Community Resilience: From Sandy to Sustainability

A version of this article first appeared on the Sustainability Talk & News website, published 18 December, 2012.

Another PlaceAt every level, Hurricane Sandy represents a wake-up call for the sleeping giant of community resilience that is the built-environment sector. It is time for Construction to engage both with the (inter)national debate on climate-change risk and global-warming impacts, plus local discussions about resource mobilisation, security provision and preparedness.

In order for Construction to be cast a lead rôle in climate-change adaptation, it must be able to see both the Big Picture and the Local View: The Big Picture provides the backdrop to the global stage on which nation states perform, populated by protagonists in politics and pressure groups; the Local View is characterised by community scenes, where dialogue is more about resilience and resource.

At the macro level, the business community is becoming increasingly concerned about climate risk and the urgent need to be proactive. Ahead of the UN COP18 talks in Doha, over 200 of the largest investment fund managers and institutions – with more than £13tn in assets and including the likes of Scottish Widows, Aviva and HSBC – issued an open letter to the UK government and other administrations, advocating an escalation in action on climate change. Take heed: These signatories petitioning are establishment and mainstream money men and women, not greens, or alternative-energy geeks.

With The City worried and vocal, the onus is on leading market sectors such as Construction to listen and respond, not least because much of the investment involved carries core-business implications for the built environment: Infrastructure, property and climate defences are the physical building blocks of the (re)insurance industry assets and liabilities, portfolio and policies. In short, Construction is in the climate business, whether it likes it or not.

Zooming in to focus on the Local View, the Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience for the UK outlines how public, private and third sector organisations, plus individuals, might work together with responders and service providers in the event of an emergency, such as Sandy. Part of the Big Society commitment, the programme seeks to promote confidence and preparedness at community level, creating a degree of embedded self-sufficiency, security and, ultimately, sustainability. The framework provides direct assistance in the form of Emergency Plans and Toolkits, plus a library of illustrative case studies tackling scenarios ranging from flu pandemics to snow clearing. Of paramount importance is the pooling of knowledge and resources to enable swift effective response.

Here again, there can be seen a clear opportunity for Construction to engage and, arguably, an obligation to do so. The industry boasts a unique and highly valuable bank of relevant knowledge and resource ideally suited to localised emergency response: Plant and equipment, from caterpillar-track off-roaders to high-vis safetywear; raw or manufactured materials, from walling and piping, to boards and sand; plus human resource with appropriate skills and trades. Whilst perhaps no flashing blue light is expected atop every white van, the sector fit is perfect for the part of the fourth emergency service.

Maybe the moment has finally come, therefore, for the industry to get up on its hind legs and demand the attention it craves by engaging actively in the debates around climate change in general and resilience planning in particular. Historically, Construction has been proud to quote the statistics for its significant contribution to GDP (even when markets are tough), but often bemoans the perceived lack of recognition and appreciation for its efforts. Today, with influence to be won, if the sector has a mind to move the agenda forward, it certainly has the muscle.

Now is the time for Construction to play its true part in the communities it serves: Stand up; speak up. An audience awaits…

Author: Jim McClelland

Construction and communities: At a crossroads

A version of this article first appeared on the Sustainability Talk & News website, published 1 November, 2012.

HaightThe crossroads where local communities and construction meet is the domain of CSR and multi-stakeholder engagement. Historically, companies in the building sector have mostly been seen as waiting at the lights on site, then moving on at project completion. Given the current economic drivers, this approach must change. What can Construction do to make a real difference to communities and leave a positive legacy? In return, what is in it for the industry?

Whilst a building project is on site, short-term benefits to the neighbouring community, in terms of spikes in local employment and trade, are visible and measurable. However, for these to be considered sustainable and described as investment, rather than just a temporary cash injection, there needs to be a positive ongoing legacy that contributes to a transformative and regenerative process. It seems a big ask, but how can Construction make a difference that lasts?

The answer is remarkably simple: Jobs. Jobs and skills are the ticket to a better life for many marginalised by mainstream society, such as the long-term unemployed, homeless and vulnerable, ex-offenders, plus school-leavers and young persons without experience.

Construction companies and their supply chains, as vocational training providers and employers of apprentices in trades such as carpentry, bricklaying, painting and decorating, are in an almost unique position to support and promote sustainable employment amongst exactly those groups in greatest need. Delivery is also often targeted precisely where demand is most acute, as much construction activity takes place on sites in urban areas, within inner-city wards, amongst disadvantaged communities.

Given this context, potential benefits to the local economy are multiple: Employment and upskilling opportunities for individuals; subcontractor and supplier work for SMEs; plus, a boost in trade and spend, both directly around the site and indirectly as a knock-on effect of associated income growth.

An essential feature of community engagement and investment is that, by definition, it cannot be undertaken alone. Companies typically pursue partnerships with non-profit organisations and government agencies, third-sector, community, charitable and voluntary groups to provide opportunities for people and places. Partners range from those directly in employment and training fields, such as JobcentrePlus and ConstructionSkills, through national initiatives including Business in the Community, The Prince’s Trust and Big Lottery Fund, to local authorities, schools and colleges.

A local, diverse supply chain supports equality of opportunity and protection of human rights, making construction companies potential candidates for sign-up to the Social Mobility Business Compact launched by the government last December. A ripple effect of success for local job and training candidates also helps raise aspirations in communities and schools, enhancing public perception of the building industry as a whole.

Often under the umbrella of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy, individual companies are already doing many good things in neighbourhoods up and down the country. Return on Investment (RoI) is not always easy to calculate, however, as metrics for social sustainability are typically less well understood and used than those for measurement of environmental impacts, either positive or negative.

Whilst donation of goods and provision of in-kind services, employee time, volunteering, fundraising, charitable giving and support are all welcome benefits to communities, the win-win opportunity for construction and communities in connection with jobs and skills appears of a different order and significance at present. The potential RoI is clear.

Whilst the national economy continues to struggle, the latest government surveys and statistics for the construction sector make for particularly grim reading. Even with the Green Deal arriving on the scene, the total number of UK workforce jobs in the industry has fallen below two million.

Construction needs growth, communities need growth – the two need each other now perhaps more than ever. For social sustainability, it is time for Construction to move beyond a mindset that targets mere compliance and to get creative with opportunities for community engagement and self-promotion.

No industry is better placed than Construction to fire up engines for growth at local level and to create micro-economies within communities. The job is vital, for all concerned.

To view the original article in full on STN, a Carillion PLC initiative, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland