On 21 March 2022, the Build4People project implemented the first Build4People Sustainable Building Arena (SBA) at Impact Hub, Phnom Penh. All in all, more than 30 frontrunners in the field of sustainable building took part in this participatory workshop organised by Ravi Jayaweera, Build4People Work Package “Sustainable Urban Transformation” and by Christina Karagianni, Build4People Work Package “Sustainable Building”, with support from Melanie Mossard from Impact Hub Phnom Penh, Susanne Bodach, the local Build4People coordinator, from Jessy Wildfeuer, student assistant at Hamburg University, and from Dr. Michael Waibel, Hamburg University, overall representative of the Build4People collaborative project.


The general goal of the Build4People project is to achieve a transformative shift in the current development path of the city of Phnom Penh towards more sustainability and a higher quality of life. To this end, the building sector is the starting point for research.

It has recently become more and more apparent that sustainable urban transformation is by no means just a technological challenge, but above all also a social, cultural, economic and political challenge. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that scholars can only develop implementation-oriented solutions for sustainable urban development together in a dialogue with urban society.

Based on this transdisciplinary understanding of the problem, the Build4People project tries to integrate various disciplines such as environmental psychology, civil engineering, urban planning, architecture, urban climatology, remote sensing and human geography in a cross-cutting manner using common participatory formats such as urban living labs or incubators for sustainable business models with local stakeholders from politics, business and civil society to jointly develop practical knowledge and interventions, which should ultimately lead to the implementation of inclusive sustainable urban development processes.

Following this transdisciplinary ambition, the objective of the SBA was to co-develop visions and strategies with local sustainability frontrunners from within the building sector in Phnom Penh. Previous research has shown, that no institutionalized platform of exchange exists for local frontrunners. Bringing these individuals together in a co-creation process to strengthen their networks and collaborative potential was thus considered as a promising entry point for the SBA. Following an adapted form of transition management that was specifically developed by the Build4People Project for the context of Phnom Penh (Jayaweera et al., forthcoming), the SBA followed a three step approach that focussed on the following questions:

  • What is wrong with the current building and urban development sector in Phnom Penh?
  • How do we want buildings and neighbourhoods to be designed, built and operated in Phnom Penh by 2040?
  • How can we get to our desired future(s)

The SBA itself was preceded by a design process, which included the formation of a Transition Team, i.e. a core-team of dedicated individuals that are stakeholders in the building sector in Phnom Penh, and Build4People staff. Together with the transition team, the workshop design was developed and following a joint actor mapping workshop, the participants of the SBA were selected. The transition team selected participants that were driven by sustainability and that have been engaging with sustainability solutions within the building sector of Phnom Penh in the past. 

Schedule: Welcome and Introduction

The SBA started at 9.30 at Impact Hub Phnom Penh. Upon arrival, the selected participants were given name tags, which also indicated their breakout group (Red Hearts, Purple Flowers, Blue Drops, Green Leafs). The organizers created four breakout groups that aimed for an intimate discussion setting and a mix of perspectives, including institutional field (architect, consultant, developer, academia, civil society, building material producers, youth organisation, etc.), gender, local/expat, etc. Furthermore, each group had a facilitator and a participant observer, usually an urban youth activist, and/or a student that were briefed accordingly.

Christina Karagianni and Ravi Jayaweera started the workshop with a brief presentation covering the plan for the day, the motivation behind the different phases, the long term ambition of the SBA and the scientific background of the arena, i.e. transition studies, transition management and transdisciplinary research (Noboa and Upham, 2018; Frantzeskaki et al., 2018).

Figure 1: General overview of a SBA sequence (design by Build4People)
Figure 2: Christina Karagianni during her introduction
Figure 3: Christina Karagianni during her introduction

Additionally, Mélanie Mossard, the CEO of Impact Hub Phnom Penh, who co-facilitated the workshop, addressed the participants and shared brainstorming guidelines for the subsequent sessions, while Michael Waibel, Build4People consortium leader, introduced the project, in general.

Figure 4: Mélanie Mossard introduced about brainstorming rules

Workshop Phase 1: Transition Challenge / Problem Framing

The first phase of the SBA aimed at the co-development of a framing of the transition challenge. The guiding question of this phase thus asked: What is wrong with the current building and urban development sector in Phnom Penh? The framing of the transition challenge involved the identification, articulation, hierarchization and integration of problems in small groups. In the small teams, participants brainstormed individually, before sharing their ideas with the small group. Ideas were organised as chosen by the team together with their facilitator. 

