• Cities are the engine rooms of global prosperity, but they must be properly managed.

• The trend towards ESG investments will impact urban infrastructure.

• A strong regulatory environment is needed for responsible urban development.

Over the past 150 years, a hugely significant change in the organization of human affairs has occurred. Where once we were a predominantly rural species, over half of the world’s population now lives and works in urban areas. Projections suggest this will rise to roughly two-thirds by 2050.

Urbanization is the process by which humans have come together in towns and cities to pool material and cognitive resources. It has delivered huge scale and network benefits, and helped us to address a range of shared challenges. But its effects are not exclusively beneficial: Cities consume 75% of the world’s natural resources and account for 80% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

As well as climate change, to which urbanization has a causal relationship, the COVID-19 pandemic provides further reminder that our relationship with the natural world cannot be taken for granted. Wherever the virus has taken hold, it has highlighted, and in many cases compounded, existing disparities.

How can we ensure that, in resolving the immediate tensions between economic and epidemiological recovery, we build an urbanized world that delivers better outcomes for people and the planet? Here are four principles that can form the blueprint for a cleaner, greener and more inclusive built environment:

1. Redefining value for social good

In recent years, interest in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria has surged. It is noteworthy that one of the few constants through this severely disrupted year has been the overperformance of ESG-linked stocks. This is, at least in part, being driven by citizen and consumer activism on social and environmental issues. The growing appetite for ethically sound investments, designed to deliver sustainable growth across economies must be encouraged.

In the infrastructure sector, the practice of benchmarking social value, rather than pure commercial performance, is gaining traction. Take the example of the A303 road improvement scheme in the UK. The original, and cheapest, proposal was that the road should cut through historic features of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. A survey conducted by Highways England, the national roads authority, found taxpayers supported additional project spending up to £1.4 billion on measures to preserve the site’s integrity. Similarly, in Hong Kong, a study has found popular support for additional investment in “greening” the city’s buildings, even if costs are ultimately passed on to residents. Interventions to reduce noise pollution, energy consumption and water waste, and improve air quality were deemed money well spent by low- and high-income groups alike.

We must ensure that this does not mark the high point for ESG before a return to business as usual. By embracing this newly emerging social consensus and ensuring that it is reflected in day-to-day business operations, we can effect permanent, positive change.

Regulation will be vital if Europe is to achieve its vision of fully sustainable cities
Regulation will be vital if Europe is to achieve its vision of fully sustainable cities
Image: European Commission

2. Standards as a vehicle for responsible growth

Having committed to ESG criteria, we need practical frameworks that can put them into practice. Here, regulatory metrics will be critical. Respected international standards have a vital role to play in enabling meaningful and measurable social impact across the built environment.

For example, the work of the International Construction Measurement Standards (ICMS) Coalition has enabled more transparent and consistent reporting of life-cycle costs in projects across jurisdictions. Better understanding of performance informs investment decisions, leading to the more reliable supply of high-quality housing and infrastructure where it is needed most.

Another example of how collaborative standards can deliver better social and environmental outcomes is the EU taxonomy on sustainable investment. Incorporating the International Property Measurement Standards (IPMS), this initiative creates a common language between companies and investors to enable better targeting of capital towards green projects.

The European Union is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. It is estimated that 95% of Europe’s existing building stock will still be in use by that time. Three-quarters of the continent’s buildings are currently rated energy-inefficient, but only 1% undergo energy-efficiency retrofitting each year. The bloc’s “Renovation Wave” initiative, designed to address this issue and create 160,000 new jobs, will require the deployment of vast sums of private capital if it is to succeed. Without technical screening criteria for the buildings sector contained within the EU taxonomy, such levels of investment would be beyond the realms of plausibility. This spirit of collaboration between practitioners, international bodies and governments should underpin all future action to “green” our built environment.

3. Diverse user- and community needs at the heart of projects

Whatever the specifics of our present challenges, the durability of our solutions will depend not only on technical expertise, but public trust. This applies as much to the design and pre-construction phases of building life-cycles as it does in-use performance. It is instructive here to observe the integral part played in the pandemic response by facility management professionals.

Over the year, they have done much to preserve user welfare, asset security and core operations in commercial real estate assets. This, it may well be said, is their day job – even under such unprecedented circumstances. But the advent of mass-remote working precipitated by the lockdown has required them to go further and reach into their colleagues’ domestic space. As the line between workplace and home has blurred, the importance of tact, sensitivity and discretion has been heavily underlined. The profession has responded admirably.

The ways in which we interact with buildings, both commercial and residential is changing. Our ability to record the dynamics and effects of these changes will be the foundation on which we build future resilience in the built environment. Leaders can help embed crucial end-user perspectives in their decision-making processes by promoting greater inclusion of facilities management perspectives in strategic forums.

4. Realizing the transformative power of technology and data

No doubt we all have our own experiences of how technology has helped support productivity during the lockdowns. The most recent RICS survey confirms the extent to which the pandemic has sped the adoption of new, tech-led ways of working in our sector. However, we have a long way to go in realizing the full value of technology and data for improving performance and enhancing user experience.

Common data environments will be essential here. They provide greater transparency as to ongoing project and asset performance, enabling more timely and effective operational interventions, and richer data sets on which to base valuations. But technology itself is not enough, and new tech brings new risks. We cannot navigate this new digital landscape without skilled, confident and credentialed professionals, and a rigorous suite of standards in widespread use.

Technology can be a vital asset in building commercial confidence and wider societal trust. Without the right people and policies, it will have the opposite effect.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to support the Future of Real Estate?

While investable real estate has grown by more than 55% since 2012 (PwC), the COVID-19 crisis has underscored weaknesses in relation to human and planetary health along with drastic inequalities, leaving a stark reminder of the influence the built environment has on societies and the vulnerabilities that exist in times of crisis regarding how spaces perform.

Image: PwC

As the real estate industry looks towards recovery, the need for transformation is clear. Portfolios must be rebalanced, and distressed assets repurposed. Technology must be fully embraced, and sustainability and wellness must be at the core of design and operation. The affordable housing crisis that already existed pre COVID-19 must be systemically approached to ensure access to adequate and affordable housing. If the Real Estate industry is to deliver transformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that policy, financing and business solutions are aligned in delivering better buildings and cities.

The World Economic Forum has brought together CEOs from the Real Estate industry to develop a Framework for the Future of Real Estate to help drive the industry’s transition to a healthier, more affordable, resilient and sustainable world.

COVID-19 has not changed the long-term trend towards urbanization. Cities remain engine rooms of global prosperity, theatres of shared and individual experience, and laboratories of experimentation and innovation. As such, we can be sure that any failure to manage the expanding urban realm will have consequences for an ever-larger cohort of people. I do not presume to write a fail-safe prescription for success; the above certainly does not represent the sum total of actions required. Nonetheless, anyone wishing to make a meaningful and sustainable difference in the built environment must ensure that these four principles number high among their priorities.