Sustainable living isn't just about making upgrades to the built form. It requires a fundamental shift in the way we think and live.

Disruption. It’s our Prime Minister’s favourite word.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull urged Australians to embrace disruption as our ‘friend.’

“The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves,” he said, adding that we must be “smart enough” to take advantage of the disruptive opportunities at play.

Our bricks-and-mortar industry is relatively slow to embrace change. However, Mark Shayler, author of Do Disrupt and keynote speaker at Green Cities 2016, says it’s not enough to shake things gently.

He says we all need to be “thinking like start-ups” to “challenge the norms and go against the grain.”

Shayler, who has worked in sustainability for 25 years, says he almost got sacked from his second “proper job” for wanting to put solar panels on the roof of a retail building.

“It just wasn’t seen as cost effective. Now it’s business-as-usual,” he said. “But while we’ve settled down to doing things a bit better, we still haven’t changed anyone’s behaviours. We need to look at how we disrupt the current business models.”

Shayler says a collision of disruptive forces – the circular economy and collaborative consumption among them – present real opportunities to reduce the built environment’s impact, but that most people are still thinking within a very narrow set of parameters.

However, he says there are some companies daring to be different. One of his largest clients is a residential developer in the social housing space, with 45,000 homes on the books.

This company is currently working on a ground-breaking program with doctors that would enable elderly people to visit their GP and “get a prescription for their arthritis tablets and a new, super-energy efficient boiler at the same time.”

This is life-changing for older people who are afraid to put the heating on because their rusty old boiler costs the earth to run.

“A warmer home is better for people’s health, and they are also more likely to invite friends around and remain active in the community,” Shayler said. “This company is already building Code 6 [sustainable] homes – but they understand that’s not enough. Sustainability isn’t just about the building – it’s about the people inside it.”

Shayler’s client is also working with local councils on skills development programs.

“What is sustainable about an eco-home if no one in the area has a job?” Shayler asked.

He says standard thinking in the sustainability industry is about “doing bad things better.”

“We climbed a mountain, and we climbed it really well – but it’s the wrong one. We shouldn’t be focused on using less – we should be focused on doing more and doing better.”

In previous Green Cities conferences, collaborative consumption advocate Rachel Botsman challenged us to think about how we unlock the ‘idling capacity’ within Australia’s built environment.

Gunter Pauli, meanwhile, reminded us that one person’s waste is another person’s raw materials. Pauli captured our imaginations with innovations such as stones that could be transformed into paper, coffee grinds that could become protein to feed tropical mushrooms, and maggots that could be farmed for their healing properties and as a source of protein for other animals.

But Shayler says we need to “nudge people further” by disrupting the concept of sustainability itself.

“While sustainability is about using less, it will always be linked with austerity and misery. And that’s what’s stopping its progress,” he said.

It’s true. Phrases like ‘low carbon,’ ‘zero emissions’ or ‘waste minimisation’ immediately draw our brains to what’s lacking.

Serious ‘eco-results’ will come when we can demonstrate that sustainability is not about ‘reducing pollution’ but about fresh air and clean water. It’s not about ‘minimising energy consumption’ but about having more money to spend on things other than utility bills. It’s not about ‘reducing motor-vehicle dependence’ but about enjoying the benefits of walking.

Shayler says we must aim for “sustainability, creativity and well-being to become intertwined.”

When people connect sustainability with the best of humanity, we will have well-and-truly disrupted the status quo.

Mark Shayler will be speaking at Green Cities 2016 from March 22 to 24 in Sydney.