Figure 5: Team “Purple Flowers” collects challenges and looks at the challenge cards

To integrate B4P research into the process and combine it with the knowledge held by the participating stakeholders, participants could optionally draw on additional input in the form of “Challenge Cards”. These cards highlight individual transition challenges from the system analysis. The individual work packages of the B4P project developed these under the guidance of Christina Karagianni and Ravi Jayaweera. The collaborative framing of the transition challenge supported the participants to familiarize themselves with the different positions and values in the group and to overcome institutional perspectives. After discussing, integrating and clustering within the small group, each group presented to the plenary. Due to time limitations during the workshop, the overall Integration and clustering was continued by members of the Transition Team after the workshop. 

Figure 6: Team “Hearts” discusses the transition challenges

Key challenges that were raised by the participants dealt with aspects of governance, regulation and regulatory enforcement. Participants primarily noted the absence of relevant regulatory frameworks like a building code, or in the case of existing rules (such as the Phnom Penh Masterplan), that these have not been enforced sufficiently. Participants voiced the need for integrated and decentralised planning, actually enforced regulation and connected this to the theme of administrative capacities. While the need for more awareness of sustainability and knowledge about sustainable forms of urban development construction was mentioned for various actor groups, including developers and households, participants specifically highlighted the need for more capacity of subnational administrations. 

Other key challenges that were voiced relate to a lack of public and green spaces, mobility (very limited walkability, unattractive public transportation, etc.), resilience and water management (flash floods, waste water treatment, etc.), urban sprawl and the fragmentation of the city into boreys. In connection to the latter, a number of stakeholders stated challenges related to the themes of affordability, segregation and inclusivity of housing and urban development processes. These are closely linked to challenges that were clustered under “markets”: Participants raised the challenges of speculative investment and profit-maximising real estate actors that implement luxury-oriented units instead of affordable ones. In this vein, the dominant role of private developers vis-à-vis the state and the civil society was mentioned. Lastly, more challenges were raised within the fields of building design and building materials (low quality, lack of context sensitive design with high AC-reliance), buildings & energy and finance (lack of green finance and incentives). An overview of the results of the groups is shown in Figure 7. 

Figure 7: Clustered Phase 1 results of all teams (click to enlarge the graph)

The first workshop phase showed the diversity and interconnectedness of challenges. Furthermore, high levels of agreement and like-mindedness between participating stakeholders became evident. The participants saw that many others share their critical evaluation of the current building and urban development processes in Phnom Penh. Local artist Penkuro illustrated the discussions and problem framings for Phase 1 of the SBA in Figure 8.

Figure 8: Integrated results of Phase 1 illustrated by Penkuro (click on picture to watch the drawing process)

Workshop Phase 2: Collaborative Visioning

In the second phase, the participants co-developed and expressed their key priorities and principles for their envisioned futures of the local building and urban development system as well as images and narratives of desirable futures in a common vision. The guiding question for this phase was thus: How do we want buildings and neighbourhoods to be designed, built and operated in Phnom Penh by 2040? 

The session was kicked-off by a short input by Ravi Jayaweera, who shared transformative visioning principles (visionary, plausible, sustainable, systemic, tangible) and contrasted it to other forms of futuring (scenarios, predictions, backcasting). As In the previous phase, the participants brainstormed individually, before discussing their ideas within their breakout groups, and lastly in the plenary. Participants were free to choose from various methods of expressing their visions, including drawings, Lego, post-its, etc.

Figure 9: Phase 2 results illustrated by Penkuro (click on picture to watch the drawing process)

Key elements of the visions brought forward relate to the inclusivity and sustainability of building and urban development processes, integrated planning, a move from the dominant “Me-Space” towards more “We-Space”, a strong regulatory framework, and buildings that are (amongst others) people-centred, contextually-adapted, green, healthy, long lasting, and liveable; or overall: “A Green Phnom Penh for all”. Other foci of the visions include urban green spaces, the protection of urban lakes, walkability, attractive public transport, and technological aspects such as clean energy sources and electric mobility. An overview of a participant’s vision of all elements is offered in Figure 10, the integrated results are illustrated in Figure 11.

Figure 10: Participant’s vision for a community driven and connected green-blue Phnom Penh with clean air
Figure 11: Overview of Visioning Phase Results (click to enlarge the graph)

Phase 2 of the SBA has shown that the participating stakeholders were able to develop a far reaching and widely encompassing set of visionary elements in the short period of time. The results show high consistencies between groups and individual participants and relatively low levels of contradictions in the developed visions. It became furthermore clear that the participants equally consider social (affordable, inclusive, etc.) and environmental aspects (resource consumption, circularity, renewable energy) of sustainability in their visions.

