Sustainability Practicum Reflection #2

We have progressed in this course from discussing sustainability in broad conceptual terms to working on specific planning skills, such as systems mapping, human-centered design, and scenario planning. Reflect – using at least one specific example from the readings, your experience, or general knowledge – on your views of how such planning skills can contribute – or not – to developing practical strategies to promote sustainability.


Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.


  1. Jennifer Damian says:

    Human-centered design really got my attention because the “Field Guide to Human-Centered Design” gave concrete examples as to how to make the people we will be working with in the future the prime focus and to keep their “lives and desires at the core.” I believe this can make it easier to develop a strategy to promote sustainability because once you understand the people, their traditions, their concerns, what they have tried, what worked for them, and what didn’t, you can try to piece some of their past attempts in a different way that would work better in comparison to just developing a strategy from scratch without understanding the peoples’ previous attempts. I feel that it is important to recognize the work that people might have already been doing, even if it was small scale or not deemed significant enough to impact large groups of people.

    I believe that when coming into a new setting, it is better to make it clear to the group of people the power dynamic: you are there to listen, observe, and respond to the voices of the people, and they are the prime leaders. I believe this dynamic works best when you are in a situation where the group of people you are working with feel exclusive of themselves and their way of life. If you are in situation where the people are more open to newcomers, then taking away the power dynamic and incorporating yourself into their lifestyles will allow you to see how they live and allowing you to see what kind of needs are present.

    Adapting yourself to power dynamics that empower the people and make them the powerful voices can open new inclusive doors that hold new information that might not otherwise have been opened in common power dynamics, and this is important because any new door that opens will give a new insight on the lives of the people you are working with on something you can use for your strategy.

  2. Darrell Davis says:

    I have learned a lot about sustainability and its connection to systems in recent weeks. Sustainability is becoming less of a buzzword, and more of a tangible goal that can be achieved. It is becoming something upon which I can envision creating or molding a society. The readings about systems mapping, I physically saw how spaces function, and the complexities of interconnectedness between different bodies. What the system map reading and the subsequent class about it reinforced my idea that sustainability and environmentalism transcend the individual, and are collectivist on a foundational level.

    It is my genuine belief that the only true way to achieve sustainability is through planning. This means that planning of the economy, planning of population, planning of environmental conditions of the future, and planning on environmental innovations. Systems of planning are very inherently people centered, and perform based on what is needed and most crucial at the moment. Human centered design is so vital for developing strategies for sustainability, because as we learned in class, it emphasizes the need for listening and exchanges of experiences. This model appears to be more able to develop actual sustainability, rather than the old hegemonic ideas of sustainability.

    In the readings about Resilience, there was discussion about places needing to be resilient in order to be sustainable. This is an idea with which I truly agree. A space that is vulnerable and unable to absorb disturbances, then it will never achieve sustainability.

  3. Molly O'Neil says:

    Throughout our time at Middlebury thus far, it has become clear to me that sustainability is about much more than just causal and linear planning. Although it is now rather apparent that system-wide effects should always be taken into account when developing a plan for sustainability, the actual implementation of this task appears quite daunting. Therefore, I have found scenario planning to be a tangible task that increases my level of comfort when faced with incredibly daunting environmental risks. Scenario planning can, and should, be incorporated into every aspect of environmental planning in order to increase the resilience of social-ecological systems.

    In “Navigating Social-Ecological Systems,” Berkes et al. called attention to the fact that in order to maintain the function of a social-ecological system, it is imperative that the system is able to absorb and adapt to change. In the face of climate change, these systems are likely to be hit with stronger and more frequent disturbances that threaten the integrity of their organization and structure. Resilience is the system’s ability to absorb and adapt to these changes. According to this reading, it relies on rejecting linear thinking and embracing many different perspectives when managing such complex systems.

