Archive for ‘Education’

June 1, 2012

The Human Investment

Nate Young, Education Coordinator, Brightworksby Nate Young

Education Coordinator

The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.

– Peter Drucker 1999

No company can succeed without investing in its most important assets. Yet the challenge, as Peter Drucker points out, is recognizing what’s most important. Many modern organizations hold a vast network of “human resources” that are in essence dying on the vine due to a lack of ongoing investment, especially in the area of sustainability training and development. Fortunately, as leading companies are demonstrating, engaging and investing in employees isn’t a charitable effort – it pays dividends of higher company profits and more effective sustainability programs.

Accounting for human resources

To hear Paul Herman of HIP Investor tell it, many companies avoid investing in their employees on a regular basis – possibly due, in part, to a limitation in U.S. accounting standards. You see, employees are not considered an asset, according to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the standards by which American corporations develop their financial statements. Employees only show up as salary costs (Expenses on the Income Statement) and possibly as pension costs (Liabilities on the Balance Sheet).

The GAAP requirements can be overcome (Infosys, for instance reports their human resource valuation each year), but these structures tend to reinforce management’s 20th Century views of what are “investments or assets” versus “expenses or liabilities.” Like me, you’ve probably heard the phrase “our employees are our greatest asset” more than a few times. Even if we can’t show it properly on financial statements, why don’t we act like we mean it? Clearly, investing in infrastructure is believed to pay benefits, so why don’t we feel the same about our employees?

Our employees are our greatest asset

The people have spoken…via google search.

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May 31, 2012

Biomimicry evolves from concept to concrete

Pigmented domes on alligator, Author/Photographer/Artist: Roger Smith

Photo via Roger Smith on

Aron Bosworth, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorJennifer Barnes, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Aron Bosworth and Jennifer Barnes

Brightworks Sustainability Advisors

Why would we invite an alligator and a San Diego Zoo staff member to an educational workshop geared toward architects and designers? The answer lies in biomimicry, the field of studying and emulating nature’s patterns to create innovative and sustainable solutions to today’s business challenges.

Biomimicry has received acclaim for years as a potential game changer for sustainability. Only recently, however, has it started to take hold in design communities and prove itself to private businesses. As private industry, research and government unite around the concept and put it to work, we will see new success stories that demonstrate biomimicry’s evolution from exciting concept to proven design tool.

A New Way to See Nature

Most if not all of us have a desire to connect with nature – we try and schedule time in our busy days to spend time outside: getting a breath of fresh air during a work break or going for a weekend hike. Edward O. Wilson refers to our subconscious yearning to connect with the natural world as biophilia, and suggests it’s deeply rooted in our biological DNA.

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March 6, 2012

On Maintaining Professional Credentials and LEED Accreditation

Nate Young, Education Coordinator, BrightworksBy Nate Young, Education Coordinator

Much has been made of the mismatch between the available jobs in the current market and the lack of training among many job seekers (including on this blog). Companies seek and value employees that come trained in very specific ways, and are unwilling to invest in bringing unqualified prospects up to speed. Among the best ways to prove your worth to employers is to gain and maintain pertinent credentials and certifications while honing the skills those credentials require.

In the building professions, LEED accreditation has fast become one of the core qualifications employers seek.

Brightworks’ built environment staff and clients are just now experiencing the first wave of renewals within the credentialing maintenance system the USGBC rolled out in June 2009. Included in the revamped system is a Credential Maintenance Program (CMP), now run by partner organization GBCI. This program requires all LEED Accredited Professionals (APs) to complete continuing education to maintain their credentials on a two-year schedule.

Numerous Brightworks employees took the earliest exams under the new system and have now completed the first round of credential renewal. Our staff has been fielding calls from many clients and partners seeking help with the new system, so I wanted to share some tips and pointers to ease what can be a challenging process.

Don’t procrastinate

Take Notes!

Record keeping like this will get you in trouble.

For starters, depending on how prepared you are, expect to spend several hours completing the process of renewing your credential. Let me stress again – the renewal process is long and involved. It’s likely to last weeks, depending on the types of credits you are submitting for your credential. As an architect recently told me, “This is much more rigorous and confusing than maintaining my architect’s license with the state.” Please don’t wait until the week your credential lapses to begin!

Like cooking dinner or painting a room, things move much more quickly when you are thoroughly prepared. GBCI requires online reporting that asks for many details you probably haven’t been recording, and tracking them down will take time. I have created this tool (click to download) that can help to organize your CE information in the exact format you’ll need to complete “My Credentials” on GBCI’s website.

