Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The language game of sustainability

(Found this the other day, originally drafted in 2009)


“It is in the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true.”
Gore Vidal


Anyone working in the field of sustainability will have had the experience of being asked to explain what it is they do. Very often, the individual asking the question will ask a subsidiary question, along the lines of ‘So what do you mean by sustainability, then?’

Even among those who would describe themselves as involved in sustainability – whether as researchers, practitioners, policy makers or otherwise - it is a not uncommon experience to spend some time with any given interlocutor debating what you mean by sustainability compared to what I mean.

Many of us, weary of such debates, have learnt the art of agreeing, at the very beginning of any given seminar or workshop, to park such questions and get on with the matter in hand.

Were such a state of affairs to exist in some other domain, it would surely be a source of something between bemusement and alarm.  How would we feel, for example, if our doctors or physicists or accountants were not clear on what it is they do, or were unable regularly and coherently to explain it?

That such a state of affairs appears to be the case – and my assertion that it is the case is based upon more than ten years’ research and consultancy experience during which time I have, quite literally, had more meetings than hot dinners – poses two basic questions:

  • is there something inherent to ‘sustainability’ that makes such a situation inevitable?
  • does it matter?

In addressing the second question, some sort of normative proposition is required: it only matters if there is some sort of objective which is or is not being achieved.  In the case of sustainability, a conceivable objective would be that ‘sustainability’ should be widely understood – but this would be almost entirely tautological.  A rather more useful, but inherently political objective would be something like: any and all decisions taken with sustainability in mind would be more likely to culminate in sustainable outcomes – such as reduced environmental harm and reduced social inequality – so we would like sustainability to be incorporated into decision-making processes.

If this were indeed an objective – and it is indeed close to the objective of, say, the UK government’s sustainable development strategy – then it seems likely that confusion or dispute over the very meaning and ambit of the term ‘sustainability’ would be something of a problem.

That is, yes, it would matter.

Conversely, if the objective were couched in terms of outcomes – that is, the focus was upon (in this instance) reduced environmental harm and reduced social inequality – then the significance of any confusion around ‘sustainability’ would be more contingent.  That is to say, the problem posed by ‘sustainability’ would only exist if use of the term actually blocked progress; and would not exist at all if, should it be deemed necessary in any particular setting, the term were not used because perfectly acceptable alternatives were available.

That is, no, it wouldn’t matter.

Turning to the first question (“Is there something inherent to ‘sustainability’ that makes such a situation inevitable?”) it may be – for example – that ‘sustainability’ is so multi-faceted, so complex, that any attempt to reduce it to a single term inevitably condenses meaning to the point where the meaning is obscured or lost.  Conversely, it may simply be that ‘sustainability’ is a relatively new word that has not yet had time to permeate in a manner that would make it a simple part of the currency of normal language.

Resisting the first possibility are the examples of other disciplines – medicine, physics, maths, say – which could lay fair claim to being multi-faceted and complex, yet seem to have rather less difficulty maintaining their meaning in either day-to-day or political discourse.  Resisting the second possibility is the fact that ‘sustainability’ as a term referring to some matrix of environmental, social and economic issues is at least twenty years old and is virtually ubiquitous in international, national, regional and local policy and strategy documents.

A synthetic and pragmatic possibility may then arise; namely, that there is something about language itself, and its function as a medium of social exchange, that could help to explain both why a term such as ‘sustainability’ appears rigidly elusive and whether or not that makes any difference.

Language as a Medium of Exchange

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has suggested that the ‘self’ can be understood as a ‘centre of narrative gravity’.  He proposes that the philosophical problems of identifying who and what an individual actually is can be resolved at the level of language: a self is the person with a set of stories or narratives about themselves that refer to the same person.  These narratives will be many and various, and potentially conflicting.  They will change over time, and new narratives will both be a function of existing narratives and will cause revision to those existing narratives.

The complexity of the situation can be resolved through analogy to the physical notion of centre of gravity.  In actuality, each and every part of a body has its own mass and, by extension, its own gravitational attraction.  In practice, these innumerable forces resolve into a single concept – the centre of gravity – which is the theoretical point at which all the components and forces of a body ‘resolve’.

A centre of narrative gravity is thus the aggregate but not average outcome of all the stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves.

