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21st Century Sustainability Needs Technology AND People

Saybrook University | Monday November 8th, 2010 | 4 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students, managers, leaders and consultants who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change toward systemic sustainability.

By Shuli Goodman

The biggest hurdle to sustainable innovation isn’t the technology – it’s how to shift public consciousness, promoting the acceptance of technologies and practices that could make the way we live more sustainable.

A shift in consciousness is the biggest hurdle that sustainability faces, and to understand the difficulties in winning over the public we need look no further than our love/hate relationship to the paper and plastic bag. 

Most of us have dozens of reusable shopping bags stashed in the various corners of our lives – tucked in our car, hanging in our kitchens, stuffed in our desks at work. Yet how often do we approach the grocery checkout, knowing that once again, we forgot the bags?  We forget our bags despite the signs in the parking lot, the 10¢ rebate, their presence scattered everywhere, and the years of saying to ourselves “don’t forget the bags.”

The reason is simple:  being able to get a bag at the point of purchase is the most convenient approach to carrying our groceries because it requires nothing of us.  Since it doesn’t cost anything (at least that we notice) it’s both convenient and cheap.

When it comes to how people behave, and whether they adopt a new innovation in behavior or technology, comfort and convenience, along with the gain of money or time, are what drive an innovations widespread adoption and diffusion – not its perceived social benefit. Innovations most quickly spread when they allow us to do more with less, expanding the possibilities in our lives. The ease and ubiquity of paper and plastic bags, a recent 20th century innovation, competes fiercely with our best intentions to limit our waste stream. Their ever present, easy availability shows us just how hard it is to change behavior that would usher in the simple return of an old practice – bringing a means with which to carry our purchases when we shop.

Innovations may be global in reach, but they are fundamentally local and social in their impact. The greater the integration of an innovation into our day to day landscape, the more essential it is to our functioning. One day we look back and cannot remember how we lived without an answering machine or the Internet. We’re certainly not going back.

So, we may have 20 bags, but if they only make it to the store 50% of the time, it’s clear we are only part way to having adopted the innovation. And there is the rub. The best and greatest innovations are only successful if they are used. Getting people to adopt an innovation requires that an adopter change the way they think, which shifts consciousness.

We know how to save the environment – we just don’t know how to get people to participate in the behaviors and practices that will facilitate a sustainable future.  Rather than focusing on the innovation, change agents need to focus on changing consciousness. The human factor often seems to be the one environmentalists and the developers of sustainable technologies understand least.

There are three critical variables that should always be kept in mind when trying to create change, whether of a belief, practice, or technology:

1)        Engage stakeholders early and often in the design process

To increase the likelihood of an innovation’s success, include those folks for whom an innovation is intended in their design, implementation, and evaluation. Do they tell you it offers them comfort, convenience, money, or time?  Lack of stakeholder feedback on design requirements can inhibit technologies from taking root.  Also notice:  how do they want to use it?  Does their use create unintended consequences the way ethanol from soy, Smart Meters, and water in plastic bottles did?  The more change agents (or product managers) enroll the various stakeholders in the design process, the sooner we understand the barriers to an innovation’s adoption.

2)        Attend to the behavioral and social meaning of an innovation

How an innovation is framed is essential to how individuals, communities and society engage in meaning-making and towards a way of interacting with the environment that produces less harm and waste. This is the shift in consciousness. Framing occurs at the point when an innovation is introduced, because it often restructures long-held beliefs. For change agents, stepping over the process of framing can result in counter-productive and polarizing reactions amongst adopters.  By practicing user centered design we can attend to the ways an innovation impacts values, or produces secondary affects that are counter-productive.

3)  Ensure mutual benefit

One of the most dangerous aspects of an innovator’s dilemma is becoming so certain of the value of the innovation that we minimize the process of adjustment and integration experienced by those for whom the innovation is intended. In other words, if the innovator becomes too focused on the pre-conceived end goal, he can lose track of the impact, causing innovations to fail when we most hope to see results. Ultimately, innovations can either act to strengthen or weaken social ties affecting the success of our civil arrangements.  Therefore, one way to speed adoption is to insure mutual benefit.

Too often we forget that an innovation is not only created by the designers, scientists, and others who invented it, but it is reinvented and interpreted by individuals, communities, and markets as it is diffused and adopted. Those innovations associated with sustainable practices and which guide a more integrated approach to personal and planetary health will inevitably change our assumptions about the world, our lives, and about the environment. This transformational experience of self and other is central to the notion of sustainability and innovation and how we can live, without harm, upon the planet. Technology can’t do it alone:  people need to use it.  That requires understanding the human factors that encourage us to both try new things and to take them to heart.  When we change people’s minds, we can change the world.


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  • http://learnedon.com Andrea Learned

    One of the problems may be that touting tech or innovation seems very easy and straightforward. You can almost list the features or developments in bulleted points. Alternatively, that “people” piece you suggest, that is so (!) important (and I am a firm believer in the benefits of sustainable behavior change) feels messy, not easy to attack as a bulleted list,and perhaps something better left to the “marketing department” to figure out etc. We’re seeing more academic research with regard to how humans engage with climate change, and while we can attempt to extrapolate from there for other aspects of sustainability… I hope a lot more institutions and grant funders GET that behavioral change is the toughest but likely MOST rewarding nut to crack. Thanks for this great article.

  • http://bit.ly/neeblog Daniela

    Technological innovation often comes as an addition to current practices rather than a replacement, then it’s left to the marketplace to see what wins. People are surprisingly reluctant to making changes.

    Carrying a tote bag requires continual action because it only really works as a sustainable object over long periods of time. (I generally have an extra one in my purse at all times, easy.) Other technologies only require one decision and can then be all but forgotten about, like choosing a renewable energy ESCO for example. Shifting behavior requires making decision making cheap, easy, and safe. I think it’s also going to require imbuing these values on a greater society level, which this country has been having a hard time with.

  • Bill Jones

    Technology is NOT going to get us out of the mess that technology has created.

    Sorry star wars geeks and weaklings, that is just the way it is.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Technology didn’t get us into this mess. People did. …And it’s going to take people to get us out of it.

      Technology has saved your ass more times than you can count.