    It is becoming more widely accepted that sustainability cannot exist without understanding the importance of resilience thinking. I believe that this concept is directly tied to scenario planning. In Berkes et al., we learned that “a complex social-ecological system cannot be captured using a single perspective.” By using scenario planning, it is possible to explore the many different perspectives that are needed in order to fully interpret how a system functions. More importantly, scenario planning makes in possible to better understand the huge array of possibilities that stem from such complex systems. For example, scenario planning could be used to determine what to do when a system reaches a threshold and consequentially, a regime shift. It can also help to forecast some of the many “surprises” that are bound to appear in such complex and integrated environments.

    Scenario planning makes it possible to broadly explore some of the potential changes that may occur in social-ecological systems. By mapping the potential disturbances, thresholds, and alternate regimes, planners are more able to develop policies that create resilience and redundancy in the face of these potential events. Resilience thinking and scenario planning should be used hand in hand when planning for the future of environmental sustainability. Without these two incredibly important concepts, system-wide effects become increasingly convoluted and daunting. In terms of building resilience in future models of sustainability, scenario planning has the potential to be incredibly enlightening and influential.

  4. Benjamin Harris says:

    It strikes me as ironic how sustainability often skirts around a glaringly obvious truth: its inherent anthropocentrism. Sustainability strives to enable humanity to endure, often at the expense of non-human things, and yet so often we hear of green businesses, sustainable products, or maximum sustainable yields—this last a metric that promotes the longevity of fisheries and forests. So where are the people? It is perplexing that sustainability discourse frequently makes no explicit mention of the human communities that it purportedly supports. After all, isn’t it true that we protect natural resources not for their own benefit or innate right to “exist” (such is the self-serving nature of the Anthropocene), but rather for the human recipients at the other end of the supply chain?

    I’m particularly enamored of human-centered design (HCD) because it doesn’t assume that securing natural resources either guarantees their fair allocation to people or assures that those individuals can effectively utilize ecosystem goods and services. Resilience not only refers to an abstract “system” and its capacity to retain structure and function despite disturbance; I also understand it as an adjective that describes human endurance in the face of adversity. Although systems mapping and scenario planning have enabled me to envision the connectors, stocks, and drivers that underpin climate change, there is something impersonal and even dehumanizing about diagrams that define people as “components,” as if they were merely cogs in the wheel of a system. In contrast, the HCD methodology upholds empathy as one of its core tenets and stresses the importance of participatory design, including extensive interviews with targeted “users” and the integration of public feedback into strategic planning. Ehrenfeld identifies this sort of consumer input as integral to sustainability, yet we overlook public opinion in favor of high-level consultants and visionaries, whose sustainability planning—conducted in high-level institutions—implies a degree of remove from the ground-level reality. Although it may be unavoidable, I am uncomfortable with the gap between creative ideation and the very real consequences of implementation. Through techniques such as face-to-face interviews and ethnographic surveys, HCD mitigates the risk of top-down sustainability approaches, and puts us intimately in touch with the lives that are at stake.

    Population Media Center (PMC), a local nonprofit based in Shelburne and (at least in my humble view) an exemplar of the HCD model, tackles issues such as global population growth—working towards a smaller ecological footprint and more sustainable future—through what it calls “entertainment-education.” Around the world, PMC trains local writers to script and produce culturally tailored and compelling “serial dramas” for radio, TV, and web. Rather than force people to adopt more sustainable behaviors, these media programs empower people to act on their own accord. PMC’s persuasive storytelling suggests the possibility of a brighter future, and so only serves as a “nudge” in the right direction—it is the local population that is ultimately in charge of effecting change. For example, PMC’s highly successful radio program in Rwanda has generated a groundswell in family planning interest. Sometimes, development NGOs backfire when they arrive in a foreign country and aggressively impose contraceptive use, disrespecting the local culture and dehumanizing women; in contrast, PMC shows compassion, confidence, and optimism—all attributes of HCD—by believing in local populations and their capacity to make better choices for themselves, natural ecosystems (in Rwanda, population density has endangered mountain gorilla habitat), and ultimately, the entire planet. Ehrenfeld laments how market fundamentalism, in its emphasis on capital accumulation and materialism, has compromised both self-worth and sustainability. Through HCD, the Population Media Center promotes the self-determination and intrinsic worth of a people, and in this way, shifts the cultural dialogue from Ehrenfeld’s “Having” to “Being.”