New narratives – new notions of who and what we are – will be mediated by our existing story set.  A story that is utterly inconsistent with our existing stories will stand little or no chance of being adopted; a story that fits more easily and comfortably with the existing centre of gravity will, ceteris paribus, stand a higher chance of being taken on board and integrated.

From the opposite end of the spectrum, Nobel-prize winning author Elias Canetti conjectured that a society could be understood as a group of individuals that had a set of shared myths.  That is to say, the means by which people belong to a particular culture or clique or tribe or nation is through the medium of having a set of shared stories, or narratives.  Language – both oral and written – is the medium through which such stories are transmitted.

Eliding these two perspectives presents the notion that societies are built upon from individuals that have common stories; and individuals have stories within them that are societal.  An individual’s centre of narrative gravity includes stories that are the means by which they belong to their society; a society’s myths include the centres of innumerable individuals’ gravities.

Consumerism as Narrative

In this kind of conceptualisation, we could imagine modern western culture as comprising a sustained, broad, inclusive story centred on consumption.  This is a story than enables each of us to belong to our culture (it is a shared story, a shared language); and is a deeply held, personal story, incorporated into our centre of narrative gravity, our sense of self.

Using the on-line tool Wordle, the main headings of this story can be represented thus:

In the face of such a story – embedded as it is within each of us, positioned as it is as the means by which so many of us belong to our culture – ‘sustainability’ is a narrative too far.  It is a concept that may work intellectually, but does not align with the prevailing narrative thrust that characterises our being.  We can reject the earlier assertions: sustainability is neither too complex nor too young; it is, rather, the wrong kind of story.

Sustainability as Narrative

More precisely, sustainability is the right kind of story, but the totality of the story immanent to it conflicts at a deep level with the prevailing narratives.

Using Wordle again, the sustainability narrative could be:

The simple introduction of ‘sustainability’ cannot possible carry with it the totality of the story implied by such a picture.  An altogether larger process of change is required.

What is also revealed is the possibility that the single term ‘sustainability’ has no particular value as the means by which a new narrative could be constructed.  It matters not, in the story as a whole, precisely which terms – health, well-being, enoughness - are those that carry most currency in which exchanges within society. 


What matters – surely – are the outcomes that are implied by sustainability.  The objectives of reducing environmental harm, reducing inequalities, reducing ill health, stress and injustice, these are things that should be our concern, not ‘sustainability’ in some broader and vaguer sense.

Sustainability may well work as a technical term, as a means of obliging researchers and policy makers and academics to attend to a broad range of issues in a more joined up fashion than they might otherwise do; but its function as an agent of change in ‘hearts and minds’ is profoundly compromised by the functioning of narratives in a language game.

The prevailing narrative of consumerism has a broad set of interlocking concepts that powerfully resist the message currently embedded within the term ‘sustainability’.  If the outcomes associated with sustainability are to be achieved, an altogether more extensive and persuasive set of narratives, capable of providing a new means of social belonging, are required.


Friday, 15 March 2013

A little less flippant, a little more feist

It is in the spirit of the age that we are all obliged to collaborate.  Whether in formal partnerships, or as members of consortia, or in multi- or trans-disciplinary working groups, or even among colleagues from within our own organisations, collaboration is key.

There are at least five factors influencing and shaping the current aegis of collaboration:

"Wicked problems" - the challenges of climate change, of obesity, of mental health, of sustainability in the round, are complex and multi-faceted, requiring inputs and solutions from a multiplicity of sources

"Information overload" - the accelerating rate at which information is produced, and the escalating challenge of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, mean that multiple minds and institutions are required to avoid the risk of blissful ignorance.

"The division of labour" - long recognised as a particularly efficient means of completing tasks, the division of labour takes on a new hue in a world of information overload, as well as in the context of flexible labour markets, blurred boundaries between 'work' and 'non-work', and the shift towards 'emotional' as well as 'rational' reasoning in decision-making.  Team work is the only way to cope.

"Funding" - with fewer resources available, individuals and institutions are under pressure to do more with less: three departments become one, three research studies are conflated into a single exercise, three previously distinct policy instruments are combined.

"Politics and the Big Society" - a profound re-alignment of responsibility, between and among individuals and institutions, asks new questions: who should do what?  Where once a single entity issued instructions and money, now a collection of entities must come together to decide whether and how to achieve something.

