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  • Writer's picturePeter Head

Creating a global Built Environment Pivot

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

A conversation with Peter Head

7th October 2020 12:00 EST

In 2008 I was working for Arup and spending a lot of time in China. It was the year of the Beijing Olympics, the terrible Sichuan earthquake and the global crash. In the middle of this I was invited to give the global Brunel lecture tour by the Institution of Civil Engineers, the professional body for accreditation of Civil Engineers in the UK. (Head PR ICE Brunel Lecture 2009).

I chose to research and then present how the world could move quickly away from the Industrial development model pioneered by Brunel in Britain and move towards the Ecological Civilisation, then being pursued by China and now written into China’s Constitution. In this transformative change I explained how we could tackle climate change and ecological destruction and how we could lift people out of poverty, aiming for a happy life in harmony with nature.

I concluded that to enable 9 billion people to live a sustainable resilient life in 2050 we needed an urgent factor 4 change. I identified the roles engineers, designers, planners and financiers could play and what changes in regulations and economic policy would be needed to bring about a combination of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, an 80% reduction in pollution and waste and a factor 4 reduction in our ecological footprint. I presented this in 26 countries and 38 cities and learned a lot from discussions and feedback. I showed that such an approach was feasible and attractive. A key element in delivering it would be our ability to turn the growing tsunami of data into wisdom.

People were shocked and sceptical, even when I pointed out that for China to continue it’s 7-10% GDP growth trajectory, the Government would need to find tracts of land outside China for resource exploitation that was twice the size of France, every year! I explained it was not feasible for them or for Indonesia, India, Brazil, Nigeria and other African countries to follow the same GDP growth model without destruction of our remaining ecosystems. They listened but then settled back into a business as usual approach with a few small tweaks of incremental change.

It brought me into conflict with a lot of colleagues in competitive consulting practices who said they had to deliver what clients asked for and they could not pursue this radical direction. The Institution of Civil Engineers carried on with business as usual. Built environment clients generally had a short-term perspective anyway and oil dependency was built into everything.

I left Arup in 2011, realising that private companies would not lead this change, and set up a UK charity, The Ecological Sequestration Trust, to bring together some brilliant people and create some new tools to try to help the world to work collaboratively along this journey and also to help to explain the threats and needs better. In 2013 I helped to create and write SDG 11 for cities. In 2014, I was one of the authors of the Planetary Health Commission Report that set out how important natural systems were to our health and well-being. This raised even more serious concerns about the risks we were taking, including the likelihood of future pandemics. In 2016 we created Roadmap 2030 a practical step by step plan for a collaborative approach to financing and implementing Global Goals in City Regions, to support Habitat III in Quito and implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

(The Ecological Sequestration Trust) ( UN SDG11) (Planetary Health Commission- Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene) (Roadmap 2030)

Looking back, since 2008, ecology in 20% of the world’s land has been compromised and climate change is accelerating with a 16% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, not the 80% reduction track I talked about. Ecological footprint has increased by 25%, not reduced. Forests are being pulled down and burning, and as we said in our Planetary Health Commission report, pandemics will become more frequent and serious as a result.

So the challenge is now so much greater and we are getting close to a catastrophic edge. The 2020 UN global assessment report says that one million of the nearly 9 million estimated plants and animals could be pushed over the brink by habitat destruction, pollution, overexploitation, the spread of invasive species across the globe, and increasingly, climate change. This in turn will completely undermine our future resilience. We are at a tipping point. We are at a moment in time, NOW, where have a narrow window of opportunity to change the world for the better.

We and our fellow professionals all over the world are responsible for making this happen. It is not someone else’s fault.

But there is some good news for us. It is a systems problem and with collaboration among different disciplines at global scale we could help the world to Pivot, with systems solutions, to start regeneration.

(Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 2020)

We currently choose to put railways directly through ancient forests in the UK when the forests could be avoided by going through farmland with degraded soils. We create the infrastructure to mine coal in ancient forests in India, even when we know solar energy and hydrogen can remove the need for more coal. We design and build buildings that need gas heating and large energy consumption, but we know how to do otherwise. We specify steel for our projects, without asking for it to come from recycling so that raw material and coal are not used. We ignore the warnings from indigenous communities and religious leaders and generally do not support a just and fair transition in communities involved in change.

Our disruptive relationship with nature is putting us at ever greater risk from pandemics and disease. In March this year we could see that COViD 19 would change everything about the way we live and so we brought together 150 experts and young people from all over the world to explore how it might be possible to Pivot quickly towards the Ecological Civilisation using the likely stimulus recovery funding that would follow. We call our effort Pivot Projects. We are training one of the world’s most powerful AI machines, Spark Beyond, to understand systems interconnections between human and ecological activities at all scales and help everyone, including communities, to create and select scenarios of change, turning our tsunami of data into local wisdom.

(Pivot Projects)

We are being told by people all over the world in Pivot Projects, that they do not want to go back-they want clean air, walking and cycling, more work from home, more green space, reliable access to water and sanitation and resilient local food supply. They want regenerative land and ocean farming. Most of all they want their world to run on renewables, not fossil fuels and the much lower solar and wind energy costs now make that possible. We are talking now about a regenerative economy in which job creation and improved health, rooted in ecological and soil health, become a priority rather than GDP growth. Because running costs and risks are lower, investment in all this makes sense and there is enough private capital to do it, with the current very low interest rates.

A group of engineers and architects was recently convened by the UK branch of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineers to discuss the crisis and we all agreed over 2 days that “enough is enough”, we need radical change and transformation globally. We need to work with all the different disciplines, upskill our professions, change teaching and learning, create powerful knowledge sharing and feedback loops supported by AI if necessary. We need to focus on long term value through the exclusive use of project lifetime performance specifications for all our work which meet the transformation needed. We need large scale demonstrations of change. We need to have the ethics and courage to completely turn our back on the catastrophic trajectory, like the 30,000 young people who have signed the Ecological Awakening pledge in France to not work for polluting companies. Like the Architect Declares initiative with 442 signatories committed to faster radical change and the LETI London Energy Transformation Initiative with 1000 professionals working hard to put UK on a zero carbon pathway.

(IABSE Henderson Colloquium) (Taking Action for an Ecological Awakening) (UK Architects Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency) (LETI)

But let’s do this globally and support each other on the journey. Let’s create a voice for collaborative transformative change and build the capability, knowledge and value propositions to implement it.

We have an idea to work with you to create The Built Environment Pivot Institute BEPI as a global membership organisation to do this in each of your countries, supported by a global knowledge sharing and capacity building engine. We hope to help create many more Pivot Clients and then connect you as Pivot Professionals to them, so that we can learn together and make the Pivot accelerate globally.

We would welcome your reaction and thoughts on this and any interest in participating in this journey together for radical change.

Prof Peter Head CBE P FREng P FRSA (prefix P for Pivot commitment)


Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 2020

Head PR Institution of Civil Engineers Brunel Lecture 2009

Entering an ecological Age-The engineer’s role

IABSE Henderson Colloquium 2020

LETI London Energy Transformation Initiative

Planetary Health Commission- Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene 2015

Roadmap 2030-Financing and Implementing the Global Goals in Human Settlements and City Regions

Taking Action for an Ecological Awakening

The Ecological Sequestration Trust

UK Architects Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency

UN SDG11 Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable 2015


This event is the first in a series that was followed by Colin Harrison. You can see his introduction and a video of the conversation at Cities: What makes the wheels go around?

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