How to broaden and deepen adoption of sustainable design

The Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago

The Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago, designed by SCB, leverages client imperatives to arrive at a regenerative design

To accelerate vibrant, healthy and high-performance design, advocates need to carefully listen and frame strategies through the lens of their clients

Proponents of sustainable design in the built environment are urgently trying to broaden its use and deepen its impact. We can conceptualize this as T-shaped change: a riff on the T-shaped people analogy. The top of the T indicates the breadth of adoption across a wide variety of audiences, such as the number of people, buildings, or industries engaged in elementary sustainable practices. The vertical leg of the T indicates the depth of commitment and impact in specific areas, such as minor energy reduction versus net zero energy use or LEED versus the Living Building Challenge. The central question is, can we make both parts of the T bigger simultaneously or do we have to choose?

Broadening the T starts with how we talk about and frame the issues. At times, proponents are a barrier to wider acceptance when they unknowingly sabotage themselves by advocating with their ideology, ego and personal beliefs. Consider that 42 percent of people in the US aren’t worried about global warming. That is nearly half the United States, a group essential to enacting widespread change, but it’s unlikely they’re motivated by environmental principles or global concern. How do we appeal to them?

Psychology has proven humans hold on to our beliefs in the face of nearly indisputable reason. Our minds generate split-second beliefs based on what our emotions make us feel, then the brain unconsciously rationalizes why those beliefs are actually “facts.” Tangential to confirmation bias, this mechanism lets us regularly convince ourselves why our point of view is correct, even when contrary evidence is objectively presented. Though people can be rationally swayed, it’s much harder and creates the feeling that we’re pushing a stone uphill forever.

This signals that those championing are better served to work with opposing views, not alienate by trying to change them. Let’s learn and leverage the passion and beliefs of those whose opinions differ from our own. What are their goals? Not sustainability goals but their core needs, business mission, and personal drivers.

Authentically see sustainable strategies as a means to your client’s end: a byproduct, not a reason.

A few years ago, I was pitching high-performance facades and green space—among other sustainability strategies—to high-rise residential apartment developers, citing the importance of LEED ratings, innovation, energy savings and similar benefits. As evidenced by this case study, it was only after I learned to frame and reposition the exact same sustainable strategies as supporting their imperatives of tenant comfort and retention that we achieved better traction. We must truly see our audience’s point of view before we can craft approaches with a real chance of being heard. Consider widely accepted change management steps:

  1. Listen, understand and empathize: engage people emotionally by tapping into what they believe
  2. Prime them to listen to analytical reason that’s counter to their ideas
  3. Give simple, clear direction on what to do

To employ these lessons, several things are required of sustainability practitioners. First, get comfortable relaxing the ideology and biased messaging by which advocates have historically undermined ourselves. Second, fundamentally see our work as an open-minded act of listening that meets people where they are, whether that’s a real-estate development seeking deep ecological design, a neighborhood seeking jobs, or a profitable company trying to better its bottom line. Authentically see sustainable strategies as a means to your client’s end: a byproduct, not a reason.

Unlock the potential of the T

For some proponents, this will be a paradigm shift in perception that recalibrates how we see ourselves and our clients. It enables us to build authentic trust and relevance, regardless of one’s bias. It makes clear that sustainable strategies can solve non-sustainability problems and help more people see sustainability as a viable tool in their toolbox.

Let’s learn and leverage the passion and beliefs of those whose opinions differ from our own.

It might seem this ideological “compromise” will limit progress, but it can actually unlock a more meaningful depth. Consider the process of regenerative design. A regenerative project—such as those that achieve Living Building Certification or more recent AIA COTE Top Ten Award recipients—sustains or even generates net-positive forms of capital: financial, social, human, physical and environmental. They're literally sustainable for the long-term. It is an interdisciplinary and inclusive development and design process, differentiated by a focus on authentic community collaboration and building capacity of those who inhabit it, to self-propel sustainable prosperity long after physical projects are complete. Regenerative solutions draw lessons from nature, systems-thinking, and place-making to unlock innovation and underutilized assets in communities and companies. They achieve balance, health and vitality for the places and people in their presence.

All regenerative projects start by discovering stakeholder problems and goals using listening-focused processes. This galvanizes diverse constituents by building on their beliefs, some of whom are part of that 42 percent that aren’t worried about global warming. By hearing everyone out at the beginning and framing regenerative strategies through the lens of their needs, all stakeholders—regardless of their opinion of sustainability—are mentally primed to trust logical reasons and volunteer support for the project.

Advocating sustainability as an open-minded act of listening is a pivotal precondition for transformational change, like a regenerative building, but it's equally powerful as a widely applicable tool to buoy change of a more incremental nature. Using lessons from change management and decision-making psychology, we can broaden and deepen the T of any project. We can more effectively position and communicate sustainable solutions as a means to an end, making their value self-evident to more viewpoints and opening the door to a huge untapped audience, faster innovation through broader collaboration, and the meaningful impact we seek.

Mike Stopka founded the Chicago-based consultancy MIST, blending strategy, education, and design to facilitate balanced sustainable change in organizations, people, and the built environment.

Image credits

The Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago

Solomon Cordwell Buenz/Dave Burk © Hedrich Blessing

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