Most think of environmental factors when thinking about the term sustainability. There is no doubt, partly thanks to David Attenborough recently highlighting the plight of our oceans and the toxic plastic build up within them, that this element of sustainability is important. This article however seeks to focus on another area of sustainability very often paid lip service to by those with a responsibility for the finance and management of property and assets.
Given its ability to have such a significant impact on the well-being of users and society, not to mention its effect on our ability to fulfil our long-term aims and objectives, I am intrigued at the apparent lack of attention sustainability in property appears to receive. Why is this? When asked, most I have spoken to mention limited finances or indeed confirm that they assume the term principally relates to environmental factors. It appears there exists a preconceived assumption that the context in which the term is being used is one of environmental impact; an area being often seen as a Cinderella activity and therefore not a core focus for property or finance.
Sustainability has been unfortunate to have been ‘owned’ fairly early on in the debate around the impact of human activity on our environment. When we hear the term ‘sustainability’, our default setting is to assume that the context in which it has been mentioned is indeed one of environmental effects. It is at this point many of us tune out from the conversation or debate. There are in my view, two main reasons we do this. Firstly, we traditionally associate sustainability with cost. In our mind we immediately see new and expensive sustainable technologies. We assume, mostly correctly, that when budgets are tight, the appetite for expenses of this type at an asset or portfolio level will be unpalatable for those holding the purse strings even when they may acknowledge that spend now will save money in the long term given an asset's lifecycle costs. Secondly, we find the area very grey and woolly in terms of tangible deliverables. While we understand the broad meaning of a ‘sustainable’ asset management policy or asset base, we understand less how we might actually evidence this via metrics.
William Bruce Cameron (not Albert Einstein as many believe) once said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” To manage sustainably, you need to measure the right things: those things that provide insight in the work performed, and that you are able to influence are key. There may be areas you can’t measure and it might be a question of standing up for your gut instincts that something is right. A difficult concept to follow through in the public sector where evidence seems to be key.
Looking beyond the limited confines of a definition of sustainability that points only to the environmental factors, the opportunity afforded by this word to effect positive change and bring real value is significant. Leaving aside the desire to be ‘environmentally friendly’, as a property manager within a local authority, if I were to approach the property function on the basis that my role within society is to provide an enduring service that is fit for purpose, be it physical buildings, rental incomes, facilities management services etc then I could be said to be aspiring to achieve a sustainable approach.
If we infer the full potential of the term ‘sustainable’ when we think on its meaning, we open our mind to the much wider scope it has as a means of achieving a very important and meaningful aspect of the work we seek to do within property and finance. When used to its full potential, ‘sustainability’ can apply to virtually all areas of what is done within public sector service; for what is done, is done on behalf of society, by the state, at the cost of the tax payer on an enduring basis. The ability to sustain and to have a ‘sustainable approach’ could indeed therefore be considered by most to be the number one priority in delivery of services. Now wouldn’t that see a change in the way the term is construed!
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