    I find HCD appealing not only for the much-needed empathy and optimism that it adds to sustainability planning, but also because it devotes significant attention to “inspiration” and “iteration.” I’ve struggled to reconcile one of sustainability’s apparent contradictions: while achieved through complex systems and dynamic processes, nonetheless, it seems that sustainability is frequently framed as a static “end goal”—a destination that, once we arrive at, we can breathe a sigh of relief and rest on our laurels. I don’t think this is true. But the way that Ehrenfeld speaks of sustainability, after we undergo a “paradigm shift,” society will suddenly be able to say, “We’ve done it!” To me, human-centered design seems to have a more realistic concept of sustainability because it calls for iteration: a constant process of assessment and refinement that will never be finished. Population Media Center adheres to this iterative approach, as it listens to local feedback in order to design serial dramas that are more effective at behavior change. Finally, HCD seeks out analogous situations for inspiration, which I find reassuring as we embark on our sustainability planning exercise. I draw hope from the fact that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, devising solutions from out of the blue. HCD’s optimism maintains that the ingredients for a better future are (mostly) out there already. We just have to piece them together.

  5. Aidan McLaughlin says:

    In the past few weeks, I’ve learned a lot about different approaches to sustainability. Many are local, such as efforts to make Middlebury College carbon neutral. Thus far, however, the only sustainability thinking that really resonates with me is that of John Ehrenfeld. While his ideas are broad, vague, and not immediately pragmatic, they are the only ones that address sustainability on a cultural and global platform.

    In each class I am taking here at MSOE, I feel like I have been further enlightened about thinking for the future through problem solving, understanding various perspectives, and treating issues and systems holistically. This is why much of what I am learning about, while interesting and certainly important, seems to miss the mark of sustainability. In each example that we work with, we seek to treat a system holistically. The problem is that we cannot fully set the systems within the greater context of our world.

    This may sound very airy and unsubstantial, so I have an example. In learning how to plan for the future in the Sustainability Practicum, we have learned to narrow down two future uncertainties out of a list of potential uncertainty candidates. From there, we try to imagine what the world could look like in the future. While this exercise is rooted in the concept of forward-thinking, it still feels very reactionary. We are not trying to shape the future, but rather trying to be prepared for whatever may come our way. This certainly has its place, but in order to truly attain sustainability, I err on the side of John Ehrenfeld and his conviction that mankind cannot reach true sustainability as long as our culture is fueled by consumption and an economic model driven by growth. We are simply fooling ourselves by believing that we can patch the stress-holes in our environment with ad hoc policies and planning in an attempt to remedy the product of our internalized disregard for our natural world. Without changing the fundamental philosophical core of our consumerist psychology, future planning is nothing more than a way to prepare us for an almost certain gloomy future. That being said, planning could play a role in changing the collective mindset of so many consumption-minded people across the world.

