Collaborative and strategic system-wide analysis and action is required if we are to improve the built environment, says Maria Smith

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The built environment is not a big, well-oiled carbon-emitting machine that we can just turn the dial down on. We are dealing with a complex system with a fragmented value chain that spans many industries, government departments, regulations and areas of concern and influence.

Critical to action on the built environment, then, is systems thinking. This means thinking beyond the actions and roles of each person, group or business and instead considering how we are configured as a sector and the ways that we all influence and impact each other.

Understanding the challenge in this way enables us to change faster, more fairly, and with fewer unintended consequences. Making change based on this understanding requires collaborative and strategic system-wide analysis and action.

Maybe this sounds overwhelming, but it also suggests a very simple answer to an important question: what can I do to make a difference? The answer is to work together: join groups that are working across businesses, across disciplines, and across sectors. If there isn’t a group, start one.

Then work together to understand the drivers and barriers at play and how to overcome them by changing the way we work with each other across businesses, across disciplines, and across sectors, towards a common goal.

Recognising the built environment as a system is the first principle in Built for the Environment, a report written by Buro Happold for the RIBA and Architects Declare that makes recommendations to governments ahead of COP26. The report has been endorsed by C40 Cities, the Global Alliance of Buildings and Construction, the World Green Building Council and others.

We are now looking for endorsements from across the global built environment industry. If your organisation supports the recommendations made in the report, please endorse it here.

Maria Smith is a director at Buro Happold


Ideas for positive change


This is part of our Countdown to COP26 coverage in the lead up to the world climate conference in Glasgow in November. We will be publishing more big ideas about ways to tackle the climate emergency over the coming weeks and you can find more here.

Do please send us your own thoughts about how to make construction greener! Email us, using the subject line “COP26 ideas”, at