Reflections on sustainability from my working life: Guest blog by our Associate Tutor, Dr Kevin Waldie

Posted on: 2020-03-31

Dr Kevin Waldie is one of UCEM’s Associate Tutors and supervises undergraduate and postgraduate research projects. Studying social anthropology to doctorate level, Kevin has spent most of his career in the international aid sector undertaking a wide variety of roles including technical adviser, trainer, researcher, consultant and academic.

Here, Kevin looks back on his time in international development, reflects on how his understanding of sustainability has grown and developed over the years, and notes its growing importance in research on the Built Environment…


Dr Kevin Waldie

There are several important ideas that have accompanied me throughout my career, shaping my thoughts and informing my choices. I have spent so long mulling over certain concepts, such as ‘poverty’, ‘community’, ‘inequality’ and ‘inclusion’, that they seem almost like travelling companions, usually intriguing, often helpful and sometimes worrying.  Today, from several contenders, ‘sustainability’ stands out as the most interesting, challenging and critical issue that demands my attention. It was not always so.

My understanding of sustainability, and recognition of its importance, has grown considerably over time. In the 1980s, I spent many happy years as a student of social anthropology. No essays on sustainability then or mention of the ‘S’ word in my doctoral thesis which, incidentally, concerned women-headed households in northern Sierra Leone. The idea of sustainability first introduced itself to me after I became an adviser for the British Government’s Overseas Aid programme. From the late 1980s, over a period of 10 years or so, I lived in Kenya, Nepal and Ghana, working on a series of rural development programmes focused mostly on farming. This stage of my career coincided with the famous Brundtland Commission which resulted in the (now widely adopted) definition of sustainable development as being ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

At that time, however, my understanding of sustainability reflected a limited and partial interest in the complex and all-embracing challenges that I now recognise are deeply embedded within Brundtland’s call to arms. In those days, most development aid was delivered through short-term projects, often three to five years in length, and discussion of sustainability was usually directed at exploring how the benefits of time-limited investments be extended after the project had ended. Rather like discussions regarding the funding of the London Olympics, the concern was to provide some kind of legacy; well, for a few years at least.  Around the same time, from another starting point entirely, discussion of sustainability also began to shape and inform the analysis of the social change, leading to the development of increasingly complex explanatory models. One example is the sustainable livelihoods framework, which sought to provide an integrated approach to tackling the interrelated causes and dimensions of poverty.  Often working as the lone social scientist surrounded by agronomists and social scientists, I was frequently frustrated by the mindset of my natural resource scientist colleagues who believed that sustainability only concerned the management of trees, soil and water, etc. One of the positive benefits of this new thinking was the opportunity to broaden the debate and challenge reductionism by making the case for bringing human, physical, social and financial assets into the equation. Joined-up thinking! Holistic thinking! It sounded good, and it is certainly necessary, but there was a catch. Dealing with such complexity is a real challenge. When everything is linked to everything else, rather likes the child’s game of cat’s cradle, it is hard to know where to pull and push. I discovered that sustainable solutions to complex problems, even those that lay within the narrow agricultural sector where I worked, required thinking across disciplinary boundaries, action by different ministries and cooperation among disparate stakeholders. And that was a real challenge.

Over time, emerging from a more fragmented agenda of environmental concerns associated with sustainability, issues such as desertification, soil erosion, pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation and the like, one overarching issue has emerged to encompass them all and, indeed, concern us all – global warming.

Whilst my involvement with the rural sector continues, in recent years, I have also been engaged as an Associate Tutor at UCEM. The transition from thinking about the natural and rural environment to the built environment is not as big as you might imagine, because people are people wherever and however they chose to live. (That’s one of the wonderful things we know to be true as social scientists!) What has surprised, but has also reassured me, is seeing the extent to which concern over sustainability is being expressed in so many of the research projects of the UCEM students I supervise. The range of themes is wide ranging, encompassing, for example,  building design, the process of construction, building operations, regulation and assessment, and covering many issues familiar to us all – energy efficiency, flooding, inclusion, pollution, conservation, waste management, and community resilience to name a few.  Having worked with the concept in mind for so long, it is exciting to see how sustainability is beginning to take centre stage in discussions of policy and practice in construction and estate management.

Winston Churchill once said: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”, which is an observation that has been given new meaning by the current global climate crisis. As we begin to understand and acknowledge the critical impact that the building sector has on the environment, it is vital that we seek new ways to construct a future that meets the needs of the present without compromising the wellbeing of the generations to come. Of course, the challenge of managing the complexity of interconnectedness remains, as sustainability permeates just about everything we do in life. From the work of my UCEM students, however, I am pleased to report that the sector is rising to the challenge.