Shenal Kekad (SK): Hello, and welcome. I’m Shenal Kakad, the Head of Private Markets at Barclays Private Bank, and today I’m delighted to be joined by Lord Norman Foster.
Lord Foster is one of the world’s most renowned architects, with a prolific and multi-award-winning global portfolio. A pioneer and champion of green buildings, sustainability has been embedded in his thinking since he started his career in the 1960s.
He is also President of the Norman Foster Foundation, which promotes interdisciplinary thinking and research to help new generations of architects, designers and urbanists to anticipate the future.
So who better to join us to discuss sustainable living and the future of our cities? Welcome, Lord Norman Foster.
Lord Norman Foster (LNF): Hello.
SK: It feels especially timely to be discussing sustainability with the UN COP26 taking place in Glasgow. Our latest ‘Investing for Global Impact’ report revealed that almost half of impact investors are targeting the theme of sustainable cities in their portfolios. So perhaps you could start by explaining to us your vision for sustainable cities for the future. How will they differ from cities of today?
LNF: I suggest that COVID has exaggerated, accelerated trends that were already apparent and cities historically have always bounced back from crises. So if you think of London and the Thames Embankment modern sanitation, it was all accelerated by the cholera epidemic of the middle of the 19th century.
So what trends are we seeing already in terms of the city that might give clues about the future? We’re seeing parallel trends around working and mobility. So, yes, people were working at home before, more time now working at home, but I suggest that that will balance out. The end result will be less concentration around a rush hour, a wider spread of traffic.
Put that together with some of the trends in mobility, where we’re seeing the rise of automation, electric vehicles, cleaner, quieter, safer, and with artificial intelligence the potential for traffic to platoon, to be safely navigated rather like aircraft are by air traffic control, so denser concentrations of traffic.
The end result is a city where more space is given to the pedestrian. Again, those are trends that we're already aware of. It's not that long ago that, for example, Trafalgar Square was a roundabout, and something like 20 years ago, we closed one side of Trafalgar Square. Many people have forgotten that. It had a transformational effect and that was a very protracted process.
One of the changes of COVID is the public perception. There is a greater appetite for change. We're seeing outdoor restaurants, dining, on a scale that we haven't seen before in so many cities. So that move to a city which is more walkable, more pedestrian friendly, with the opportunity to plant more trees, to make the city greener, quieter, safer, that in my optimistic view is the way in which cities are moving. And more and more people are literally physically moving to cities. That's an irreversible trend.
On the counter side to that, I think something like 75% of world cities are on the coastline and huge swathes of population are within commuting distances of those cities. So rising sea levels, issues of energy, how we provide clean energy, I suggest that nuclear has a major role to play here. That's not to in any way question the move to renewable such as solar, solar panels and wind turbines, but they're supplying a very, very small fraction of the energy requirements currently.
Nuclear I would suggest, not just in terms of the large traditional power station, but the potential for smaller micro-reactors to create mini grids and to replace and to question the larger power grids. We've seen the way in which those have essentially dissolved in communications. We no longer have endless telephone poles on the skyline, and the physicality of wires connecting receivers in homes, and telephone exchanges with hundreds of operators, all that has essentially evaporated.
And the same thing could happen to the big grid, which already we're seeing in the Californian summer of last year, 2.5 million without power because of an ageing infrastructure of distribution. We're seeing the same thing in the Texan winter and more recently a Louisiana flood. So I think that these are tendencies that's going to eventually transform the city.
SK: Thank you. So you’ve touched on already the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on some major changes in the way in which we live and work. Which changes do you think will endure, and what can we learn from the experiences when it comes to sustainable living?
LNF: Well, I would suggest that the move to greater pedestrianisation, to a city which is greener, which is quieter, again it's, I think everybody has been very pleasantly surprised by the way in which, for example, restaurants have taken over. Outdoor dining has removed large tracts of road and the traffic still keeps moving.
So that reapportionment of the space in the city that’s given to mobility, that's given to the car, again another trend that younger generations are less about ownership and have a greater appetite for ridesharing. That’s another tendency that will reduce the density of traffic in the city and again make it more human and walkable.
SK: Yes, the reduction in traffic has certainly been one of the more positive aspects of the pandemic. Another trend we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic is a shift back towards local sourcing and production. How do you see the global/local dynamic working in the future and how can we make supply chains more sustainable?
LNF: It's a very interesting question because whether it's the production of automobiles or aircraft, we've seen the move to fewer and larger providers. The same thing is happening in the world of accounting, construction, and it is absolutely true that globalisation has lifted millions, if not billions, out of poverty and had a transforming social impact.
But it's also had its downside. We've seen the creation of rust belts in some economies, so I think that there'll be a rebalancing in that respect. I think we've also seen the vulnerability of supply lines, where there's an overconcentration of some products in some countries.
So, the potential to diversify and get a more appropriate balance between the local and the global.
And again, I think that we're seeing some of those tendencies in agriculture, away from the countryside farming to urban farming, and as some building types become more redundant like, for example, the multi-storey car park, that would be the perfect urban farm for the future, with hydroponics which consumes less water, needs less in the way of fertiliser, and if we see the move away from fossil fuels and the by-products of fossil fuels like fertilisers, and water becomes more precious, then again that is a redistribution that could be organically literally taking place.
SK: You’ve touched on fossil fuels, which leads me on to my next question – it's estimated that cities are responsible for around 70% of global emissions. How can we reduce cities’ carbon footprint and make them more resilient to environmental factors?
