A new breed of professionals is using their hotly sought after skills to bring about social and environmental impact. Impact-oriented values are fast becoming the deciding factor in career choices, over more traditional drivers like working for the most prestigious companies. This is what led former Young Leader, Fruzsina Nagy to sustainability consultancy. We ask her what that really involves and how the rest of us can imitate these skills in our projects.
Consultants: we’re familiar with the word alright, but what do they really do? And how are they making our cities more equitable, resilient, connected places?
Thankfully, we were able to get the inside scoop from a familiar face – one of Urban Future’s former Young Leaders, Fruzsina Nagy.
Listen, Listen & Listen Again
Fundamentally, consultation is problem-solving. Using those skills to arrive at impactful answers to whatever challenge is identified by a client.
“A consultant’s role is always to listen and try to guide, but never to tell people the answers,” Fruzsina further explains.
For Fru, this manifests as “advising CEOs and board-level people of large companies or public institutions” on management and sustainability strategies.
“My clients are from the banking industry, public finance, real estate, private equity, energy companies – so, a very wide range of topics.”
This is good news. These are huge industries – powerful, even. If they are engaging in sustainability strategies, we’re bound to notice the difference.
And sometimes that’s the point. Fru’s motive is a moral one. Personally, she wants to work towards environmental protections, social equity – where “everybody has access to the services […] the city you live in can provide” – and the creation of vibrant places where “people enjoy their lives”.
Consultancy isn’t a profession without barriers, though.
Our CityChanger explains that, due to the diverse nature of the problems, the solutions of one assignment are rarely transferable to the next.
The financial sector is singularly problematic because rarely are financiers representational of marginalised or vulnerable groups.
In the projects that they initiate, consultants like Fru need to find ways to increase equity for underrepresented stakeholder groups. Helping financiers understand the needs of those communities helps to shift the structures of power and influence in our systems and cities.
Complexity in Consultancy – The Bijlmer Prison Case Study
It was led by a real estate developer and attracted a range of financing revenues “such as public sourcing, impact bonds, banks, and so on”.
Because of these economic influences, GreenWURks realised the development would exclusively benefit the affluent residents of the city.
Fru and crew had other ideas. They wanted to make sure this would be an inclusive and sustainable neighbourhood, tying in circular water, energy, and food concepts that benefit potentially everyone who lived there.
Unlike Fru’s current workplace, GreenWURks was a small team with an environment resembling a startup. Given the space to experiment, many new bright ideas germinated, but they were also known to conflict, threatening to impose limitation. Rather than let this derail their progress, the team learnt how to use their differences to their advantage. Even so, it took a while to perfect.
Diversity Informs Positive Action
To use their differences constructively, the team first broke tasks down based on skill sets: the urban planners and architects designed the building, the economist tackled all the financial elements, the social scientists addressed governance and organising policy, etc.
“We thought that, if each group designs something, it will come together as a whole.”
It didn’t. Fruzsina likens this approach to building from Lego, but in isolation: the component parts may have been solid solutions but didn’t fit together when brought together.
The problem with cohesion was noticed by the jury assessing proposals for the site. They concluded that this one didn’t yet offer the holistic community they hoped for.
Three people dropped out, heartbroken. It could have been a major blow, but, thankfully, the others persisted.
Regrouping in the Name of Consultation
Fru speaks fondly now of the next phase, for the lessons this situation granted them.
GreenWURks spent time reflecting on what had happened. Like the community they wanted to serve, their team was highly diverse – 13 nationalities from three continents. For the first time, they really talked about how to combine their disparate knowledge.
Effective co-creation, they realised, required them to establish a shared objective instead of pursuing segregated goals.
The clincher was this: as with consultancy, the objective should be defined not by the instigator or the mediator, but by those set to benefit.
“This sparked the idea of going out to the community and learning from them what their problem is.”
Like GreenWURks, the neighbourhood has a very mixed demographic. Catering for the needs of this neighbourhood would open up the development to a far greater cross-section of Amsterdam.
It worked. With a greater level of participation from the local population, Fru and her colleagues formulated a cohesive proposal and this participatory approach was so well recognised that they were awarded additional funding to put one of their plans in motion – an Ultimate Urban Greenhouse.
