Building a sustainable future: The reality and the hype

Chandran Nair spoke at the ULI Global Real Estate Conference in Abu Dhabi on 13 February 2008.

GIFT founder and chief executive, Chandran Nair was invited to be a keynote speaker at the ULI Global Real Estate Conference in Abu Dhabi on 13 February 2008 to address key long-term sustainability issues for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with a particular emphasis on Abu Dhabi. The forum brought together international experts in sustainable development and key regional leaders and decision makers to explore how global best practices and lessons learned can be applied locally.

In his speech, Mr. Nair stressed the need for GCC countries to balance their extraordinary economic growth with long term development and sustainability objectives. As GCC countries continue to awe the world with new towering skyscrapers, super malls and luxury hotels fueled largely from oil money, he believes that now is the time for decision makers to ask hard questions about the direction of development. Mr. Nair argued that while foreign experts and workers have been at the forefront of building the region’s infrastructure, the responsibility in addressing long-term sustainability issues lies in the hands of local decision makers and others who call this region their home. Currently, sustainability initiatives are tied to foreign workers and experts who have no long-term interest in the various countries. The impact of getting it wrong, Mr. Nair pointed out, could be very costly as countries such as China and India are now finding out. Another daunting challenge is whether local advisors at the top, including advisors to Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum (ruler of Dubai) also truly have their country’s interest at heart. Grumblings among the different circles indicate that this is debatable.

Mr. Nair continued by stating that the key challenges facing the region will be in how to address the environmental damages brought on by wealth creation and rising consumption. With a buoyant population of young labor and foreign workers, people in the region have long been spoiled by cheap energy and as a result, have become its most extravagant consumers. This form of extreme consumption, Mr. Nair stated, has resulted in freshwater shortages, desertification, air pollution and a host of other unintended impacts.

Pointing to the various sustainability projects in Dubai and specifically in Abu Dhabi, Mr. Nair believes that while the initiatives are positive, much more is needed. In particular, he was critical of initiatives such as the Masdar initiative - a multi-billion dollar attempt at building a “carbon-neutral” city – which he dismissed as a PR exercise. What is really needed, Mr. Nair argued, is for decision makers to pursue local solutions while also being part of the global solution. Specifically, Mr. Nair predicts that the keys to long-term success would also involve strong leadership from governments, new institutions, public education and involvement of both the private sector as well as civil society.

Other speakers at the conference included: Peter Calthorpe, Principal, Calthorpe Associates; Wael Al Lawati, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, The Wave Muscat; Mahlon Apgar, IV, Visiting Fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford; Kinder Baumgardner, Principal, SWA Group; Larry Beasley, Founding Principal, Beasley and Associates, Planning Inc.; Joe Brown, President and Chief Executive Officer, EDAW, Inc. etc.

Mr. Nair is a frequent speaker at conferences and other corporate events around the world.