Look at the nature of a national economy and it’s clear: the priority for moving to a low-carbon economy must be constructing long-life, loose-fit buildings to house the service sector jobs we need to create. Let me explain why. A country needs to create jobs – nobody wants high levels of unemployment.
So could manufacturing provide these jobs? I don’t think so, as demand for material goods seems to be falling. (The volume of goods destined for purchase by consumers that left UK factories or arrived at UK ports has been declining since 2002.) So the service sector is key. Over the last 20 years there’s been a huge increase in the proportion of people employed in the service sector – working in retail, leisure, education, health and government services.
Far from being “lightweight” as some economists claim, services have inputs connecting them to the rest of the economy. And as services become more efficient, the per unit service output increases (you get more services from the same number of employees). So unless we then keep consuming more services, unemployment will rise.
Fortunately, services can – in most cases – expand almost limitlessly; they don’t clutter up your home with stuff in the way that material goods do. You can have more TV channels. You can buy more insurance. Though not necessarily desirable, you and your partner can both go out to work and pay for childcare services.
All these services need buildings (TV channels need studios, insurance companies need offices and childcare needs nurseries). But while the capacity of the service sector must be allowed to continue expanding, does this mean we have to keep constructing new buildings for the service sector?
To deliver a low-carbon economy, I believe we must make sure our service buildings are long-life and loose-fit, capable of lasting and adapting to meet the needs of services we haven’t yet dreamed up.
In the future, we might see more building projects like Chiswick Park in London – which combines retail, hotel, office and living space – that can be easily reconfigured as demand for services changes.
For me, this is all part of trying to understand the innate nature of our free-market economy to develop sustainability thinking.