Today is the first day of World SB08, known in full as the World Sustainable Building Conference. Some 2000 architects, builders, thinkers, planners and policy makers are here in Melbourne, Australia to exchange ideas about how to make the planet’s built environment more sustainable.

Presentations kicked off this morning with two of Australia’s politicians setting the theme for the event by challenging the use of the word ‘green’. Peter Garrett, Australia’s Minister for the Environment, immediately shifted the day’s thinking away from traditional perceptions of energy efficiency as being the key ingredient of sustainable building. He praised the State of Victoria’s advertising strategy of showing black balloons to represent carbon emissions.

Then his Victoria counterpart, Gavin Jennings, State of Victoria’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, followed up by quoting the event’s theme of connected, livable and asking ‘what will follow green?’

Germany’s Prof. Thomas Luetzkendorf, Chair of Sustainable Management of Housing and Real Estate at the University of Karlsruhe, offered the answer by saying that green was not enough as it represented just the environment. Perhaps we should add red for the economic factor, yellow for social, blue for functional and black for technical, he suggested. I thought black was for carbon. Oh well, so confusing…

Professor Luetzkendorf did jumpstart the ‘change’ conversation, however, with his timely and effective focus on market transformation, the ‘new economics’ and an as yet empty slide called ‘terra incognita’.

Dr. Greg Foliente, Senior Science Leader, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, ratcheted up questioning of sustainability with his description of it as ‘an aspirational goal’ whose meaning and scope is not often shared by different stakeholders.

He suggested we switch to making it a ‘measurable goal’, which might be more useful for marketing. And in the world of marketing sustainability, our thinking certainly needs a shake up. Tom Roper, a board member of the Climate Change Institute in Washington, DC, told about how the city of Sao Paolo in Brazil is planning to use Madonna to support its mission of reducing the temperature of the city by 1 degree.

Many speakers today tried to give the world a wake-up call. No-one did it better than two very powerful presenters, Professor Bill Rees of the British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning, Canada, and Susan Roaf, Professor of Architectural Engineering, Heriot Watt University, UK.

Roper asked the audience ‘what if the scientists have got it right?’ He made it clear that they have and quoted philosopher Martin Heidegger, ‘man today is in flight from thinking’ to support his plea for everyone to accelerate action to do more to fight climate change. He challenged everyone’s easy descriptions of their best building projects as ‘sustainable’ and said nothing is sustainable if the system containing it is unsustainable.

Roaf predicted the chaos that will ensue, not might ensue, as the world warms up by one degree, then two, then three. During the first two degrees of temperature increase, she said that there would be an atmosphere of denial, hubris where there should be leadership, and a growing social time bomb.

After three degrees, she warned that radical adaptation would be needed, with emergency responses needed to deal with climate refugees, civil unrest, escalating scarcity of resources and many new government intrusions into society, reminiscent of her native UK during the Second World War.

The wake-up calls in the conference auditorium seemed a long way from the commercial realities of the exhibit hall next door. But many conversations included admissions of feeling that we are facing a paradigm shift. Many of the fifty exhibitors had probably missed the dire warnings from the podium and went about ‘business as usual’.

And that meant using the ‘green’ word as much as possible to describe their various products and panaceas. Here’s the word count for the headline words they used:

  • Sustainability: 19
  • Green: 15
  • Energy efficient: 10
  • Environment: 6
  • Other: 8

Numbers don’t add up to 50 because some exhibitors hedged their bets. The bet-hedging winners, three of them, reduced their odds against effective communications by claiming their offerings were energy efficient, green and sustainable.

Prize for the best marketing challenge or theme has to go to a coalition of clay brick and tile manufacturers who feature a 12-foot plus headline: ‘When it comes to sustainable building, what’s more important? A; Energy Efficiency. B: Health, Comfort and Safety. Everyone knows that energy efficiency is an important aspect of sustainable buildings. However, is it really more important than ‘human’ factors like health, comfort and safety? If we have to sacrifice one for the other, what should it be?

Touch-screen voting allowed prospects to enter their choice and find out the latest scores. (Latest is 60% for B).

Great prospect engagement. Spoiled a bit by a handout bag with the words ‘Clay is green and comes in all colours’. See www.tiles-bricks.eu

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