Sustainability Outside the Box

You pretty much would have to have been living in a cave for the past decade not to have picked up on the sustainability buzz sweeping through sectors from chemical production to health care to broadcast journalism. The Wikipedia entry on “Sustainability” has had almost daily editing activity for the past three years and includes more than 300 (top notch) citations/references. Still, the definition is far from universally understood and far from static.

Ratner (2004) points out that the whole concept may be expressed as statements of fact, intent, or value with sustainability treated as either a “journey” or a “destination.” In terms of media attention and general public awareness, sustainability is primarily an environmental issue. We think of “going green” and carrying cute canvas bags to the super market. But succession planning and resource utilization strategy are just as much part of sustainability as those cute canvas bags.

The United Nations Brundtland Commission articulated what has now become a widely accepted definition of sustainability: “[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

To many, including many in Open Education, sustainability is nothing more than a funding strategy.Several potentially viable funding models have been suggested, and several other self-financing models could also prove useful. But as Wiley, Downes, and Koohyan all at least suggest, sustainability for OpenEducation has to be about more than just funding. Hildy Gottlieb puts it a bit more colorfully; “all the money in the world will not sustain that house if the foundation is crumbling or there is no one who cares about the house.” A holistic (I suppose one could even say a “sustainable”) approach to sustainability must account for the utilization and management of all kinds of resources or capital: human, social, financial, intellectual, natural, etc.

Measuring, or even just accurately describing, dimensions of sustainabili250px-sustainable_developmentsvgty requires deep understanding of the underlying systems (Smil, 2000). This can be as simple as maintaining energy balance (calories in = activity out) in a human system or as complex as quantifying the carbon footprint of New York City. Either way, assessing the sustainability of a system necessitates in-depth examination of the social, environmental, and economic resources involved–and their various interactions.

Systems require inputs, and OpenEd is no exception. Systems have three basic options for obtaining those resources; they can either be embedded in the goods and services of world trade; taken from the past (e.g. fossil fuels); or taken from the future as unsustainable resource usage. OpenEd’s historic reliance on grant funding is a prime example of resources taken from the past. The current iteration of MITOCW’s institutional commitment could be hovering dangerously near the edge of “taking from the future.” And the rest of us seem to floundering somewhere in the goods and services of world trade, trying to figure out where those resources might be embedded, and how best to get at them.

A critical transition taking hold among the corporate giants in that system of world trade is the idea of sustainability as a competitive advantage The Cisco thinktank has articulated S2AVE (Shareholder and Social Added Value with Environment restoration), to emphasize how organizations can successfully and profitably address all three elements of the ‘triple bottom line’ simultaneously through innovation. Stated plainly, this represents re-envisioning sustainability efforts as value creation rather than simply risk management. In Open Ed, it implies moving beyond the dooms-day predictions or barely supressed panic induced by dwindling grant funds and on to working creatively and concertedly on how we can best meet needs (perhaps better and more important than meeting goals) today, tomorrow, and beyond.

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One response to “Sustainability Outside the Box

  1. The Brundtland Commission definition is great, but interestingly stakeholder-free. Or at least seriously disembodied. “[To meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Who is “the present?” Is it a person or group of people? Is it an organization? What do they / does it need? Obviously, the definition is meant to be general, but there are problems with things that are too general…

    I wonder what, specifically, does it mean in the context of sharing educational resources? Being able to meet the (educational, I assume) needs of the present generation of learners without compromising the ability of future learners to meet their (educational) needs? Does this definition also suggest the approach we’ve been developing in class, namely focusing on our core constituency first and thinking outward second? (5/5)

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