Archive for June, 2011

June 15, 2011

Calling All Planners: The Earth is Hiring!

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorNicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

If you’re a planner, then you’re primed to take a leadership role in growing the sustainability prospects of your region. Planners have the skills to turn regional aspirations or stretch goals into a real roadmap, steering us toward some seriously needed change. If you’re like many others and tired of overused green jargon, well, here’s some perspective to hopefully turn this tossed-around term “sustainability” into an actionable goal.

Blah Blah into Ah Hah!

Planning for sustainability is a process by which we reduce and eventually eliminate all long-term negative impacts on the planet. Sustainability is different from green in that the latter defines the incremental environmental strategies used to “do better” and make headway toward the overall goal of sustainability.

In so many ways, people are trying to “do better” (e.g. compost, recycle, walk, etc.). It’s unfortunate that all of those incremental green activities get misconstrued as being “sustainable” because it degrades the term. Yet, at the same time, the term suffers from its root origin – to sustain – as if a zero-sum existence on Earth is good enough. What we really should do is ditch the term “sustainability” and use “natural” instead as suggested by conservationist, Spencer Beebe.

Because, at the heart of this movement, what we’re really trying to achieve is a mutually beneficial existence with nature and each other. Beneficial in that we give back to nature and live to create conditions that enable all life to thrive. This can only be done by considering social and economic impacts in tangent with environmental. Organizational change expert and Brightworks’ collaborator, Darcy Winslow, infuses this overused term with new, inspirational meaning grounded back in nature, when she so elegantly explains: “Sustainability is not a problem, but a condition to be created.”

The Planning Niche

Planners are well positioned to be champions of sustainability because day-to-day they help shape the life conditions and orchestrate the developmental roadmap for the communities they serve. Like the condition of sustainability, the planning lens spans three dimensions – social, economic and environmental. And planners have the ability to institute powerful change. They tackle civic issues with broad-based, crosscutting solutions that largely dictate the welfare of communities and the health of natural systems.

No other profession has its hands firmly in all three pots. Planners approach their work as a civic duty, they are an important community voice and they are entrusted to watch over economic and environmental health. Viewed through this macro lens, the role of planners is to recognize and balance all three spheres.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is about making connections between ideas. What connection isn't being made here? Image courtesy of Systems Thinking International.

Planners are systems thinkers, too, and view change from a short- as well as long-term perspective. They are trained to see causal relationships in space and time. Understanding how a new transportation corridor will impact a neighboring community or whether the location of a new super market will spur economic growth requires an interconnected worldview of how we choose to inhabit the landscape. And discovering the implications of change over various timeframes is a critical skill to make choices that lead to a sustainable future for communities.

A Reawakening

Not surprisingly, planning for sustainability is nothing new for planners. The comprehensive planning process is founded on taking a holistic, long-term, systems perspective to social, economic and environmental dimensions. Comprehensive plans are revisited, refined over time and adaptable to the changing needs and desires of the community it serves.

Planning is the perfect tool to reframe our outlook on life and what we envision for our communities over the long haul. Current themes of resiliency, diversity and adaptability are important considerations for bringing safety, security, jobs and health to communities. These themes are also integral to ecological systems.

If you’re not involved in comprehensive planning, take a leadership role in your own planning sphere of influence. Development regulations, zoning, entitlements, habitat protection, design standards, policy, permitting, community involvement and utilities all impact sustainable development and are enabling factors to realizing comprehensive plans.

We’re closer to nature than we think, so reframing how we interpret the comprehensive planning process is not a stretch. In his book, Ecocities, thought leader Richard Register says we need to plan and design cities for living things, not machines: first the pedestrian, then the bike, bus, and rail and very last, the car. Planning places for people benefits other creatures, too, because we’ll inevitably consume less land area than if we continue to build more roads and set tracks to connect increasingly distanced amenities and jobs.