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December 14, 2011

Developing Your Talent for the Business of the Future

Nate Young Backpacking on Washington's Olympic PenninsulaBy Nate Young, Brightworks Education Coordinator

It goes without saying that conducting business “sustainably” requires a new paradigm of operations. Given that, it should also go without saying that businesses will need a different employee skill set as well. Unfortunately, companies that pursue sustainability are often hesitant to equip their employees with the necessary knowledge and tools to realign their operations.

Gap in Corporate Sustainability Initiatives and Staff TrainingA recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted this disparity. “American companies don’t seem to do training anymore,” it declared. While the U.S. unemployment rate is almost 9 percent, 52 percent of employers reported having difficulty filling positions because of talent shortages, according to Manpower. By offering “just a bit” of employee training, these companies could develop the talent they need.

Instead, in-house training opportunities have all but dried up, the article reported. “Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

And yet, opportunities abound for professionals to develop the skills that make sense for progressive companies: from ongoing workforce education programs (like we offer at Brightworks) up to a graduate business degree with a sustainability focus.

To get a better idea of the benefits of burnished sustainability skill sets, I chatted with Scott Marshall and Alison Dennis of the Portland State University (PSU) MBA program. Given that PSU’s MBA program was recently ranked by the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes as the best small business school in the world, I figured they understood what skills companies should and would look for in new and existing employees.

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October 14, 2011

Key Sustainability Conference Themes: Scale, Nature and People

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

By Nicole Isle, Senior Sustainability Advisor

The end of October will prove to be a busy time for conference-goers in Portland. The joint Oregon and Washington APA planning conference, the Portland Sustainability Institute’s EcoDistricts Summit and the Net Impact Conference will equip sustainability thinkers with new energy, new ideas and a broader network of support. I’ll be attending and speaking at all three, and from the conference agendas, I see some interesting common themes: scale, nature, and all things human.

Working backwards, the people piece will be big. On-the-ground implementation and the issues hindering behavioral change, community action, and equality will prevail at the EcoDistricts Summit.  APA will wrestle with the notion of community livability in a changing world – resiliency, preparedness and forging new partnerships will be key discussion topics. Moving from public to private sectors, Net Impact will sharpen MBA students’ business case for sustainability in the corporate world. The foundation of the business case is heading back to the basics, as nature and valuing ecosystem services will be key discussion topics at all three conferences (I’ll be speaking about Biomimicry for both the APA and Net Impact). Lastly, scaling up sustainability in the built environment is all the rage and EcoDistricts is gaining serious traction. This concept is even catching the attention of APA for the first time, with sessions featuring Rob Bennett from the Portland Oregon Sustainability Institute and Brian Geller from the Seattle 2030 District.

What’s still missing from these events? Maybe that simple systems perspective to connect all of the dots. I’m waiting for a conference to drop the typical siloed “session tracks” and focus on systems thinking like idea integration and causal relationships. But until then there is still plenty to learn, and I hope I’ll see you out there!


September 10, 2011

What If HR Owned Sustainability?

by Nate Young

Brightworks’ Education Coordinator

If you believe conventional wisdom, Human Resources (HR) doesn’t warrant a seat at the table for discussions about sustainability. Unfortunately, this is one instance where conventional wisdom is misguided.  The HR department not only deserves a seat, it might be the appropriate group to take charge of sustainability programs.

Depending on the firm, sustainability is managed by any one or more different departments. For instance, consumer-facing companies often recognize sustainability as a significant brand builder and so direct sustainability initiatives through the marketing department. Manufacturing companies that have little public interaction often only understand sustainability as regulation. They put legal departments in charge of compliance and provide little or no forward-looking environmental or social engagement.

So Why HR?

