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Five strategies for projects to become more sustainable

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Project managers are increasingly expected to take environmental factors into account when it comes to sustainability, but it’s easier said than done.

“[Project managers are] required to take a client brief and execute it to the best of their ability, but it’s often not clear what that employer or client expects in terms of sustainability,” says Tom Taylor, former Association for Project Management president and visiting professor at the University of Salford. “Is it specifically mentioned in the brief? Is it framed as a cost-in-use? Are they asking for metrics around carbon footprint? What about the implications of decommissioning? Getting those factors into briefs would be a major step forward.”

There are proprietary methodologies designed to help project managers get to grips with sustainability. The GPM Global network, for example, established its Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods (PRiSM) approach nearly a decade ago to help projects align to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are some of the methods project managers can deploy in order to run a more sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly project.

The five Ps

'Our approach is called P5. It’s a matrix that project managers can use to make that kind of wider assessment,' says Antony della Porta, executive adviser to the network in the UK and founder of the Sustainable PM initiative. “To people, planet and profit [the traditional ‘triple bottom line’], we add programmes and projects – making a specific link between what we do as project managers and those outcomes. It covers environmental and social elements, as well as profitability, economics and capital deployment, all of which are necessary if you’re going to be truly sustainable.”

A holistic project management approach

Project managers need to look at the bigger picture throughout their project’s lifespan to measure and monitor its environmental impacts. 'Project managers need to think of themselves as people who do more than just cope with the post-sanctioned stages of a project,' says Rob Leslie-Carter, a director at Arup and a former APM Project Manager of the Year. “We should be acting as advisers to clients at a strategic level, influencing the purpose of the project and the deliverables – all with an eye to sustainability.”

BREEAM benchmarking

For construction projects, project managers have the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) as a framework for benchmarking their projects’ impacts. Some developers are now looking to run projects that go beyond BREEAM standards. Whether using BREEAM or pushing beyond it, this framework must be considered at the design stage. 'You can’t just put your sustainability protocols up on a website and assume the work is done,' says della Porta. “If day-to-day decisions aren’t being shaped by their impact on those criteria, it’s just lip service.”

Long-term planning and whole life costs

Project managers should look beyond the immediate life cycle of the project in the planning stages. Slower replacement rates, reduced maintenance and lower environmental costs should all be part of the decision-making process ahead of both the scoping of a project and the tools and techniques used to deliver it.

Ramboll’s Bruce Wulff is working with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to upgrade its facilities. He is taking an environmentally conscious approach the project – something close to the heart of his client. “There are more than 60 separate task orders within the programme, so, to ensure a consistent approach to sustainability, a programme-wide steering group was established,” Wulff says. “It includes the client and all stakeholder groups, and sets an overall strategy. It means we can build a sustainability management plan [SMP] for each project, based on the relevant parts of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

A ‘mission-led’ approach

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, an economist and director at University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, proposes a radical “mission-oriented approach” to sustainability projects across the entire economy.

In a 2018 paper on the Green New Deal, Mazzucato and Martha McPherson, head of green economy and sustainable growth at University College London, argued that: “This will require visionary leadership, patient strategic finance, a grassroots movement and bottom-up innovation…Only by having a wide stakeholder governance of green transitions can we enable growth that is both sustainable and inclusive.”

Turning sustainability into a mission to be accomplished on your project rather than a challenge to be feared could embed a sustainability mindset.

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Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: Larwin/


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