate professionals from seeing the potential of sustainability? Unfortunately it's a question that's not answered by this report. But it's a big question. 

The report concludes that “Even with dedicated experts, an increasing knowledge and responsibility around sustainability will be required to fully integrate sustainable strategies across the organization.” Without belief or with unification from within an organisation, where will the finance, commitment and initiative come from to develop this knowledge and take on this responsibility.

Perhaps it is the very reliance on cooperation and belief at corporate level that is the barrier to a smarter strategy for sustainability? Do governments need to take the lead to ensure a wider comprehension of the issues and compliance with progressive action on sustainability measures? And should they?

Findings of the report indicate that US governments are taking a lead on implementing sustainability measures in its real estate.It points to EPA Green Power Partnership’s most recent Top 10 On-Site Generation ranking for the use of on-site renewables, in which four US cities and the US Airforce rank. But it is the private sector which is reaching the greatest heights with Kimberly-Clark at number 1. The personal and healthcare products company already consumes eight percent of its total electricity use from biomass fuel. Walmart's California and Texas facilities come next producing 4 per cent of their energy with biogas, solar and wind. It's no-where near passive, of course, there is no feeding back to the grid, but these figures point not to a lack of desire for greener real estate, but a lack of capacity to make it possible. This appears to point to one of two things – lack of technology or lack of finance.

According to the Corporate Real Estate 2020 Sustainability report: “Technology has already impacted how, where and when work gets done, which has in turn dramatically impacted real estate portfolio size and strategy. In the future, worker mobility (enabled by technology) will continue to drive real estate strategy. In addition, technology that enables better design and better, smarter buildings will continue to evolve.” In short, we're not quite there yet in terms of technology, but the potential is great. As this potential is realised perhaps we will see a relaxation of our inhibitions that prevent our imagination's work from becoming reality. Corporations will 'believe', and we will take one bold, collective step for real estate to make a giant leap for mankind.

Categories: Environment, Energy and water, Technology, Business