SBE16Toronto Keynote Dr. Ray Cole: Rethinking Our Built Environment

By Meirav Even-Har,

Under the banner of Regenerative & Resilient Urban Environments, experts from the Americas will converge in Toronto on Sept 19-20 for SBE16Toronto – a golden opportunity to bring science, design, and inspiration under one roof. The key word is inspiration for the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Ray Cole, professor and former Director of the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. “Inspiring change comes about by inspiring people to act,” he notes.  Dr. Cole’s presentation focuses on a necessary evolution from green buildings toward regenerative approaches that can not only inspire us, but also be the driver for the collective change required if we are to make a leap toward a sustainable society.

Green buildings are important but there are differences…

While green buildings have concretely helped reduce the environmental footprint of the built environment, there are key elements of regenerative development that need to be incorporated into our urban areas for long-lasting positive changes. While green design is fundamentally reductive – doing less harm; regenerative design is a systems-based approach that not only looks at healing past damages and creating a positive effect, but recognizes the very systems within which a building exists. Dr. Cole explains, “It is about understanding and responding to the social, environmental and economic characteristics and potentials of place.”  Similar to the way in which organizations identify and engage their stakeholders, this approach identifies what systems are affected by a given structure, and how it is affected by the other elements within that system.

Another key distinction is a shift in focus from building design and function as the primary goal, to the building’s role and contribution to the larger system that it exists within. “We have to accept the built environment is a complex socio-ecological system and therefore have to take a systems approach to engage it”, says Dr. Cole. He continues by explaining that a fundamental difference in the regenerative approach is accepting uncertainty. While it is one of the toughest notions to accept given that the building industry is risk averse, uncertainty exists, and by accepting this reality, professionals would be able to seek out flexible tactics and adaptive solutions.

A regenerative approach also possibly blurs the line between how we approach environmental strategies for new and existing buildings. Owners and managers of both can adopt regenerative design thinking through inquiry: How can a given building contribute toward the economic, social, and environmental wellbeing of its immediate and larger surrounding?

Shift in value thinking is required…

One of the most poignant hurdles for the wide spread implementation of a regenerative approach is the fundamental way we approach projects. Current business cases primarily centre around the financial gains or value accrued by building owner, developer or inhabitant. Dr. Cole stresses that if society is going to transition toward a sustainable future, we will need to redefine what we mean by value: “One can argue that it is how a building contributes to the larger system that adds ecological, social and economic value to its context. Fundamentally, a healthy system means almost everyone benefits; while no one is okay in one that is impaired.”

The future can be bright but first some hurdles…

Dr. Cole’s three key challenges for adoption of a regenerative approach to building design includes: shifting focus; allowing time; and changing how we measure success. The first challenge – shifting focus – is the move away from the building’s function to its role. The role of a building denotes greater responsibility and a difficult change from our current understanding of buildings. Dr. Cole suggests that this will likely prove satisfying and motivating for designers, but private sector clients may initially have greater difficulty moving beyond meeting a narrow set of required performance requirements.

The second challenge relates to upfront design. Discovering what is important and the potential role that buildings can play; means greater up-front design time as well as engaged a wider range of stakeholders to provide greater assurance that the initial ambitions of a project are maintained through time.  Although there is evidence to show that allocating greater time upfront saves money in the long run, it is not part of a typical project design, which is bound by strict timelines and cost distribution. Once again, such a shift will not be easy to make.

Thirdly – and perhaps most significant, according to Dr. Cole – is the challenge of what constitutes ‘successful’ performance. Successful green building performance can be readily established and communicated – the percentage reductions in energy and water use, carbon emissions, etc., or the attainment of a level of certification within LEED – gold or platinum.. “Unlike a certification assessment, notes Dr. Cole, “how does one know at the outset that the building will fully realize its regenerative role within the context given the uncertainties inherent in the evolutionary nature of complex systems? Without a simple measure of success practitioners may find it quite difficult to convey their ambitions to clients who want a high level of certainty, in an approach that accepts uncertainty.”

Dr. Cole summarizes by noting that we are in the infancy of change but that a new way of thinking and designing buildings is already taking place (as demonstrated at UBC’s campus). Regenerative approaches invite a new way of understanding the role of buildings, consequently leading to powerful and inspiring discussions about the urban environment. As Dr. Cole notes, it is the power to inspire and challenge that can leave all of us optimistic about a more sustainable future.


Dr. Ray Cole’s keynote presentation titled “Regenerative Development: Reframing the Role of Buildings” will take place Monday, September 19, 2016 as part of SBE16Toronto. Read the entire SBE16Toronto program here and register at