Interconnectedness Unlocks Fruzsina’s Potential
Fruzsina enjoyed the public participation and co-creation experiences of the Bijlmer Prison project so much that she revaluated her future career path.
At the time, our CityChanger was taking a degree in applied economics but couldn’t see herself working with for-profit financial institutions unless the work would have a wider – positive – impact. So, Fru went on to take a master’s in sustainability.
This introduced her to a “lot of different theories and concepts”, but she craved more.
I learned a lot in the books, but what does it mean in reality? How can I see this happening in the city?
That’s when Fru signed up for the Urban Future’s Young Leaders programme. One fieldtrip in particular had a profound impact.
“We visited so many different farms with so many different ideas about circularity, about how to use energy, how to reuse water. This type of applied knowledge and applied thinking, plus advocacy, is still not the mainstream.”
Seeing CityChanging in action was the inspiration Fru needed!
She had peered through the looking glass and seen the “interconnectedness of these problems”. It made her aware that the skills she’d acquired in finance were advantageous as we progress to a sustainable future.
Breaking Down Barriers
Fruzsina made use of these expertise by pursuing a career in consultancy, first with Deloitte and now as a senior business analyst with McKinsey & Company, based in Budapest, Hungary.
Our CityChanger remains cautiously modest about how much she claims to know. Even so, she speaks with such openness and self-reflection that it’s easy to sense how deep her insights really are.
So, to finish up, we ask Fru for a Consultancy 101, a simple guide that we can all use to improve our approach to participation.
1. Identify the Problem
Be specific about what you’re trying to tackle. This lays the foundations for how to solve it.
To fully understand the situation, involve a wide range of stakeholders – and be inclusive.
In every project, it’s extremely important to try to include as many different communities as we can.
That means not just gathering data, and not just active listening, either. It means “trying to understand the people, their background, and their problems. Listen to those stories”.
Misunderstandings can skew your data. Avoid this by asking for clarification.
Bonus tip: apply the “dress for the job you want not the one you have” principle. Wear what seems appropriate for the situation: suits for bank meetings, casual for community research. A familiar appearance puts people at ease.
2. Disaggregate the Problem
Breaking down the challenges into manageable pieces is what Fruzsina refers to as “problem structuring”.
It’s very important not to come with solutions already in mind, she stresses. This is to avoid cognitive biases. Remember, it’s not the consultant’s role to create solutions; it’s their job to help the community discover their own.
Highlight the issues that are of most importance. This could be, for example, those with most leverage or impact. These should be what you start with.
Approach the problem(s) with “integrity and rigour”, our CityChanger advises.
Call on all your resources and make sure to get the conversation right. How?
- Nurture the relationships that you create. Don’t just ask for their opinion once. You’ll never get all the answers you need in one sitting, so iterate; people will open up the more they get to know you.
- Diversify your data collection tools. Choose methods that suit your stakeholders. Fru, in a professional capacity, usually uses interviews and brainstorming sessions. For the Bijlmer Prison project, her team went to the local park and talked to families informally. They even arranged cultural events to engage the community in an unintrusive environment.
Struggling to get people to participate? One strategy is to involve a local community or religious leader, business or organisation, or even a politician – anyone who is known and respected. Use them to start a “chain of people”. This builds trust between you – the consultant – and the target group.
Inherently, we come from different places and different backgrounds. So, we cannot assume that if we go there, we’re going to be welcome.
We’ll likely never achieve 100% representation, but employing multiple methods helps cast the net widely.
Follow up with your interlocutors after each round of data collection. It doesn’t need to be complete or polished feedback but give them an indication of how the information you’re gathering is steering the project. This shows them their time is well spent and they may be more willing to continue their involvement.
We ask, we listen, we present our hypotheses or findings, we get feedback, we get further participation.
When you communicate, do so with your target group in mind.
Use clear and accessible language. Avoid jargon. Don’t patronise, either.
Any feedback should include the implications of your findings. It’s important to talk about risks so that the community has a full and honest picture.
“One of the most important qualities needed for breaking down walls and engaging with different people is to be very open,” Fru tells us.