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There is no shortage of bright people and ingenuity – Simon Upton

Interview in Foundations 21

Since its inception, the Board of the LafargeHolcim Foundation has greatly benefited from the membership of Rt Hon Simon Upton. He is now stepping down – mainly because he wants to focus on his new role as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in New Zealand. In this conversation, he looks back on how the Foundation has developed over the years.

Simon Upton is one of the original members of the LafargeHolcim Foundation. He took a seat on the Board when it was initially formed in 2004. Over the years, the Board has benefited particularly from his wealth of political experience, as Simon Upton served as parliamentarian and minister in his home country. He is now giving up his function at the Foundation in order to devote himself to a new challenge in his homeland. With Simon Upton’s departure, the LafargeHolcim Foundation is losing a modern polymath who holds degrees in English literature, music, and law from the University of Auckland and a Master of Letters (MLitt) in Political Philosophy from the University of Oxford. Although he is departing, the New Zealander will continue to be associated with the Foundation in the future.

Simon Upton, you have been directly involved in the activities of the LafargeHolcim Foundation for the past 13 years. How has the Foundation changed during that time?

Simon Upton: It hasn’t so much changed as it has deepened. It was a concept at the start, and people had to define it as they went along. Every time there was an event – whether it was a Forum or an Awards ceremony or another event – there was also a process of reflection: This was good, this didn’t go so well, so let’s change it. So although the overall format has always remained the same, we haven’t always done everything in the same way. Let’s take the Forum 2019 in Cairo: The way it’s being put together now is much better than anything we’ve previously done. So the change has been the process of learning how to run these events and make them more valuable each time.

That means you are leaving the Foundation at its most interesting point!

It’s always been interesting! It’s just that we’re getting better at what we’re doing. And besides, everybody has to move on at some stage. I’ve been here for a long time; now it’s time for a different responsibility. But the Foundation will remain. Had you asked at its beginning whether it would be around in three years’ time, you would have had to say: Well, we’ll see… Now it has earned some real credibility, which LafargeHolcim as funding entity can be very proud of.

What were the greatest challenges in the field of sustainable construction during your years at the Foundation?

I’m not a construction expert, I’m in sustainability and environment, so I couldn’t answer this question – but I do know how the debate has changed. The Forums, for example, have covered a wide range of issues. So it’s not as if there was only one strand of discussion that we had to follow. We’ve looked at the economics of things, we’ve looked at infrastructure, and the next theme is going to be circular economy and dematerialization issues.

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Since the start of the Foundation, the world’s perception of sustainability has certainly changed – sustainability has become common sense. Is the LafargeHolcim Foundation still needed?

Construction – the making of the fabric of our civilization – is one of the biggest activities we undertake. We feed ourselves, we move ourselves around, and we house ourselves. There are vast amounts of construction required for providing moving and housing. On a global level, the construction industry is still putting huge pressure on the environment.

Although we’ve learned a lot and are still learning a lot, there is still a vast amount to be done. For example, we still have prices for key raw materials that simply don’t reflect the environmental impact. We do not price things in a way that reflects the scarcity of our environmental assets that we should try to protect. So there is still much to be done. The Foundation has developed a very coherent, rigorous, and disciplined way of taking apart elements of this massive jigsaw and really shining a light on them.

What have you learned through your work for the Foundation?

I learned a huge amount, because I don’t come from a construction background. So every event, every Forum, every set of prizewinners was a revelation to me that there are people doing things differently and in ways I wasn’t aware of. What you need to bear in mind is that public policy is always extremely conservative. The things governments do are based on a very cautious view of what’s possible in this world. Politicians are an extremely cautious folk! They usually have no idea that there are ingenious, very clever people out there in engineering, chemistry and such who have already seen that you could go much further.

What I’ve learned is that there are far more opportunities, far more things that we could be doing and that people are doing. And the Foundation is a very good way of bringing those people together and giving them profile. There’s no shortage of bright people and ingenuity, but it’s difficult for those people to break through. So I think the catalytic role of the Foundation is really important.

Will you remain associated with the Foundation in the future?

I hope so! I’m hoping I can get away from work to attend the next Forum in Cairo, for instance. And I definitely want to be copied in on all the activities of the Foundation.

What are your most vivid memories from your Foundation years?

I was in Mumbai, I was in Detroit, and both events stick out in my mind. I’ve met some extraordinary people and seen extraordinary things. But of course people like special memories! Okay, it’s a little unfair because it’s the most recent, but: The sheer surreality of Detroit really sticks out in my mind. We were driving to see certain sights. Looking out while on the motorway, there were streets where all of the asphalt had broken up; the houses – if they existed – were burnt up or a wreck. It was a gray day, snow fell, and it felt really surreal. And suddenly I saw a house that was still there, two four-wheel drives, a flag flying – and you had the impression that those people are hanging on! And on the other end of the scale, we were in this big building, looking down at the city. And what was the main industry in the city of Detroit? Casinos! It could not have been further from any conception of sustainability.

What are your wishes for the Foundation in the future?

It’s probably a complacent view, but I hope the Foundation just goes on doing what it’s been doing, and that is: being a platform for innovation, a source of interconnection for different communities and academia. And I hope it goes on running the Forums because they are choosing excellent cross-cutting topics. What’s been really good is that the Foundation is not just a place for architects and engineers to talk to one another. The people who come to these meetings are cutting across different communities. You’ve got economists, environmentalists, sociologists, anthropologists, engineers, and architects coming together. And in this world we’re living in, which is highly interconnected and under systemic stress, you have to have all of those communities coming together. The Foundation needs to keep on doing that!

Interview: Marius Leutenegger

 

A09GLsihandover05x.jpgBack to New Zealand

In October 2017 Simon Upton was appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in his homeland New Zealand. The Commissioner is one of three officers of Parliament who are independent of the executive and who may review activities of the executive government and report directly to Parliament. The primary objective of the office is to contribute to maintaining and improving the quality of the environment through advice given to Parliament, local councils, business, communities, public agencies, and the Maori people, the original inhabitants of New Zealand.

The Commissioner may, among other things, investigate any matter where the environment may be or has been adversely affected, and assess the capability, performance, and effectiveness of the New Zealand system of environmental management. The office of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was introduced in 1987. Simon Upton is the fourth person to hold this office.

Last Updated: December 15, 2017
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