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Markets & Geopolitics

Our responsibility to act

There are some very big questions facing the world built environment.


1 May 2018

For instance, how can we continue to urbanise with such a scarcity of resources. How can we manage rapid development? What about the built environment industry? How can it meet challenges head on?

The World Built Environment Forum London Summit brought together a respected panel to try and answer these thorny questions.

Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director, Centre for Liveable Cities (Ministry of National Development, Government of Singapore), says that cities can lead the solution to their own challenges.

As an example, he outlines how Singapore managed to triple its population density, whilst also improving its liveability. “Its proof that cities can overcome major challenges as long as they had good city planning and good governance,” he explains.

The island city-state is particularly challenged when it comes to resources, as he explains: “Take water for example, we get plenty of rain but we have no space to store it. We are using technology to manage the water cycle, so that we can ensure that, even as we grow, we will have enough water.”

To increase the liveability of the city, Khoo says we shouldn’t think about urban spaces and natural spaces as independent of each other. “Even as we built more, we increased the green areas and areas of water in the city. We have managed to attract nature back into the city, such as birds and otters.”

Rapid urbanisation

Some cities across the world had experience rapid urbanisation. A prime example of course is India.

Vivek Nanda, CEO at Hinduja Investment & Project Services and Board Member of UK India Business Counci, says that the interesting thing about India is that its infrastructure hadn’t grown in tandem with its exponential growth and incredibly rapid urbanisation.

“Rapidly growing cities have to get their infrastructure right and future proofing it is vital,” he says.

Martin Wolf CBE, Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times agrees, saying that it’s a tough thing to do when a country didn’t have high national savings rates.

“Some countries find it difficult to get ahead because they don’t have the domestic resources to finance it.

“Others, like China, have massive national savings rates and have managed it.”

Martin also makes another point, which is the need to rethink urbanisation in rapidly growing cities.

“Is what we have historically sought of as a reasonable pattern for urban development a sensible one when you get to cities that are the size of a mid-sized country?There is a need for a profound rethinking for urban development on that scale. We have to turn the page for India and for Africa, where cities are developing at a pace” - Martin Wolf CBE, Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator, the Financial Times

The future of the world built professionals

Moving away from city development itself, Ann Bentley, Global Practice Director, Rider Levett Bucknall says that the industry has to transform itself.

“We are far too polarized in our own professional specialisms, we should be looking at built environment as a hub, rather than our specialisms,” she says. 

Too often we give solutions based on their professional background rather than what the client needs, she adds.

There would will always be a role for expertise, she says, but we had to become more open-minded.

“It’s almost impossible to train an individual in everything, but we can train them to have an open mind to values and benefits and other things that people bring to the process,” she states. 

Technology would also force the industry to change, she states.

“Firstly, we will need crossover professionals or interpreter professionals, people who are experts in architecture or engineering but also in the digital side of things itself. It will be extremely difficult to give client advice when you only understand half the picture.

“Secondly, those of us who make a living provide professional advice will have to move higher up the advisory chain. Many of the base services we offer will soon be completely free.”

The third thing that technology would bring is a greater transparency in the provenance of products.

“One of biggest issues in construction is do clients actually get what they pay for? Digital tagging should easily enable us to track components from day its ordered through design and manufacture and installation.”

Our responsibility to act

The concluding question for the panel was whether we have an obligation to help countries - like India - on a better path to city development.

Vivek felt that there was a lot to be said for cities from around the world getting together learning and sharing from each other, as well as the private sector and international organisations.

“While there are a lot of problems and challenges on a practical level, there are many cities that are demonstrating very good solutions,” he says.

Martin reminded us of something often forgotten, which is that most of the challenges we are confronting now are the result of success.

“These are the challenges from increasing the size of our economy in the last 40 years, from the fact that the number of people living in absolute destitution has collapsed, the collapse in mortality and infant mortality is why populations have increased, plus we live a lot longer.

“We have a lot of people, we consume a lot, and we affect the environment, we live on top of one another and this leads to conflict.

“The answer is you have to manage it – humanity has the capacity to manage all that.

“Ultimately, sustainability has to be the underpin for everything we do.”

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.