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Building Sustainability Culture on Infrastructure Projects

Building Sustainability Culture on Infrastructure Projects

By Ann Azzopardi, Senior Sustainability Consultant, WolfPeak

Working in environmental and sustainability management roles on infrastructure projects over the past decade has revealed that there remains a degree of cynicism towards sustainability throughout the construction industry.

Despite this, around 70 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are either directly attributable to, or influenced by, infrastructure. This is documented in the March 2020 Issues Paper: Reshaping Infrastructure for a net zero emissions future, published in partnership by the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia, ClimateWorks Australia, and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

In the 2019-20 Federal Budget, the Australian Government announced a commitment to invest $100 billion in transport infrastructure projects over the next 10 years. The importance of this investment was reaffirmed by federal and state governments in the wake of the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must remember that preceding the pandemic were the horrific megafires that burned for months across Australia, causing devastation to our communities and the natural environment. The urgency to address the climate crisis has not disappeared, and it is now, more than ever, that we need to centre sustainability in infrastructure delivery.

Due to its all-encompassing nature, integrating sustainability across project teams is key to achieving truly sustainable outcomes in infrastructure delivery. This is heavily influenced by culture, which shapes how teams operate and is both a driver and reflection of performance.

The construction industry still appears to be trailing in terms of embracing ideals like sustainability. There remains a culture resistant to change that is more comfortable operating within the status quo. While this is attributable to numerous aspects, such as short project timeframes, budget pressures, scope restrictions, and aversion to perceived risk, a key contributing factor is a lack of engagement and buy-in across project teams.

The importance of engagement is widely recognised and reported in terms of broader organisational culture change and translates well to the sustainability management space. Fostering project team environments where people are engaged with achieving sustainability objectives and targets can shift the culture of the construction industry towards embracing sustainability as a core value.

Through my experience leading sustainability on major infrastructure projects, I’ve recognised the following key factors for ensuring a project team is engaged and that sustainable outcomes can be achieved in the delivery of infrastructure.

1. Establishing shared values

Defining desired values and behaviours sets the framework around which culture and engagement are built. The process of setting project values should be collaborative and must be backed by strong leadership. Setting values around achieving sustainable outcomes on projects creates alignment across a project team. Having this shared vision promotes engagement through supporting connection and the feeling of contributing towards a greater goal.

Established values provide an anchoring point and set a clear direction for the project. They should be reflected in day to day operations, and feature throughout policies, plans, objectives, and targets. The values should also inform decision making, allowing consistency across broader project management.

2. Sharing responsibility and strengthening accountability

Sustainability management is wide-reaching and covers all aspects of project delivery - from design development to stakeholder engagement, procurement to environmental management, safety to all facets of construction. A project team must therefore establish a culture of shared responsibility to achieve sustainable outcomes in infrastructure delivery, where everyone has a role to play.

Further to this, team members need to feel ownership over delegated aspects to have accountability. Ownership can create a sense of empowerment, leading to increased engagement with broader sustainability values. To facilitate this sense of ownership, it is important to recognise and harness the strengths of team members when delegating responsibility.

3. Communicating and collaborating

As sustainability management requires engagement with a broad range of personnel, it is essential to tailor communication depending on your audience. This can be vital to driving and achieving sustainable outcomes. How sustainability aspects are communicated to the Project Director will differ markedly to conversations with a Project Engineer, or the senior stakeholder manager, or your subcontractors onsite.

Careful consideration around communication styles is important to establishing relationships across the project team, which supports collaboration. This helps to frame messaging, making it relevant and personal for people within the team. Inclusive language is also key, as reliance on jargon and terms not widely recognised will lead to disengagement.

4. Celebrating the wins

Reward and recognition are effective tools for empowering a team and increasing engagement with broader values. Sustainability provides another avenue for highlighting and celebrating successes across project delivery. Helping people understand their contribution reinforces engagement and helps build a positive culture.

All wins - big and small - should be celebrated to reinforce collective achievement and remind members of the project team that their contributions are valued. While we often view the larger, ground-breaking initiatives as the drivers of change in infrastructure sustainability, we tend to underestimate the value and power of small wins. For example, recognising people’s individual efforts to recycle can be just as important for encouraging engagement and driving cultural change as winning industry awards.

5. Providing and cultivating leadership

Underpinning each of the above factors, is the importance of strong leadership. This is perhaps the most vital aspect of supporting sustainability culture across a project team. In this context, leadership relates to every team member, not just those who have central responsibility for sustainability management. Driving sustainable outcomes during project delivery must be led from the top down and the ground up. Both are equally vital for encouraging engagement and effecting cultural change.

It is also important to recognise who the sustainability champions are throughout a project team, those who can advocate for sustainability in their subject matter areas. This is particularly on large infrastructure projects. Delegating responsibility to, collaborating with, and rewarding these team members further reinforces engagement with sustainability values on projects. 

In summary, the impact of infrastructure construction is undeniable, but it also presents an important opportunity to create change. This is even more true given the government’s commitment to infrastructure investment over the next decade. Sustainability practitioners on construction projects have the opportunity to influence cultural change, supporting a shift from a compliance mentality to pushing the boundaries beyond business as usual. It is important to ensure this culture shift is then transferred from project to project and contributes to building momentum across the broader industry.