Writing from Soweto, the RIBA president reflects on how old ideological struggles have given way to an even more daunting battle with poverty and ecological collapse
Soweto. The name IS synonymous with suffering that conjures up images of dreadful conflict: brutal armed police, rioting hordes and the terrible sight of burning rubber tyres draped around the necks of "traitors", some so pitifully young.

That was then, but because there has been scant media interest in the new Soweto, the old memories will continue to dominate unless, like me, you visit in the aftermath of apartheid.

Soweto on a Saturday evening: a bustling, lively township. Poor, yes; problems, yes. But a real dignity now shines strong – a dignity born of hope, ambition and the right to self-determination.

We park. "Don't go there," we were warned, but I see no danger. We walk along dark and busy roads – few cars, many people – into a restaurant. Whites sit among blacks, some coloureds, a few Asians – terms and distinctions still in common currency, but now within the context of a new-found mutual respect, a respect enshrined in the exemplary post-apartheid constitution.

Richard Branson's portrait hangs on the wall. Once politicians and celebrities came but now, increasingly, it's the likes of me – no celebrity trip this, instead, a brief pilgrimage in search of peace with my past. Were we right, those of us who met so persistently in Bloomsbury haunts back in 1975 to plan the RIBA's campaign against apartheid? Young minds and old: Cedric Price, Walter Haine, John Smith, Fitzroy Poniah and others.

Or should we have listened to Glen Gallagher and colleagues of the South African Institute of Architects – itself never an apartheid organisation – who begged for continued support as they struggled in ever-increasing isolation?

Either way, despite best intentions, relationships were severed. Since then we've witnessed extraordinary changes: Nelson Mandela's freedom, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and at last a growing awareness of a "global" world.

And today, what would once have been unthinkable, Johannesburg hosts the earth summit. But where lies hope at the dawn of the new century? What chance in a world of such contrast and conflict, where floods rage, fires burn and ice melts with a relentless persistence that signals the drastic damage to our world's ecosystems?

We are the first generation to knowingly hand this planet to our children in a worse condition than we inherited it. From here on, the buck stops with us

Hope lies in ecologically responsible design, now on the agenda of all major building projects. It lies in organisations like GABS – the Global Alliance for Building Sustainability – and the RICS Foundation, which set up the Johannesburg conference to focus on the city and building agendas in parallel with the earth summit.

Hope lies in people like David Fitzpatrick and Alan Gilham who work so tirelessly to expand GABS as a think-tank and pressure group that will engage all involved in buildings and city planning, from those who supply and construct, to those who manage facilities, invest and audit operations. Yes, accountant PricewaterhouseCoopers was there, but so was Karen Karby of Swiss Re, John Goodall of the Confederation of International Contractors, services engineers Alan Knight and Andrew Ford, transport guru Tony Ridley, president of the Royal Institute for Town Planning, Michael Haslam and many others from around the world. GABS is not just about design – it's about managing buildings in an ecologically responsible way, about education and the exchange of ideas, about research and shaping policy.

Always so loyal to this cause, environment minister Michael Meacher gave a great talk and took our message straight back to the main summit. Brilliant presentations included contributions by Miss Peace Nganwa of KMPG, research architect Chrisna du Plessis and London's very own Nicky Gavron.

Clearly, if the world is to find a way towards a sustainable future, Clare Short has been right all along: the issues are poverty, Aids and education. Those in the developing countries who, through the misery of denial, have no greater horizon than tomorrow must be helped by a "first world" otherwise intoxicated by self-interest, whose breadth of vision rarely expands beyond today.

Think about it. We are the first generation to knowingly hand this planet to our children in a worse condition than we inherited it. From here on, the buck stops with us.

So, at a time when our socioeconomic and political systems are simply too crude to respond effectively, our politicians need help. And this is not the time to become bogged down in turf wars: the RICS president is wrong to suggest that only his institute "can speak for construction and the wider property industry at a global level". Rather, we must all work together to pursue the better future that carbon-neutral development and renewable energy sources can deliver.

But that future can only be delivered by informed electorates who demand appropriate legislation and regulation at the national and international level; by informed consumers who force industry and commerce to operate from buildings that meet the sustainability agenda; and by an intelligent construction and development industry that, through research, can both offer and deliver that better environment.