May 31, 2012
Photo via Roger Smith on asknature.org
By 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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December 14, 2011
By 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.
A 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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
by 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.