Copenhagen 28 01 14 – this is the text of my presentation at the European Sustainable Events Conference.

One of the essential elements of sustainability is the perspective of durability; long-term, lasting benefits.  We see carbon targets for 2020 and even 2050, and we continually berate governments for being short-sighted and lacking the resolve to plan effectively to meet these seemingly far away goals. But what we consider long-term today is nothing when viewed historically.

Did those first workers building the Great Wall of China in the 5th Century BC ever wonder that the finishing touches would be made in the 16th Century AD, some 2000 years later?  The original architect of Cologne Cathedral probably didn’t expect it to take 634 years to complete, but he knew it would be more than his lifetime; so too those great 18th Century landscape gardeners, and so many more. They must have had an amazing vision though.

Nowadays it’s hard to see with any enthusiasm beyond the next handful of years at best, let alone one’s life-time but isn’t that what we should be doing?  If we are going to have a meaningful and lasting impact, then the ripples of what we achieve in this decade should surely be felt for many more to come.

There was a wonderful moment – especially if you were British – on 6 July 2005, when the President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, pronounced that: “…the Games of the xxx Olympiad are awarded to the city of London!”

That moment spawned much initial euphoria and unlocked the opportunity for the regeneration of a large swathe of East London and a whole host of other initiatives that earned London 2012 global recognition for being the most sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games to date.

However, the Closing Ceremony wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning. That is both a reference to London’s coming decades of continued regeneration built on the foundations of 2012, and to the wider Olympic Movement and how the legacy of London 2012 would play out across many more editions of the Games.

Now let’s move on a few years: imagine the scene, it is late afternoon one summer’s day in 2089 (75 and-a-half years from now), in a large conference room in some far corner of the world.  The President of the IOC comes up to the lectern to announce the winner of the bid for the Games of the 51st Olympiad in 2096: the bicentenary Olympic Games.

Will he – or she – take a moment to reflect back on the history and heritage of the modern Olympic Movement?  No doubt the Games will have evolved considerably over the intervening decades, but if on that far away day in 2089 the IOC President – who incidentally will probably be someone who is not yet born – is able to look out across a field of delegates from high quality cities presenting high quality bids, then he or she may well reflect back to the early part of this century when the whole theme of sustainability and legacy first found its way into the Olympic lexicon.

The legacy ‘shadow’ of London and the current host cities of Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo may stretch a good 30 – 35 years on.  After all, we still look back on some of the inspiration provided by the success of Barcelona in 1992.  That takes us up to the 2050’s and that cohort of host cities should still be influencing the agenda when they come to elect the host for the 2096 Bicentenary Games.  In effect it is just a hop, skip and jump from London 2012 to the Games of 2096.

Incidentally, I’m betting the decision will be for London to become the first ever city to host the Games for a fourth time!  But as I won’t be around I won’t be able to take any bets, or collect my winnings.

Or, indeed, just like the President will be someone yet to be born, maybe the city they choose will be somewhere not yet built?  What we do know is that cities are an increasingly vital focus for the future of mankind, and my point is that 2096 is relatively just round the corner and we’re not ready!

Shouldn’t we be thinking about what we do in terms of how we can shape a long future?  In other words what do we need to be doing now that has the scale and reach to enable a scenario like I have just outlined become a reality?

I have used the Olympics as my example but it could equally be applied to the future of any major types of events – sporting, cultural or commercial.

For a start, large events have to be about much more than just the event in question.  In the Olympic world the legacy word is used a great deal, and it is hugely important to think in these terms.  Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that other parts of the event sector do likewise.

Legacy is what is left behind for others to benefit from, or to deal with – hopefully the former rather than the latter but events can sometimes leave a negative legacy of financial debt, broken communities and environmental damage.

The positive legacies can be seen in terms of: physical assets (such as new venues, infrastructure, amenities and green spaces); intellectual property (such as new standards, methods and systems); and the intangible effects of emotional legacy (such as pride, sense of identity and behavioural changes).

The key is to place events in the perspective of the long-term development of the cities/regions/even countries, and to use the lens of legacy to inform all key decisions:

  • Location of sites
  • Nature of venues: existing; new permanent, or temporary
  • Supporting infrastructure and amenities required
  • Community development and social cohesion
  • Heritage and environmental protection
  • Economic development

If legacy becomes part of the institutional fabric of the project, it stands a much greater chance of being achieved.

I know it is hard work putting on meetings and events without having to add to your worries with a load of other stuff.  It’s a treadmill; you get through one event, so you can start worrying about the next one.  But, wouldn’t it be nice to step back occasionally and look at the context; to have the chance to see how your event(s) fit into a bigger picture and the mark they can leave on people and places…

One of the inhibitors may be a sense of operating at too small a scale.  Take away the Olympic and Paralympic Games, FIFA World Cup, continental Games, Expo’s and some of the big religious pilgrimages and relatively few other events on their own are sufficiently big to drive meaningful change at a city or sectoral scale; or are they?

Why not create scale through the resonance of lots of smaller meetings and events doing sustainability until it becomes just the way things are done.  It’s like a crowd singing in a stadium or an audience applauding: individual efforts would be lost in such vast spaces, but the collective effect of individuals acting in unison is awesome, and ultimately unstoppable.

Let’s not think of events as an end in themselves; they are more like a booster rocket for a long-term venture.  Individual, small events could be components of a bigger whole to help affect wider change.

Imagine every significant event taking place in Copenhagen – or any other city, region or country of your choosing – and no matter whether the events are sporting, cultural, commercial, religious or political, and that each one contributes in some way to a grander strategic plan for sustainability.

Imagine all that happening in multiple cities at the same time.  Suddenly we have scale and market shift taking place.  It will become the new normal for events.  Supply chains will adapt to and embrace this change.  And events attract people – lots of them – so they can have massive reach and influence.

In turn that will mean the big events will benefit; they can fit a pattern of normal rather than be the exceptional; they can stop being feared for their cost and disruptive effects on normal life.  More places will want to have them and fewer citizens will vote against them.

I believe sustainability is the key to unlocking such potential.  And conversely, if hosts and organisers of meetings and events continue to shy away from doing sustainability properly, then the event industry as a whole will be a loser.

Our challenge here is to figure out what collective efforts can be done by multiple events following sustainability principles, so that they will lead to something much greater than the sum of their individual parts.  And then we need to figure out how to harness this endeavour for long-term change.

But let’s be positive.  Who knows; we could start something here and now that could ripple through the rest of the century and I can stop worrying about 2096…