Everyone’s using the term “sustainability.” And, I’ll admit I’m a little jaded. But, given that it’s around to stay for a while, let’s take a look at the term. What are the primary objectives of “sustainability” initiatives? Are they “green” – with an eye toward protecting the environment by reducing the effects of climate change? Are they economic – cost cutting, increasing efficiency? “Sustain” seems static, maintain the current state. But some are thinking about “sustainability” as a means of generating growth. A few weeks ago, I started an interesting discussion about “operational sustainability” with Rich Lechner, IBM Vice President for Energy and Environment. (I say started because it actually continued this week, and will likely continue further.)

“Sustain to grow” may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s not. First let’s think about efficiency. What does it mean to be more efficient? Efficiency to me is the goal to “do more with less” – improving the ratio of output to input. So you cut and improve productivity ratios that way. But what if you’ve cut as much as you can, and you still want to do more, to improve those ratios? How can you grow within the limits of the resources you have? Sustain resources, increase productivity or capacity – in whatever terms or measures of capacity you use. This translates into the objective behind “operational sustainability.” How do you improve operations or processes in order to improve outcomes, within the limits of available resources? 

Our discussion of “operational sustainability” took place in the context of “smart cities” at the START Summit in London, organized by The Prince's Charities and sponsored (and run) by IBM. Cities need to figure out how to support growth with the resources they have available. In some cases, it’s the inevitable growth due to population growth and urbanization. In other cases, it’s the desire for growth, such as cities like Liverpool or Manchester looking to increase the "live-ability" or attractiveness of their cities to citizens and businesses – increasing their competitiveness. In either case, city leaders need to scale services to the demands of the future, without counting on any additional resources. They need to improve processes with a goal of “operational sustainability.” They need to get “smart.” I’m not sure we need a new term like “operational sustainability.” Seems to me “smart” was catchy enough. But, I like the idea that sustainability means more than “green” and really incorporates how to get there rather than just an end state. 

As for the event where this discussion began: The objective of START – at least the choice of the name – was to talk about what can be done in the name of sustainability rather than focusing on what people (cities, businesses, governments, etc.) can’t do. We don’t drive – must eliminate traffic and emissions. We limit water use. We turn off lights, etc. But, rather than framing the discussion in terms of “stopping,” the organizers wanted to focus on the positives of “starting.”

The START Summit brought together local leaders in the UK to discuss these issues in very specific contexts beginning with a broad introductory session on Smart Cities and covering industry topics such as transport, energy, finance, supply chain, people, and youth. I was unfortunately only able to attend on the first day: Smart Cities. The agenda was pretty high-level and presentations somewhat abstract and esoteric – discussions of place and community and not products and technology. My observation, however, should not be taken as a criticism. Quite the contrary. In the audience, were representatives from local governments – local district councils from across the UK – from NGOs, from academic organizations across multiple disciplines, and from research institutes. The discussion clearly reflected the interests of the audience, as eclectic as they were. Take a look at the graphic representation of the discussion (right). The day was not an IBM marketing and sales event. There was no mention of its products and services. Not jumping straight into the technology illustrated IBM’s understanding of the audience and a concerted strategy of speaking their language, and it is consistent with the overall strategy of changing the dialogue around Smarter planet. 

Although I only participated in the first day, it was a great start. And, I look forward to continuing to discuss the broader meaning of sustainability as well.