Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Part II: What intrinsic qualities enable sustainable design teams?

By Ken Hall on February 8, 2010

This is the second of a three-part posting on the concept of intrinsic sustainability. In this post, Ken Hall describes the intrinsic qualities of sustainable design teams. Read Part I: What intrinsic qualities enable sustainable societies?

My last post ended with the thought that the degree to which a society is able to shift its worldviews to become intrinsically sustainable is the degree to which we can achieve sustainability. David Korten calls this The Great Turning.

As the website devoted to Korten’s ideas explains, “…we humans are a choice making species that at this defining moment faces both the opportunity and the imperative to choose our future as a conscious collective act. We can no longer deny the need nor delay our response.”

The great turning is occurring presently, but only a small subset of contemporary society has made the mental leap to a new way of viewing our fundamental relationship to earth. Thomas Kuhn speaks to the challenges of paradigm shifts – in fact, he coined the term – in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and concludes that a generational change is required for a new world view to emerge. We are presently in the middle of this generational change.

Sustainable design teams currently delivering the most rigorous design-performance mandates of net-zero or carbon neutral buildings are comprised of individuals that have ‘internalized’ an ecological worldview. The intrinsic quality of sustainability is embraced at an individual level when we recognize our fundamental obligation of an ethics to maintain the durability and resilience of the ecosystem that makes life possible.

The intrinsic qualities that result in these individuals are a fierce determination and intent to make sustainability happen. It is a warrior spirit willing to fight the good battle – to engage in Korten’s ‘Great Work’ – against extreme odds. It is the hero story of our times.

But design teams alone do not have what it takes to deliver net-zero or carbon neutral buildings and environments. They need clients and occupants that have also internalized an ecological worldview. For clients, this might mean creating a smaller project, for occupants it could mean wearing sweaters or opening windows to create a more comfortable living or workspace.

Like designers, clients and users will also need to reset expectations, accept natural limits, and think and act in intrinsically sustainable ways. That can only be accomplished when they share the most important intrinsic quality of sustainability: a new worldview.

The outlines of a sustainable worldview are emerging. E.O. Wilson writes about the re-integration of science and the humanities in Consilience. In Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry writes about a new creation story that re-integrates scientific understanding of the cosmos with traditional wisdom of ancient civilizations and our religious traditions. We might call this a holistic ecological worldview- a replacement for the reductionist industrial growth paradigm that has dominated our thinking for centuries.

We now understand that it is not about ‘the economy, stupid,’ but rather about seeing the economy as an interdependent part- it’s about ‘the whole system, stupid. Most importantly, this emerging worldview sees Earth no longer as an object full of resources to be exploited, but rather as a one-time endowment of a living planet- and we are the ones who are responsible for the well-being of that endowment. We are the caretakers who accept responsibility to pass it on to future generations- alive, healthy and beautiful.

In my experience, it is the design teams, clients and occupants that have internalized this ecological worldview that possess the intrinsic qualities that enable sustainable design and built environments. These are the ‘deep green’ professionals that are delivering the next generation of living buildings, and eventually regenerative communities and ecosystems.

image credit: Jeff Binder