#Special Focus* Crusaders of sustainability

WHILE "building green" has become a common phrase in developing and developed nations that uphold the sustainability cause, some forget that it only became an accepted practice thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated proponents.

Two such individuals are Sir Jonathon Porritt and Norliza Hashim — sustainability consultants whose expertise have been tapped by Sime Darby Property Bhd.

Norliza spent much of her childhood in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. The simple life there and being surrounded by greenery, left an indelible impression on her. Those formative influences led to her sensitivity to the natural world, which she has carried into her professional life.

Wanting to make a difference, she struggled for a period of time to find a solution to urban problems. She then decided to travel around the world to learn about sustainability and how to utilise it appropriately.

"For a long time, I could not connect the whole circle together; trying to see how certain actions affect the cycle of sustainability," she says.

When Norliza did finally connect the dots, the message of sustainability was not well received. "It was very difficult for anyone to understand 15 years ago, about sustainability in Malaysia because we were fast developing," she smiles.

"Things have changed now. I can see over the past three to four years, the understanding of sustainability is better. It makes my work easier because you can start influencing more people to think about sustainability."

Porritt, who is 63, began his path to sustainability quite by chance, when he decided to take some school children to a farm to potter around. At 23, Porritt was studying law when it dawned on him that he didn't like it and decided to give it up to become a teacher — something he had always wanted to do.

After qualifying as a teacher, he was assigned to a school in West London, where there were no green spaces and the children were brought up in rundown housing estates. Together with other teachers, he took several students to a farm in Wales.

"Honestly, I didn't know what we were doing. We didn't have any expertise in this area," Porritt laughs. "For me, it was a very transformative experience, because it showed me the privileged life I had and what the access to the natural world meant to people."

Staying motivated

Sustaining an interest in sustainability and trying to get people to see its importance fell on deaf ears in the early 1970s and 1980s, when progress pushed such talk aside. But Norliza and Porritt remained steadfast in their beliefs.

"The first thing that brought this issue of sustainability to my consciousness was the amount of land we were clearing in Malaysia," says Norliza. "I saw many beautiful parcels of land stripped bare; sometimes 100 to 1,000 acres at one go. That started me thinking about how we can balance our development and sustainability."

For Porritt, his motivation was one of duty. "At one level, I didn't have a choice. Once you've seen what the reality of our dilemma is, you can't turn away from it. I couldn't go off and do something completely different, because it would be a betrayal of everything I've worked for," he explains.

"But I am also motivated by the fact that nowadays, there is a lot of interest in sustainability. A lot of people are taking it more seriously; more companies are taking it more seriously, which for me is extremely exciting, because that wasn't the case when I started in the 1970s and 1980s."

As a result of this greater awareness, both Norliza and Porritt have found their work taking on a new direction. Where before it was identifying the problem and trying to get people to see the problem to solve it, today the role is as solution providers.

In relation to property development, the Malaysian building industry's understanding of sustainability has come a long way, but there is still much room for improvement.

"Awareness is much better now than 10 years ago in Malaysia," says Norliza. "Developers now know 'green' is important. They also understand it is valuable. So how they integrate it is the challenge because not all, including the professionals, can holistically provide the solutions."

One of the ways she enhances her knowledge on this issue is by participating in the World Class Sustainable Cities (WCSC) conference. Here, various government agencies, residents' associations and tertiary institutions, as well as fellow professionals convene to listen to keynote speakers from successful sustainable cities and learn from best practices through masterclasses.

"The WCSC conference educates people so that they can be the agent of change," Norliza explains. "When they demand that need, it is easier, and people will be more willing to change their lifestyles."

Another issue Norliza has noticed is the poor implementation and enforcement of Malaysia's "green" laws and policies.

"We have a good policy and at the federal level, we have the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water, but information is not filtered down to the local government," she points out.

"The people in the local government are those who need to understand sustainability, because they are the ones approving and vetting all the plans. A 'green' plan could be rejected because they don't understand it or they might kill any 'green' ideas, because they don't have the capacity to understand or process the idea."

Norliza cites the example of South Korea's Cheonggyecheon river restoration project in Seoul, which resulted in similar projects in other districts.

"I want that for Malaysia and not just Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya," she says of the South Korean success story. "Sustainability projects should be well-dispersed because the sooner you take care of the environment in a less urbanised area, the better. We don't want to give the wrong signal to a less urban or suburban area, that you can develop all the way to an urban state and then you come back to rectify the problems."

Porritt sees Malaysia's endeavours to be a more sustainable country, as commendable, but believes more can be done. "Things have changed and Malaysia has a clear understanding of the need to do things more sustainably," he says.

"It is obvious to me that this is a country that isn't denying the importance of sustainability, but is struggling to implement it. There is huge growth going on in this country — infrastructure, housing, new industry — it is an amazing success story in those terms. Are those new developments sustainable? Not really, but they have a higher sustainability value built into them.

"But Malaysia isn't learning from the Western world's mistakes. I wish countries can see how badly we — the West — got it wrong, and avoid some of the mistakes we've made, and I don't see enough of that avoidance of the mistakes, to be honest," he laments.