Having in the past few months experienced several direct examples of collaborative environments, some of the (often under-played) challenges have been made painfully apparent to me:

Leadership - the established model of leadership is profoundly challenged by truly collaborative processes.  Who is in charge?  Being the biggest, or the cleverest, or the most well-informed, or the oldest or the most male or the wealthiest or the most arrogant or the one with the biggest [insert display item of your choice] matters less and less.  Facilitative, humble, inclusive, listening, attentive, engaging - these are the adjectives of the new leadership.  Whither such skills?

Effort - building the environment, the psycho-social infrastructure, for effective collaboration takes a long time and a lot of effort.  In the old world, you could perhaps bank on spending 20% of your time on the admin and management, and 80% of your time on 'delivery'.  In the new world, perhaps it takes 80% of the time to get all the relationships and communication and engagement and collaboration infrastructure in place, and only 20% of the time goes on delivery.  Is the funding and resource-deployment machinery up to this yet?

Facilitation - the art of enabling a group of people to talk and work together seems almost like a non-job (where is the tangible output?) and it can be very difficult to describe a good facilitator.  You may know one when you see one: but defining it in advance?  Choose the 'wrong' facilitator and an entire decision-and-delivery infrastructure could be scuppered.  The stakes are high.

Assholes - there are some total assholes out there, people that you would really rather avoid, yet the collaborative obligation is to accommodate them, to get on with them, to work with them.  (Recent times have included a particularly striking example, where we had agreed to work with someone in order to meet a client's need for a multi-disciplinary approach.  The individual's condescending arrogance, something we tolerated and managed as best we could, finally became too much to bear when they disdainfully humiliated a colleague in front of the client.)  What do we do about such folk? Every partnership setting will know the problem.  Do we just put up with them, in the spirit of collaboration? Or does there come a point when we say: enough.  Aggregate welfare has fallen.  Inclusivity has its limits.  We have better things to do than work with assholes; we can achieve the same goals, in a better way, in a way characterised by respect and well-being.  We can and should be muscular about our collaboration.

Many challenges ahead, obviously.  I find myself looking forward with relish.  The need for collaboration is not going to go away, and we all need to adapt.  New forms of leadership, new models of facilitation, a willingness to make the effort - all good.  Dealing with assholes - no, not any more.  Play by the rules, the rules we have collectively determined, or go and play by yourself.

Some flippancy for a Friday

Executive Summary

This report presents the final results of an in-depth investigation into the nature of innovation in the UK, and how it relates to the achievement of a low carbon economy.

The research comprised an extensive literature review; widespread consultation and engagement with a range of stakeholders; and detailed econometric modelling work.

Our key findings are as follows:

·         innovation is a ten letter word, with an even balance of vowels and consonants

·         innovation is defined in a number of different ways, by different stakeholders, but is always spelled the same

·         two definitions tend to dominate:

Ø  innovation is a made-up concept designed to keep otherwise pointless civil servants and academics in employment

Ø  innovation is an electromagnetic phenomenon corresponding closely to colour

·         our econometric modelling revealed that the first of these definitions correlates closely with the proportion of UK GDP accounted for by the movement of pieces of paper from one desk to another, but otherwise has no environmental implications

·         the second definition, on the other hand, was shown to correspond closely with the evolution of the economy in recent years from maroon to aquamarine; and incremental changes in the colour of innovation closely tracked the UK’s CO2 emissions

·         our more detailed investigation of the latter phenomenon revealed that highly innovative businesses and individuals are generally yellow, with emissions profiles that vary between loud and very loud.  Conversely, low innovation businesses are generally pink, with emissions that are typically quick, quick, slow

·         an index of innovation was developed on the basis of the colour scheme, and revealed that the average colour is orange, and the average level of innovation is about the same

·         Cronbach’s alpha wave analysis, divided by the square root of Godel’s impossibility parameters, revealed that seven of the nine segments for which emissions factors could be calculated recycled at least two out of five materials using one of four distinguishable processing routes on more than 75% of occasions on which fortnightly collections corresponded with off-trend spikes (p>0.00001) in diet-related carbon emissions during periods of either high-than-anticipated retail price inflation (thus confirming the Erhlich/Runes hypothesis) or when public holidays fell precisely midway between non-contiguous circadian mood swings (thus rejecting the Doo/Lally conjecture)

·         the principal policy implications are:

Ø  emissions reduction on the scale required can be achieved by the judicious mixing of brown, blue, green and yellow

Ø  innovation funding should be softened, stroked and sung to the theme tune from The Persuaders