Picking flowers: visualising sustainable practitioners

Posted on April 20, 2008


We need tools to facilitate computing’s progression from not thinking about sustainability or single issue greenness to a wider adoption of holistic sustainability as part of normal business practice. I’m not thinking here of carbon calculators or energy dashboards – instead we need simple concepts to help people along that journey.

Key to this is a way of expressing what it might mean to be a “sustainable practitioner in computing” (or any other field for that matter). Our colleague Steve Henry describes this needs as to be able to “succinctly explain what sustainable practice is in the 5 minutes you get in front of a decision maker”. He finds that sustainability is “too waffly” and the natural step 4 conditions “too hard to communicate easily” (I entirely agree).

There are many tools for expressing the sustainabilityness of products. We’ve discussed ecolabels before. One set of useful tools is Edwin Dzaskefki’s design criteria for sustainable product and service. Steve Henry and Mark Jackson have extended Edwin’s model to produce this flower of sustainable practice: (Posted to Otago Polytechnic Sustainability).

At first I really liked the the simplicity of this model. It is something that encompasses much of sustainability in a nutshell (to badly mix a metaphor). But then I started thinking about the differences between product/service and practice:

* The “it’s” on the flower seems to imply a product rather than practice. So does “running with less”, and “using”.

* I think we need to explore expanding the social one into two. There’s more in there than “caring for people”. I’d also like to see some notion of critical thought, systems thinking etc. And then there’s economic and cultural.

* I’m not convinced by the solar petal. Could this perhaps be renewable? (or somehow combined with efficiency to make room for more socioeconomic/cultural).
* while the safe could possibly be interpreted to include all the ecological principles, it is quite hard to get past an initial interpretation of “not toxic”. There’s not really anything here for maintaining biodiversity etc.
I’m not suggesting that all of these things should be on the simple flower device (unless we use a umbel), but perhaps a little rework to represent a more holistic approach. Steve thoughtfully replied to these suggestions with the explanation that the flower does expand to have another whorl: actions. He explains that these blue petals can be changed for each industry sector and its priorities.

purpose of the Sust prac pic is to have a conversation. It may not be wholly accurate, yet it’ll do. …I see the 5 petals of cyclic, solar, safe, social and efficient as the principals. They all have economic, social, environmental and cultural expressions – how do you put that on a picture easily?

(btw I can’t see an obvious relationship between the layers here – should the outer layers be building on the inner concepts?)

Following Steve’s advice, Leigh and I used the diagram to facilitate a conversation about what it might mean to be a sustainable practitioner in computing (in this case, a desktop and network support technician). With the help of some of my students, we used the petals to examine sustainable practice, as prompted by each petal and its icon/words. We guestimated a graph for sustainabilityness of each.

Here’s what we found:

1. The concept is fantastic as a means to explore what it means to be a sustainable practitioner. The detail however is not helpful.
2. In computing we had to add a split down the petals to distinguish between our own footprint and the footprint we influence.
3. The solar petal is not helpful. It is not something in most people’s control and ignores other power sources. We would like to see it expanded to inputs.
4. The cyclic, and efficient petals are marginally helpful. They could probably be expanded.
5. The safe petal needs expansion. I haven’t found anyone who saw this as any more than “non-toxic”
6. The social petal needs to be about 3 petals. We ended up going for other documents to prompt us here.

As can be seen in the diagram, about 95% of the sustainability conisderation falls under one petal. Even if we expanded this out into other whorls, as Steve suggests, the diagram is failing as a facilitator if we have to go outside the model. Our model is too lopsided.

Leigh has these sensible suggestions:

In unpacking the diagram and trying to see how it works, I found it helpful to think about ethics, principles, methods and outcomes. A logical enough relationship between levels of concepts, and familiar enough to anyone interested in permaculture design. But, I’m not saying to just use perma’ processes.. I’m just wondering if trying to identify what are ethics, what are principles, what are processes, and what are outcomes in this petal diagram.. that we might find a better way to present what is trying to be said.

Forgiving the issue of Leigh and Mark Twain’s hammer, this seems like a nice model. Leigh continues:

For example, Solar. It sits on a central petal – implying that it is core to everything we do = ethic.
But it seems to me that it is more in line with being a method. I mean, what will we do if/when another source of energy comes along that does not result is toxic waste batteries?
So, it might then look like:

Ecologically/Socially/Economically sustainable practice (primary round of petals)


Use renewable energy (one petal in the secondary round of petals)
Use solar energy
(one petal in the tertiary round of petals)

Clean emissions (apart from very toxic battery waste)
Silent energy
Improving production cycles
(all items of pollen in the air?)

This ethic…outcome model is already visualised as a flower (variation), or a mind map but none of these meet Steve’s goal of 5 minutes with a decision maker.

I’ll keep working on this, but in the meantime, it’s sunny and the beans need attention.