‘Prosperity beyond profit’ to boost sustainability

21 June 2022

Victorian Chamber Chief Executive Paul Guerra, Ainsley Simpson, Claire Ferres Miles, Journalist and MC Jacqui Felgate, John Batten, Victorian Chamber President Karyn Sobels, Rob Adams

Sustainability is as much about better utilising existing assets and people as it is implementing major change.

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That was the message to an audience of more than 150 people at the Victorian Chamber’s Sustainability event, focused on a Sustainable Cities Index (SCI) published by leading global design firm Arcadis.

Since 2015, Arcadis has published the SCI based on data prepared by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, benchmarking the performance of 100 cities across the globe.

This year’s theme of ‘prosperity beyond profit’ measured 51 metrics and 26 indicators across three pillars of planet, people and profit.

Melbourne ranked 60th behind Sydney on 33 and just above Brisbane on 64.

Arcadis Global Cities Director John Batten, a New York-based thought leader in urban sustainability, analysed the SCI’s findings as they related to Melbourne, explaining the result was influenced by Melbourne’s lack of affordability, sustainability efforts such as vehicle electrification, and urban transport around bike infrastructure and walkability. While there wasn’t one “glaring factor”, Sydney ranked higher in transport and infrastructure.

Mr Batten and three accompanying panellists then identified their key themes for sustainability, including: better utilising existing infrastructure, focusing on staff retention through sustainable work practices, ‘commuting with intent’, and connectivity not based around cars.

Panel discussion

Mr Batten observed Australia’s recent Federal Election was partly a climate referendum and on transitioning to renewable energy and the hydrogen market, for which there’s a “favourable opportunity” locally.

On affordability, cities such as Melbourne largely house service workers who can work remotely, while those who cannot, such as essential workers “are being priced out”. He backs social inequality measures such as social housing quotas for developers.

One of Mr Batten’s key sustainability rules was to “commute with intent” – travelling to work only if there is a reason to. As Arcadis adheres to a net zero by 2035 policy, his own business travel is scrutinised and offset for the carbon his movements consume.

Mr Batten said Melbourne can build on an otherwise a favourable reputation globally but must challenge itself on densification and climate change. He points to Amsterdam as a city to aspire to that is addressing homelessness, legalisation, renewable energy and sustainable transport to become a more compelling place to do business post-Brexit.

Of the other panellists, architect and urban designer Rob Adams joined the City of Melbourne in 1985 and has led the rejuvenation of central Melbourne.

His main takeaway was to stop focusing on expansion and thinking “we must build infrastructure like extra roads”. Instead, we should “be more efficient” with existing infrastructure like hospitals, IT, public transport and local energy storage to better support densification, which doesn’t have to be “a swear word in Australian planning”.

For example, running a car can cost over $20,000 a year, and with 48 per cent of City of Melbourne residents not having a car, they save money that “people on the fringe haven’t got”. “The least efficient way to use road is a car,” he added. Therefore, supporting ‘people infrastructure’ and affordable housing for key workers would benefit the city.

He was also a proponent of the focus on multiple urban centres, noting COVID-19 pushed the focus away from one central CBD to multiple CBD-like activity centres in the suburbs.

Ainsley Simpson joined the Infrastructure Sustainability Council in May 2016, working across the infrastructure industry to advance sustainable outcomes.

Her advice for business was to “listen to employees and provide what they need”, particularly around flexible working, pay equality and skills development. Sustainability and affordable housing will also be drivers of talent, she said.

She emphasised tying “government funding to outcomes” through sustainable procurement, using London’s example of implementing minimum 20 per cent affordable housing in new developments and other initiatives around shared equity, rental models, or discounts for workers or older people or people with disabilities.

“How do you know if an initiative is the right one to back?” she asked.

“You use the short-termism test. If it’s convenient and comfortable, you’re probably making a really short-term decision.

“When you are uncomfortable and you need to be brave, that’s when you’re going to make change. Short-term delivers quantity outcomes, long-term delivers quality outcomes.”

Claire Ferres Miles has held executive roles in the Victorian Government, local government, Transport for London, and the private sector.

She believes other cities benefit from deeper respect between governments, the private sector and the community.

She advocated for “large scale renewable projects having community ownership”, with the community, or ‘energy citizens’, as investors.

This would require Australia to move away from its recent adversarial relationship with sustainability.

“Can business afford sustainability? My answer is how can you afford not to?” Ms Ferres Miles asked.

“When you look at the energy crisis we have at the moment, your utility costs and the costs of energy – what would it mean for your business if you had security of energy prices, security of energy supply, and if that was renewable?

“I don’t think we’re that good on waste management. Looking at your business supply chains, there is waste across every supply chain. Waste equals money.

“[Sustainability] will increase your profitability and that’s also good for the planet.

“People constantly say to me ‘we’re surviving not thriving, I haven’t got time to think about sustainability’. My question is: can you really afford not to? Because it is actually about saving money for the long term.”

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