C-Suite interview: Christian Jebsen, CEO of Kebony

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Christian Jebsen Kebony Wood Timber Ethical Corporation sustainable cities interview business innovation Oliver Balch

CEO of Kebony, Christian Jebsen, recently sat down with Oliver Balch to discuss the practicalities of creating sustainable cities, and how business can cooperate through innovation.

Ethical Corporation: You’ve argued in the past that sustainability must be the foundation stone for our cities in the future. Why is this?

Christian Jebsen: The global population is predicted to reach 9 billion within 40 years. This will put a huge burden on the world’s resources, infrastructure and space, particularly as this is coupled with increasing urbanisation. This issue is particularly acute with respect to the rise of the middle classes in countries such as China. As their purchasing power increase, so we’ll see a dramatic rise in resource consumption. According to UN estimates, currently 50% of the world’s population is urban. This is set to increase to 70% by 2030. Building new cities, as well as adapting and expanding existing ones to cope with increasing population, will require so called ‘smart cities’. Using technology and innovation will allow growing urban areas to manage the challenges of urbanisation, pollution and diminishing resources. It will also encourage sustainable economic growth without causing further harm to the environment.

Ethical Corporation: What do you envision a ‘sustainable city’ looking like?  

Christian Jebsen: The sustainable city of the future will look dramatically different to the cities of today. South East Asia is establishing many new cities where the design is being informed by the Smart City concept and the need to reduce demand on resources. Choice in construction materials will of course inform a huge part of the designs. So too will infrastructure needs and plans for transportation, energy and waste. These can all be laid out to reduce inefficiencies that have emerged in existing cities, which have grown organically and without central planning.

Ethical Corporation: How can we move existing cities towards this vision?  

Christian Jebsen: There’s a clear need here to retrofit our current cities so as to improve existing infrastructure and buildings. One area of huge potential is the so-called ‘Internet of Things’. This could limit traffic congestion generated by drivers looking for parking spaces, for example, or reduce energy consumption with smart meters. There will also be a need to add to existing building stock to absorb the population increase. Here construction materials and efficient building design will be paramount. In the UK, for example, one third of CO2 emissions are generated by leaky, inefficient and badly managed built environment.

Ethical Corporation: What role does business play in helping make our cities more sustainable?

Christian Jebsen: Private sector innovation is absolutely central to future cities. It will enable us to enjoy economic development without causing environmental degradation or sacrificing the standard of living we have become accustomed to or aspire to. Renewable energy is one example in which private sector innovation has taken hold. The model should be applied to everything that we consume and dispose of. Sustainability should not just be ‘greenwash’. It should be the core means of manufacturing and production. Sustainability needs to become central to every business model in financial terms too. Of course there will be environmental benefits, but financial reward has to be the main driver. Businesses need to understand that sustainability and profitability are intrinsically linked, not diametrically opposed. 

Ethical Corporation: What are the main barriers in getting cities to become more sustainable?

Christian Jebsen: Research and development is perhaps the biggest barrier in my view. We can never have enough R&D in this space. The development and deployment of new technologies is simply vital to making sustainable cities a reality. Government subsidies are shown to be able to kick-start R&D and support innovation at an embryonic stage. However, at the point of commercialisation, the market should be able to determine what is required without distortion. Government needs to invest in grass root R&D, which includes funding in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] education and research departments within universities and corporations.

Ethical Corporation: From your own experience at Kebony, what key lessons would you share with construction firms looking to develop a more sustainable portfolio? 

Christian Jebsen: An integral facet of Kebony’s success has been the ability of the company to identify key markets for expansion and, more significantly, the right time at which to move into them. Appropriating competitive markets like that of the US can be tricky, particularly for the likes of a relatively small start-up from Norway. However, when executed in the right way, the results are highly lucrative and transformative. In order for innovations to be sustainable and have the power to truly integrate environmentally friendly process and products into buildings and the construction process, they must also be profitable in their own right. In that way, driving profit, producing high quality materials and protecting the environment are all working to.

Christian will be speaking at the Responsible Business Summit in London on May 18-19 about creating sustainable cities, and how business can cooperate through innovation. Other speakers include CEO of Outotec, CSO of L’Oreal and CIO of Interface as well as 40+ sustainability, communications practitioners. Further details are available here.

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