Grow - A One Planet Community on Bainbridge Island

If we focus on the Outcomes we want, we cut through a huge amount of complexity.

I am continually astounded by how unnecessarily complicated we make things!

I have had the privilege of leading the creation of sustainability strategies for some of the world’s best examples of ‘One Planet’ real estate developments – from One Brighton and Villages Nature Paris to Singita Serengeti. There were great developers, designers, architects, engineers and sociologists working on the projects. My only trick to get the best out of them was to constantly ask them to focus on the outcomes we wanted to achieve. I did this by asking a very simple question:

 ‘How can we make this a better place for people to live/work/play [delete as necessary] at the same time as reducing ecological footprint?’. 

The meta outcome was always One Planet Living® creating places, products or services which can help people lead happy and healthy lives within the resources available on our one planet. Simple.

The challenge was always with engineers, architects and sustainability consultants who, without really giving any space to thinking about outcomes, would jump to which certification system and what level to achieve –  LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum, or BREEAM Very Good, Excellent, Outstanding or perhaps going beyond to BREEAM Awesome 😉.

I have nothing against certification systems. They absolutely have their place, but they are not where you want to start to design, build or operate a great building or community – unless you want to tick boxes and get an industry-friendly pat on the back. Likewise, government regulations and policies, all have their place, but they too are not good places to start, especially if you start with targets – for example for energy efficiency. Consultants and designers have had the creativity sucked out them and now many are unable to think beyond ticking boxes. My only goal was to open the cage door and free them. Some took the opportunity immediately, relieved. Others needed gentle coaxing out. Others looked at the open cage door, perplexed.

I don’t understand how anyone designs to standards. We should design for Outcomes and use standards as a check that we are not missing something.

Take this simple example. You are asked to lead a process to design a zero carbon development. Don’t. This a terrible starting point!   We (or the engineers really!) dive into the detail of how to design the buildings to be energy efficient and what renewables we can use. They then get stuck arguing about the definition of Zero Carbon and come up with concepts only really of esoteric interest – such as Net Zero Carbon, Allowable Solutions and Offsetting. They might follow rigid guidance from some organisation or try to tick some boxes in a certification system. Making it a great place to live/work/play [delete as applicable] is reverse engineered to fit the Zero Carbon definition. It usually ends up expensive and then the horse-trading and value engineering starts. Joyless.

The same might go for reducing transport emissions. We might start with a local government target to reduce transport emissions by 20% over some benchmark. We focus on the target, tinker around the edges and don’t focus on the great green lifestyle we might support – we have to retrofit the opportunity to create fantastic public spaces if we remove cars, the better air quality, the chance to hear bird song, to have amenities in walking distance and the chance to improve our health with cycle paths.


Please don’t start with targets. It diverts you from what is important. 

Targets will lead you down tangled rabbit holes. Only the nerds will understand what you are trying to achieve. You will come up with some compromised solution and a product which is hard to sell.

We have been tying ourselves in knots. The world has moved far too far into standards, compliance and policy as levers for driving sustainability. It is a bad thing. It leaves no space for us to think and do the right thing. The world is too complex and too dynamic for us to be prescriptive. There is definitely a place for thoughtful and elegant standards, policies and regulation, but we will never achieve excellence or sustainability through it.

So my simple advice: spend a bit of time and think about the outcomes. When you are clear about what you want to achieve, things emerge with a clarity which is surprising and joyful.

Because life is complicated enough 😉