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Are we more than the sum of our individual parts?

Romilly Madew, Chief Executive
Green Building Council of Australia

I’m often asked how a vast, isolated nation with a relatively small, dispersed population can be a world leader in sustainable building.  The answer is simple: we work collaboratively.

Perhaps working together for the common good comes naturally to Australians. Toiling side-by-side in the solitary bush, on the goldfields, shearing or droving, the harsh conditions of our early settlement have shaped a cultural predisposition to ‘mateship’. In the trenches of Gallipoli and, later, in the POW camps of World War II, when the Americans set up black market trading, and the British clung rigidly to their pre-ordained class structures, Australians divided their rations based on need. This meant more of them survived.

In comparison, other parts of the world are increasingly engaged in the ‘zero-sum game’ typical of capitalism in its early stages, which makes competition more a matter of ‘cutting down’ than ‘building up’.  

In Australia, the ‘business is war’ mentality with its battle-ready competitors prepared to win at all costs, is at odds with our preference for collaboration. And besides, the old business model of fierce, localised competition is no longer relevant when competing in a globalised marketplace. It makes sense to forge a unified front; “we can either win together or we can lose alone”.

We regularly witness competitive companies working together to develop combined industry thinking (Green Star being the best example of this), government and industry working together to create better policy, and industries collaborating across the entire supply chain to create better, more sustainable outcomes.

Our industry’s commitment to collaboration is clearly on display through the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) and Built Environment Meets Parliament (BEMP), both of which have enabled our diverse and disparate industry to find common ground and a common voice. These organisations were established with the understanding that a diversity of views is welcome and that differences of opinion don’t need to be the end of a conversation.

When we travel to other countries we are often faced with amazement that the Australian industry collaborates on so many levels – in particular the relationships between industry bodies such as the Property Council of Australia, Facility Management Association, Consult Australia, Australian Institute of Architects, Planning Institute of Australia and the Design Institute of Australia help to spread knowledge, build capacity and foster innovation in a way seldom seen abroad.

Cross-company collaboration on individual projects to achieve more sustainable outcomes is impressive. Cross-industry collaboration to achieve more sustainable outcomes is truly inspiring.  

One of our many untold success stories here in Australia has been the cooperation between the GBCA and Plastics Industry Pipe Association (PIPA) to influence the international manufacturing and processing of plastic pipe. As PIPA’s Executive General Manager Mark Heathcote says “it was the process of collaboration that enabled us to start transforming the industry. Because the industry could see constructive dialogue taking place - for the first time - it was much more willing to make changes that moved many more manufacturers into line to achieve better environmental outcomes.”

As Australian manufacturers embraced the Best Practice Guidelines for PVC in the built environment, they began to source raw materials from suppliers who could demonstrate best practice. Most of these are overseas and well outside the influence of Australian regulation. “Collaboration has created the cultural change we needed to influence the manufacture of plastic pipe upstream,” Mark says. This collaboration equally benefited the GBCA. The trust and transparency developed during the process of collaborating with PIPA gave us the confidence to make some significant changes, as well as the opportunity to examine our industry in a way not thought possible.  

Collaboration goes beyond consultation to find practical solutions to complex problems – and in doing so, increases transparency and trust, and decreases the disconnection between policy and delivery. And it helps businesses to adapt and survive. As Charles Darwin said, “those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

The ‘fragmented’ nature of the building sector is often cited, both in Australia and internationally, as the reason why sustainability in the built environment is difficult to achieve. I disagree. Having worked in this supposedly fragmented industry for ten years, I haven’t seen it. There is competition, sure, and there is sometimes a lack of information, but there is also strong collaboration.

Just consider the WorldGBC, a partnership of 98 GBCs – up from 26 in 2007. At the heart of the green building council model is the core principle that effective solutions require a whole sector approach across the entire value chain.  

Any home renovator will understand the challenges of working within a fragmented industry.  Dozens of tradespeople – from plumbers to plasterers and from electricians to structural engineers – are required, and all will work mostly in isolation. And that’s just to renovate one home! Extrapolate this to an office of 100,000 square metres or a whole city block of apartments, and it’s clear why an integrated, collaborative approach to building delivers more sustainable, high quality outcomes.

Australia can be proud of its reputation as a world leader in green buildings and sustainable communities. As Tim Beresford, Austrade’s Executive Director of Australian Operations, says: “A ‘can do’ attitude and willingness to collaborate is enabling Australian companies to combine the intelligence, experience, tradition and innovation from other countries to create world-leading green projects.”

Australia’s geography and remote location make international connections a priority for sparking innovation and inspiration. We do need to work harder to forge connections, create links and foster partnerships. Much of the GBCA’s international work rests on establishing and strengthening relationships with other green building councils to drive innovation in Australia.

Despite the tyranny of distance, Australians are adept at cross-border collaboration. The Cato Manor Green Street project in South Africa is a spectacular example of this.  Twenty six homes in a low-income area of Durban have been recently retrofitted with green technologies, from solar hot water and rainwater harvesting systems to LED street lights and insulated cookers. The project was only made possible through funding from the Australian Government’s (then) Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and AusAID. The GBCA was proud to be the conduit that connected Australia’s government agencies with the project team from the South Africa GBC, and we now have another real-world demonstration of how green technologies can be applied in the low cost housing sector to reduce carbon emissions and transform lives.

While we’ve made great strides forward, there is much more work to be done.  Sustainability is a global challenge, and one which will only be overcome when we collaborate with our global networks, using our collective skills and technological knowledge, to continue to push the boundaries of world leadership.

So, what do you think? Are we more than the sum of our individual parts? And how can we improve collaboration?

Let us know on Twitter: @gbcaus using the hashtag #talkaroundthegreenhouse

Cato Manor Green Street, Durban, South Africa