The Impact of Language and the Language of Impact

During the COVID-19 lockdown, it has been remarkable how the property industry has responded with new ideas emerging from this period of reset and reflection.  In many ways, the crisis has accelerated the ESG narative; we see both a recognition that we must “build back better”, at the same time as a realisation that property firms can indeed have a positive impact with real world examples of firms stepping up to help those most in need.

We were recently invited to discuss our views on this shift at Property Week’s Climate Crisis Challenge virtual conference, produced in partnership with the UK Green Building Council.  The event was part of Property Week’s valuable Climate Crisis Challenge campaign, which you can learn more about here.

As well as taking part in a live audience Q&A and discussion with Property Week’s Editor, Liz Hamson, FORE’s Managing Partner Basil Demeroutis presented a TED-style talk on the vital importance of language in the drive towards positive social and environmental outcomes in the move towards a more moral form of capitalism.

We believe that the property industry has struggled to come up with a common framework – a common language – about what sits beneath ESG, as the term “ESG” is incomplete.

ESG was derived as an aide memoir for three critical focus areas in the vision for a more sustainable and ethical world. When used as shorthand in the property industry, however, it has led us towards a language of features and measures. For example, when you hear “environmental”, your mind probably turns to things like “carbon” and measurables like energy, water, and waste – if only we could fully understand, tame, and master them.

But above all else, if all we do is stop at “Environmental, Social and Governance” many of us will just simply think about making these three things marginally less bad.

So, we believe there is a better language. One that focuses not on features but on outcomes, the things that you want to see. Because ultimately it’s the outcomes that really matter – like “living longer” or “not screwing up the planet for our kids”.

This may seem like not much more than a subtle change in language, but in fact it drives a dramatic change in mindset. The fact is, we must all completely re-orient our focus from simply mitigating negative features, towards calling out the systems that caused them in the first place. Considering our work as property investors as taking place across an “urban system”. And therefore focusing on a systems change approach more commonly found in the world of philanthropy than property.

Unless we make this leap, then each time we develop an intervention, we just end up papering over the cracks and layer yet more complexity onto an already complicated and confused system.

We can no longer afford this response. Instead, we must all work together and become catalysts for change in our urban systems.

If you have 10 minutes to spare, please click below to listen to Basil’s talk where he elaborates on this notion of focusing on systems and outcomes and developing a theory of change that can help better equip all of us all to talk about what is on our minds now more than ever: a quest for healthier, longer, happier and more fulfilling lives and a built environment that actively enables these.