Shaking up a conservative crew
|Professional contrarian: John Cole says consultants need to cut to the chase.
Environmental consulting urgently needs new passion and new business models, argues an veteran industry watcher. Richard Collins reports.
John Cole has always had a knack for asking the awkward question that reveals the heart of an issue. After a 20-year career in sustainability circles - inaugural CEO of the now-Sustainable Business Australia, a founding executive director of the Queensland EPA and now director of the Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development – he brings the perspective of those years but has never lost the ability to question the orthodoxy.
"The fundamental question is this: We have been in the environmental business for about 50 years, since Rachel Carson wrote her book Silent Spring, and we must ask ourselves, are we winning," Cole said.
"By any performance measure at a macro level, you'd have to say the human quest for sustainable development has failed on all major counts."
Cole has been invited to focus his contrarian sights on the environmental consulting sector as chair of the upcoming EIANZ national conference. He's promising some probing questions.
"In that [macro] context, how does the environmental management profession stack up? Are we just bar stewards on the Titanic or are we really making a strategic impact through our work?"
"Are we using our expertise and science and insight to make a difference positively, equipping our clients to be proactive and problem solving in this space, rather than simply providing us with a lucrative ongoing retainer because the environmental problems are intractable?"
The questions are rhetorical. Cole argues too many in the profession have settled for the comfortable status quo. He is not suggesting solutions - it is up the EIANZ and individuals to decide what the profession wants to be - but is keen to spark some soul searching.
"What I want the older aspects of the association to hear from the younger ones is passion, enthusiasm and a sense of end game, because I think we lose a little bit in our managerialist approach to things," he said.
"We tend to put things into a holding pattern and account for projects such that they conform with the law, that they are in compliance. This is understandable because that is part of the system, but culturally as a profession we need to invigorate ourselves every now and then."
The art of collaboration
Climate change. Population growth. Resource peaks. Biodiversity extinction. Society is tentatively starting to grapple with these big-picture, systemic issues, so where do environmental consultants fit in the conversation?
Cole believes too many are dabbling at the margins and, as a result, risk marginalising themselves.
"It is not that the industry has to be activist; it just has to be more proactive," Cole said.
The pragmatic response is to wonder how to make a dollar out of tackling systemic issues with no clear client and possibly no clear recognition of the presenting problem.
"You would only do it if you could make it work, but you may have to experiment a bit, you might have to evolve in your processes and internal discussions, to loosen up your thinking," Cole said.
One pitch is for a new model of collaboration. ClimateWorks Australia executive director Anna Skarbek is a keynote speaker at the conference. She sees the need for innovative new delivery models.
"What I mean by delivery models is getting these solutions to the market, getting clients to undertake the solutions. Where I see the need for innovation is in one-stop shop solutions, in making it easy for clients," she told WME.
ClimateWorks partners widely to research opportunities in carbon abatement, but it doesn't leave the issue there. It drills down to the specific barriers for each sector.
"We hope to provide a framework, a lense through which sector experts can look at this and apply their creativity and innovation to unlocking the barrier that is most prevalent in their sector," Skarbek said.
Still, she acknowledges the difficulty in working out the commercial model in such work. The London investment bank she worked for did a lot of work in "market development" to bring down barriers and unlock capital around clean energy, but it is a long-term play and requires deep pockets.
"The challenge for consultancies is that it takes time and effort to do that sort of policy work and there is not necessarily any money in it. So creativity in who might support that work, or fund it, is going to be required," she said.
Cole urged the EIANZ to take up the mantle of bringing the consulting sector together around broader projects. It could engage other industries with a stake in an issue, approach government in a more sophisticated way and establish a leadership position.
Skarbek adds two other models. Consultants with different skill sets could come together to tackle holistic problems, while partnering with independent groups such as ClimateWorks is useful in helping avoid accusations of commercial interest.
Developing holistic perspective
Cole expects consultants to become more "systems-capable", with a broader, multi-disciplinary capacity evolving over time in response to broader issues.
"We are seeing this systems focus now in the concept of cumulative impact. Well I'd like to see it turned into this concept; cumulative possibility. Turn it on its head and think about what are the alternatives rather than the narrow technical solution," he said.
"Coal seam gas is a good example. At the moment they are talking about either reinjecting the water into the ground or beneficial reuse, which has got people talking about ways to get rid of large volumes of water cheaply and quickly.
"What I think we should be doing, and what I'd like to see a consultancy doing, is looking at the region 30 years out and thinking how can this resource be used most effectively to enable the long-term sustainability of the region.
"One idea I've heard of is growing particular crops that would be pyrolised and used for biochar, and for the output of the water being used for the long-term productivity of soils in the region.
"That is not the kind of thinking you get from a commercial consultant looking for an expedient, short-term fix."
Cole has brought in some heavyweight speakers to illustrate the key challenges he sees for environmental consultants. Former Brisbane City Council CEO Jude Munro knows something about negotiating complex outcomes and dealing with conflicting aims and people having worked for a Liberal mayor with a Labor majority.
Dr Jamie Pittock is director of international programs for the Australian National University's UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance. He's all about holistic and deliverable solutions.
And Ellen Sandall, the national director of the Australian Youth Coalition for Climate Change, will provide some insights into a key cultural challenge for what Cole considers a conservative industry - engaging and enthusing Generation Y.
It promises to be one of the most interesting conferences for a long time.
'Facing the future - Actions for the Environment Profession' is on the Sunshine Coast on September 28-30.