Finding the balance between experimentation and certainty

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Having moved from a role that consisted mainly of policy and high level concepts for government to an implementation role working mainly with the private sector on actual construction sites, it’s been an interesting opportunity to see both sides of how policy works or doesn’t work and what fosters progress and innovation. It’s been an interesting change to work on the ground on development after having worked in policy for so long. Mostly, it’s been great to get real world, practical experience; the side of me who likes to cut through the fluff and get things done is quite happy. But on the other side, it has been disappointing to see the stagnation and conservative, profit-oriented (or, orientated, for the Brits) thinking that prevents innovation and trying interesting new things.

I had an opportunity to opine a bit on the challenge of balancing experimentation and certainty inherent to private-sector driven investment and projects in the latest KLH Sustainability newsletter. The post can be read here and is reprinted below.

Development is a complicated business. Almost all projects arrive on the desks at KLH with a complex web of performance indicators, planning requirements and profit margins. It is an interesting challenge to make sure the many moving pieces stay on track to meet targets, while ensuring there is space for creativity, knowledge advancement, capacity building and innovation. Though these things are never mutually exclusive, in the name of certainty and simplicity, it can be easier to reduce sustainability to tick boxes and nice-to-haves, missing the big picture and the real opportunity for improvement.

In recent weeks, the media has been abuzz with news of the downfall of Volkswagen after they admitted to creating technology in their diesel cars to dupe emissions tests in the U.S. No one knows for sure their reasons for cheating as opposed to investing in research that could actually make their cars less harmful to the environment and society as a whole. They ran the numbers and somehow decided that covering up their failure was better for business than actually improving their cars. We can learn from Volkswagen; business myopia which leads to poor decision-making and rewards immediate profit over long-term value, will always back-fire…often sooner than expected.

Like corporations, new developments have many competing priorities to balance: regulatory compliance, engineering, saleability, creative design, placemaking, buildability, liability, sustainability, safety, public perception, technology, profitability, the list goes on. Each of those issues is complex on its own, but what often happens in the name of manageability, ease of implementation and certainty is that they are translated as budget line items.

Sustainability gets reduced to products, technology and accreditation schemes. In this way, they can be compared and assessed as apples to apples, which in turn can make it easier to make decisions and track progress, but also to miss nuances and lead to unintended consequences or failures of implementation.

What might this reliance on simplified definitions look like?

It might be sustainable homes that only ‘eco-warriors’ want to live in. Or the installation of grey water reuse technologies that reduce potable water use, but increase life-cycle energy consumption  and financial cost. It can be found in the post occupancy performance gap, or in the application of technology without considering the role of people, politics and society in gaining value from the technology.

In the case of Victoria, Australia, they rolled out smart meters claiming people would get energy savings, but didn’t communicate and work with residents to actually achieve those monetary or environmental benefits. When it comes to setting and reporting against performance requirements, it is easier to say “x number of smart meters were installed,” quietly ignoring whether the outcomes were as intended. This can lead to mistrust in both the technology and the implementer and can set back progress on innovation.

That is not to say breaking complex things into simple deliverables is the wrong thing to do.

Architects, engineers and developers need to progress with clarity, balancing priorities while making places that people will want to live and work. And they must do so in the face of all the uncertainty of the regulatory environment, future technology changes, price volatility and the ambiguity of working with and marketing to fickle and often unpredictable human beings.

But too much certainty may mean stifling innovation or processes that have not been tested or are too difficult to count or monetise, such as capacity and relationship-building. Like the smart meters in Victoria, many of the gains to be made in sustainability have as much to do with management and mentality as with technology. But it is harder to pin a number down on paper and put it out to bid on that alone, so we put a lot of effort and emphasis in technology, engineering solutions and countable things that can be easily pitched to investors, depicted in infographics, held up as benchmarks and subcontracted down into tiny parts.

Of course, we cannot throw out all the technologies and metrics and leave everyone to run experiments. It is not a matter of either/or. We can keep our risk management systems, but build in more contingencies and buffers to allow for flexibility or trial innovation. We can remember there are rarely simple solutions to anything and ask hard questions of anything that claims a cure all. We can value communication, including qualitative information that can add context to simple dashboards. We can make time to teach everyone from design to construction to sales how their efforts fit into the bigger picture of sustainability, rather than having them rely on a separate expert. And we can keep sight of goals and individual motives, remembering that numerical benchmarks are not themselves the goals, but the indicators for whether goals are being achieved.

As with most things, the trick is finding the balance between getting it right and getting it done.

Part of why we simplify things is to make it easier to act on, but we need to balance this with making sure that what is done is still worthwhile. Something is not always better than nothing. Doing it the right way is usually harder than ticking off boxes. We are keenly aware of this at KLH, so we approach each project with a strategy bespoke to the needs of that project and the people working on it. We pair number crunching with discussion, data analysis with data gathering, all in an attempt to continually work to reconcile certainty and simplicity with flexibility and complexity.

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