In our truculent times, how out of character to have a gathering that genuinely spreads goodwill and hope. The 11th annual Green Cities conference touched the environmental, social, economic and community nerve. Organised by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and the Property Council of Australia (PCA), and sponsored by a bevy of high profile corporate, industry, government and professional organisations, it took the theme, fast forward to the future, to heart.  

As well as all the technological intelligence, augmented and virtual realities, and Internet of Things connections, data and how it is used was paramount. The GBCA concluded that the “real story was how a solutions-driven industry was mapping a pathway to a sustainable future.”

Not that this will be easy. EY’s Uschi Schreiber warned of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s prediction that one in nine jobs would disappear over the next two decades. “If machines do all the work, what will we do? And what does that mean for the built environment? We need mighty stakeholder networks to shape a world that uses the power of technology for good.”

Image: Green City

A finance session argued that creative thinking was required to mobilise money from every possible source. Elsewhere, we heard how global corporates are having to answer sustainability demands from shareholders and the wishes of boards.

The federal government did not escape criticism for its climate inaction and policy tardiness, but the mood was more encapsulated by Adelaide City Council Lord Mayor Martin Haese reflecting on the sense of inevitability engendered by the speakers. “It’s an unstoppable train,” he said. “The next generation of voters will be people who expect government to have a strong sustainability agenda.”

The GBCA’s ebullient Chief Executive Officer, Romilly Madew, launched A carbon positive roadmap for the built environment discussion paper, which charts a course for building, renewable energy, emerging industry jobs and biodiversity positives.

Rick Fedrizzi Chairman and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), was one of the speakers who praised Australia for “leading the way when it comes to sustainable buildings.” IWBI administers the WELL Building Standard and is in partnership with the GBCA.

Health and wellbeing is the here-and-now idea. Fedrizzi referred to Harvard research on the impact of indoor environment quality on brain function. This revealed that employees’ cognitive performance scores averaged 101 per cent higher in green building environments with enhanced ventilation than in a conventional building environment.

Images: Green City

Health was also linked to the ever-present issue, density.  Mark Steinert, Stockland’s CEO and Managing Director and PCA National President said that while five per cent of Tokyo’s citizens were obese, 27 per cent of Sydneysiders (still a far less dense city) were.

“We all have a responsibility to change the narrative and build trust if we believe in density done well,” Steinert said.

“Rather than seeing density as a second choice, we should be looking at density as the vehicle” to make our cities better as they grow, said Michael Rose, Chairman of The Committee for Sydney.

Density done well has to preserve our environmental assets not just because it is good for the environment, but it would also go a long way to improving community trust and willingness to accept greater density, said Penny Sharpe, NSW Shadow Minister for Environment, Heritage, Trade, Tourism & Major Events, whose presentation raised many core ­– and uncomfortable – concerns.

We had an upbeat global outlook from Future Crunch –  political economist Dr Angus Hervey and big data scientist TanĂ© Hunter – on renewable energy, resources, biodiversity, microfinance – looking through the lens of “evidence-based optimism”. Bringing reconciliation to life through the built environment had a video from Supply Nation showing lots of small businesses owned and run by Aborigines.

At the final lunch, World Vision’s Tim Costello said the “story of Green Cities” was about overcoming the “profound disconnect” in our current political processes and replacing this failing leadership with one driven by compassion and kindness. And authenticity and “doing the right thing (even if that) is not always rewarded”.

It is a theme that Elizabeth Farrelly’s piece (SMH 18 – 19 March) on politician Ted Mack echoed. “Strength, he showed, is not the opposite of kindness and humility or patience, but one and the same.” And a worthy motive for a sustainable future.

Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma; [email protected]