  6. Laura Berry says:

    Planning and sustainability are two topics that are inextricably linked through their common goal of creating a framework for managing complex social-ecological systems on a long-term scale. Because conventional linear, steady-state, and top-down resource management strategies have not only failed to protect vital natural resources but have also actually helped to perpetuate social and economic inequality, it has become clear that we need new, holistic tools to build true sustainability. Systems mapping, scenario planning, and human-centered design are examples of such tools that ground environmental planning in the social and economic realities of the present.
    Systems mapping, whether informally or through a more structured causal loop or stock and flow diagram, allows planners to visualize and create goals that deal with the connections and flows between multiple components in a system, rather than analyzing the system as series of separate elements. Creating a system map can help planners identify the vulnerabilities of a system and create solutions to help improve the resilience of that system through understanding the non-linearity of a coupled human-natural or social-ecological system as described by Liu et. al an Berkes et. al. Planning for resilience requires the planner to frame the system at the appropriate scale and scope through asking “what am I trying to make resilient, and for whom?” and then come up with appropriate at intervention points. Once one better understands a system through mapping its essential components and connections, it is possible to then develop possible scenarios that system may face in the future through scenario planning. By selecting two key uncertainties within a system’s future related to a central question, planners can project what four possible future “worlds” look like, and determine how that future would impact how the system in question operates. With rising uncertainty due to widespread, systemic processes such as climate change, the role of religion in society, or even simply , systems mapping and scenario planning are important tools that can be used to gain a better understanding of what is required of a system for it to be sustainable.
    When attempting to make changes to a system to make it more sustainable – and thus equitable – human-centered design (HCD) is a process through which innovators can understand and design solutions that will truly help communities. According to the think-tank IDEO, HCD solutions are based not only on what is technologically and financially feasible/effective, but what people truly desire and need in order to live better lives. IDEO’s three-phase HCD process – Hear, Create, Deliver – is based on the understanding that a designer must be invested in getting to know a community and the people within it in order to create effective solutions for sustainability. This systemic perspective of effective change is key when developing practical strategies for sustainability because it works to get at the root of environmental and social issues in a community, rather than prescribing a shallow or one-size fits-all solution. Combined with systems mapping and scenario planning, these three planning tools create a powerful framework through which our class is working identify vulnerabilities in the Middlebury College system and work to create innovative and practical solutions to the threat of climate change, whether in the realm of physical and built infrastructure of the college, or the social dynamics of the College itself.

  7. Hernán Gallo says:

    Human-centered design is an important strategy to utilize when trying to create an optimal, sustainable society that includes humans as an important component. Often times, people are preoccupied with the technological and scientific aspects of sustainability that we often forget that we are striving to make a sustainable world for human beings. Also, when people hear the term “environment,” many would think of forests, lakes or deserts instead of workplaces, schools and cities. I have had several experiences at my home institution where many other students do not prioritize humans in their personal perceptions of sustainability. Although many may believe humans should not be in the center of design and planning, it is still useful to highly consider individuals and groups of people.
    Human-Centered Design can be useful when tackling environmental issues that negatively affect certain groups of people. Being able to talk to people and learn from them will give us the opportunity to better inform our decisions on sustainability projects and cases. Ultimately, only the people experiencing injustice in a nonfunctional system know what will be best for them, as IDEO explains in “Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.” Hence, one of the best sources for a sustainable planning project would be the people. Planners can produce great impacts if they are aware of the desires of the community they are working with because they are the ones that live, work and play in these areas.
    Embracing ambiguity, as IDEO explains, lets us open up in a creative manner. By starting from square one and speaking to the people you are serving, you “get to open up creatively,” which is an essential part of planning sustainably. Pushing oneself to be in uncomfortable and ambiguous environments fosters creativity that is beneficial in our society because there is no “correct” way of approaching unsustainable systems. It requires a lot of processing and thinking.
    Systems mapping can be a way of incorporating human-centered design into sustainable planning because a map of a system can show us all of the components that affect human beings. It forces people to think abstractly in order to think of all connections, no matter how minor they are. Thinking about social systems and systems of oppression through human-centered design along with systems mapping, one can uncover several layers of problems that perpetuate the cycle of unsustainability. Ultimately, identifying the components of unsustainable systems and working with stakeholders can greatly increase the effectiveness of the planner.

  8. Caitlin Haedrich says:

    This week gave me several concrete processes to help brainstorm ideas, creative solutions, and strategies to help improve or solve a problem. First, we did several systems mapping activities. When trying to improve a system, its useful to step back and make sure you understand how the system works, what influences what and what parts are keystones of the whole system. For example, last week we mapped the Organic Farm. The map was incredibly complex and included components ranging from the administration, to fossil fuels, to weather. So, when we look at changing one component of the system, say for example changing the climate as it’s predicted to, we can follows the ripple effects through the system.

