I am writing this blog post on my birthday and at my age the focus is less on cake and candles (although I did have some!) and much more on what I want to achieve and how much or how little time I have to do it.

Similarly, the climate change clock is ticking and the days of incrementalism have run their course. I suppose The REgeneration Tour, seeking to document and celebrate net positive impact, was born out of this temporal awareness.

This is why ideas like 1 Billion m2 resonate. This concept was the focus of a recent panel I participated in during an energy conference in Washington, DC. The two groups leading the charge are not only well positioned to launch a project as ambitious as this one, but also to help see it through to fruition.

From left to right: Jayson Antonoff, US director of GBPN; Anthony Watanabe, of Innovolve; and Peter Boelsterli of X6 (an architectural practice in China)

Together, these two partners have conceptualized a “big hairy audacious goal” to see one billion square metres of energy-positive buildings come online in the next 10 years. What kind of buildings? Affordable, urban housing in the developing world.

I applaud this vision. Having worked on zero-energy and low-carbon housing in places like Costa Rica, Brazil and Peru, I have witnessed first-hand the enabling capacity of housing in emerging economies.

Why are REEEP and the GBPN doing this? Well, estimates project that up to three billion people will be living in informal housing by 2030. And in the next decade, we’re looking at an unmet demand for 180 million affordable housing solutions. Meeting just 50% of this demand represents about US$360 billion.

With hundreds of thousands of people migrating to cities in countries such as China and India, the need for affordable, urban housing is clear and present. Rather than putting a strain on energy systems, these units could be net contributors to energy access.

Closer to home in North America, Mexico has an annual housing demand to the tune of 500,000 for the next decade. That’s a lot of insulation, windows, appliances and labour—and a lot of opportunity for decentralized, resilient, renewable energy production.

During the Washington panel, a number of participants challenged the cost of the “energy positive” goal, saying that it’s possible to reduce nearly 90% of consumption in a cost-effective manner. The fact that building science has progressed to this level is exciting and encouraging.

Why stop at 90% efficiency?

But I encouraged REEEP and the GBPN to stick with the regenerative vision. Indeed, if it is so easy to get to 90% efficiency, then all it takes to reach net positive are some smart policies and a few high-leverage financial tools from lenders. Here, the development banks are well positioned to spur the market with tools like performance- and incentive-based loans, alternative debt instruments and other tools, such as advanced permitting and development charges, feed-in-tariffs or tax concessions.

One billion square metres is indeed ambitious. Energy positive is ambitious. And 10 years is an aggressive timeline, so the risk of failure is real. That said, should this effort result in a spectacular fail, what might we be left with? Half a billion square metres of energy-positive buildings. One billion square metres of zero-energy buildings. Or even a billion square metres of highly efficient buildings.

I’ll take any of these outcomes. One can only wish. It is, after all, my birthday.

Anthony Watanabe

A MaRS client, Anthony M. Watanabe, Ph.D., is an award-winning entrepreneur, advisor and investor helping organizations innovate through sustainability. From July 2013 through July 2014, he is embarking on a journey around the world to research and develop the business case for regenerative design. See more…