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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Tutor QandA

As an applied, practitioner-oriented Master's and Postgraduate Certificate programme, the Sustainability Leadership for the Built Environment (IDBE) is designed to draw upon insights from leading academic and industry professionals. We asked some our course supervisors about the importance and impact of sustainability education for built environment professionals, and the sustainability trends and developments they are most excited about within the sector.

What do you think makes CISL’s built environment courses unique?

Dr Kayla Friedman, Course Director, Sustainability Leadership for the Built Environment (IDBE): The courses uniquely provide ‘next level’ education for built environment professionals in an industry that so desperately needs it. Most built environment professionals will have spent their education achieving their license/ registration/ chartership through learning their professional ‘deep’ skills.  These ‘deep’ skills are what will make them valuable to the teams they are a part of. However, the practice of the industry requires that professionals from different deep disciplines work together effectively, and this training is sorely lacking in all of the professional discipline training. It leads to a fractured and siloed industry that breeds mistrust or animosity between the disciplines. Our courses uniquely provide students with the opportunity and resources to learn how to work better together to address and overcome today’s pressing challenges – providing our students with the leadership skills they will need to make a difference in the future.

Dr Francesco Pomponi, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science and Head of the Resource Efficient Built Environment Lab (REBEL) at the Edinburgh Napier University: They draw from across a breath of disciplines, truly aiming for societal and industrial relevance whilst breaking down traditional disciplinary silos. Having fully-fledged world leading academics, incredibly successful business leaders and everything in between ensures a thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating environment to students.

Dr Eime Tobari, Social Value Strategist and Founder/Director of COCREATIF: The focus on outcomes. The courses attract people from a wide range of disciplines who share interests in sustainability issues and offers a platform to learn and innovate through inter-disciplinary approach. 

Munish Datta, CISL Fellow and Director, UK Green Building Council: The incredible diversity of thought always impresses me – from professions covering every part of the real estate sector, and the width of representation in terms of gender, race, culture, age, to a truly global delegation. It is rare to find such a unique mix of delegates, contributors and tutors all providing unique perspectives that make for a truly inclusive learning experience.

Michael Pelken, CISL Senior Associate and Director P+ Studio and Consulting:

CISL’s built environment courses tackle the hardest of our current global challenges… they benefit from being part of the larger university network at Cambridge, and thus draw expertise from a wide range of disciplines and a large pool of world leading expertise. But what is special is that CISL as an organisation is also extremely well connected to leaders in industry, policy, and government internationally. Intense exchanges inform and enrich the debate and uniquely ground rigorous academic teaching and research in a real-world context.


Why is sustainability education important for built environment professionals?

Dr Kayla Friedman: The built environment is known to be one of the larger contributors to our global challenges, and the real-life projects that our students work on in their day-to-day lives are either going to help solve or continue to contribute to those challenges. The industry has not been the quickest to respond to these challenges and many mid-career professionals will have done their education at a time when sustainability was a nice to have add-on, not a mandatory, integrated component to decision-making. Many mid-career professionals will have learned what they know on the job, through CPD or wider industry awareness but may lack the confidence to act decisively. Higher education can provide working professionals with the tools and skills they need to make confident decisions, and the space to consider the real-world projects and situations they find themselves in as the basis for their learning - not just hypothetical ones.

Dr Francesco Pomponi: Holistic sustainability in the built environment is a relatively new topic. Much of the work in the past decades in this space revolved around the energy efficiency agenda. It is now clear this is hugely insufficient to address the multi-faceted scale of the challenge: we need to understand and estimate environmental impacts from a whole life perspective, whilst promoting societal wellbeing and a fast-paced switch to a zero-carbon economy. None of it has ever been offered in traditional degrees in the past, and that’s why mid-career built environment professionals would greatly benefit by CISL offering.

Dr Eime Tobari: Sustainability is not a good-to-have. Businesses that do not support sustainability do not have a place in our society. Built environment professionals in particular have great responsibility for the future as our work leaves long-term legacy, shaping cities and our lives.

Munish Datta: Whilst the world of ‘work’ enriches in important ways and builds experience, by the nature of it, it also creates an ‘unlearning’ of the rigour and critical thinking. Making sustainability education part of professional development broadens views with the latest thought leadership and challenges preconceptions through the rigour of critical, evidence-based reflection.

Michael Pelken: Sustainability education is extremely relevant for both, students that are seeking to complete an initial Cambridge degree, as much as for built environment professionals that are looking to become leaders in their respective fields. Sustainability and resilience are overarching concepts that cannot be ignored any longer, affect every discipline, and require awareness and change management skills across sectors. They directly impact every aspect of our industry, design, delivery, and the operation of increasingly complex built environment assets… as much as all of us as users, and society at large.


