Visualising Sustainability

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When astronauts look back at the earth from space, they experience a shift in consciousness, which is known in common terms as the Overview Effect: a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, a feeling of awe for the planet, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

Over the last decades the term ‘sustainability’ has expanded from raising awareness about environmental consciousness into a holistic concept touching on every part of people’s lives. The perception of the environment as the ‘weaker counterpart’ often portrayed in mainstream media is now being surpassed by the realization that people, business and environment are intrinsically linked.

In 2011 Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer stated in the Harvard Business Review that companies must create ‘shared value’ and take the lead in bringing business and society back together. And as Forbes reported in an article on rethinking corporate social responsibility, GE was one of the first organization to do so. They rebranded in 2005 with ecomagination and showed that a company could not only push for environmental change, but could also drive society through innovation while still caring about profits. ecoimagination is GE’s commitment to imagine and build innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges with cutting edge products and technology, from high efficiency halogen lamps, fuel and carbon solutions for the aviation industry to electric vehicle charging stations.

Charles Leadbeater, an advocate of open source and collaboration claims that “in the century to come wellbeing will come to depend less on what we own and consume and more about what we can share with others.” A development in that direction was heralded by the economic crisis putting yet another spin on sustainability. By rethinking consumption it opens up possibilities for new economic models and social entrepreneurship based on the notion of sharing. Examples range from Airbnb, coworking spaces to community farms and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.

Sony’s FutureScapes makes good use of this opportunity by creating an open and collaborative process with people from Sony, leading futurologists and non-profit Forum for the Future to creatively conjure the world in 2025 and the role of technology could play in our lives. The impressive results were four scenarios redefining ‘Ownership’ and ‘Prosperity’, depicting ‘Hyper Innovation’ and ‘Centralised Survival’.

The challenge for companies is to express responsibility, integral to all aspects of their daily dealings - from production processes, to caring about employee’s health or the use of energy and water in office buildings. Contagious Magazine interprets this concept as a growing demand for products and services that not only meet a consumer need but equally important drive innovation and benefit society.

The Windmade campaign for wind turbine company Vestas targets the idea of Vestas presenting itself as a business with purpose. Instead of promoting their product directly they highlight the
ramifications that wind power helps create: providing sustainable energy for manufacturing daily used products.

A notion that is slowly taking greater shape in the Western industrialized countries is the one of post-commercialism. The roots of this trend are linked to the advent of the internet which created a new generation of informed consumers becoming more influential on businesses and markets. Central to post-commercialism, as Contagious Magazine reports, is the question of who deserves to earn your money. Consumers reward corporations that take stands rather than building brands. In the post-commercial society, consumption becomes one of the most important ways of expressing views and values.

Consumer behavior however is anything but static. In the last few years the gain in popularity of social media tools fuel an ever growing need for transparency and awareness of how the interconnection between people, planet and profit is a symbiotic affair.

A recent piece by the Guardian on communicating sustainability and the rise of social media storytelling highlights the opportunity companies have to communicate via mobile platforms. The annual Social Media Sustainability Index reports that companies with a real commitment to making their business more sustainable have a distinct advantage in social media communications because they have a good and believable story to tell. At the same time social media empowers consumers to follow (and comment on) company practices in real time, enabling them to make a better informed buying decisions.

IBM was listed in the index as one of the smartest companies to use social media to not just communicate their sustainability stance but also to involve the public in building a better world. The tumblr page of their Smarter Cities campaign features visually led content around the topic of ‘what would make a city smarter’ and encourages their followers to share their thoughts.

Another interesting approach is the Siemens /answers campaign which emphasises the company’s commitment to innovation and the American economy, and the difference its technology is making in the lives of Americans. The site also features visually appealing user generated videos that can be shared via all social media platforms.

Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative seeks to empower young people around to world by creating opportunities through access to greater education, employment or entrepreneurship. Utilizing the power of social media Microsoft is connecting with its young audience via its Microsoft Citizenship facebook page, sharing outstanding projects and ideas from like-minded young people around the world.

Sustainability is still a matter of perception. With the increasing speed of technology, it will inherently seep deeper into the fabric of communities and corporations. This means adopting sustainability as a state of mind. Innovation will be the key driver as those ‘brands that survive will be the brands that make life better’ FastCompany reports. And with it comes the notion that growth and best practice go together, providing the necessary framework to connect to the next generation of consumers. Keeping up curiosity about the future ahead is essential.

One of the main reasons of people not feeling personally affected by sustainability write the authors of Cause and Effect: Visualizing Sustainability is that the largest part of our brain is focused on the present. As climate change is not happening fast enough humans find it difficult relating to its long-term nature. One of the most important preconditions for successfully communicating sustainability will be establishing the interrelations between our habits, our daily actions and their effects on the environment and our fellow humans.

Not all of us can go into space to experience the Overview Effect first hand, to feel the awe for our planet, but the trend of a growing well-informed consumer culture will continue to rise and allow for a greater perspective. A company’s effort will be amplified by innovative, visual language helping to educate, enable and inspire consumers.

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