Ask the Expert: Conference Plenary speaker Jeb Brugmann talks about urban optimization

We talked to Jeb about his unique approach to sustainability, how local governments can have a big impact on effecting environmental change, and his National Conference June 5 keynote address which will focus on urban optimization.

Growing up in New Jersey, Jeb Brugmann cared about the environment so much that, at the age of 13, he and his brother decided to convince their local township to let them organize and run a volunteer recycling centre. Following this, he organized a group of fellow students to stop a local concrete company from polluting the stream that ran through school grounds.

Having started so young, it’s no surprise where Jeb has ended up. As the current head of the business and product innovation firm, The Next Practice, which he co-founded in 2004, he has designed and led innovation processes for a wide range of corporations, governments, and institutions in the energy, banking, food, agriculture, appliances, local government and real estate sectors to help them achieve their commercial and sustainability ambitions.

We talked to Jeb about his unique approach to sustainability, how local governments can have a big impact on effecting environmental change, and his National Conference June 5 keynote address which will focus on urban optimization.

1. How has your knowledge in these areas evolved or grown since you started?

In the late 1980s, I started organizing local governments across the U.S. and Canada to pass local by-laws to phase out and capture ozone-depleting CFCs. The (George H W) Bush Administration in the U.S. was not going to sign on to the Montreal Protocol. I had teamed up with the mayor of a small southern California city, Larry Agran of Irvine, to roll-out a number of nationwide ‘municipal foreign policy’ initiatives. I proposed that we take on the CFC problem. So together, in 1989, we did an analysis of the CFCs emitted by all sectors in little 105,000 person Irvine. Because of the dominance of the aerospace and computer industries there, the number proved astronomical: about 1/800th of global emissions of CFC-113.

The idea of ICLEI, an international environmental agency for local governments, came out of that. But the big, strategic realization was that there was no way to protect nature from cities, because urban systems, through their extractive and waste producing design, were redesigning even the chemistry of nature. The only way to be an effective environmentalist, at global scale, was to re-engineer cities into systems with basic ecological function—literally producing their own energy, nutrient, water, and materials resources.

2. Why is a planning, or a more holistic approach to sustainable and green buildings and development so important, especially now? Do you think that municipalities and large developers are going to adapt well to these new ways of approaching sustainability?

The ICLEI platform was approaching the challenge through planning and policy making, and during a time of market liberalization. That wasn’t going to catalyze a re-engineering of the city. We published a paper in 1991 called Managing Human Ecosystems. It was titillating to our planner and waste manager constituency, but we couldn’t deliver the solutions for achieving eco-systemic function, we could only support cities to manage the problems.

This is where green building radicalized the sustainability agenda—even as it made it more mainstream. The green building movement provided a platform for designers and engineers, and then for property developers and managers, and now ultimately for investors, to pioneer ‘net positive’ building.

So far the market is responding by offering rent premiums on green buildings and stronger ROIs. In other words, the market is simply valuing asset performance optimization—not a particular policy agenda. Today, performance optimization largely means lower per square meter operating costs, lower vacancy rates linked to increased user satisfaction and employee productivity, and sometimes also net energy productivity. I think most of us view this as a starting point, much as the first ICLEI’s urban climate mitigation and sustainability planning programs were a starting point in the 1990s.

In their day, those initiatives were viewed as exotic ideas. Today they are popular and mainstream. I think that today’s exotic green building frontiers—net positive projects and districts; resilient, future-proofed assets; water and food/nutrient productivity—will become mainstream within a decade.

3. You’re speaking at the CaGBC National Conference this June, with a topic of Optimize This: How 9 Billion People Can Thrive on Earth. Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by optimization or optimization pressure as it relates to green building?

In a globally integrated urban economy, high quality urban locations and high performance urban assets are equivalent to the high quality growing climates and soils of yesteryear. They are the coveted locations and assets. The convergence of continued urbanization (demand for locations offering agglomeration economies), natural resource input constraints (demand for efficiencies), and vulnerable supply chains and unpredictable operating environments (demanding for resilience) will support a continued shift in the whole property price and performance equation. Market fundamentals will drive further asset optimization and productivity. Enough cities have established the regulatory environment—policy and planning—and the financial backstopping to encourage market risk-taking. Technological, design and business innovation will rise to the opportunity of further performance premiums, accelerated now by the move of major corporations like GE and IBM into urban development.

4. Where is the future of green building and sustainability is headed, in your opinion?

We’ve only started climbing the urban optimization ladder. Just a few years ago, when developers talked about optimization they were referring to yield. Now we’re increasing yield and building efficiency-optimized assets and, increasingly, projects whose infrastructure and utilities are optimized at district scale. In other projects we’re optimizing for risk reduction and resilience, in others for health outcomes, and in others for affordability. Bit by bit, assuming the global market remains stable, the industry and public sector together will combine the lessons from all of these flagship projects into whole new form of urban price-performance. I call it ‘the productive city.’


Jeb Brugmann will be the opening plenary speaker for the CaGBC National Conference and Expo, on June 5 in Vancouver. For more information about how to register and for the full conference program, visit cagbc.org/conference2013 today.