Opinion: Sustainable Cities Are Born of Collaboration

Artwork illustrated by Penkuro
Artwork illustrated by Penkuro
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What do citizens desire for the future of Phnom Penh? And how can those goals be fulfilled? Different people, in different sectors, from different cultural, educational, and social backgrounds will have different answers to these questions. 

An architect’s answer would differ from that of a researcher, an activist, an engineer, a construction manager — or a construction worker for that matter. Someone who lives in a suburban borey might have a different answer from someone who lives in a central shophouse, and both answers contrast from the response of someone who lives in informal housing. 

As it currently stands, there are not nearly enough opportunities to bring these diverse viewpoints together for meaningful conversations regarding collective goals for our city, and how we can move toward achieving these goals. In Cambodia, actors in different fields of work are not given enough opportunity to interact, share ideas and collaborate. Although getting them together sounds obvious, having a constructive, collaborative and open minded session rarely ever occurs.

I had the chance to see just what can result from these cross-discipline conversations when I participated in the Sustainable Building Arena, an event held in March by the Build4People project team. The Build4People project is a group of German researchers and professionals who work closely with local partners to foster sustainable development in Phnom Penh’s urban landscape, starting with the building industry.

The Sustainable Building Arena, or SBA, brought together architects, youth activists, civil society representatives, real-estate developers, construction managers, government officers, researchers, technicians and more to generate solutions around the topic of sustainable building practices and urbanization processes.

While these people were certainly chosen for their expertise, they were first and foremost citizens of Phnom Penh. They were asked “What are the most relevant issues observed? What do citizens desire for the future of Phnom Penh?” This is a crucial cornerstone of the SBA — to have ideas generated by citizens for citizens.

Artwork illustrated by Penkuro

What became clear from the conversations that followed was the potential innovation these kinds of interdisciplinary spaces open up. It is clear that bringing locals together and giving them the opportunity to think critically and creatively across sectors can allow new solutions to arise that each individual discipline on its own would struggle to fully articulate.

Thinking Across Sectors

The adoption of renewable energy in buildings is a great example of a topic in need of a cross-disciplinary approach. Getting more people interested in building and buying sustainable buildings and homes is a very obvious goal for a sustainable future for Cambodia, but a clear action plan to get there is virtually absent. 

In the cross-disciplinary setting of the SBA conversation, new ideas start to emerge:

A real estate developer started the conversation by theorizing that the absence of strong demand on the consumer side for sustainable homes results in their absence from the market. The developer therefore suggests that buyers must first be convinced of the long-term benefits of these homes to generate demand, and therefore generate action from suppliers.

Sustainability experts and policy-minded individuals involved in the conversation proposed that a different approach is needed — policy reform on energy subsidies, progressive energy pricing models and an energy sell back scheme to the national grid to make renewable energy in homes more attractive.

More bottom-up initiatives were proposed by activist and civil society representatives. They proposed creating advocacy groups and running campaigns to convince potential home buyers to seek sustainable homes.

The Phnom Penh skyline. (Andy Ball)
The Phnom Penh skyline and its construction sites. (Andy Ball)
Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok lake in March 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok lake development in March 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Bringing It Together

Although these ideas were excellent, at first the group lacked a cohesive vision to fulfill the goal. And the group was unsure as to which ideas should be prioritized in the short, medium and long term, respectively. After more collective discussions, a comprehensive idea was put forward — built upon the input of all of these individuals working in different sectors. 

Architects and designers proposed a nationwide sustainable building label to grade buildings on their sustainability from best to worst. In this model, the grades would be based on a revised national sustainable building policy, which would also introduce progressive energy pricing models and energy sell back scheme, as suggested by participants familiar with government policy.

Rights advocates recommend that the label be displayed not just to developers and designers, but should be available to and understandable by the public — the consumers — allowing them to base their purchasing decision on a building’s sustainability grade. 

A sustainable building technician added on to this idea by emphasizing that while a non-sustainable, conventional building is cheaper to build, it will cost more to operate over its lifetime while the reverse is true of a sustainable building. This technician then posed to the group how this fact could be most easily communicated to home buyers.

Participants with backgrounds in real estate were then able to add their knowledge of how best to communicate this information to prospective buyers. They suggested the monetary cost-benefit summary should accompany each labeled sustainability grade to make it clear to home buyers just how much more affordable better grades of sustainable homes are to own in the long term. 

This addition also helps fulfill the task of advocating and educating consumers of the benefits of sustainable buildings — and generating demand for their construction, as consumers are more likely to be convinced by price differences than they are by more abstract sustainability ideals.

Thus the solution formulated during this conversation was thoughtful, contextualized in a wider framework, made use of economic incentives and took into account end-users considerations. Such a comprehensive answer was only possible because it was informed by the expertise of each individual and also by their own perspective as citizens of Phnom Penh. 

The diverse set of perspectives, as well as the innovative methodology employed by the organizers ensured that this event was more than just a typical show-and-greet conference. We need more of these types of conversations in this industry. 

Artwork illustrated by Penkuro

Just the Beginning

But no matter how innovative or remarkable such action plans are, they will never contribute to tangible change if they never leave the meeting room’s floor.

Consequently, the Build4People project leveraged its Cambodian-German cooperation involving practitioners and researchers from multiple local and German universities, architectural and climate research firms to organize Sustainable Building Arenas like this one on a regular basis and advance the locally generated discussion on sustainability. 

Simultaneously, they are also partnering with local research groups to publish the outcomes from these SBA. The ideas that came out of the first SBA are currently being examined and will be compiled into short publications and more comprehensive research papers. The results of these conversations will be published in both local and international platforms to hopefully start bigger conversations, and to provide alternative solutions to commonly discussed problems related to sustainable development and construction.

Lastly, to put words into action a Sustainable Building Incubator will also be initiated. Starting in August, the incubator will provide an opportunity for local entrepreneurs and designers to formulate innovative sustainable building solutions and turn these ideas into fully fleshed out products.


The Sustainable Building Arena has proven that a locally driven and transdisciplinary approach is crucial in generating innovative solutions for Cambodia.

Instead of overly relying on foreign assessments, these kinds of spaces can harness the knowledge of local experts who are more deeply rooted and in-tune with realities and challenges in Cambodia. The workshop merely provides a venue, to facilitate open-minded exploration and to publish the findings for wider discussions.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is the crucial role of cross-discipline collaborations in solving complex and interconnected issues. Parties and authorities from other sectors should take note and introduce such opportunities to their respective fields. 

Cambodia will surely benefit from fostering constructive, collaborative and open-minded spaces which allow individuals from diverse backgrounds to explore relevant and locally generated solutions.

Ideas are not conceived in isolation, they are the collective product of diverse, passionate groups who are given the space to work together. The next big idea for Phnom Penh’s future may well come out of one of these sessions.

Ses Aronsakda is a junior researcher at Future Forum. Educated as an architect, he conducts research on Phnom Penh’s urban planning with interests in all aspects of cities and urban design.

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