Beginning a dialogue to generate a vision (4)

Posted on August 9, 2007


Do we have any local examples that would suit being used as case studies?

How can we shift sustainability from a fad to an enduring basis of what we do?


Zorn and Collins (earlier post) ask whether is sustainability is “merely a fashion”, with connotations of

“frivolousness, an emphasis on aesthetics (particularly superficial or surface aesthetics), a concern with image over substance, emotive or non-rational decision making, short term or temporary changes”.

They contrast this with alternative views of change: best practice; industry standards; and management knowledge. By “casting a critical eye” they aim to “encourage integrity and endurance of these movements”. They conclude that while sustainability may indeed be adopted as a fashion “it does not necessarily follow that adoption of a fashion means that it will have no substantial impact”. They give the case of Total Quality Management, originally adopted as a fashion but, crucially, has “become a standard practice – a given rather than a novel idea”.

On a similar line, Thomas (2005) asks “Are business students buying it?”. He develops a theoretical framework for measuring attitudes toward the legitimacy of environmental sustainability. The framework can be used for assessing the effectiveness of various pedagogical approaches to integrating sustainability into business school curricula.

Crucial to whether sustainability will attain legitimacy are studies of its role in the IT environment, it needs to be relevant to students. There is a need for studies into the integration of sustainability in computing. In wider business, Steiner and Steiner (2005) report that socially responsible organisations perform no worse and perhaps better than non-socially responsible organisations. Benn and Bubna-Litic (2004) found that “77% of (US) corporate recruiters think it important to hire graduates that are aware of social and environmental issues”.

Taking a different approach, Alvares and Rogers (2005) argued that focus on teaching sustainability as if it were “fixed and definable” is misplaced. They argue that a “prescriptive…sustainable design mapped onto the curriculum of various disciplines and fields”. They give the case of a course in “Farming the future”. It became apparent to staff and to some of the more reflective students that there was not a general agreement about how to tackle these concerns, or even which concerns were the most pressing or legitimate, or what were the best ways to implement sustainable practices, let alone what these practices might look like on the ground. So despite the authors best attempts to order what they were doing, in terms of particular sustainable solutions to particular on the ground farming and land use problems, what happened in talking to and visiting farmers and other land managers was that multiple interpretations, anecdotes, arguments and narratives kept emerging that challenged or subverted what the staff were attempting to do.

In other words, rather than being orderly and one-dimensional, it became increasingly clear that at the “local” level what was considered to be “sustainable” by some in the community, was often seen to be either the opposite or irrelevant by others. Had the students remained in the classroom with community and its socio-environmental context at a distance the shift that occurred in the learning experience would have been less likely to occur. Largely because, from a distance, complexities and multiple perspectives can be selected out or simply are not apparent.

McKeon (2002) gives a toolkit with classroom learning activities that incorporate sustainability (primarily high school) and activities to “re-orient education to address sustainability”. While general in application these activities could be adopted (as a starting point at least) to form a “toolkit for IT sustainability education”.

…previous dialogue 1, 2 , 3