A System's Approach to Sustainable Development

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Competencies for Sustainability Education

Sustainability is holistically about environmental, social, and economic aspects of our world, not about any one aspect alone. The field is rapidly growing and evolving. As such, an increasing number of professionals are providing needed services in a variety of areas: planning and auditing, energy and waste management, sustainable food systems, watershed adaptive management, community economic development, sustainability science, business improvement, green building, international community development, and facilities management to name just a few. With this proliferation comes growing confusion and disparity in the quality and consistency of professional services as well as potential uncertainty regarding basic principles and concepts. The time has come to engage the professional community in a dialogue about the competencies practitioners in the diverse areas of sustainability should have to bring consistency to the level of professionalism in the field, help those who want to enter the field with their training, learning, and development, and aid consumers in distinguishing among service providers, vendors, and potential employees. This has been done recently by the ISSP with the publication of
The Sustainability Professional: 2010 Competency Survey Report.

Unlike work in environmental management systems, for example, that require prescriptive engineering and/or chemical “cook-book” approaches to managing change where the traditional, standardized way to approach an examination of skill-sets and abilities is relatively straightforward, work in the realm of sustainable development requires much more complex experience and understanding of multiple concepts and theories. The most important thing that professionals in sustainability will have to offer in the future, however, is not ready-made solutions. Rather, it is an ability to improvise, adapt, innovate, and dream up still more visionary-yet-feasible ideas about how to transform a global civilization or rescue ecosystems in trouble. Practice in sustainable development is a collaborative activity that assesses, plans, implements, coordinates, monitors, and evaluates the options and services required to collectively meet an individual's, group’s, or community’s socio-economic and environmental well-being needs, using communication and available resources to promote quality, cost-effective, limited resource sensitive outcomes. This is going to require more exertion, more creativity, more risk. In the next few years, people who have been working on sustainability, especially in the international development arena, are going to be seriously tested – not only by resistance to their ideas – but by the ever-increasing demand for them.

To achieve sustainability we must revamp the process of decision-making and the carrying out of activities by professionals, supported by our understanding of science, in order to

  1. integrate actions of conservation and human development,
  2. satisfy basic human needs,
  3. achieve equality and social justice for all,
  4. provide social self-determination and cultural diversity,
  5. consider our legacy to future generations,
  6. maintain ecological integrity in synchronized ways, and
  7. focus new technology and product manufacturing on the continuing decline of natural resources and probable climate change.

If we don’t the result is inequality in access to resources and quality of life, which equals conflict. The challenge for practitioners is to begin to conceptualize sustainability in the context of inter-disciplinary scientific understanding and promote the taking of action that reaches across boundaries, disciplines, and cultures.

Some are beginning to recognize that a combination, of socio-economic and environmental forces related to present global conditions have led to accelerating interest in mechanisms for promoting and verifying/validating the quality of professionals practicing sustainable development around the world. The concept and recognized need for sustainability in a global arena has matured to the point that society expects practicing professionals to act as responsibly in advancing socio-economic progress, protecting human health, and conserving natural resources as other licensed professionals (such as architects, engineers, surveyors and medical doctors) do in their respective fields. Institutions of higher education and professional credentialing bodies — teaching, setting, and administering competency standards for scientists, sociologists, economists, planners, and other professionals advising on international, inter-disciplinary sustainability practices — are being called upon to fulfill this universal need.

Five E's Unlimited collaborated with the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), a global professional association supporting sustainability practitioners to conduct an inquiry that would forge consensus around the competencies, practices, and methodologies that define the professional practice of sustainable development. We sought to create a comprehensive taxonomy of competencies and skills that would define professional conduct and practice in the field. This taxonomy would, by itself, be a valuable resource to the profession as it would provide clear guidance to members of the field for their new or continuing professional development. In addition, it formed the foundation for more consistency across training and educational programs, and could eventually support the development of professional accreditation process. To this end we launched a study to engage experienced professionals and academicians in the diverse parts of the field in a dialogue with the goal of identifying the competencies necessary to credibly and effectively perform in the profession. We reported on the results of this work in The Sustainability Professional: 2010 Competency Survey Report.

A set of competencies will guide a new model for continued professional development of the practitioner that emphasizes a sustainability-oriented program of training (both formal university/college, as well as independent continuing education). With the appropriate training and continued professional development approaches, the sustainability practitioner should be able to bridge the gap in aligning economic practices with social and environmental goals as well as assist decision-makers to both select and synergize their efforts for maximum strategic effectiveness and efficiency.

Once the competencies for practice in sustainable development are identified and agreed to by professionals in this multi-disciplinary field, we will be in a position to partner with Institutions of Higher Education in developing or strengthening curricula to train their graduates. With this guidance students and practitioners can experience a reorientation to existing education that includes: (a) principles, skills, and perspectives related to sustainability; (b) learning that is appropriate and relevant; (c) a vision that integrates environment, society, and economy; and (d) knowledge of tools and methodologies to employ in guiding and motivating people to participate in a democratic society, assess their core values, and live in a sustainable manner.

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Last Update: 1/1/15
Web Author: Dr. R. Warren Flint