Connecting the dots around equality and sustainability

Author
The Class Foundation

The Class Foundation is a partner-based non-profit organisation with a simple goal: to further the professionalism and knowledge of living, learning, and working in university cities. Established in 2011, The Class Foundation is now one of the largest European student housing platforms open to anyone and everyone. Our mission is to be the leading think tank on the future of living. We aggregate an international network of nearly 100 partner organisations, members, and associations. By bringing people together, we offer and share high-quality information and best practices. We aim for a student housing market that is open, international, professional, sophisticated, and developed to fully accommodate student needs.

The past two years have challenged the way we conceive of our environment, equality, and sustainability. Is the pandemic really accelerating trends that were already happening? How do move forward and make the most out of our current situation? 

We like to think we’re forward-thinking at The Class Foundation, working hard to parse the finer details and develop a clear understanding of the big picture. As a partnership-based platform, we let our community lead the conversation, acting simultaneously as a platform, facilitator, and catalyst.

Fighting the stigma

Thought Leader #1
“We're (real estate stakeholders) changing the way we build. But we're not good at communicating that to the world. We need to be more thoughtful about how we convey the message and engage with the broader community.  Even though we face opposing interests, there are more mutual benefits if we can figure out how to make that collaboration work” 
- Bill Kistler, UrbanOvation

There has been a growing paradigm shift in the real estate industry towards circularity.  By using sustainable materials and applying a ‘future-proofing’ philosophy to new builds and renovations, the sector signals its commitment to addressing the manifold environmental problems of our day and age.

However, one can argue that the real estate industry is still on the long and winding road to  thought leadership in equality and sustainability. For a long time, real estate in general has been stigmatised as a generator of inequality, leading us to a catastrophe of environmental degradation, not to mention a “booming” housing sector which has proven largely out of reach to the vast majority.  Ultimately, the real estate industry does not generate enough impact to address today’s challenges, and this hinders the sustainability agenda as if the industry were creating more problems than it solves.

We need unity to fight stigmas against the industry despite differences, a unity that positive impact can be achieved in this industry. Although developers, investors, and operators have different interests, we argue that having a wide range of interests and perspectives should not discourage us. When we have a wide variety of interests and differences, that is where we need each other the most. This simply means that we cannot pursue this agenda alone. Instead of focusing on differences and the stigma, why don’t we take our weapon off and start finding common ground on issues that we care about collectively?

Make collaboration concrete

Thought Leader #2
“One way that campuses and service providers can work together to pursue a greener, fairer agenda is through highlighting and sharing best practice. That can be Unite Students’ Head of Energy and Environment presenting their strategy for sustainable student accommodation at the recent CUBO conference, or sector awards like the Green Gowns, PIEoneer, CUBO and Best in Class identifying and rewarding innovations and examples of partnerships that drive change in this area.”
- Jan Capper, CUBO

Embracing equality and sustainability as a guiding principle must come to a consensus for stakeholders. Many practices have made this tangible such as collaboration between campuses and service providers, even students themselves. Campuses can always connect these agendas through estate development plans by actively pursuing partnership with student representatives for their opinions and service providers for their professional advice. 

Some of the best practices include the University of Sussex installing one of the most recent solar panel projects on its student housing, Lancaster University installing living green walls in its library entrance, and the University of York repurposing parking lots into pop-up parks for people to rest and interact safely outdoors, alongside new purpose-built outdoor teaching space.

Solar panel on student housing (University of Sussex on Twitter)

Thought Leader #3
“Inclusivity is increasingly taking centre stage in some universities, as again students expect to see this. The University of York recently held an all student and staff call for names for its new residential accommodation, and Anne Lister and David Kato were favoured by the majority - key figures in the inclusivity and human rights space. Both Lister and Kato College will open in phases over the next year and have seen the highest number of applications in recent time“
- Dean Spears, CUBO

Including everyone, especially the underrepresented is equally important as the sustainability agenda itself. This is best interpreted as making collaboration works in favor with everyone through equal recognition and having more diverse people in the process. Stakeholders may need to achieve inclusivity as a standardized practice because collaboration works best when everyone feels embraced and appreciated, leading to an increased productivity and growth to the organization (McKinsey & Company, 2018).

Anne Lister College: “We’re the first of the University of York’s colleges to be named after a woman, as well as someone who was part of the LGBTQ+ community” (https://www.york.ac.uk/colleges/anne-lister/)

Choosing the right tool
Thought Leader #4
“In daily operations, the service industry makes sure to use machines and devices that are eco-friendly. Here it is important to reduce and reuse essential resources. With the Miele machines we increase the proportion of energy from renewable sources and increase energy efficiency. The washing machines and dryers from Miele Professional that we use in combination with our appWash system impress with very low consumption values and are well known for maximum efficiency. The benchmark is: optimum results using recyclable materials and no more than the necessary amount of water, energy, and detergent”
- Frederik Weidei, Miele Professional, AppWash

Rethinking how much impact we have on resource extraction to operate our business should come with a responsibility. Therefore it is crucial that we choose the right tool if we are shifting away from business as usual to sustainable operating procedure. Using the right tool in this sense is how we choose devices, appliances, machines or any means that can support our operating system with the right efficiency in terms of carbon footprint and energy consumption. 

We can always refer to current technologies and science-based practices to guide our business in choosing the right tool. Many standard guidelines that we can follow. One of the examples is The Science Based Targets Initiative. The initiative provides measurements on whether we have followed the right path to reduce emissions as in line with the Paris Agreement Goals. Machinery products such as Miele has gained approval on the assessment for using sustainable materials and components and commit to reduce 50% of emissions by 2030.

The need for collective assessment

Thought Leader #5
“Although there is more guidance emerging, we still have to ask a lot of questions for evaluation review. Social impact, for instance, is difficult to measure in financial terms. I have seen many operators and investors try to measure this through qualitative surveys, and it’s good to see that it’s becoming their interest. However, it's still a relatively immature stage of understanding what difference it makes from an asset performance perspective”.
- Jo Winchester, CBRE

Measurement concepts such as ESG, Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and Circular Economy are increasingly popular. Yet, the most challenging question is whether we have the right and agreed measurement to achieve the equality and sustainability agenda. Furthermore, this challenge is often asked such as can these measurements assess all of our problems? If not, how can we come with holistic assessment?

One example is how social value and social impact are generated in bed sectors in general, while also providing affordable housing that also creates the community. This is rather challenging to measure as it contains less-tangible factors such as happiness and mental health, social cost and benefit. Practically, including these factors into financial terms is something that stakeholders are attempting to figure out and people in the business are quite concerned about that.

Nevertheless, to understand the challenge in quantifying normative terms into a tangible calculation is imperative when we talk about becoming leaders in equality and sustainability. This is perhaps a wakeup call for us to be collectively involved in figuring this challenge out. We believe that once we come up with the right formula, we can measure it better how much we progress, the impact and benefit we create, while also mitigating the risk out of the production and development process.

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