    The second process we read and learned about this week was Human-Centered Design (HCD). We were focused mainly on the first part of the HCD process: the inspiration phase. I won’t go into the details of it here (although, you can find the whole IDEO guide book by googling Human-Centered Design) but I do want think it’s worth sharing why HCD is so different from traditional problem-solution designs. During the brainstorming process, HCD tries to find solutions that come from people living or dealing with the system. So, for example, if we were looking for ways of improving students’ participation in class discussions, we might interview students instead of or in addition to reading papers in a sociology journal. I think this particular part of HCD will be particularly important as we begin our Sustainability Practicum final projects. Using the knowledge, opinions and point of views from people in the college system, we are likely to find better solutions than if we rely on simply on written resources, academic studies and other traditional research resources. Talking to people in the college system will also give us a better idea of what exactly the problem is and how other effects our solutions might have. Using the Organic Farm example, Jay, the manager, probably has a better idea of what pests are a problem than a map of pest distribution we find online. Jay also has a better understanding of the Organic Farm system and would have a more accurate idea of how our solutions would affect the Farm. The HCD process goes on to talk about ideation and implementation processes that I think will also prove valuable to us as we work through our final project. I’m looking forward to getting to try those out later as well!

  9. Timothy Harper says:

    Part of the folly of sustainability as it is pursued today is that it is centered on optimization of the current system, or rather parts of the current system. The systems we live in are so complex and so variable that to optimize one part of the system without a consideration for the system as a whole is inherently destructive to that system and unsustainable. Take for example an agricultural field, the growth of that field is optimized through the use of tillage, fertilizers, and pesticides without consideration for the ways in which those practices affect the system to which that field is inextricably linked, and could ultimately lead to the collapse of that system. This optimization obsession however is at the heart of our current world economy and thus is also a prime component in planning for the future whether in the economic, political or even ecological domain. Resilience theorists argue that a more holistic form of planning will be required for the health of social ecological systems going into the future, that systems must be planned with the inherent variability of the world in mind.
    Scenario planning is a tool that forces one to examine a system at multiple scales both spatially and temporally. Scenario planning embraces the inherent variability in the world and can give social ecological system resilience through the adaptability it offers. The final product of scenario planning addresses the two greatest uncertainties, giving the manager of any system strategies for addressing four significant possible outcomes. But also in the process of building scenarios, many more drivers of the system and uncertainties inherent to the system are considered which helps the group involved in scenario planning to more fully understand the system, and thus capable of managing it to resilience.
    The ultimate progress made by the development of the scenario planning tool is that it is proactive in the face of variability. So much of environmental consciousness is directed towards fixing problems that have already happened, or rather the variability that we were not prepared for. Yet we still often lack an eye for the future and for making our systems more resilient in the face of unseen change. With scenario planning and resilience theory in general, we are capable of being proactive in our approach rather than simply reacting to every environmental catastrophe. This is an extremely powerful paradigm shift that empowers us to affect change, and it is a paradigm shift that will be required if we are ever to achieve sustainability-as-flourishing.

  10. Sage Taber says:

    Human-centered design resonated with the core of where I think sustainability is heading. It provides one way of thinking about creating solutions to very human problems. Humans are at the heart of the way in which sustainability is currently thought about. Therefore why not engage in a process that begins with the people you are designing for and ends with a design tailored to their needs? I think IDEO presents an accessible and useful set of guidelines to consider throughout any design process – notably our current project in Sustainability Practicum. Design thinking is a methodology. IDEO’s process comprises of four key steps – finding inspiration, synthesis (recognizing themes and patterns), ideation (brainstorming countless ideas) and implementation (refine and launch). The method seems translatable and effective.

    While the product is more business-centered, I think it can be applied to many fields. I understand that “human-centered” runs the risk of entrepreneurial in a negative sense, however I read IDEO’s goals and felt something positive. I felt inspired and saw many avenues to use human-centered design in my own work. Regarding sustainability, a human-centered approach can entail addressing issues of poverty, gender equality, clean water, etc. The approach can benefit communities’ needs that are expressed by the community itself. It’s not about a hidden way of exercising paternalism. I don’t think that human-centered design only applies to impoverished communities at all. The 21st century calls for intentional and innovative design in all sectors of society.

