The fourth bottom line

With new laws governing sustainable construction to be introduced in January, Mohammed Dulaimi of the British University in Dubai, looks at what this means for the UAE.

There is no doubt that 'sustainability' is the new buzzword in business today, as 'quality assurance', 'TQM' and 'business process re-engineering' were before it. After the emergence of each concept, firms queued up to consultants wanting to get involved, without understanding what it really meant to their business or its impact on their performance.

This reminds me of the story of a managing director of a contractor in the UK. This managing director had the vision that TQM was to be the way forward for his firm. After two years of meetings and workshops, as well as paying out large amounts to management consultants, the company concluded that it didn't know what TQM meant to its business. If the company had invested enough resources at the start to make sense of TQM, I'm sure excessive cost and effort could have been avoided.

However, this story does have a happy ending (no, the MD was not sacked). The soul searching the firm endured to make sense of what was thrown at it enabled staff to identify and introduce new and better ideas, helping to propel the firm into successful territory.

Learning the lesson myself, I decided to investigate 'sustainability' and find out what sustainability means to the construction industry, in general, and particularly to the UAE.

First, I think we in the construction industry should be aware of the role our industry plays in the development of nations. Our industry is one of the most significant in any economy - hence we should make significant contributions to the effort of achieving the nation's goals. We should also be aware that we have a wide range of stakeholders who may benefit from our activities and may have conflicting priorities, concerns and needs. Therefore, we cannot ignore the needs, challenges and aspirations of our nation.

Many articles appearing in Construction Week have offered many definitions to sustainability. The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) in the UK provides a definition as "the achievement of better quality of life through the efficient use of resources, which realise continued social progress while maintaining stable economic growth and caring for the environment". David Pearce (2007) provided a much simpler explanation, "to make individual well-being rise over time". The OGC definition, like most available definitions, focuses on the three familiar 'pillars' of sustainability. Pearce's definition, however simple, opens the door for every country to develop the concept in way that is more relevant to its own needs.

Before we go on, it is important to know a bit about where the three pillars of sustainable development emerged from. The three pillars emerged in an attempt by advocates of the environment to provide an incentive to business by integrating concerns for the environment and society with business's traditional concern for the economic performance of the business - 'he bottom line'. The three pillars of sustainability emerged to persuade the corporate world to replace their bottom line, with a new 'triple bottom line' (TBL). TBL, therefore, is to provide an agenda for the continuous success and well-being of people.

I would like to pose the question as to how we would make individuals' well-being rise over time here in the UAE. Of course, the three pillars of sustainable development of environment, society and economy are relevant. However, the countries of the Middle East should include a fourth 'bottom line', key to their prosperity and the sustainable development. Any development initiative in any sector should make a positive contribution to the country in order to enhance its future security and create the environment and conditions for all sections of society to live together in harmony. I propose that we add a fourth pillar of sustainable development, Harmony, Integration and Security (HIS).

This new model for sustainability demands the development of strategies and action plans to offer government departments, public and private organisations and firms an integrated approach to address the four pillars. The proposed fourth pillar attracted attention in other parts of the world. The UK, for example, recognised that the well being of people requires not only economic prosperity but a focus on creating 'strong communities'.

As to what are the main strategies that would help the UAE address HIS, that should be the subject of a detail study. However, there is no doubt that the way we, in the construction industry, plan, design, construct and manage the built environment has a direct impact on the well being of people, in particular, on how well individuals and the different sections of society relate and interact with each other.

One of the main things that would enable the UAE to achieve HIS is reducing the UAE reliance on expatriates. You may ask 'how this would be different to current efforts in this direction?' I will explain using the construction industry as an example.

The domination of the construction industry by non-nationals is one of the main concerns, as with the other sectors of industry. With over 1,000 active construction projects, at present, worth US$750 billion, the country needs to create opportunities for its nationals to increase their share in this sector. In every project there will be a number of options as to the way the building can be designed, constructed, operated and maintained. If we have the knowledge of the local skills available, the extent such abilities can be stretched on this particular project, and opportunities to acquire new skills and expertise that would help a step improvement on the following projects.

In order for such principles to be integrated, we need to provide the decision-makers with the tools that would inform them of the trade-off that needs to be made. I suggest that we need to develop measures, key performance indicators, for the different aspects of HIS. Although, delivering HIS may require extra resources the client should be encouraged to invest in such an effort. This would provide an incentive to develop new practices and embracing technologies that corresponds to current pools of national skills, as well as giving the nation the strength and the confidence in the sustainability of the development of the country.

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