Step In to the Limelight: Your Role as a Planner

Planning for sustainability is really about solid, effective project management. The skills to comprehensively view a project in space and time and its relationship to the broader community and built environment are integral to the planning profession, as is the civic duty to be wise and efficient with resources. As a planner, hone these skills, reconsider your worldview and sphere of influence and press the refresh button. You can press it here:

Refresh Button

Go ahead, hit refresh. Icon courtesy of No Sweat Public Speaking

Do what you do best as a planner, with this renewed sense of purpose, and your community will thank you. Start by identifying where your work touches people and the natural environment and within this sphere of influence, where community or regional dollars are spent. Map this system and start to identify the connections across all three. You will discover relationships and leverage points where you have the power to make change, influencing all three dimensions of sustainability – social, environmental and economic.

Connect with others in your system to expand the map and use recognized tools like The Natural Step to begin uncovering where you can take action. Talk to citizens about their concerns and provide education wherever possible. Ride any momentum you can to launch an initiative, build community support and, most importantly, grab the attention of elected officials to meaningfully impact planning and policy documents.

One of the most important changes land use planners can make right now is to formally establish how sustainability is incorporated into the comprehensive planning process. This goal will give us the momentum we need to dramatically influence change. Work with your community to debate the purpose of the comprehensive plan and connect with your local elected officials and chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) to share your ideas. The Oregon Chapter is currently tackling this challenge through several initiatives, including the development of an online database to share current best practices. As OAPA’s sustainability coordinator, I would love to hear your ideas and concerns.Planning-Sidebar

It’s time for planners to step up and share the limelight with the green building design community. Take a leadership role in sustainable development now. The Earth is hiring – sustainability planning is in high demand!

June 15, 2011

Learn, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Nate backpacking on Washington's Olympic Penninsulaby Nate Young

Brightworks Education Coordinator

A number of years ago, researchers dug into the efficacy of the 50-year-old “Smokey the Bear” campaign to prevent forest fires. They found that a picture of Smokey produced a 98% aided recall of the campaign. Digging deeper though, they found only a 7% unaided recall and an even lower rate of understanding of what actions actually reduced forest fires. A critical but missing piece of the campaign was the education behind the image: What steps should campers and other forest users take to prevent forest fires?[i]

Smokey the Bear

But how, Smokey? What do I actually do?

Is sustainability your Smokey the Bear? Do your employees recognize the importance of sustainability, without understanding what the term means, let alone their role in driving the firm toward triple bottom line success?

In addition to managing the competitive pressure to increase sustainable practices, I’ve pointed out before that many firms also recognize the important role workforce training plays in engaging and retaining high-quality, motivated employees. As awareness of sustainability grows, employees increasingly seek out employers that offer and encourage professional growth generally and in sustainability specifically. According to a recent Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, fully 67% of firms interested in sustainability are or will be providing on-the-job training in sustainability.[ii]

I’ll present three reasons you should join these firms in offering a workforce education program on sustainability:

  • save money
  • make your firm more nimble and innovative
  • improve your employees’ level of engagement.

Then, I’ll offer three crucial tips to ensure the efforts you undertake are worthwhile:

  • engage all levels of the enterprise
  • offer required “courses” but also allow employees to direct some of their own learning
  • tie learning objectives to business objectives and incentives

Why Offer Sustainability Education?

Cost Savings: Who can argue with an opportunity to save money? By neglecting to offer your employees the knowledge they need to make effective, cost-saving decisions, you may be leaving money on the table. Most decisions that affect the bottom line are made at the top. However, the daily actions of line-level workers can result in costs rising or falling.

One energy-saving initiative at Intel to raise the thermostat by one degree led to energy savings estimated at more than $400,000 in just one year. Piloted by employees, this effort cost the company nothing and yet led to substantial savings. With oversight from management, the knowledgeable workforce was able to recognize a potential for savings, test out their hypothesis to ensure there were no negative consequences and institute the plan.[iii]

Nimble, Innovative Workforce: Studies have consistently shown a strong correlation between companies that attend to sustainability and those with superior financial returns. One such study showed companies focused on leadership development and adaptive culture grew four times faster and had seven times higher job creation.[iv]

Setting goals, informing your workforce and providing the necessary training can provide a distinct competitive advantage. As social and environmental sustainability increasingly become a part of consumer expectations, the modern workforce must know how to adapt to changing expectations proactively rather than reactively.

