Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Re-defining "Sustainability"

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about what "sustainability" means. At The Institute of Cultural Affairs-USA (ICA), we're talking about which community initiatives identified during Phase I of the Accelerate 77 program should be included in a database of sustainability initiatives--and why. At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the Sustainability Strategic Thinking Process I am working on is attempting to figure out how sustainability relates to all the different units across campus, from facilities to health to procurement to interdisciplinary programs to community projects to the arts and more.

At the level of case studies--local examples of sustainable initiatives--the work I have been involved in to date has largely emphasized specific projects that integrate different aspects of the 3 E's of sustainable development: environment, economy, and equity. For example: 
  • The Energy Action Network helped social service agencies register low income families for energy efficiency housing retrofits--to save energy (environment), increase home comfort (equity), and save money (economy), as demonstrated by this story visual from the Roseland community report on engaging communities in climate action
  • Our research in Austin revealed that some of the popular community gardens are valued not only for providing healthy food (environment, equity), but also for a number of other equity-related benefits including "...creating a personal oasis, memorializing community leaders and friends, improving the image of the community, building connections between neighbors, and offering positive growth experiences for youth."
  • UIC's dental lab implemented a innovative measures to save energy and water (environment) as well as money (economy) and improve patient comfort and working conditions for staff (equity).
This focus on the project level naturally leads to recommendations and innovations that strengthen the links between the 3 E's. So in the Roseland community report, which identified "Crime & Safety" as a key community concern, we recommended that the City of Chicago design its climate action programs to address additional concerns such as crime and safety by, for example, considering retrofit measures such as energy-efficient windows that include safety features or working with violence prevention programs to promote the text feature on bus tracker, which helps people know exactly when a bus will arrive so they do not have to spend much time waiting for it on a dangerous corner. Similarly, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles can be used to design spaces that simultaneously enhance the natural environment and increase safety.

Recently, though, I've been feeling that this initiative- or project-level focus is too limited--and results in privileging the environmental component of sustainability rather than balancing the 3 E's. Initiatives are generally considered sustainability initiatives if they include any work related to the natural environment--for example, water, energy, or nature-related programs would almost always be categorized as "sustainability"--while programs that focus first and foremost on economy or equity are generally not seen as sustainability initiatives unless they also address something seen as green. So, an English as a Second Language program would likely only be categorized as a sustainability initiative if, for example, its curriculum focused on an environmental issue such as energy and climate change--such as the Chinese American Service League's wonderful energy awareness curriculum, created in partnership with the Pui Tak Center.

At this point in my thinking, then, I'm starting to focus more on two broader levels:
  1. Community
  2. Values & Systems
Community-Level Sustainability
What organizations and structures need to be in place for a community as a whole to be sustainable? For example, every community needs organizations that help people meet their basic needs, or else the community as a whole is not sustainable. Which would be an argument for including social service organizations in a list of a community's sustainability assets. In addition, every community needs organizations that are focused on conserving natural resources. And every community needs economic drivers. If we can identify these different components, and then analyze individual initiatives, organizations, and people in terms of the larger whole, then we can have a more comprehensive and inclusive definition of sustainability. 

In this picture, for example, Roseland's Youth Voices Against Violence center would be seen as contributing to sustainability--even if it's not doing anything that's "green" per se:
"One resident who was spending time at the Youth Voices Against Violence center with her three elementary-school aged children identified safety as a major concern and shared that the center was the only place where she felt that her children were safe and could engage in recreational activities.
She noted that during the school year, they come straight to the center after school and remain there to receive homework help until they return home."

Values & Systems
At the same time, sustainability does not encompass everything: every company that provides jobs, every restaurant that provides food, etc. This is where Values & Systems-level analysis comes in. What are the values that promote sustainability? I have been intrigued lately by "big ideas" in sustainability, such as "Intergenerational Thinking (Considering the impact of each action on the seventh generation ahead), "Bioregional Thought and Practice (Conscientious attempts to live, work, and play in relation to naturally, rather than politically, defined areas...along with commitment to a citizenship of place" (Sustainability "Big Ideas") and "Diversity: systems/places function because of variety," "Equity/Fairness: resources need to be shared to meet the needs of living things across places and generations" (Sustainable Schools Project), etc. 

