Think about this for a moment. When the kindergarten students of 2017 are college freshmen in 2030, what will the world be like? Will they have a bright, clean energy well and a health-focused world? Will we have done anything substantially different so that they have a better future?

By changing the questions we ask, we can change the way we think about what is possible. This article presents some new questions to consider and some examples that show what we can do now to impact the future.

New Questions—Start at Zero?

It’s time for a new approach, a new way of thinking and living. What if every morning we start the day at zero and work throughout the day to have positive impact? If we use zero as our constant baseline for living, then zero would be the worst we did instead of our best. Thinking this way can help us go beyond traditional incremental improvement, which amounts to “less bad” outcomes, and move toward more positive outcomes.

How does this work? Take zero net energy, for example. The current approach establishes zero as the end point and best-case scenario. But if we start at zero instead, a design team would get no energy budgeted until the natural resources available are optimized using passive strategies. Then, when energy is needed, it is budgeted sparingly while calculating how much energy can be made onsite or nearby.

Starting at zero leads to compelling questions like these (adapted from ARUP’s Drivers of Change):

  • What will the world be like in 50 years?
  • What will have the most impact on the future?
  • When is constructing a building better than no building?
  • What’s next after computers?
  • How will mega-trends affect the built environment?
  • What if there is no front to a classroom?
  • What if we could work from anywhere?
  • What if healthcare focused on wellness?
  • When do we need to gather and for what activities?

Hundreds of participants around the country have responded to these questions. These participants included design professionals, business and government executives, educators and building occupants. The top responses, which were gathered from surveys, interviews and workshops, are listed below in order of impact.

1. Mobile technology and devices

2. Freshwater access and awareness

3. Climate change

4. Renewable energy

5. Energy infrastructure

6. Human activity impact

7. Connection to natural world

8. Intelligent buildings

9. Food production

10. Consumption and waste

Three guiding principles have emerged from this research that lead to a holistic approach to positive impact. These three principles are not limited to buildings only but also influence daily living.

  • Human experience
  • Target performance
  • Best value

What if we could…

  • restore the health and wellness of people and the health of the land?
  • make energy without fossil fuel? And make more than we consume?
  • clean the air, not just make it less dirty?
  • live in water balance with water resources?
  • eliminate waste?
  • have a circular and self-sustaining economy?
  • focus on abundance and prosperity rather than expense, cost and scarcity?

Positive Impact on People

What benefit is a building that is net zero energy or carbon neutral if it’s not also a good place for people? Not only does the building fail in fulfilling its core purpose, but it also will not last.

For a positive impact on people in education settings, for instance, we can ask questions like these: How will learning take place in the future? What if there was no front to the room, then what would learning look like? When will learners need to gather or be alone, and what kind of spaces will they need? Across the country, the learning experience is being transformed in university and community college science classroom buildings.

In healthcare, what if we change to a wellness approach rather than just an acute care approach? Then, designing the health care process first yields better healthcare and a very different building. Health systems across the country are changing to this approach, including recent projects in California, Wisconsin, and Georgia, to name a few. And more of these projects are underway.

Another category to consider, mobile technology, is changing the look, feel and manner of work in office buildings. Designing a new way of working based on mobile technology and positive impact is the new normal at offices in Palm Springs, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Sacramento and other cities across the country.

Positive Impact on Our World

In addition to a positive impact on people, some projects are leading the way in positively impacting the world. For example, how can buildings not only use less energy but actually produce it? One college campus in an extreme northern climate abandoned the carbon-emitting central plant, built a new cutting-edge biomass gasifier, and installed two utility-size wind turbines. Besides achieving net zero energy performance in 2013, they provide carbon offsets.

Another college campus, which is located in California, currently produces 13 megawatts of electricity. And a community college science complex has been operating at net positive electricity since September, 2015.

What about air? Can we actually clean the air rather than just make it less dirty? Consider the fact that one existing building uses energy that produces annual emissions equal to the annual emissions of about 191 cars. But on the other hand, one Midwest health campus has reported being carbon neutral for utility emissions. A building in an extreme northern climate is net carbon positive.

Can we achieve water balance? What will we use the water for when there’s not enough? By starting at zero for water use, one facility that was using 2.2 million gallons was shown to potentially use only 150,000 gallons a year. An office building in the desert of southern California was allocated 20 million gallons by the local water authority. Instead of status quo, the new office building was designed to use less than 2 million gallons a year. This building is planned for net positive water. The extensive landscape was designed for near zero water and is also a beautiful design. An engineered wetland is installed to treat wastewater onsite. Drinking water needs were prioritized and non-essential water uses were eliminated, such as using hand sanitizer instead of hand washing. Finally, extremely low water use fixtures and water-free cooling systems were installed.

Can we eliminate even the idea of waste? Without trying very hard, one project achieved 98.4 percent diversion of the construction waste from the landfill. So nearly all the material that would have been sent to a landfill is being used again. About 65 communities around the world have adopted zero waste plans or goals.

Can we copy nature by eliminating toxins? One exterior paint that was designed to mimic the surface of a lotus leaf and be self-cleaning and has been used on various projects. One hospital decided to select materials for interior finishes that did not contain Red List chemicals with only a few exceptions. Efforts like these are transforming manufacturers, some of the world’s largest producers of toxins.

Financial power can accelerate transformation. One large worldwide lender has become interested in financing companies’ efforts to be more sustainable.

Gone are the days when sustainability costs too much. In Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Ray C. Anderson writes about companies that have lower energy use and lower carbon emissions … and they also have higher sales and better profits.

Children are invested in making the world better. A fourth-grade class in California did a science project on renewable energy. Not only was their project accepted for presentation at an international renewable energy conference, but the fourth-graders themselves presented it.

The class of 2030 does not yet know the word can’t. We can adopt that mindset too. Let’s change the questions we’re asking, think differently about what’s possible, and press forward with courage and conviction. We can give them a better future now.

Patrick Thibaudeau—LEED FELLOW, CCS, ILFI—is vice president of sustainability at HGA.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.