There are multiple reasons to assign HR a central role in your firm’s sustainability initiatives. Here are three:

  1. One important benefit of a robust sustainability platform is the attraction it holds for young, motivated, sustainability-minded professionals. (I’ve talked about attracting great employees before on this blog.) If HR isn’t on board with nurturing that attraction, let alone following through on employees’ professional development, they could find themselves at a distinct disadvantage versus their peer firms when the great young talent goes elsewhere.
  2. When companies go through major structural changes, HR is deeply involved in easing employees through the transition. Given the magnitude of behavioral change that many companies must undergo to effectively integrate the triple bottom line into normal business operations, HR must be involved. In an examination of HR’s role in sustainability initiatives, researchers Hitchcock and Willard found that “because of the lack of HR involvement in most sustainability efforts…many organizations are making many unnecessary implementation mistakes.” Giving HR a seat at the table as new sustainability initiatives are discussed and subsequently rolled out can help ensure employees up and down the organization understand and support the new goals.
  3. HR plays an important role in measurement and verification of corporate initiatives. In many cases, HR departments track employees’ performance according to job descriptions or other predetermined metrics. Having sustainability embedded into performance expectations – and then measured – is critical to ensuring the initiatives are successful. Having HR on board with this crucial aspect from the beginning ensures expectations are clearly articulated and effectively measured.

Back to What If…

While it’s clear the HR department can’t control every sustainability initiative, they should at least be at the table for the discussion. Elaine Lees, Partner and Advisor at Generator Group, an HR consulting firm, summed it up nicely:

Sustainability will be successful in a firm only once it is integrated throughout the life-cycle of every employee; before they are hired, sustainability makes the firm attractive, sustainability is present in the employee orientation process, written into their job description, and followed through in their development plans. These are all aspects of business controlled by HR and they should rightly have a say in their rollout!

Is this HR's role in your sustainability initiatives?

To what extent do you involve HR personnel in the process of “greening” your firm? While I won’t go so far as to guarantee success, I am confident that growing HR’s role gives new sustainability initiatives a better chance at success. And success, after all, is what we are after.

August 22, 2011

Smart Schools are Engaging Students With Sustainability

Rita Habermanby Rita Haberman

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

Summer days are getting shorter and that “back to school” feeling is in the air. That feeling might be disappointment or dread for some students, but there are innovative environmental programs creating a wave of excitement this fall too. The new Zilowatt program is bringing creative energy-related lessons and classroom signage to San Francisco Bay area schools. After our collaboration with the Hillsboro School District helped Jackson Elementary become the nation’s first Gold certified school under LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, the Jackson students wrapped up their spring by celebrating with an enthusiasm we hope carries into this next academic year.

Why is integrating sustainability into school curricula so exciting to students, teachers, school administrators and parents? Sustainability can make what students learn in school more relevant. Students are more interested when they can work on “real-world” problems that affect them, and come up with solutions using the skills they learn in class.

A shining example of this is the impressive turnaround of Al Kennedy Alternative High School in Cottage Grove, Oregon after its principal Tom Horn and staff very deliberately made Education for Sustainability the foundation of their curriculum. When students engaged in hands-on activities using sustainability concepts and practices to successfully design and build affordable homes, keep bees, plant trees and reduce their school’s operational costs through easy, no-cost behavioral changes, they wanted to do more. Students gained an unforgettable experience in eco-literacy.

An eco-literate citizenry is essential. Without it, the prospects are slim for solving our planet’s complex and interrelated ecological, economic and social challenges. Inspiring examples of schools embracing sustainability abound, but they are still the exception – not the norm. It’s time to engage our students in integrated sustainability education, so they can become the essential players—and leaders—of the sustainability movement.

July 25, 2011

Changing Behavior Versus Changing Technology

Max Temkin Poster

Image: Max Temkin via

Grist featured this great print by Max Temkin recently which really resonates with some conversations we’ve had with clients lately. It turns out there are problems that are better solved by influencing behavior than by upgrading technology. We’ve spoken before about how to operate a building for high performance instead of just designing for efficiency and calling it a day.  Our upcoming free webinar; “Why Isn’t My LEED Plaque Performing?” dives further into how to improve the aspects of performance that are driven by people more than equipment. After all, it isn’t the plaque that performs, it’s the people working and living in the building every day.  If people are opening windows when the air conditioning is on, or turn on the lights for an entire floor because one workspace is too dark, a building designed to have low energy bills and a healthy indoor experience can easily be thrown off track.

Starbucks threw its weight behind the behavior change idea last year when they held a contest to design a better disposable coffee cup. The winner they chose wasn’t a cup at all, it was a clever incentive system that encouraged patrons to bring reusable mugs. “What people really need is an incentive to make the behavior change – a free cup of coffee and a bit of peer pressure,” argued contest winning team Karma Cup. You can make a lot of progress by working with human behavior alone, whether through subtle influence or active education. This is great news since if you wait for technology alone to solve all of our environmental challenges, you’ll waiting for a long time.

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.

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