LNF: Well, like so many of these issues, it does come down to energy and the production of clean energy, and solar and, I mean renewables in the form of solar and wind can only go so far. So I think that again, the reduction of a carbon footprint in terms of buildings, the lifecycle and the production of clean energy again those are vital to reducing a carbon footprint.
SK: And are there any new technologies in development that you think could be beneficial in this respect?
LNF: Well, again I can see the potential for building materials to integrate the solar component so it's not a retrofit. And again, a move to higher levels of insulation and cement, which has a lower carbon content and to greater prefabrication. But again, these are tendencies, these are trends which are already evident. So in that sense, the urgency of addressing global warming will intensify that, will magnify it.
SK: And of course it’s not just environmental factors that we need to consider in making cities more sustainable, there’s the social aspects around quality of life as well. You’ve previously highlighted that more than a billion people live in informal settlements without access to clean water, modern sanitation or power for heating lighting or cooking, and unless this issue is addressed by 2050, one in three of the world's population will live in these conditions. How can we tackle this issue?
LNF: Well, I think that first there has to be a wider recognition that many of these communities are communities of hope and not despair, and that they, that socially and in terms of sustainability, it makes much more sense to upgrade and transform those communities rather than disperse them, bulldoze the communities and relocate. And again, it comes down to energy. If you have enough clean energy then you can convert human waste to fertiliser, you can transform from within.
And there are a number of experiments globally, particularly in India, where transferring land rights for example is having a revolutionary effect in terms of transforming those communities from within and bringing them up to the same standard of living that we take for granted in the formal city as opposed to the informal city.
SK: And how do you think we can we design cities to better meet the needs of different generations? For example, how can we improve opportunities for the younger generation and support an increasingly ageing population?
LNF: Well, I think that we have to move to a more circular economy and that means a more holistic approach to design, so breaking down the silos between the different specialities that are responsible for running a city. For example, those who are concerned with waste, if they're working with those who are concerned for energy, then the potential to convert waste to energy rather than landfill for example.
The younger generations are, as we've touched on, less about ownership and much more about mobility. And again, I would suggest perhaps more health conscious and more demanding of those working environments that move fresh air, have high ventilation rates, a new generation of much more socially orientated workspaces, and those buildings of an earlier generation, which recirculate refrigerated air for example, are less healthy. Those are much more likely to be converted to residential. And again, those are trends that we're already seeing.
I think that mixed up with this, younger generations are also leaving rural areas for opportunities in the city, as agriculture becomes much more mechanised. I'm reminded of one project in a village in Switzerland that seeks to revitalise that village by encouraging a new kind of tourist, a working tourist, a third place rather, to supplement the traditional workplace and the work at home. So again, that as a project for example was pre-COVID and to a degree, unconsciously, has anticipated some of these changes brought about by the pandemic.
SK: So thinking about all these different elements, how far does a city like London have to go before it can be truly classified as sustainable?
LNF: That’s such a relative and complicated question that it defies a simple answer. I think that holistically, take all the trends that we're talking about, and any city just has to move closer to reducing its carbon footprint and the production of energy has to be a big issue for urbanisation globally. That really is right at the heart of everything because it touches mobility, it touches the residents, it touches the workplace.
So there has to be an acceptance of the criticality of energy production and addressing that I think inevitably leads you to the issue of waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear by far is the safest, cleanest of those energy sources. It's the only one where there is total control of the waste and the waste is absolutely minimal.
At the moment, you'll have something like 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide which is emitted into the atmosphere annually and a huge proportion of that is coming out of the energy sector. So addressing that is central to climate control, to mitigating the effects of global warming.
SK: Yes, absolutely. So one challenge facing investors who are looking to support sustainable cities is how to measure impact. How do you measure success in your work in sustainability terms?
LNF: Traditionally by those parameters, those ratings, whether they’re LEED or BREEAM, but with an acknowledgement that those don't really go far enough. They don't cover the embodied, the carbon within the products that come together to comprise the building. So those as ratings need to be developed further and to be more sophisticated in their application.
They're an excellent start. They're an excellent recognition of the footprint of the building, in the same way that there is an emergence of those ratings about the health of the occupants, so the extent to which those buildings are sensitive to the health of the occupants. And so those as ratings need to be developed to be more sensitive to the wider implications of carbon.
SK: Fantastic. Lord Foster, it's been a pleasure talking to you today. If I could ask one final question – who's been your biggest influence in terms of your thinking around sustainability?
LNF: I think it's those individuals who, at the time that we started to practise as architects in the 1960s, were drawing attention to the fragility of the planet, each in different ways. So Rachel Carson, for example, in Silent Spring was talking about the effects of chemicals, of pesticides. Buckminster Fuller was with his Operating Manual for Planet Earth again drawing attention to the issues which command the headlines today, but at that time were seen very much as kind of fringe activist activity.
And perhaps if I put a date around this, Buckminster Fuller, that book was 1969, probably could not have happened without the space missions, the 1968 Earth rising photographs that were showing the very, very thin atmosphere around the planet. So it was probably space travel that provoked those early realisations. And so those influences are as valid, if not more valid, today than they were at that time, so many decades ago.
SK: Lord Norman Foster, it's been an inspiration talking to you. Thank you very much for sharing your fascinating insights and optimism around building a more sustainable future. Thank you very much.
LNF: Thank you.