Today’s urban rich could become tomorrow’s quality of life poor

Rural poor could replace rich city dwellers as the new lifestyle elite according to a theme paper for the 2016 World Congress on Environment Management

Could the life chances of rich and poor be reversed? While a new quality of life poor composed of lonely urban dwellers trapped in high-rise apartments look down at the life-shortening pollution of congested and dangerous cities, will rural dwellers revel in being close to nature and valued members of vibrant and connected communities, living longer, healthier, simpler and less materialistic but more fulfilling lives? The theme paper for the 18th World Congress on Environment Management by Adaptation’s chairman Colin Coulson-Thomas questions whether today’s poor could become tomorrow’s quality of life rich.

Will displays of material wealth such as expensive and fuel-guzzling fast cars will come to be seen as evidence of shallow self-obsession, concern with superficial appearance and ignorance of environmental issues? Could the manufacture and use of some products be considered a “crime against the environment”? Will business leaders have the courage to exercise restraint in how they advertise and promote offerings, to reduce impulse and unnecessary purchases of items whose production and use are environmentally harmful?

We have choices. In comparison with private consumption, team sports are shared activities. Like the creative arts they can be both participative and observed or enjoyed by others. A whole community can be lifted by a winning team. Such activities have a multiplier effect. Their externalities are positive. They enrich lives. Knowledge activities build intellectual capabilities rather than consume physical resources. Entrepreneurs could both trigger the transition and also contribute to greater well being by devising innovative and affordable solutions to basic needs for sanitation facilities and fresh water, areas in which today’s rural poor are at a disadvantage.

For several months in a row average temperatures have been the highest ever recorded. Climate change challenges individuals, organisations, communities and governments. The forthcoming World Congress on Environment Management will look beyond issues and threats and consider options and opportunities. The theme paper raises questions for consumers, investors and employees, as well as directors, public officials and elected politicians. It suggests a shift of focus and imaginative responses from entrepreneurs could create new business opportunities and lead to more sustainable and affordable lifestyles.

Sustainability and environmental quality are issues for citizens, communities, cities and the businesses that operate within them. Pollution, congestion and adverse weather conditions can impact upon health, productivity and performance. A company, its people and its customers can all benefit from resilient and effective transportation, water, energy, sanitation, sewerage, rubbish collection and waste disposal services. Boards need to consider what role a company should play, either individually or collaboratively, in ensuring that essential infrastructure and public services are able to cope with climate and other changes.

Should more companies and public bodies be looking at shared services as a way of making more cost effective use of infrastructure? Bridges of Sports, a non-profit initiative to create an inclusive and sustainable sports ecosystem in India, has found that publicly funded athletics facilities in many areas are under-used. People need to be made more aware of healthier and less environmentally damaging activities. Creative arts and crafts activities can use local materials and also be fulfilling. The creative arts, leisure and sports are significant economic sectors in some countries. They present opportunities for large and small businesses and local and national enterprises.

Will our buildings be more flexible and intelligent? Will smart city initiatives lead to intelligent communities and more integrated public services? In 2015 106 new buildings over 200 metres tall were added to city skylines. How much of the space and its use is related to perpetuating current patterns of consumption and display, as opposed to simpler and healthier lifestyles, creativity and innovation? Should insecure status seekers be aiming to build the world’s smartest building rather than its tallest? Does taller just mean greater isolation and distance from the natural environment?

Personal consumption can cause significant environmental damage. Do we need to change our consumer values and priorities? Should we be less wasteful? Could more be recycled? As more people look for independence, more balance in their lives, greater personal freedom and to reduce their environmental footprint, do our activities reflect these interests and related concerns? Do our corporate strategies and priorities reflect our past rather than the aspirations of younger generations?

Should we change our expectations of business leaders? Rather than reward those who increase the production of unnecessary and disposable goods, should the giving of awards and the writing of case studies high-light the leaders who reduce physical production and the use of scarce material resources and switch the emphasis from external trappings to helping customers achieve more of a sense of inner worth? When confronted with marble entrance foyers should we ask questions about the safety of the stone cutters involved?

Directors could reduce the environmental impact of physical good production by reducing or abandoning practices such as built in obsolescence. Could more elements be replaced as they wear out or upgraded? Should boards champion sustainable product design? The new product designs of a responsible business ought to be ethical and sustainable as well as profitable. How might a new design benefit other species such as birds and bats? Could engaging with the public and providing them with ways of increasing biodiversity represent a new business opportunity for garden centres?

Championing fulfilling activities rather than physical consumption could lead to new commercial opportunities. Whereas the production of goods might increasingly be undertaken by factory robots or local 3D printers, a shift of emphasis to creative endeavours, sport and keep fit activities could create opportunities for those who might otherwise be marginalised or made redundant to offer one-to-one personal services, engage in communal activities and experience a higher quality of life.

These comments are selected from a theme paper prepared by Colin Coulson-Thomas for the 18th World Congress on Environment Management. It is taking place in New Delhi on 8th and 9th of July 2016. Full details of the conference and the theme paper can be obtained from The Institute of Directors of India’s website

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas’ is Chairman of Adaptation. His other roles include leadership of the International Governance Initiative of the Order of St Lazarus, Chancellor of the School for the Creative Arts and Director-General, IOD India, UK and Europe. He has helped directors in over 40 countries to improve board and corporate performance and is the author of over 60 books and reports. Those on more affordable and sustainable routes to high performance organisations can be obtained from:


27 May 2016
Colin Coulson-Thomas