Sustainability — the ability to last or continue for a long time or the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level — is a word that often relies on its context for clarity of definition. The concept of sustainability as it relates to human development first appeared in 1987 in the idea of “sustainable development” as follows:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

—World Commission on Environment and Development’s
(the Brundtland Commission) report Our Common Future
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Meeting the needs of the future depends on how well we balance social, economic, and environmental objectives–or needs–when making decisions today. For example, at a broad level, industrial growth might conflict with preserving natural resources. Yet, in the long term, a balanced approach that advocates the responsible use of natural resources now will help ensure that there are resources available for sustained industrial growth far into the future.

sustainability and CO

As applied to policy making, sustainability requires us to question what are the needs of the present? How do we decide whose needs are met? What happens when needs conflict? When there has to be a trade off, whose needs should go first? What gets prioritized?

The decision with respect to which “needs” are most vital and should weigh most heavily in the balance is a subjective exercise and depends critically on immediate hardships, challenges, value structures and expectations. If you did not have access to safe water, and therefore needed wood to boil drinking water so that you and your children would not get sick, would you worry about causing deforestation? Difficulties notwithstanding, the balancing of objectives is vital in the short term – by individuals, communities, cities, countries and groups of countries – if we expect to sustain our development in the long term.

We recently asked our Facebook friends and our Twitter followers what sustainability meant to them in the context of design.

Consistent with the breadth of the concept of sustainability, we got a diverse set of responses. So we built a word cloud around the definitions where the larger the word, the more frequently it was used in a response. Within the diversity, the similarities stand out: “environment”, ‘materials”, “beautiful”, “creating” and “long-lasting”.

The words in the cloud touch on the many facets of sustainability and those used most frequently are consistent with the values in a society with a robust social safety net, access to services, relatively low levels of gender inequality, and where our basic needs are met in terms of subsistence, education and health. And importantly it reflects not only the importance of the responsible use of resources, but also the idea that design can be a driver of sustainability through original ideas and innovation.

The construct of a sustainable balancing act exists.  #COclientsarethebest!

sustainable design word cloud