Look to the future

Can we change the way we practise to improve the world? That’s the question asked by Jia Afsar, one of our G4C Wales committee members, in her essay as part of the ‘RIBA Voice of Future Architects Competition’ & published in the RIBA Journal. We recommend it as a good read in these troubling times

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before beginning to improve the world,” Anne Frank.

As an architect of the future, working in practice for over five years, it is this quote that resonates deep within. It is a reason why many of us entered the field but also why after years of studying, we choose to remain in it.

It is no secret how the built environment affects us daily. As user, creator, or facilitator – we are all part of the ever-changing landscape of this ‘built world’. To have the ability to make an impact, no matter how small, to have a voice, is more meaningful than ever before. It is us, the future generations and those beyond us that can create a sound loud enough to be heard.

(‘Can you hear me?’ – Greta Thunburg)

A good way of improving the world is the step Wales has taken in establishing in 2015 ‘The Well Being of Future Generations Act’.

This is an act of legislation, the first of its kind, that gives us the ‘ambition, permission and legal obligation to improve our social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing’. It focuses on challenges presently and in the future, including but not limited to climate change, poverty, health inequalities, jobs and growth.

This law ensures the public sector accepts its responsibility. It places a duty by law onto public bodies not just to think about the long term but provide evidence.

Using the wider United Nations Sustainable Development goals as its basis, it establishes seven wellbeing goals: ‘A globally responsible Wales, a prosperous Wales, a resilient Wales, a healthier Wales, a more equal Wales, a Wales of cohesive communities, a Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh Language’. These are to act as a shared vision. The Act puts in place a ‘sustainable development principle’ which informs organisations of the ways to fulfil their duty under the Act.

To assist in its impact, it contains five ‘ways of working’ that require public bodies to show how they have applied the sustainable development programme: Long term, prevention, integration, collaboration and involvement.

Importantly, measurement indicators, transparency and accountability are key to this legislation. Part 2 of this Act requires indicators that measure progress towards achieving the wellbeing goals (section 10), and states that reports on future trends in the wellbeing of Wales (section 11), must be published by the Welsh Ministers. An established office of Future Generations Commissioner for Wales will carry out reviews of public bodies. Additionally, each public body must publish a statement when setting its wellbeing objectives. Annually, public bodies must publish a report showing the progress in meeting their objectives including responding to the Commissioner’s recommendations. The auditor general for Wales may then carry out examinations of public bodies.

The act establishes seven wellbeing goals: ‘A globally responsible Wales, a prosperous Wales, a resilient Wales, a healthier Wales, a more equal Wales, a Wales of cohesive communities, a Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh Language’

But how does this translate into practice?

The application of this act is evidenced by the set-up of public service boards for every local authority in Wales. They must include representatives from the local council, health board, fire and rescue authority and National Resources Wales. They have to publish a local wellbeing plan and explain how that will lead towards goals set in the Act. Several localised examples include Public Health Wales providing value for money in revamping its office by recycling and refurbishing as many fixtures and fittings as possible. Another example is Natural Resource Wales ‘bringing a wide range of stakeholders together’ to enhance the status of the Gavenny River, collaborating with the local community for water quality improvements and management of adjoining habitats. Stakeholder led sustainable land management options were incorporated into Natural Resources Wales Flood Risk Management Maintenance schedules.

On a wider level, the impact of this Act has seen major projects being recalled, such as the M4 relief road in Wales. This was reviewed by the Future Generations Commissioner who concluded that the ‘case for investing in this scheme from the perspective of future generations has not been made’ resulting in its rejection.

Outside Wales, the Future Generations Bill by Lord Bird has gained all parties’ favour and been introduced in the House of Lords. It has described the ‘pioneering Well Being of Future Generations Act’ as its inspiration and the ‘bulwark against short-termism in Wales’.

So far so good, but…a pause to reflect on the reality on ground. So far, the Act has been slow to be taken up.

The auditor general for Wales, independent of the National Assembly and government, said in his 2018 report that ‘there is a risk that for some, the Act is perceived as another thing to do.’ Public bodies will need to give more consideration to how they will drive this Act forward to transform how they work, said the report. Short term funding was identified as a common barrier to plan effectively over the long term including legislative complexity and more.

As stated in the Future Generation Commissioner’s separate report ‘public bodies are not yet giving enough evidence to describe how they have used the sustainable development principle… the wellbeing statements are mixed with clear differences in approach from varying departments within public bodies…we are not there yet but we are seeing green shoots of progress’.

While this Act is leading a new way of thinking, embedding a holistic sense of sustainability within law and pushing public bodies to alter their routes and no doubt affecting those in the service industries/collaborators/private industries to change their methods to suit, there is some cynicism regarding its practical applications. Another wave of clients, contractors, architects, end-users, and the like are using it as part of their work-winning in a smoke-and-mirrors way, ignorant of their long-lasting impact. It prompts us to ask the question, how will mindsets ever truly change?

A small, yet vital part of the answer is us, the future generations, the future architects. Let our voices and actions be heard, let our responsibility be felt and let us live to see the change.

Wajiha Afsar is a member of G4C Wales, a student at Part 1 level working at Atkins and was also shortlisted for the ‘STEM woman of the year 2020