One of the ways Porritt tries to rectify this gap in understanding, is through his organisation, Forum for the Future.

"For us at Forum for the Future, we always emphasise the point that sustainability is social, environmental and economic, and I would always add on governance," he says.

"If you haven't got good governance systems, you're not going to get it right on the social, economic and environmental issues. So the forum helps provide a framework to live our lives, create wealth, organise society, plan for long-term change, and get our democracies functioning better."

Holistic and innovative thinking

Both experts believe in the need to look at things holistically for solutions to existing problems, and also to prevent problems by engaging stakeholders and ensuring everyone is on board.

Norliza does her part by making sure all projects her company undertakes include a sustainable framework, to ensure her clients understand and are aware of the need to be environmentally-friendly in their operations.

One trend she has noticed from her many travels as a speaker and participant in sustainable practices, is how people are going back to basics and "talking about passive solutions". "If you get the passive solution right, the intervention cost will be less," she says.

Through Forum for the Future, Porritt helps organisations and governments by using tools in a mechanism called System Innovation. It looks at the many systems operating within a larger system, and then uses specific tools to create change.

"All of us think of ourselves as members of small communities, like the place that we live in and the community, our circle of friends and our place of work. Each of those little systems is part of a much bigger system, which itself is part of a bigger system," Porritt explains.

"So let me give you an example: Sime Darby is a very big producer of palm oil. Sime Darby can do a lot on its own, to make its palm oil more sustainable, and I hope in the future, [it will be] completely sustainable, which is what we are committed to doing.

"But it can't bring about change on its own. It has to do it by working with other people. So the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which was formed in 2004, has not only brought together palm oil producers, but also some key NGOs (non-governmental organisations), academics, retailers and user groups, so that the whole palm oil system, and not just one company's system, can adapt to the need to produce that palm oil more sustainably.

"So although the Forum for the Future's formal relationship with Sime Darby is a one-to-one relationship, and we work as a partnership together, actually what we are trying to do is change the entire system, which is to ensure that all palm oil that comes on the market is harvested sustainably.

"That is how you get into System Innovation, because once you start thinking of the system as a whole, you must have really clear ideas for that system to change, from one place to the next."

One of the biggest misconceptions about building green is that it is expensive. The experts beg to differ.

"In the beginning, it is expensive, but over time, you have lower operating costs," says Norliza. "For example, it may be expensive at the start to buy a particular house, because it has solar panels or a rainwater harvesting system, but at the end of the day, if my maintenance cost is reduced over time, then it is a better investment."

She adds that in the planning stages, one has to take into account the lifecycle of the products and townships, to ascertain how long something will last before building. Without such careful planning, the replacement cost may be higher in the future.

Porritt concurs. "The biggest misconception about being 'green' is that it costs a lot of money. So this is a big thing for Sime Darby Property right now, because there is a fear that ramping up the sustainability story in the property division … that the barrier to that is that it would add a substantial cost to the products it builds, in the townships it is taking responsibility for.

"And I keep challenging this because actually, if you look at it in a longer-term sense, you don't necessarily end up with a more expensive product. You often end up with the same price, but delivering better product value to your customer, and you end up with a net win for society over time."

Porritt cites the example of how Marks & Spencer — a popular retailer in the UK, through its sustainability programme, saw a contribution to its profits to the tune of £135 million last year.

The sustainability agenda has taken root in many individuals and groups over the years. While the uptake is still slow, Norliza and Porritt's objective remains the same — to continue spreading the gospel of sustainability to the masses until the day it becomes a way of life for all.

The town planner and the ex-politician

AJM Planning & Urban Design Group Sdn Bhd managing director Norliza Hashim has worked with Sime Darby Property Bhd since the Selangor Vision City project in 2009, and has served as a consultant on various other projects.

She has served as president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners and is a registered town planner with over 25 years of experience. Norliza is also the secretary-general of the Eastern Organisation of Planning and Human Settlement — an international multi-sectoral organisation that promotes the sustainability of human settlements.

She has actively participated in community-based programmes and sits on the Local Agenda 21 committee for Petaling Jaya and Putrajaya. She also sits on various advisory panels, such as Melaka World Heritage City committee and Institute of Higher Learning for their urban planning programmes.

Moreover, Norliza is actively involved in the World Class Sustainable Cities conference, where keynote speakers are invited from overseas to share best practices from successful sustainable cities.

Sir Jonathon Porritt is from the UK and is the founder of Forum for the Future — a non-profit organisation that works with businesses and governments globally, to create a sustainable future.

He was engaged by Sime Darby Group to be its sustainability adviser in 2011, and works closely with the property division. Porritt is also an independent adviser and has worked with many organisations — such as Nike, Unilever and Marks & Spencer.

He has written several books, including Seeing Green: The Politics of Ecology Explained (1984), Liberty and Sustainability: Where One Person's Freedom is Another's Nuisance (1995), and Capitalism: As if the World Matters (2005), and has participated in politics as a member of the Green Party.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Aug 19-25, 2013.

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