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36th Annual Conference – Glasgow, UK
7-9 September 2020

Track 3: Building For The Common Good: Exposing The Potential And Challenges For Delivering A Construction Industry For The Common Good?

Lead: Craig Thomson, Glasgow Caledonian University (craig.thomson@gcu.ac.uk); Lloyd Scott, Technological University Dublin (lloyd.scott@dit.ie)

At ARCOM 2017 in Cambridge Prof Chris Ivory (Anglia Ruskin University) outlined during his key note presentation that construction was a demand led industry with the market largely dictating what is built and how, and explored some of the challenges this places moving forward. The economic challenges across Europe since the economic crash of 2008 have shown that the construction industry is very much tied to global and national economic cycles often displaying a tendency for patterns of boom and bust. The dominant neo-liberal economic model shapes a market driven approach with the construction industry responding to the demand for property and real estate. National governments recognise the importance of the construction industry to the health of the national economy, a pattern which can be seen in both developed and developing countries where it plays an undoubted dual role in shaping the national infrastructure required to grow the economy but also through its own contribution to the national GDP through investment in property and real estate, as well as its creation of jobs and tax revenues. A criticism which has been levelled at this approach is it creates an industry which is often responsive to economic cycles and property speculation resulting in industry strategic planning tending to be viewed through a dominant economic lens. This shapes the nature of the buildings produced, the associated delivery processes and is increasingly criticised for having an impact on the wider wellbeing of society and environment which it serves. Indeed, recent years has seen criticism that such a market driven economic focus has had a significant impact on the ability of the construction industry to engage effectively with the pillars of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental) and to take the drastic action required to align with climate change obligations but to also contribute to societal common good.

The Common Good agenda has emerged as a framework to help readdress the balance away from the pure interests of capital profit and towards the long term benefits of society (Reich 2018). It is advocated to promote fairness, equity and social justice. Its roots are in many of the principle theorists in political and economic thinking such as Smith, Marx, Rawls, Keynes, Mills, Madison, Rousseau, Locke, Machiavelli, Aquinas. Post 2008, Europe has been dominated by austerity economics with national governments reducing their deficits with investment decisions made through an economic lens with a strong impact on the levels of construction projects related to public services and infrastructure. With the downturn in the economy, a significant drop in demand resulted in a significant downturn in construction activity contributing to unemployment, and the ability to regenerate and provide essential built environment. As the economy recovers and has in many countries entered strong periods of growth many have questioned the morals and ethics of the neo-liberal approach taken to austerity and ask what it tells us about the values of an economic model which some argue neglects society, the vulnerable and has indeed seen the reduction of the ambitions of delivering sustainability through downgrading at a policy level of climate change related targets and a limited level of government investment to support its realisation (Tirole 2018).

The Common Good framework if applied has the potential to challenge the construction industry to consider the needs of wider society and to view demand not solely through an economic lens but through long term wider sustainability benefits. Recent years have seen other economic models emerge which challenge the dominant neo-liberal approach such as Inclusive Growth (Scott 2017), Just Transition (Heffron 2018, Swilling and Anneke 2012) and One Planet Economics (Jackson 2016, Thorpe 2015); and these sits well with the Common Good framework (Felber 2015). It is clear that to enact these changes is not something which the construction industry can achieve on its own, and requires an ideological shift in approach from governments with potential to learn from other established and emerging economic thinking which deviate from neo-liberalism.

Prior to the economic crash the UK Government identified three levers for enacting change within the Strategy for Sustainable Construction (2008): 1) regulation/ legalisation; 2) public procurement; 3) leadership from corporations. These still apply, but it is apparent that the whilst the appetite for enacting change was strong in 2008, austerity and its influence on a period of recent growth has tamed somewhat the desire for radical action. Indeed, recent questions have emerged as to whether any change which has occurred post 2008 has been real or rhetorical with increasing concern being expressed over the growing financialisation of the construction sector and the paradox this presents (Styhre 2019, Rafferty and Toner 2019). Some key challenges have become apparent such as the reluctance of governments to disrupt the market through drastic legislative/ regulatory action which they feel could harm demand and investment levels, the lack of leadership from corporations to lead by through an effective Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility (CSR) agenda, and many have criticised the lack of ambition from governments to use public procurement as a way of investing in the long term benefits for society by enacting principles of Inclusive Growth, Just Transition and One Planet Economics and ultimately for the Common Good.

Opportunities for research and papers:

This raises many research questions which can provide a platform for debate about the future role of the construction industry within our national economy and importantly society. This requires theoretical exploration relating to the role of governance, comparisons between our dominant economic models and those emerging such as the Common Good framework. From an empirical perspective opportunity to explore examples where the built environment and corporations are successfully delivering these principles; whilst exposing the failings of the many. Different national contexts also provide an opportunity to learn and contrast the approach to governance, economic model and also the role which construction industry plays within that society.

This throws up some interesting research questions which may include but not be restricted to papers as part of this ARCOM track:


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