Former Lehman Brothers investment banker Ian Short helped lead East London's redevelopment for the Olympics and Europe's shift to a low-emission economy. He's come home to show New Zealand how a joined-up "systems approach" is the best way to address climate change.

1 How did you become an investment banker?

In a pub in London, I met a friend of a friend who told me Lehman Brothers was hiring so I went to the library, read Derivatives for Dummies and got a job on the derivatives desk. It was just going to be an OE job but I ended up staying 10 years.

2 Did you ever feel a sense of self-loathing being an investment banker?

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Nothing that extreme. There is a need for banking - being able to move money around efficiently helps the economy work - but it was becoming more removed from that. I tried to leave several times to do something more meaningful but they kept enticing me back.
In London they gave me a third of my time to set up a charitable foundation in Europe. In New York I worked for the Harlem Children's Zone, a global exemplar in breaking the cycle of poverty, by creating a model to help others replicate what they do. I thought, "this is the stuff I should be spending my life on".

3 How did the global financial crisis of 2008 affect your banker friends?

They went through a huge amount of stress and pain but most have bounced back and are working at Barclays now. I don't see many long-term scars but lessons have come out of it. One of my best friends, Paolo Tonucci, was the treasurer of Lehman Brothers. The commonwealth bank of Australia has hired him, partly because of how much he learned in the GFC about what's right and wrong and where boundaries might be.

4 You left Lehman to redevelop East London for the Olympics. Was the public sector a big change?

It was a real culture shock. I found the politics so bloody hard. I nearly went back to Lehman several times because it was so satisfying being able to make things happen. You'd lay out a case, get the resources and implement change. Democracy is a hell of a lot slower. It took me a while to realise that the overall impact I was having was worth the day-to-day pain. The other eye-opener was how many smart people work in the public sector for a fraction of the pay. Bankers had bamboozled society into thinking their jobs are so complex they're worth stupid amounts of money but they're not.

5 What did you achieve in East London?

I helped set up an urban development corporation responsible for delivering 40,000 new homes and 28,000 new jobs in a high-deprivation area around Olympic Park. So many Olympic Parks end up as ghost towns but London managed to create a sustainable community by getting the mayor's office, universities and corporates all working together. I learned how much more can be achieved with a joined-up approach rather than just dealing with housing or transport or social needs in isolation.

6 Is that holistic approach becoming more common?

Yes, a "systems approach" is increasingly seen as the best way to deal with big challenges like urban development and climate change. Most of my work now is in that space. After the Olympics I set up the Institute for Sustainability. We delivered nearly 50 ground-breaking exemplars of how you can do things in a joined-up way. An example was helping Sainsbury's use freight telematics to move goods in ways that produce less carbon emissions and support local communities.

Sustainability expert Ian Short. Photo / Getty Images
Sustainability expert Ian Short. Photo / Getty Images

7 Why can't corporates just reduce carbon emissions on their own?

Often the solutions are not under their control. I became chief executive of Climate-KIC, an organisation set up by the European Commission to get the public and private sectors working together to lead the transition to a low-emissions economy. We delivered more than 2 billion euros worth of climate innovation - practical solutions like helping Dutch airline KLM get biofuels into their planes by securing a supply chain from crop to fuel. Even the world's largest multinationals need to collaborate to achieve change.

8 What was your childhood like?

I was a missionary kid in a sense. Dad left his job to run the Rhema network of Christian radio stations. We'd go to church on Sunday and people would give him envelopes of money and boxes of clothes, so I didn't have many of the things that other kids had. My kids are growing up with so much more. I worry about how we teach them to value the right things. I got into trouble a lot at school, mainly for being a pain in the arse, but I was the first person in my extended family to go to university. I did accounting and management.

9 Why did you come home to New Zealand this year?

For family and lifestyle reasons. I'm helping the Ministry for the Environment lead a cross-Government approach to New Zealand's transition to a low-emissions economy. If we make climate change a huge scary liability sitting on the side, change is going to be difficult. We need to bring emissions reduction into every decision we make from the food we buy, the way we get to work, the materials we use to build our homes and the infrastructure we put in.

10 How do you encourage that kind of collaboration?

Collaboration is not a natural instinct. People really struggle with it so we look for places where cool integrated stuff is already happening and highlight that to give others the confidence to do it. It's happening in small pockets but not nearly enough. One example is the social investment approach created by the Ministry of Social Development. In 2008 data expert James Mansell analysed a group of 2000 6-year-olds using data from across government departments to work out that 50 per cent of them would cost the state an average of $1.5 million each. The Government set up a social investment agency in July to get multiple organisations working collectively to help that 50 per cent. It's working well.

11 What are some examples of the "systems approach" in Auckland?

Manaia Kalani are doing joined-up work in education; Panuku and Tamaki regeneration in urban development; the Southern Initiative in social change. The Government's set up an Auckland policy office to deliver joined-up government on Auckland issues. If you're going to spend money putting in a piece of infrastructure, why not use that opportunity to train up unemployed locals, improve schools and create new parks and cycleways? Housing is a massive opportunity from a systems view. Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities, has shown that quality homes improve health and education outcomes and actually decrease family violence. Treasury needs to take a wider view of the financial returns on housing investment.

12 Can New Zealand make the cultural shift?

It is a significant behaviour change but it's happening quickly. The next generation already think in terms of a shared economy with things like Spotify. China has the equivalent of Spotify for umbrellas and basketballs in playgrounds. I'm seeing real commitment from Auckland Council and central Government to step up how we deliver this stuff. It's hugely exciting.