Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner
In a speech at the CEW Awards, Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner, called on Welsh construction not just dream of a better future but to go out there and build it, rise to the challenge because our future generations depend on it
Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner gave the keynote speech midway through the proceedings of the CEW Awards on the 7th June. We have a slightly abridged version of her speech here – in which she sets out why creating a built environment fit for future generations is so vital.
As you would imagine, she did not shy away from the big issues but stressed that we must make brave decisions and think differently if we are to work together as an industry to not just build what Wales needs but make a contribution towards saving our planet.
I'd like to say a a special thanks to Milica and everyone at CEWales – what a night it's been so far and what an amazing job you have all done in putting together such an outstanding event, celebrating the very best in construction innovation throughout Wales.
From over 90 entries, the shortlist contained some of the very best examples of innovation, representing the very best in best practice from across Wales. In many ways, we're seeing the ripples of change as the world responds to some of the greatest challenges we've ever seen.
So, what a night it's been so far. But in many ways it's already been one hell of a week. A week which, to me, really sums up where we're at in 2019.
Take the example of Donald Trump state visit. Think of the extreme reactions he provokes, the absolute divide between the people who either love him or loathe him, and how he ends up being lectured for 90 minutes by Prince Charles about climate change.
Interestingly, upon being questioned as to whether Prince Charles had made an impact on him, he said: "I'll tell you what moved me is his passion for future generations,".
Now, I'm not particularly convinced that Trump is suddenly going to become an environmental advocate and pass a Well-being of Future Generations Act in the US, but this did catch my attention, during a week where so much of public discussion is around our legacy and what we leave behind.
Of course, this week we pay respects to our brave men and women, many of whom lay down their lives on the D-day landings. As leaders gathered yesterday with veterans to commemorate the events in Normandy 75 years ago. Their bravery secured the future for generations to come.
Whilst few of us will ever be called upon to make the sacrifice on the scale of those who fought in our world wars, I think there's something about questioning the kind of sacrifices we will all be required to make. It will require all of us to be brave, in completely different ways, to safeguard the lives of our future generations. And that question of what we leave behind for others, of heritage, of how we will all be remembered by history is something that resonates through all stories in the news this week.
And in my mind, there is nothing more important than safeguarding the future of the planet that we leave behind for our future generations. You will all know that we now have less than 12 years to safeguard its future. We are the last generation with the hope of doing so.
And of course, here in wales, the issue of the M4 relief road has also brought the well-being of future generations as a live issue in the news this week. But on the other hand, I imagine that more than a handful of people in this room were, shall we say, disappointed by Tuesday's announcement and the decision taken by the First Minister to not push ahead with the plans. But whatever you think of that decision, I think it's fair to say that it was brave. All change starts with one brave decision – and I think what Wales did on Tuesday was a bold signifier for the kind of world and the kind of legacy that we want to leave behind for our future generations.
The challenge now is for us to get ahead of the things we need to do now to better prepare for our future. It is of course, with extreme disappointment that we hear about the closure of Ford's engine plant in 2020, leaving big question marks over the future for many people living in Bridgend. Many workers are devastated at the news – fearing what it will mean for their families and their communities.
But is there a lesson here for us all about what happens when you fail to keep up with the times, let alone pioneer for the future?
In the Farmer Review from 2016, published by the Construction Leadership Council, Mark Farmer talked about the idea of 'Modernise or Die' - that now is the time for the construction industry to decide its future. I think it was interesting though what Farmer said:
"It is important to clarify that I do not want to create a divisive binary future industry where innovators or early adopters at the vanguard of change leave the laggards in isolation. This is about creating a vibrant, re-skilled, fully integrated, more predictable and productive industry such that traditional working and new approaches can co-exist and complement each other, driving much wider longer-term benefits.."
For me, I firmly believe that the Well-being of Future Generations Act provides us with many of the answers to the questions about how we deliver an approach where all aspects of our industry complement each other. I'm hoping that many of you here will have heard of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, but what do we mean when we talk about 'the well-being of future generations?'.
Well, how many of us talk about the things we do for our kids? Maybe our grand-children? Maybe we're already making plans of what we can leave them behind – maybe we want to leave them the house, an inheritance, something of sentiment.
But do we ever think beyond that? Do we ever think about what we, collectively, as a sector, as a community, and as a generation, want to leave behind as our legacy?
Of course, here in the construction sector, planning for the long term is something you are innately used to. When you consider that the average life of a building is 60 years, and how it's more like 120 for a road – it will come as nothing new to you that the work that you do in your careers today, has a huge impact on future generations.
So I think we can all agree, that the need for a construction sector here in Wales that is fit for the future is more vital than ever. A sector that is innovative, bold and challenges the status quo. It means not just thinking outside the box, but building outside the box. Perhaps, sometimes, it means not building something at all.
For me, place-making is not just looking at the 'red line of a plan' – looking no further than the square we are going to develop. Place-making is thinking outside the box on the map and thinking about how we link that box to the rest of the community – how people move around – the type of environment that surrounds the area.
The interesting thing for me is around the pace of change and the change in public consensus. 10 years ago, sustainable development wasn't a particularly cool term – and you'd probably be forgiven for thinking the only people who cared about this sort of stuff were the environmentalists.
But take a look at your social media feeds and the people who are making the changes are your friends, it's the mums at the school-gates, it's young people striking on Friday afternoons, its people who you never really noticed cared about these things before.
It seems that caring about our planet, has officially gone mainstream. It's wedged firmly into our collective consciousness, streamed into our living rooms via programmes like Blue Planet 2, organised by people like those in my community in Whitchurch who have gone for plastic-free businesses, it's being shown to us by businesses like Sainsbury's who are taking out their plastic packaging, even businesses like Iceland who are looking to stamp out palm oil from their products.
Living sustainably is no longer the realm of the environmentalists – this is public demand being met by organisations who see it makes good business sense.
Who would have thought even 5 years ago that you'd have celebrities discussing global environmental issues and people calling for an out-right ban on plastic straws? Who could have imagined that after Brexit and health, the environment ranked as the third thing that people care about the most.
And of course, when we're thinking about the big challenges for the future, the environment is one of many, complex, inter-connected factors. Automation, our ageing population, and the changes in technology are all going to impact the way we work and live.
So the challenge for you and your sector, is how can you be visionaries? How can you improve people's lives, not just today, but for generations to come, through the work that you do?
When someone enters Wales, and we of course hope that will be via a form of integrated public transport – if not some kind of hydrogen powered hyperloop – then what is the first thing we want them to notice? When I step out of the train I want to see trees and people walking and cycling and socially conscious businesses supporting the people who were once homeless to turn their lives around through work and for it to be a vibrant place where people drink coffee and the profits go back to that community rather than to some offshore account?
Aside from our rugby team, Gareth Bale, and our natural talent for singing in harmonies, I want brand Wales to be. About innovation about finding new solutions about making sure the environment is fit to live up to the reputation of the green, green grass of home?
So, the challenge for you and your sector, is how can you be visionaries? How can you improve people's lives, not just today, but for generations to come, through the work that you do?
It has become clear to me over the past three years I've spent as Future Generations Commissioner, that planning, construction, engineering and infrastructure will be the foundations of how we take this Act forward.
They say don't just dream of a better future, go out there and build it – and you have that task – very literally.
I can see here that many of you are rising to that challenge so please keep doing that because our future generations depend on it.