    In addition, I think that human-centered design is the sister to systems mapping. Mapping a network of connections reveals the systems strengths and vulnerabilities. Using both methods of thinking can unlock rich and thoughtfully developed ideas for change. I view these approaches as tools for enhancing the degree of sustainability achieved. By this I mean that the end product (physical or theoretical) will address the issue more holistically. Human-centered design and systems mapping encourage a form of structured brainstorming that emphasizes creativity, empathy and analytical skills.

  11. Ali Surdoval says:

    When we were first presented with the challenge of mapping Middlebury College’s Organic Farm as a system, Darrell and I were not sure where to start– the system seemed too complex and interconnected to grasp. I worked on the farm last summer, and it felt pretty simple then. You move some soil, plant some seeds, water, weed, take care of whatever problems emerge as they come, and then harvest. You wash and package the product and finally deliver it to its destination. Then you come back to the farm and move some more soil. The system appeared small and manageable. Once prompted to think of the farm as a system that functions amongst other systems, intricacies that I had not previously considered emerged. The compost comes from the college by truck, involving fossil fuel usage. The food consumed by the college impacts its community. The farm is funded mostly by donations, how are those funds raised, and by whom? The soil content on the farm is impacted by the rocks and minerals. Solar energy powers the well pump to irrigate the beds. Student labor is paid for by the college.

    Recognizing the interconnectedness of a system with many other systems is an essential piece of developing practical strategies to promote sustainability. Looking at the farm as an isolated system, without the influence of the surrounding ecological or social systems, is like looking at a math problem from only one angle– you’ll never fully understand the problem and be able to solve it unless you think about it from many varying perspectives. You have to be able to flex your thinking to include multiple methods and concepts. When examining the sustainability of a system, it is necessary to really know that system, which includes considering how it interacts with other systems. Sustainable solutions require dynamic thinking; a type of thinking that can only be achieved through deep, multi-perspective understanding. Thus, systems mapping is a valuable tool for developing sustainable solutions. By highlighting how interconnected systems are, it was clear that sustainable solutions require interdisciplinary and collaborative thinking. It is not enough to view the farm from an isolated (yet educated) perspective; but rather, we must evaluate systems as dynamic parts of a whole by expanding our own knowledge and working with others.

  12. Hannah Root says:

    When we did the scenario planning exercise with Jack Byrne in class last week, I was skeptical. The idea of predicting the future seemed to grand of a task for our small group of four, and I had no idea where to begin. Jack Byrne started the process by asking us to identify driving forces, which are influences on the world today that we could see having an effect on the world twenty years in the future. Making that list was fairly simple. We were all very comfortable naming driving forces because we see and hear about them everyday in the news, our studies and our experiences. From there, we picked the two most significant and uncertain driving forces and put them on two axes. This diagram helped us visualize four different futures, four different combinations of the two uncertain driving forces that we identified. It felt very possible to make predictions about those specific scenarios, and to feel like it was very much based in the reality of today. The relevance of this task was supported by the fact that each group in our class came up with similar axes. After a period of deliberating, we all identified similar uncertain driving forces as the most important for shaping our future. There must be some kind of truth within that.

    This exercise relates to practical strategies for sustainability in many ways. First of all, scenario planning helps us ground our predictions of the future in existing influences that we experience today and our ideas of the future are more tangible and relevant because of it. When we go from having foggy and uncertain ideas of the future to several different future possibilities, we can begin to think about which futures are more desirable. Which one do we want, and what do we need to do today to get there? Further, with a good idea of the divergent ways that the future could play out allows us to plan for the future better. We can move forward with better-grounded plans of what we will want to do in all of these different futures. When making these plans, sustainability can be the number one goal. We can make plans that are flexible, able to accommodate for the many possible futures, and in that fabric we can weave sustainable practices and ideas. Planning for the future is always a good idea, but when you can ground those ideas in concrete ideas about the future, you are bound to be much more successful. Sustainability should not be an afterthought in the way that individuals and organizations operate. By using the tool of scenario planning and holding sustainability high in your priorities, practical strategies for sustainability can become central in our lives and the world around us.

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