Employee Engagement and Retention: SHRM has estimated the hiring process for a given position costs 70-200% of that employee’s annual salary. One of the most important and effective ways to retain a high-quality workforce and avoid employee replacement costs is to offer ongoing workforce training.

I heard a sustainability executive recently identify employee engagement and retention as one of four compelling reasons her firm continued to pursue sustainability strategies and provide ongoing sustainability training. The company’s job applicants consistently ask: “What is your stance – and how do you engage your employees – on sustainability?” Having a proactive sustainability plan made the firm an attractive place to work for their recruits, and ongoing training kept them motivated and engaged.

How to Ensure ROI on Sustainability Training

As with any new business initiative, sustainability training requires certain steps to ensure a return on investment. There are three critical ways to transform the “fuzzy” benefits of sustainability training into improved business performance:

Engage All Levels of the Workforce: Sustainability initiatives often employ the “green team” model driven by motivated employees with no support from management. Alternately, management may issue a directive to incorporate sustainability, with no explanation or attempt to engage employees.. The most effective initiatives, however, involve every level of the organization.

Ground-level support can truly drive change, as in the Intel example above. However, having management on board with training and other efforts adds to employee motivation, while also providing the high-level leadership needed to truly make sustainability efforts successful.

Brenda Wisniewski, Chief Learning Officer of CoreNet Global, said:

“Where I’ve seen this work best is when training and learning is a priority — and it’s always because the CEO recognizes (and vocalizes) his or her point of view that the better trained the company’s people are, the more they understand the business strategy and where they fit into it, and the better they can deliver on it.”[v]

Offer Flexibility in Training Options:  Part of remaining an adaptive, flexible organization is allowing your employees training options. This enables individuals to pursue aspects of sustainability that are important to them, while also allowing them to bring different knowledge and skills sets back to the workplace.

As discussed above, an organization that adapts to changing conditions is much more likely to be successful. A workforce that is educated on current sustainability trends brings proactive growth to the company when it is critical rather than in response to your competition’s movements.

Tie Training to Business Objectives and Incentives: It should go without saying, but employees tend to be substantially more effective at a task when their compensation and/or bonus are tied to its completion. Stonyfield tied employees’ bonuses to a companywide mandate to reduce energy consumption. Through continued education on methods for energy savings, and with incentives to match, the company surpassed their goal with a 22% reduction in energy consumed in 2008.[vi]

Healthcare giant Baxter developed a separate Environmental Financial Statement (EFS) that has been issued since 1993. The EFS showed that savings from employee-driven sustainability initiatives, tied to bottom-line goals, led to $91.9 million in income, savings and cost avoidance from 2002-2008.[vii]

Now is the Time

Is your company where it needs to be with regards to sustainability? And more importantly, will you continue to be on the front lines based on the level of training your workforce is receiving? Or are you opening the door to your competition by leaving your employees to fend for themselves? Now is the time to offer sustainability training to drive your firm into the emerging green economy – your competition isn’t waiting, and neither should you.

Click to view references

June 14, 2011

How Did Architects Leapfrog Planners in the Sustainability Race?

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorNicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

It doesn’t matter what type of planner you are or whether you work in the public or private sector. Transportation, land use, environmental and economic development planners as well as community, campus or regional planners — all have the skill set to be leaders in an emerging sustainable economy.

The need I see is to help planners make this connection and to put these skills to work. This will take the sort of leadership and confidence seen in the architectural community that has caused tremendous growth in the green building market.

Early Leadership

The word sustainability caught the greater market’s attention with the green building movement. Before that, the thinking was very much alive in the planner’s world with natural areas’ protection and restoration, social services and business creation, for example. The concept, however, really took off after the U.S. Green Building Council entered the market in 1993 with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for new building construction.

