Erik Jaques meets Samantha Heath, the chief executive of London Sustainability Exchange
London may be bloodied and bowed from August’s extraordinary riots, but there was ample evidence, even in the painful aftermath, that its spirit had not been entirely broken.
As the gung-ho, ad hoc clean-up operations that followed showed, worthwhile and focused community action can be rustled up when needed the most.
For tireless sustainability catalysts and people-power purveyors London Sustainability Exchange (LSX), the riots’ atavistic outbursts and the often inspiring community-led reaction that followed, told them what they knew all along: people need to be engaged – especially if they are living in or around deprivation.
LSX speaks from hard won experience. Although its principal focus is the multi-tendrilled beast of climate change, one of its key angles of attack is to confront injustice and poverty head on, mainly through connecting communities with business.
With London’s population set to grow by 800,000 by 2016 and around 30,000 homes a year earmarked to deal with the dramatic surge, the eight-strong organisation has its work cut out. Infrastructures are already frayed at the edge, resources are dwindling and people in the street are clearly losing patience with the political status quo.
“We need to develop more models for how people can feel more comfortable with so many people in their lives,” says LSX chief executive Samantha Heath, a veteran of London’s political scene as a Member of the London Assembly, including a stint as Deputy Chair in 2003-4, and erstwhile sustainability manager for Future London, the capital’s regeneration centre of excellence.
“Deep down it is about people and how people relate to each other. We need to develop a vibrancy around how to engage with businesses. It is about creating a structure that isn’t just about philanthropy, but about the bottom line and shared values for everybody.”
Easier said than done, but LSX is making admirable inroads through people-led betterment projects focusing on behavioural change (everything from energy conservation and food and drink business waste reduction to the greening of universities), health and wellbeing, the built environment and – the biggie – London’s 2012 Olympic extravaganza.
Last year, 120,000 people benefited from the organisation’s work, 1,300 tonnes of C02 were prevented from entering the atmosphere and 75,000 cubic meters of water was saved.
LSX is also a knowledge-imparting and mentoring powerhouse, with a potent combination of networking events, conferences, business breakfasts and publications making sure that “change-agents” are inspired on an ongoing basis.
In 2010, there were 361 mentees and 5,376 trainees, while 43 organisations gained some serious to-do actions from specially tailored toolkits.
Not bad if you consider that LSX’s income was a meagre £931,969, hailing from a variety of funding sources, against outgoings of £1,007,218.
Clearly, if you are looking to make an urban impact on a budget LSX knows how.
“The journey we are taking is starting to unpack the sort of things that will influence people and businesses to actually feel comfortable about changing their behaviour, without being xenophobic about it, without being evangelical environmentalists,” says Heath.
“It is about tuning in to people’s values and working alongside them and then getting exemplar businesses or neighbours to support them.”
Energise London, a bid to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation across all 33 London Boroughs, is a good case study of LSX’s ability to connect and achieve on a shoestring.
A series of pilot projects draw on social media to amplify the message – often engaging hitherto unreached sections of the community – while business networks, housing associations and schools muck in to engage and promote change.
LSX spearheads the initiative, corrals support, disseminates learning and, crucially, presents the evidence.
Through this approach, a demonstration project in Wansdworth yielded 20% energy and 28% water savings. The latter is starting to become of particular importance to LSX and is not always picked up in traditional sustainability strategies.
“People talk about carbon a lot, but we find it important to talk about water a lot more. Parts of London have got less access to water than parts of Africa,” says Heath.
Another success has been its instrumental role in putting air quality at the forefront of the minds of both public and politician; LSX’s influential imprint is all over London’s Low Emission Zones.
“We are helping people see and smell the impact that, for example something like air quality has on their lives so they have a direct experience of it,” says Heath.
“Eight years of our lives is actually lost in London as a consequence of poor air quality. But you don’t know that every day. We empower people with evidence. It is really important people get an emotional attachment to the work.”
Much of this type of work inevitably falls in some of the poorer parts of London.
According to LSX, UK black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are simply more likely to be enduring fuel poverty, while there are eight times more people in the most deprived 10% of the population living in tidal floodplains than the least deprived 10%.
In addition to the overarching, bigger-themed projects with potential to uplift people out of such environments, LSX works on a more targeted basis through programmes such as the ‘Well London’ (aimed at bringing physical wellbeing to 20 of the most disadvantaged communities in London) as well as efforts to deliver training and support to front-line organisations dealing with mental health issues.
If it all sounds a bit like precarious, logistical juggling act, Heath comes well prepared for the task. Having spent ten years in the hustle and bustle of the construction industry, she has the air of somebody that knows how to cut through the procedural red tape and arrive at a point.
“I’ve been able to understand how developers think and how construction works,” she explains.
“I can look at a drawing and understand it, which makes it easy for me to explain to businesses or developers what they’ve got to do.”
Those skills have stood her in good stead when dealing with the staggering enormity and potential environmental volatility of the 2012 Olympics.
LSX has been one the of the most vocal voices in pushing the project to be as ameliorative as possible from the start and was a key member of the Environment Advisory Group that shaped the environmental chapter of the Candidate File.
It was also a constructive adviser in making the Olympic Village a leading-edge, sustainable development.
The work continues today by engaging businesses and NGOs and supporting the delivery-phase through a variety of initiatives.
So far, Heath says, the Olympics have largely lived up to its reputation of being a force for good and a responsible builder of legacies.
“There have been some wonderful procurement mechanisms, for example, on the construction side. What we’d like to bring to the games in the next year is to really feel inspired by the difference it has made.
“Businesses changed practice while bidding for games, but we need to make sure that mentality sticks – that they did it not just for a box-tick but for genuine competitive advantage.”
One of the key challenges for LSX moving forward is to content with the current political landscape. Doing the right thing in London can be an insufferably complex proposition – while the mayor sets policies, the delivery is through the boroughs and, says Heath, the relationship between business and governance is currently confused, at best.
“My biggest worry is that support for businesses has fallen dramatically,” she explains.
“Any kind of business support is less available. Therefore when we are trying to steer businesses into behaving in a certain way it is going to be more of a challenge.
“The Government is surrendering a lot of its power over to business and therefore the relationship between people and business is going to be important. The private sector is going to deliver a lot more of the public sector’s services or because that’s where the money is coming from.”
“We need to find a new way doing things. That is a challenge for us all.”
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