What is holding our industry back from making the critical changes needed to decarbonise? The kind of durable, dramatic, systemic change that acknowledges the significant role we play as protagonists in the climate crisis and makes amends for our responsibility in creating it.

Basil Demeroutis

Basil Demeroutis

Our system is broken. Despite all the moral certitude and hard clinical data, we have not materially adapted our ways of working. Can it be that business as usual is more powerful than business as a force for good?

After spending an evening with senior executives across a wide cross section of the property space discussing how they can be agents of change in an intransigent system, it struck me that three things are holding us back.

First, we play on a field cratered with tensions that we find difficult to navigate. To be a pioneer or be blamed for risk taking. To do the simple or the complex. To be practical or irrational. To make money versus doing the right thing. To focus on legacy – which implies a degree of permanence – in a world demanding change.

These tensions require reconciling, but they are not as binary as they would appear. They are neither some sort of Hobson’s choice, nor unresolvable stalemates. We generally know what path is correct. Often characterised by ‘and’ not ‘or’.

Second, true transformation is being held back by a tyranny of incrementalism. We are convinced simultaneously that things are getting better just fast enough, and are getting worse just slow enough; that no further action is required. In both cases, desensitising us to the now near-inevitable outcome that is too existential and too raw to contemplate.

This invisible force prevents us from taking anything more than baby steps towards climate solutions. Small steps make us individually feel just good enough to say that we are doing what we can. Rather, we should do what we must.

This no longer meets the threshold of credibility. Just good enough: we are creating some low-carbon buildings. Reality: we are retrofitting and building new around 1.5% of office stock per year, on track to miss the 50% carbon reduction target set for 2030, just seven years away, by lightyears.

Not bad enough: the arctic ice cap is melting at almost imperceptible levels, our cities are not drowning under rising seas overnight, temperatures are fluctuating within imperceptible bounds. Reality: by 2050, nearly one billion people will live in cities where sea levels are half a metre higher or more, and temperatures will routinely hit 40°C in almost every capital city globally.

So a failure of intelligence to reconcile incontrovertible tensions; a failure of imagination to step outside the tyranny of incrementalism. And third and finally, a failure of leadership to do what is so obviously, urgently, necessary.

Leadership is not taking people to a democratically agreed goal, or just helping teams be the best they can be, or simply facilitating personal fulfilment aligned with your employees’ and stakeholders’ needs and wants. It is taking them to a destination they did not even know existed. A place they did not know they wanted to get to. That is leadership.

We do not need leadership – and followership – in our industry. We need bold, radical leadership. ‘Radical’ is scary word, implying activists who glue themselves to inconvenient places and cause social disruption to make a point. It is none of those.

Radical leadership is a willingness to take calculated risks, often significant, personal and professional, with a genuine chance of failure. In the service of saying and doing the necessary things that few have the courage to say and do. Not just at the C-level, but at every level.

Risk. What are you willing to risk to do what you unequivocally know is right? This is leadership, and that is what our industry is sorely lacking.

Basil Demeroutis is managing partner at FORE Partnership