What built environment sustainability trends or developments are you excited about and why?

Dr Kayla Friedman: There are so many things going on that it’s hard to pick just one! I’m very excited about the rising interest and commitment to retrofit and an acknowledgement of and respect for the embedded costs already invested into our existing built environment. There’s been some great exemplar projects in this direction- and CISL is involved in our own exemplar Entopia project which has been exciting to see take shape. There’s a rising interest in circular systems for buildings and cities that I’m enthusiastic about. I’m interested in new materials- tall timber continues to advance in scope and demonstration. I’m also following with great interest debates around issues like zero carbon concrete and thinking about the infrastructure that our societies rely on and how they can transform into sustainable propositions.


Dr Francesco Pomponi: The most exciting development is for me also the greatest challenge, that is avoiding burden shifting and ensuring that progress is made in mitigating environmental degradation across all impact categories while improving the quality of life of people and sustaining the economy. A case in point is embodied water in construction: it does not seem well correlated to embodied energy or carbon and water scarcity mostly affect developing countries. A narrow focus on embodied carbon reduction in the global north could therefore have unintended consequences on embodied water in the global south. This is both a threat and an opportunity, with lots of work required in this space.

Dr Eime Tobari: Recognition of and increasing interest in social aspects. The built environment does not only impact on the environmental sustainability but affects social and economic wellbeing of our society. Also opportunities to address these issues that are unlocked by emergence of data and digital technologies.

Munish Datta: I am intrigued by how innovation and technology is unlocking huge opportunity in every part of the real estate value chain in terms of how we design (with BIM, AR and VR), how we build (modularly and automatedly) and how we operate efficiently (smart IOT sensors, AI). I think we will see huge growth in the integration of blue and green infrastructure within the built environment to create more resilience, build back nature and attain better health and wellbeing outcomes for occupants. This blend of human ingenuity and natural wonder is really exciting.

Michael Pelken: I believe that more conscious and strategic interdisciplinary collaboration is important and adds an exciting dimension while engaging with colleagues from different sectors. This is why I am part of the Sustainability Leadership for the Built Environment programme. But the urgent need to change established design practices and foster knowledge and -technology transfer in that area is only part of the much bigger picture… truly sustainable solutions at the required level of change need to be driven by well executed cross-sector innovations with impact. I am passionate about that and enjoy this challenging work very much, both in practice as much as when working with my CISL students.


What benefits do participants gain from learning alongside other built environment professionals?

Dr Kayla Friedman: In their real-world contexts, our students are constrained by their contracts, by business sensitivity, by deadlines, and by any number of factors that restrict open and honest communication. Yet, there is so much to our students can learn from simply talking to each other. Our courses give students an opportunity to openly discuss, question, and debate real issues that they deal with every day in a safe and collaborative environment. They learn through engagement and participation how other disciplines see and approach the same problem. They learn how to communicate better, and they subsequently learn how to work more effectively together – which is critical for the professional environment. Our students can also experiment and try new approaches that is not easily done on real projects with real money and resources on the line. I am always gratified when our graduates report that they have learned as much from one another as they have from us. They also typically maintain those beneficial networks of support and dialogue well beyond the programme.

Dr Francesco Pomponi: Contamination of ideas. Year after year I have seen the most diverse cohort of students in CISL’s built environment programme. No two cohorts are the same, each participant bring a unique combination of their education, professional experience, cultural background and lifelong skillset. The practical nature of the course and the unicity of the assignments, which sit at the interface of industrial relevance and academic rigour, make the learning immensely valuable and tailored to the aspirations and career ambition of each participant.

Dr Eime Tobari: CISL offers inter-disciplinary courses and attracts international students. It offers opportunities for participants to gain holistic perspectives and to learn from experiences in different countries and cultures. Learning will not be limited to the subject of sustainability but would include cultural understanding and cross-cultural collaboration.  

Munish Datta: Too often, the individual links in the built environment value chain operate in independent silos – investors, planners, designers, builders and operators all thinking singularly about their link and not the whole lifecycle. What is unique about CISLs built environment courses is that all of these disciplines are brought together to jointly consider each individual link, realising that by thinking of them as a whole value chain, there can be so much more value realised than by their individual parts. 

Michael Pelken: The benefits that course participants gain from learning alongside with other built environment professionals is enormous. In fact, I would argue that it is as important as working with qualified faculty members in a rigorous and innovative Cambridge curriculum. Beyond the learning, participants grow an invaluable peer network of likeminded colleagues that is interdisciplinary and forward thinking in nature. CISL course work is relevant and rewarding to be part of right now, however it provides a life-time networking opportunity in a global leadership network that goes way beyond time on the course.

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