It's difficult to find a definition that is both comprehensive of the complexity and understandable in its simplicity. Even though the terminology is questioned, and so it should be, things are moving forward nonetheless through a basic understanding and the continuous evolution of new insights.
– By Esther van Bergen, Capgemini Netherlands –
This blog post was actually triggered by a discussion that followed on LinkedIn after I shared fellow blogger James Robey’s post on ‘The link between Quality and Sustainability’. There were many interesting responses, but one in particular triggered me. It questioned whether or not ‘balance’ was a good starting point for a definition of ‘sustainability’, suggesting that perhaps ‘balance’ was better suited to use for metrics than for a definition.
I've seen a lot of discussion going on about 'the definition of sustainability' - which I believe is a good thing because it indicates that for a lot of people it is not just a word, but that it actually means something to them and it needs proper defining to better facilitate the broader discussion of adopting and integrating sustainability - I am not going to try and tackle this discussion in this post. I’m not so foolhardy to think I can, but I guess this LinkedIn discussion is also related to what each of us considers 'sustainability' to be. ;-)
I agree with this person’s response that there is no real balance in the current economic system, nor in the vast majority of today's business models. However, the rising attention to sustainability (partly due to consumer demand and technology advancements) is also driven by the understanding that by incorporating it more into the way the business is operating it can also generate a lot of business benefits, something which I also spotlighted in my previous blog post, and I wasn’t talking about the low-hanging fruits of energy savings (i.e. cost savings).
Understanding that there are a lot of potential benefits is one thing, realizing them is a whole different ballgame. It requires sufficient understanding of what sustainability entails, i.e. understand or be aware of the interconnectedness and dependencies with a huge amount of variables - which can be as complex as understanding nature itself, the ‘mother of all networks’!
Add to this the fact that sustainability is an area that is still very much a moving target (which also helps explain the discussions about the term itself). It’s sort of like trying to juggle a ridiculous amount of balls without dropping any of them. Just as with juggling, you become better at it when you first try it with only 2 or 3, practicing ‘the techniques of juggling’. Once you've got this figured out, you can slowly start adding one by one. And perhaps even bring in another party to juggle the balls together, thus sharing the load and bringing in a fresh perspective.
In other words, to realize true improvements you have to work together, preferably bring together many different expertise, probably even those that have never crossed your paths before. For starters, it requires real collaboration, transparency, communication, trust and a certain amount of governed control and critical thinking. A collective understanding must be ingrained, the one that says that giving precedence over one element will always have negative effects on the total equation, which increases the risks of ‘dropping the ball’. In that respect ‘balance’ can very well be used as a starting point for a definition. But at the same time it can be a starting point to formulate the metrics to measure things by. It’s also in line with the idea that sustainability is really a far more comprehensive form of risk management.
In trying to master this juggling, balls will be dropped and mistakes will be made but ‘practice does make perfect’, as they say. I firmly believe that at some point, in the efforts to realize those potential business benefits, the framework of the ‘conventional’ business model and economic system will start to act like a straightjacket. They will start changing their business models and find partners who want to embark on this same path. I believe that this is already happening. Granted, it is almost unnoticeable in the bigger scheme of things. This process can and must be accelerated by every single one of us, whether we are consumer, concerned citizen, someone’s child or parent, employee, business partner, NGO or public servant. And quite a few already are making this contribution: demanding ‘green(er)’ products, researching a method for Natural Capital, developing a more comprehensive ‘product sustainability index’, investing in renewable energy or other clean tech projects, naming and shaming bad practices, developing new IT solutions, urging for policy changes, etc. These will all require metrics in order to measure their effectiveness, which is where ‘balance’ comes back into the picture again.
Does that mean this discussion has come ‘full circle’? ;-)
Esther van Bergen is an IT Strategy consultant at Capgemini Netherlands. As a coordinator for Capgemini’s Green IT services and a member of the Capgemini’s Sustainability Network she specializes in Sustainability of and with IT.