If sustainable development still pertains to meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (as stipulated in the 1987 Brundtland Report), then one wonders why after so many years this remains but a hopeful aspiration at best. Despite all the well-meaning efforts made in the recent past to this end, the young generation has taken to the streets to voice its concern about business as usual and the future fate of the planet as a commons to be sustained for all.
Their message is loud and clear: truly sustainable development on a world scale is long overdue. Whether in Africa, Australia, Asia, the Americas, or Europe, pupils and students have demanded responsible deeds in place of conciliatory rhetoric. High-minded ambitions must be met with measurable results assessed for their overall, long-term impact. In so many words, the next generation is on the ball.
Sustainable Development Goals
These young, pro-planet activists are not alone. Their efforts to mobilize collective response to environmental degradation and social inequality, as a matter of fact, not only revives similar appeals from the past like those heard in New York in 1970 for the first Earth Day, Stockholm in 1972, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, or Kyoto in 1997. Their demands just as well align with the more recent directives formulated by the United Nations as binding target objectives to be achieved by all countries by 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This universal call for action was ratified just prior to the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 via intricate and often conflictual multilateral negotiations, yielding in the process a new spatial and social contract of the world community. The interrelated goals, addressing a range of social, economic, and ecological imperatives, all bear on the future course of environment making, that is, on how the inhabitable realm of the planet is conceived, constructed, and collectively managed as a shared habitat.
Building sustainable environments
Considering the global extent of urbanization today, not to mention the resource-intensive ways of life that come with it, the built environment figures prominently as a leading driver of man-made alterations to the Earth's ecosystems. Accordingly, to alter our increasingly destructive impact on the world habitat would mean to alter our world-forming practices, beginning with those directly associated with making buildings, cities, landscapes, as well as the infrastructure networks connecting them.
This call for change – heard now around the globe – would go as well for those industries servicing the project of development. Such an operative transformation is all the more urgent given the rather inordinate amount of resources used to produce, maintain, and decommission the physical fabric of lived environments, now estimated to consume just short of 50% of all available water, material, and energy supplies, while also generating nearly 50% of the total of greenhouse emissions and waste output.
“Target issues” for sustainable construction
To change how things go is what is really at stake with regard to sustainable development and there is no luxury of time to do so. Taking this challenge as its core mission, the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction was established in the early 2000s to bring about a systemic transformation of the construction sector by opening it to multidisciplinary debate on how best to innovate in the most pragmatic of ways. And the changes targeted are meant to be across the board, ranging from research and policy to design and implementation.
The Foundation and its associated universities have therefore identified a set of “target issues” – not unlike the SDGs but more industry-specific – to reorient constituent practices toward modes of development that are sustainable in real social, economic, and ecological terms, are viable at local and global scales, and work to the lasting benefit of all current stakeholders and generations to come.
Marc Angélil is an Architect and Professor of Architecture & Design, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). He is a member of the Board of the LafargeHolcim Foundation and Head of the Academic Committee. Cary Siress is a Senior Researcher in Territorial Organization at the Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC) Future Cities Laboratory, based in Singapore.