XVII.6 November + December 2010
Page: 27
Digital Citation

Future workplaces to support environmental sustainability

Bill Tomlinson

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In many work contexts, we lack social and technical paradigms that support deep engagement with environmental sustainability. We need new ways of working and new workplace tools that enable sustainable concerns to affect the spectrum of work activities. While a full treatment of this issue would take more than a few pages, this article seeks to touch upon a few transformations that are likely to occur as workplaces seek to support sustainability, and as sustainability in turn impacts work. Briefly, we need to work more broadly, work elsewhere, and work toward different goals.

back to top  Work More Broadly

While environmental issues are often quite broad in scope, many work activities tend to be myopic, constrained by division of labor, layers of management, financial factors, limits of worker expertise, and many other factors. For example, workers designing a new product may take into account the purpose of the product and the materials from which it is to be made, but they may not consider all the potential effects that the creation of that product may generate up or down a supply chain, ecological food chain, or macroeconomic chain of causality. To enable sustainable efforts, people need to work more broadly, that is, broaden their views and allow long-term and large-scale issues to influence their daily workplace decisions. Because broad perspective-taking isn't always intuitive, many work contexts would benefit from IT that supports workers in this effort. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) serves this purpose to a certain extent; it enables specific industries to assess the environmental impacts of their products and services. Various LCA tools have been in use for decades in manufacturing and similar domains. As sustainability becomes more central to other industries and professions, new forms of LCA tools are likely to emerge to support these efforts. For example, Earthster is a new open-source LCA system that focuses on transparency in the LCA process and the sharing of environmental and social impacts across corporations; major corporate backers (e.g., Walmart) have already signed on as partners [1]. However, despite this project and other advances in LCA (e.g., the incorporation of ecosystem services), there is a need for more vigorous prediction of real and potential impacts across time, space, and traditional intellectual boundaries, including information on the likelihood of each potential outcome and the interdependencies among them. Access to dynamic and timely information about a broad range of real and potential impacts (environmental, social, economic, and otherwise), can support workers in their efforts to address the complexities of sustainability. In addition, open access to LCA processes and data sets could allow for broader collaboration within and between industries, as well as more vigorous oversight of large institutions by individual workers and the general populace.

back to top  Work Elsewhere

In order to perform work more sustainably, the locations in which people work will need to change as well. Work should be done in whatever location minimizes resource usage and maximizes workers' effectiveness and happiness. Telework and other forms of dematerialization are already on the rise. In many contexts, working remotely may enable work to be conducted without as much overhead for commuting and other transportation. In addition to changing where workers spend their time, telework will lead to transformations of the workplace, as collocated work settings become more tailored to those activities for which face-to-face contact and other forms of physical collocation are necessary. Real estate developer Jay Hellman has suggested "the office building of the future will be more like a club than a factory" [2], primarily supporting social interactions among workers when other activities are conducted elsewhere. Despite a great deal of support for telework in the service of sustainability, it is nevertheless challenging to assess the potential benefits of specific instances of telework [3]. Determining which work locations support sustainability most effectively, through the work activities themselves as well as the lifestyles of the workers, is a critical factor in this transition.

Until we address the culture of consumption and growth, many efforts to enact efficiency will simply result in our civilization being "more efficiently unsustainable."

back to top  Work Toward Different Goals

Finally, in many areas of work, efforts to support sustainability are currently enacted through efforts to increase efficiency. The theory goes that, through greater efficiency, we can do the same work with fewer resources. But efficiency often leads to other, unintended consequences. Rather than reducing consumption, the savings from efficiency are often reinvested to spur more growth, are passed on to shareholders who buy more goods with their greater wealth, or are used to reduce the price of goods, thereby causing consumers to buy more or even enabling entire new industries to arise. While efficiency may provide significant social benefits by enabling goods and services to be provided at a lower price, efficiency is beneficial to sustainability only if the savings further sustainable ends. Until we address the culture of consumption and growth, many efforts to enact efficiency will simply result in our civilization being "more efficiently unsustainable" [4]. Nevertheless, systemwide, intelligently applied efficiency has important benefits [5]. If we manage to rein in our vast consumption, at both individual and institutional levels, efficiency can help us live both sustainably and well, and will, in the final analysis, be part of the solution. For the time being, though, we need to differentiate between those efficiencies that are part of the solution and those that are part of the problem, and help workers direct their efforts toward the most effective sustainability-related efforts.

The ideas in the preceding paragraphs have featured a number of caveats, reflecting the inherent complexities of sustainability and representing the way we will need to engage with many topics in the future. We will need to make decisions, in work and in all other aspects of life, based on imperfect information—as we do now, but with a greater consideration of environmental implications of those decisions—and we will need to accept some level of error because of that imperfection. However, by allowing sustainable ideals to influence all the decisions we make in all aspects of our lives, from how we work, to how we vote, to how we raise our children, we can hope to avoid some of the worst predicted outcomes and instead live lives of closer connection to our communities and ecosystems.

back to top  Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Lisa Nathan and Jon Kolko for inspiring this article. The Social Code Group, Rebecca Black, M. Six Silberman, James White, Andrew Correa, Sam Kaufman, Skip Laitner, Jay Hellman, Greg Norris, Aimee deChambeau, and Stu Ross improved the article through their feedback and discussions. Thanks also go to the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at UCI and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology for their support. This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0644415 and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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1. Earthster;

2. Hellman, J., "633 Penn. Ave, NW" Virtual Adjacency, 2010;

3. Moos, M., Andrey, J. and Johnson, L. 2006. "The Sustainability of Telework: An ecologicalfootprinting approach." Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy 2, 1 (2006).

4. Winn, J. "Green ICT: More Efficiently Unsustainable?" Presentation, 2010;

5. Ehrhardt-Martinez, K. and J.A.S. Laitner. "Rebound, Technology and People: Mitigating the Rebound Effect with Energy-Resource Management and People-Centered Initiatives." In Proceedings of the ACEEE 2010 Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.

back to top  Author

Bill Tomlinson is an associate professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and a researcher at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. His research focuses on the intersection between information technology and the world's growing environmental concerns. Tomlinson holds an A.B. in biology from Harvard College, an M.F.A. in experimental animation from CalArts, and S.M. and Ph.D. degrees from the MIT Media Lab.

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