Figure 12: Participants of team “Green Plants” work on their vision(s)
Figure 13: Envisioning Phnom Penh’s Future

Workshop Phase 3: Development of a Transition Agenda

In the third phase, back-casting methodologies were used to connect future scenarios and narratives to the problematized present, in order to develop concrete transition pathways and strategies. Hereby, a first sketch of a “Transition Agenda” was created. The guiding questions for this step were: “How can we get to our desired future(s)? What steps must be taken in the short-, medium-, and long-term?” Ravi Jayaweera kicked the session off with a short input highlighting that moving towards the desired state in the future does not only involve innovation, emergence, the creation of new institutions, etc. but also the destabilization and discontinuation of current practices and arrangements. This reflected a recent turn in transition studies that addressed the previous “pro-innovation bias” (Godin and Vinck, 2017; Loorbach et al., 2017).

Figure 14: Participants developing transition strategies

Participants identified short-term, medium and long-term actions to define, prioritize and further elaborate transition pathways. The individual groups came up with a wide set of necessary steps for the realization of their visions. Some connected these closer to particular transition pathways than others. This included a group following a pathway towards the inclusive city of Phnom Penh, a pathway towards the green city of Phnom Penh and an overlapping field of steps. Others clustered their short, medium and long-term steps into a set of themes, including education and awareness, regulation and governance, urban planning, design and construction, building materials. Figure 10 offers an overview of steps raised by the participants for the short, mid and long-term across a set of thematic fields. Most points are within the fields of capacities, knowledge and awareness, regulation and governance. This for example includes the creation of online databases of sustainable design practices and sustainable building experts, the integration of sustainable building knowledge into university curricula, awareness raising campaigns for the general public and capacity building for (subnational) administrations and industry; together with sustainability incentives and pilot projects, this shall then lead to a thriving sustainable building community and households that embrace low-carbon lifestyles. The transition agenda thus involves visionary images, pathways, and ideas for short-term action, with the actors seeing themselves and their networks as an essential part of both the future and the pathways towards the envisioned future. The transition agenda thus involves visionary images, pathways, and ideas for short-term action, with the actors seeing themselves and their networks as an essential part of both the future and the pathways towards the envisioned future. 

Figure 15: Presentation of outcomes by participants
Figure 16: Presentation of outcomes by participants
Figure 17: Presentation of outcomes by a participant from Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia
Figure 18: Overview of transition pathways
Figure 19: Phase 3 results illustrated by Penkuro (click on picture to watch the drawing process)


Overall, the first Build4People SBA was a successful participatory workshop that brought together a range of frontrunners and change agents from the sustainable building and urban development field. It established new links between individuals, strengthened networks and initiated fruitful discussions, a participant accordingly shared “The questions and discussions were great to kickstart conversations around the issues as well as people’s visions related to Sustainable Building in Phnom Penh”. 

A number of key aspects that were targeted by the SBA design could be realized. The selection of participants through the actor mapping process can be considered successful: In an anonymous survey of participants, 67% of the participants shared that the group constellation was very good, while 33% said it was good. Equally, the SBA succeeded in creating a safe space: 86% of the participants felt very free to share their views, 14% free, even if they were questioning the status quo. While the participants widely agree that a transition towards urban sustainability is necessary, and that the SBA can generate meaningful impact, it became clear that this could only be achieved in a longer engagement process. 

Next Steps

  • Continued exchange, among others in cooperation with Future Forum, series of meetings for SBA participants to further discuss ideas for transitioning towards the envisioned future;
  • Second round of Build4People SBA planned for March 2023, 
  • Coordinated article series by SBA participants in local news outlets 
  • Integration of SBA results into the Build4People Sustainable Building Incubator, an incubation programme that looks for solutions that tackle challenges in the urban building sector and support the realization of the sustainability vision of a GREEN PHNOM PENH FOR ALL by 2040.
  • While the first Build4People SBA was restricted to frontrunners that have previously shown some engagement with sustainability themes, future arenas will be open to a wider set of stakeholders. 
Full-video summary of the Build4People SBA at YouTube


Frantzeskaki, N., Hölscher, K., Bach, M. and Avelino, F. (Eds.) (2018) Co-creating Sustainable Urban FuturesA Primer on Applying Transition Management in Cities. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Godin, B. and Vinck, D. (Eds.) (2017) Critical studies of innovationAlternative approaches to the pro-innovation bias. Cheltenham, Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Jayaweera, R., Nop, S., Karagianni, C., Waibel, M. and Schwede, D. (forthcoming) Sustainable building arenas: Constructing a governance framework for a sustainability transition in Cambodia’s urban built environment, sbe22 berlin – sustainable built environment within planetary boundaries.

Loorbach, D., Frantzeskaki, N. and Avelino, F. (2017) Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 42(1), pp. 599–626.

Noboa, E. and Upham, P. (2018) Energy policy and transdisciplinary transition management arenas in illiberal democracies: A conceptual framework, Energy Research & Social Science, 46, pp. 114–124.