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Sustainability: What is it again?

You may have noticed a cringe factor growing over recent years around the use, misuse, overuse, and abuse of the word “Sustainability”. So what is it really all about? How is it relevant to professional practice? and, how can it help us to apprehend new values and greater, and perhaps more rounded, prosperity for our clients and all other stakeholders?

I’ve found that A 5 point sustainability model seems to be a useful tool to explore multiple perspectives of projects in both academic and practical applications.

1. The commercial world, and each of us as members of it, have always understood sustainability; albeit in a purely economic sense. GDP for example has traditionally been the single measure of national prosperity measured in dollars and cents alone.  Simply put:  when income exceeds outgoing, the surplus creates wealth (though not necessarily long term or sustainable). We get that, and always have. Economic Sustainability then is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, a significant and indispensable element of the 5 point model.

2. Environment Sustainability has now been around long enough for us to believe in it and consider paying for its long term benefits to imagined beneficiaries beyond ourselves; that is, we are beginning to care for the future for the sake of our children, and the future of the species and the planet.  In short, Environmental Sustainability has now been shown to positively influence the bottom line economic return of many projects. This is a noteworthy turning point for significant positive future change.

3. Social Sustainability is perhaps the third tier of a 5 point Sustainable perspective. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been quietly gaining momentum, perhaps in the shadow of higher profile, and perhaps more pressing, global environmental concerns. Social Sustainability takes a systemic approach to projects, processes, organisations, groups and community dynamics. It understands that any project or process includes people. It also understands that intrinsically motivated individuals, and team synergy leads to positive increase in long term business and personal outcomes. Happy people is nice side effect of this insight.

4. Cultural Sustainability takes one step further back from the social context. It considers cultural diversity, arts, technology and social and political dynamics in a collective ethnic, nationalistic and global sense. Cultural heritage developed over time has intrinsic value for the identity and cohesiveness of community.

5. The 5th point might be considered as Spiritual or Meaning Sustainability. For a society to gain traction in any collective initiative requires shared meaning, common purpose, and common leadership of a shared whorthwhile cause. In this sense, Spiritual Sustainabilty, a common paradigm of shared meaning, purpose and value, is perhaps the hub at which the four other key sustainability perspectives meet, or the mantle under which they operate.

As a whole, Sustainability is about creating short and long term life and abundance within a system or ecology; Nurturing economic, environmental, social, cultural and spiritual prosperity. The core essence of sustainability is perhaps awareness and generosity. Become aware of your trail of cause and effects, and give a little more than you take.

Each of us, with or without our awareness, moment by moment, have an effect on the world around us.

Do we choose to nurture or diminish it? Sustainability starts there, and here, and now, with you and I in that decision.


With Gratitude

Peter Wolff

Architect BArch (Hons) QUT

Cert. Coach. Pract. ISNS


Editor’s note: Peter Wolff is a regular contributor to ESD. He is a professional development educator, QUT sessional academic, practicing architect, leadership and innovation coach, and Director of Evolve Collaborative.


By |2012-12-11T22:56:18+00:00December 6th, 2012|Articles, Knowledge Centre|1 Comment

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