The USGBC was the first to formally define what a green building is and to quickly point out that we must focus on buildings because of their enormous resource consumption. Later, with Ed Mazaria’s Architecture 2030 Challenge, architects received the leadership and collective encouragement to take the stage as sustainability champions. And they ran with it, leaving planners in the dust!

Sure, planners have been doing great things for a long time, with thought leadership from Jane Jacobs, Andrés Duany, Ian McHarg and Peter Calthorpe, to name a few. But the accolades and limelight in the built environment has primarily shined on the design and construction industry. Their thought leadership has elevated planners’ thinking, as well as the architectural community’s, and has led to the savvy notion that sustainable design comes from looking beyond the building.

A Meeting of the Minds

Architects are beginning to think more like planners now. LEED Platinum is not good enough anymore. The Living Building Challenge took its place as the next step toward achieving true sustainability at the building scale. Yet, the challenge is tough. Constructing buildings that produce all of their own energy needs and recycle their water on site is a difficult challenge, especially for larger buildings or buildings with high resource demands, such as laboratories and hospitals. To this end, architects are discovering that solutions to this challenge can be found by leveraging resource efficiencies at the block, neighborhood and city scales.

Across scales, energy, water and other resource concerns (such as ecosystem functions, air quality, carbon emissions, transportation access and materials to name a few) can more adequately be addressed and the solution space opens up. Across scales, the economics of solutions oriented around sustainability consistently look better. Moreover, this idea leads to solutions that could serve multiple buildings, which compounds the resource and social benefits and accelerates progress toward higher levels of sustainability.

Living Paris, winner of the Living City Design Challenge

This vision of a "Living Paris" won Daniel and Maximilian Zielinski first prize in the Living City Design Competition. Image courtesy of the International Living Future Institute.

Several tools that took shape in the architectural community are now expanded to encompass larger developments. USGBC’s LEED rating system now certifies neighborhoods, Architecture 2030 has designed a challenge for planners, and the Living Building Challenge now addresses development at all scales and recently hosted a competition to design the most sustainable city. These programs emerged from the desire to qualify well-known sustainability planning concepts by taking advantage of the market penetration success of USGBC. New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Transit Oriented Development are examples.

This evolution continues as new planning programs are launched by entities striking out on their own. These programs are less design-oriented and more about transforming existing communities giving planners the opportunity to take a leadership role. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Local Governments for Sustainability as well as the Portland Sustainability Institute’s EcoDistrict’s Initiative are two such programs.

So what should planners do to reclaim sustainability leadership?  Find out in our related post, “Calling All Planners: The Earth is Hiring!”

June 13, 2011

Metrics for Real Success: Happiness and Beyond

Scott Lewis, Brightworks CEOScott Lewis, Brightworks CEO

“We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods…[w]e cannot measure national spirit by the Dow-Jones Average, nor national achievement by the gross national product.”

~ Robert Kennedy, 1967 [Click for full text]

Transformative ecological, social and economic progress will require us to replace the standard methods of measuring national progress with tools more holistically aligned with the deeper values represented by our aspirational goals of creating a truly sustainable future.

Gross National Product (GNP) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are widely considered the standard measures of economic progress throughout the industrialized world. GNP measures the economic output of firms owned by companies within the measuring country. GDP measures the output of all firms operating in the measuring country. Close examination reveals that both measures are inadequate for creating real progress in human well-being.

GNP is a poor measure of economic success. It measures activity (production of goods and services, even if those goods and services create environmental damage or impair human health), not outcomes, such as improvement in quality of life. It also assumes economic growth is itself a sufficient goal.

The widespread observation that “you manage what you measure” points to our natural tendency to concentrate on things we can track and count, not necessarily the things that matter most. By relying on GNP as the primary scoring system of how we are doing as a nation or global society, we may be unwittingly pursuing the wrong outcomes.

In fact, a growing body of research by psychologists and economists supports this very premise – that economic progress does not equate to happiness, and that we should focus our measurement on factors that more directly address human well-being.

Metrics That Matter

In 1972, the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck faced a dilemma that would shape the future of his country – how to start opening his small Himalayan kingdom to carefully measured Western-style economic development while preserving the cultural uniqueness that made Bhutan a special and beautiful place.

