An (extensive) summary of the Festival of Sustainability — Part 1

Last week we ran our first Festival of Sustainability at EY Seren and I thought I would reflect on some of the learnings and insights we’ve had from our great speakers — grab a coffee, this is a long post (we covered a lot!)


  1. Digital festivals are a sustainable alternative, but creating meaningful engagement is still a challenge
  2. To engage stakeholders, designers can reframe sustainability around risk reduction and value creation (Professor Paolo Taticchi)
  3. Unless we can understand the bigger picture in which our biggest challenges sit, we will only end up mitigating problems or providing superficial solutions (Milan Nandha)
  4. The business case for sustainability stretches from customer demand to investor pressure; as designers, we should help bridge the gap between awareness and action
  5. Service designers can a lot from how architects work with stakeholders to design sustainable buildings
  6. Burnout is a design challenge — we need to consciously think about creating more sustainable office cultures (Chris Lopez)

Day 1 — Kick-off event

  • Overview of the week
  • Creating engaging experiences remotely

Monday was our kick-off session, where Yokey Lim, Lee Herold, and I talked about our agenda, provided an overview of what EY is doing in this space, and talked about some of the fundamentals of “what sustainability is”.

One learning from this experience is that running a digital festival comes with many challenges (how do you create meaningful and real engagements over a lunch break?) however from a sustainability perspective it certainly allows us to engage a lot more people (we had international participants which we definitely could not have achieved otherwise). There is never enough time to get everyone to speak and share their thoughts, but liberal use of the chat function is a great start, and going forward I hope we can run more digital ‘breakout’ sessions where attendees can react to content as opposed to thinking on the spot.

Day 2 — The business case for sustainability

  • Sustainability as a competitive advantage for businesses
  • Reframing sustainability around risk avoidance and value generation

We were very lucky to have Professor Paolo Taticchi from UCL School of Management, and visiting professor at Imperial College Business School, present on the history of sustainability within corporations and emerging future trends.

From “social responsibility” and the triple bottom line to the emergence of ESG and shared value concepts, businesses have grown to realize that being responsible and sustainable is not just a nice to have but a competitive advantage and driver of profits. Through his research with colleagues, he showed us how sustainability can be a driver of growth, and how organizations can collaborate within and outside their industries to innovate.

One useful technique that Professor Taticchi shared with us is that as designers we have the ability to re-frame problems, and we should use this tactic in introducing sustainability into discussions with stakeholders.

In addition, he asked designers to always think about:

  • What shared value are we creating through our designs?”
  • “What are the consequences of the designs we are introducing into the system?” (also discussed in our day 3 topic)
  • “How does our innovation impact other systems and what is the ripple effect?

Though we may not be able to always answer these questions on projects, starting to have these discussions early helps re-frame our perspectives and solutions.

Check out Professor Taticchi’s new book set to launch in January

Day 3 — A systemic transition to sustainable design

  • Building systemic thinking into design
  • Recognizing your zone of control vs sphere of influence

Building on these thoughts, our third day dived into how designers can affect change.

Milan Nandha and Brett Camilleri, along with others in the Project-0 team, have been thinking about how to integrate sustainability principles into our design thinking toolkit. One main takeaway is to consistently think in systems and think about that zone of control that we have versus the sphere of influence our designs. If we just solve the problem as we see it and not think about the wider context and impact our solution can have, we are just fixing the symptoms and not the root cause.

We’ve developed and combined methods and tools into our toolkit, but are also building out our own guiding principles for sustainable design:

  • Reimagine value
  • Embrace Transparency
  • Nurture Change
  • Think in systems
  • Leverage pioneering science
  • Design in lifecycles
  • Create accountability

If you’re interested in learning more about our sustainable design toolkit, do reach out to Milan Nandha or me.

Day 4 — Customer and Investor reactions to sustainability

  • There is a gap between customers wanting sustainable energy and acting on it
  • Investors increasingly expect ESG reporting from corporates

Thursday is our internal case study day where we discussed our current and past projects.

Giles Powdrill and Oliver Kastner showcased the research they have conducted into future opportunities in the retail energy sector. Through a variety of quantitative and qualitative research techniques, the team looked at how energy customers are reacting to sustainability trends and offerings. I don’t want to let the proverbial cat out of the bag before they’re ready to publish the research, but consistently we’re finding there is a gap between wanting to be sustainable and knowing how to be (amongst other fascinating insights). The team has developed a selection of prototypes based on the findings to bridge this gap, and this conversion-challenge is one area where we as designers can have a major impact.

From one stakeholder to another, Youri Lie showed us how investors are demanding more of corporates when it comes to sustainability and ESG reporting. EY has run an investor survey for several years and there is a clear expectation that ESG reporting is not going away. As designers, we may not always have the need to engage with investors, but this is another important argument for introducing sustainability into the discussion, and greatly impacts the “viability” sphere when building our propositions and designs.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our energy research, or what your stakeholders think about sustainability, reach out to Giles Powdrill or Simon Cox, and to Youri Lie about our sustainable finance research and work.

Day 5 — On sustainable architecture and sustainable working culture

  • Learning from sustainable architecture and the business case for green buildings
  • Burnout is a design challenge

Stella Yan talked about the growing importance of green design in architecture, the proliferation of green credentials, and the lifecycle of buildings. I was surprised to learn that building and construction contribute 39% of all carbon emissions in the world. The way architects are working with multiple stakeholders to design out carbon is inspirational and think as designers we could learn a lot from managing our own stakeholders.

As part of the Great RESET, we are seeing a lot of commitments to invest in infrastructure projects and construction, and the hope is that we can go about it in a sustainable way that doesn’t build in obsolescence into these projects.

Moving from building structures to cultural structures, Chris Lopez presented an energetic and GIF-tastic overview of how we can create sustainable Space, Place, and Pace. How can we create physical spaces that inspire and re-energize us, at home or in the office? What is the purpose of the office in a post-COVID world? But more importantly, how can leadership, culture, and colleagues create a culture that recognizes and respects mental health. It’s been great to see an increase of focus on mental health and mindfulness in the office, but especially in COVID-times, we can still suffer from burnout, and there is still a lot to do which is not possible to solve side-of-desk or during a 30-minute call. As Chris said

and so we should give it due care and attention in developing new solutions to change how we work with each other and ourselves. Chris did offer one suggestion which I think we can all practice going forward:

“Every morning I wake up and think I have 100 precious gems. Every time I pay attention to something or give my time to something, I give away one of my gems. When someone asks me to help out, they’re effectively charging me for my attention and gems. We need to look after our gems, and we shouldn’t gaslight ourselves in feeling guilty when we’re not able to give people our gems (time/energy). So save your precious gems”

So as a parting thought — how will you spend your gems this week, and how will you charge others for theirs?

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If any of this resonated from principles of sustainable design to how we can re-frame our challenges, let’s kick off a discussion below, or reach out directly! We’re all still learning in this space.

Thanks to all the organizers of the Festival of Sustainability for creating a great event and to our speakers for giving their time and insight. Looking forward to another week of insightful talks!

Consultant interested in systems, business models, and stakeholder value creation. Sounds dry, but so many fascinating topics hidden within