These values and systems provide frames through which we can analyze individual initiatives, and the relationships among them, in more complex ways than just looking at how they, in and of themselves, link the 3 E's. For example, they might help us think about what types of economic drivers will lead to sustainability (e.g. Big Box stores, local entrepreneurial ventures, perhaps some combination). Additionally, the big picture, holistic, systems nature of these frameworks force us to think about relationships among initiatives to consider how they work in concert with each other, to mutually reinforce each others' strengths and ensure maximum efficacy. To demonstrate, I will conclude with two final examples: 
  • The Austin research identified Channing’s Childcare Academy as an important social entrepreneur because while it is its own business, it hosts and supports the Austin Childcare Provider’s Network, even though the other members of the network could be seen as business competition. The report explains that the owners sense that there is enough business to go around on the one hand, and on the other it is an essential service for the kids and a job opportunity for Austin residents that is worth supporting and improving community-wide. A wonderful example of big picture, system-wide--sustainable--thinking.

  • One of the true accomplishments of the Energy Action Network was the collaboration and camaraderie that it nurtured among network members. All members were CEDA (Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County) intake sites: they provided services to residents in their communities and were paid set amounts for each application they completed (for utility assistance, weatherization, etc). As a result, when EAN began, the members saw themselves as competitors. After a year of working together, though, they started seeing themselves as collaborators: calling each other for help, referring clients to each other's offices when, for example, one of them was closing early for a holiday, etc. This was the result of our efforts to help the members get to know and appreciate each other and see themselves and each other as agents of creativity and change. At an event that I hosted and facilitated at The Field Museum, we had a group discussion in the Marae House (below), historically used by the Maori of New Zealand for community building and conflict resolution. After the discussion, one of the members came up to me and said something along the lines of, "I want you to know--we did not used to like each other. And now, we are working together. And you did this; all of you did this."

Please share your thoughts:
What would it mean to define sustainability as collaboration, in addition to weatherization? 
How can these big ideas steer us in more innovative--and impactful--directions?
What are your favorite "big ideas" about sustainability?
What are your favorite examples of "big idea" initiatives?

Signing off,


  1. Ultimately, "sustainable" development concerns the comprehensive life of communities. At ICA, we have long thought of the social process as involving cultural, political, and economic dynamics. A comprehensive approach concerns them all -- symbol systems, values, and community interactions as much as decision-making and economic transactions, etc, etc. Matters like early childhood education, therefore, are also direct contributors to sustainability. Thinking comprehensively pushes beyond the narrow boxes in which some tend to think about being "green." Terry

  2. Grasping the most inclusive meaning of sustainability is a little like the blind men and the elephant. One is tempted to define it by whatever piece you have hold of at the moment. The 3Es, triple bottom line, or what have you, help keep it from being reduced. The Wiki page for sustainable development proposes that "cultural" be included as a fourth pillar, quoting the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity that "...cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature." My personal push is that to promote sustainability by whatever definition there must be significant grassroots initiatives because, quoting the Canadian Roundtable, sustainability is more an issue of will than of expertise. Randy

  3. Thanks for these insights, Randy, especially the information from the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. I tend to group "cultural" under "equity" but they do not mean the same thing. I also appreciate your articulation of sustainability as will not expertise; that gives me pause to think further.

    1. Jenny, here's the whole quote on will over expertise, which I borrowed from The (Canadian)National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. "Sustainability must be community-led and consensus-based because the central issue is will, not expertise; only a community-based process can overcome political, bureaucratic and psychological barriers to change." Randy

    2. Thanks Randy, I am going to share this with my colleagues at UIC, who are working on defining sustainability across campus. Very helpful!

    3. In fact, I looked into the quote further and found another great site from Canada: http://www.sustreport.org/issues/sust_comm.html

      I continue to be drawn to the notion that collaborative processes are key to sustainability.

  4. Here's a very creative way of defining sustainability, related specifically to food: The Lexicon of Sustainability, http://www.lexiconofsustainability.com/

  5. I ran across this from Donella Meadows:
    "I call the transformed world toward which we can move 'sustainable,' by which I mean a great deal more than a world that merely sustains itself unchanged. I mean a world that evolves, as life on earth has evolved for three billion years, toward ever-greater diversity, elegance, beauty, self-awareness, interrelationship and spiritual realization." -Randy

  6. Kudos

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