The king’s answer included limiting access to Western media (there was no outside television programming in Bhutan when I was there in 1985), limiting tourism to a few hundred visitors per year and creating a new kind of tracking system to run in parallel with the conventional economic progress tests. He called the system Dzongha, which means “gross national happiness.” Dzongha is measured as an aggregate of scores across nine categories that influence human well-being, including:

  1. Psychological Well-being
  2. Time Use
  3. Community Vitality
  4. Culture
  5. Health
  6. Education
  7. Environmental Diversity
  8. Living Standard
  9. Governance

In 1998, Bhutan formally adopted the Gross National Happiness (GNH) system and required all laws and national policies to be designed to improve GNH.

The “Happiness Movement”

Following Bhutan’s lead, economists and social scientists started to examine how national and international development policies and measurement systems could be connected to human well-being. Entire fields of study – including Humanistic Psychology – have developed in the past 20 years around the question of what requirements must be fulfilled to support fundamental human well-being. Much of this inquiry has expanded on the well-known work of American psychologist Abraham Maslow from the 1940s and Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef from the 1980s.

Max Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs model includes:Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

  • Subsistence
  • Protection
  • Affection
  • Understanding
  • Participation
  • Leisure
  • Creation
  • Identity
  • Freedom 

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” has been criticized as having no grounding in empirical evidence. Nevertheless, Maslow is credited with founding the Humanistic Psychology movement, and like many early models, his theory served as a basis for much important and meaningful work that followed.  Image courtesy of the Psychology Wiki

A significant development in the “measuring happiness” movement came in 1990. Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and a group of colleagues changed the way the United Nations Development Programme tracks development progress of countries “from national income accounting to people centered policies.” The ul Haq team created and deployed a revolutionary tracking system called the Human Development Index (HDI). Under the latest revision of the HDI, released in 2010, the UNDP scores and ranks nations based on the aggregate score of three indicators: life expectancy, education and income. Some of the highest and lowest scoring HDI nations are listed here:

Top 10 Countries Bottom 10 Countries
1. Norway 160. Mali
2. Australia 161. Burkina Faso
3. New Zealand 162. Liberia
4. United States 163. Chad
5. Ireland 164. Guinea-Bissau
6. Liechtenstein 165. Mozambique
7. Netherlands 166. Burundi
8. Canada 167. Niger
9. Sweden 168. Congo (Democratic Republic of the)
10. Germany 169. Zimbabwe

Where the HDI uses quantitative measures, other approaches place increased focus on qualitative measures. For instance, the World Values Survey project, conducted by Ronald Inglehart between 1999 and 2002, asked individuals in 63 countries how happy or satisfied they felt subjectively, then correlated the answers with the median income of the countries. The report showed some correlation between national affluence and reported well-being, but only across a wide range. The countries with the highest reported happiness among individuals included relatively wealthy nations, such as the US, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria, as well as less-economically advanced countries such as El Salvador, Mexico, Columbia and Nigeria.

A Plateau of Happiness, from the New York Times

"A country's wealth may not always dictate the happiness of its people", from the New York Times

Implications for Sustainability

Growing material affluence has been the central focus of economic development strategies for most industrialized or developing countries since the industrial revolution, and in some cases, dating back for millennia. And still today, when food security, health crises and basic physical security (shelter, national defense, freedom from crime, etc.) are far from universal, many individuals and countries have valid reasons to pursue greater financial stability.

For those more financially fortunate, the question is how much is enough financially? A solid body of evidence supports the case that once basic needs are satisfied, the correlation between financial and emotional well-being is more tenuous, and a strong sense of community, economic and social stability and other factors become more important.

The implications of these studies are profound for individuals, organizations, communities, regions and nations fostering a future in which economic development supports both ecological security and sufficient prosperity for the world’s growing human population. As long as policy makers use GNP or GDP as the primary measures of economic “success,” they will continue to enact and promote policies that – ironically and despite the best of intentions – undermine the needs for a sustainable or restorative future.

Even as we pursue the technological and financial tools to ensure economic sustainability, we must also redefine the metrics we use to measure progress. We can start by replacing the archaic GNP/GDP primacy with more holistic and robust tools that consider income or financial wealth as only one contributor to a greater and more appropriate goal: well-being.

Today, a “business as usual” mentality and institutional momentum and inertia stand in the way of a national success model founded on well-being. The urgency in overcoming these obstacles to the new model cannot be overstated. Hanging in the balance are the lives of billions of people and countless species – for generations to come.

June 9, 2011

“What is the Future That We Want to Create?”


Darcy Winslow, Brightworks Sustainable Systems Group

Darcy Winslow

Businesses around the world are increasingly acknowledging the role of sustainability in their business operations – not just as a perk, but as a strategic initiative. Studies show 96% of global CEOs believe sustainability issues should be fully integrated into the strategy and operations of a company, a figure that rose 24% in just three years. And 80% of CEOs believe we will reach a point in the next 15 years when sustainability is embedded within the core business strategies of the majority of companies around the world.  (See the United Nations Global Compact CEO Survey 2010)

An exciting prospect, but how will they get there? In 2010, Brightworks formed the Sustainable Systems Group to advise companies around techniques and processes that catapult companies toward or hold them back from this goal. Systems Group member Darcy Winslow sat down for the Experts Behind the Experts interview with Kiersten De West recently for an informative 30-minute session on the methods leading businesses are using to tackle this transition and what their results look like.

This preview of their conversation highlights one of the issues Brightworks is actively working on with our enterprise clients – how the framing and definition of strategic goals opens your business to opportunities and innovation, or stifles it by focusing on incremental and issue-specific problems. To learn from the full session, visit Ci: Conscious Innovation.

Kiersten De West: What is sustainability to you?

Darcy Winslow: It’s the ability or capacity to thrive. It’s about thriving into the future, but not at the expense of next generation. How do we live in favor of the future? At a recent “Leading for Sustainability” workshop, we reframed sustainability as not a problem to be solved, but rather a condition we want to create.

Kiersten: Do you find that there are organizations that approach sustainability as a problem, and there are those that approach it as a solution or an opportunity? And do you find that there is a distinct difference in the results between the two as a result of their approaches?

Darcy: Yes, I do… When you look at sustainability as a problem to be solved, what typically happens is people get into reductive thinking, and things become issue specific. “How do we solve our recycling problem? How do we deal with waste throughout our business model?” Or whatever it might be, but it becomes issue specific. If you take a creative orientation, it comes back to: “What is the future that we want to create?” I think your long-term vision or north star – and consequently the actions that you take and how you organize the system in which you’re working – is very different and has a much greater impact. It forces you to see the entire system, to understand the interconnectedness, and consequently, the greater levers and opportunities that reside there.

In terms of some of the greatest examples out there, I have to throw Nike in there… They’ve set really aggressive long-term goals that go back almost 15 years. And those goals, and I think what we can learn from other companies is, they’ve got to be aggressive. What do you want to take to 100%? And what do you want to take to 0% in your business model? If we stay in the “50% increase/decrease” mode, then we continue to approach the problem through the same mindset and achieve incremental improvements vs. breakthrough thinking. Without companies on this leading edge we would not have seen much of the progress in the realm of sustainability.

I think Patagonia has always stood out, especially from their philanthropic aspect, but also their business model in general. Patagonia, Interface, Unilever – these are examples of companies that are really starting to wrestle with the question of the financial aspect and changing the rules of the game. How big is too big? How big is big enough? What does a “sustainable ROI” look like? Patagonia is certainly setting a benchmark by addressing the number of product SKU’s in their product line. And Interface is addressing the issue of lifecycle ownership: How do you, as a company, own everything that you create by leasing your product as a service rather than offering only a one-directional consumer product relationship?

The number of examples of companies involved in this work is increasing exponentially every year. But we have such a long way to go to achieve the necessary level of reduced impact on the environment and the positive impact to society. So there’s plenty of work still to be done…and the clock is ticking.

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