Growing sustainable communities

Creating sustainable value will turn in having happier communities. Happier people.

Commonly, when we refer to the concept of sustainability, we immediately think about environmental issues. About how to bear a system along its life with its own elements by taking advantage of the renewable resources the system has. The common idea is to build a long lasting system without making any harm to the environment. But sustainability is a more comprehensive concept that involves three fundamental elements: environment, society and economy. The broader idea is to build long lasting systems that preserve and improve their environmental, economic and social conditions and value.

Environmental issues are related to the planet, like energy consumption and renewable energy share, green spaces, recycling and composting, greenhouse gas emissions, natural catastrophe risk, drinking water, sanitation, air pollution, etc; economic issues consider available infrastructure, GDP, ease of doing business, competition, connectivity, inflation, etc.; and social issues involve quality of life, education, inequality, work-life balance, crime, housing, human rights, etc. We need to focus on the broader concept of sustainability, in order to actually achieve it.

A community is any social system, as big or as small, where its elements (humans) interact with a set of rules (explicit or implicit) for a common purpose (regularly maintaining the existence of the community and bearing the life, safety and well-being of its elements), while addressing their needs with the resources and capacities they have and can develop. A community goes from a family, to a neighborhood, a town, a country or even a region; but also from a group of medical research, to a political party, a minority or a group of entrepreneurs from Berkeley.

Every community is part of a bigger community (supra community), and interacts with other communities (interacting communities), so the value created on any given community and its elements have an impact in other communities and its elements. Communities are also dynamic systems, and the elements of any given community are dynamic elements too, who can be part of many different communities at the same time, depending on the role they are playing. Someone can be part of a community of lawyers from Stanford, but also part of the Palo Alto community, and an active member of the LGBT community, three different communities, that could share the same geographical zone, but with different elements, different purpose and different interactions.

Building sustainable communities requires small distributed efforts from the inside and the outside of the system (community). These efforts could be in group or individual, but are actions that contribute to create value for the whole system and its elements. Value creation in a community comprehends new and strengthened interactions between its elements, bigger system’s resilience, a higher level of complexity of the system, better conditions for its elements, and new and stronger capacities to develop better outcomes. Every time we create value and have a good impact on any given community and its elements, the probability of transmitting that value and generating impact in other communities is high. Small and distributed efforts are key for generating a chain reaction.

Nowadays many communities are broken, people are not fully engaged with the local or regional systems they are part of, and this have taken us to create and transmit very few social value. No value creation leads us to a huge amount of social issues that are destroying our communities. We need to work on creating sustainable value for our communities in order to make them grow. Creating sustainable value will turn in having happier communities, happier people.

Sustainable value is the sum of social value, economic value and environmental value. As we see it as a whole, any of those three could be the driver for creating sustainable value. If you work focusing on creating economic value as the driver, indirectly you can create social and environmental value; in fact, many of the projects that companies and governments are working on for pursuing sustainability are economic value driven. Some other projects, initiatives and programs from companies, government and organizations are environmental value driven, their key elements are related to having an environmental impact.

Some other initiatives are social value driven, where the impact has its main focus on the social benefits. The three type of initiatives [economic value driven, environmental value driven and social value driven] have influence and impact on the other two elements, so the question now is, which driven element has more potential to influence and have a higher impact on the other two? So far, economic value driven projects are the most common efforts for sustainability.

The approach of working with social value driven initiatives could be seen as the less effective way to create economic value, but if we see humans as the center of the economic and environmental value creation, we can realize that the better people we have, the better economic and environmental impact we can achieve. Social value driven projects have longer terms than the others, and are not as directly measurable as the economic value ones, but even with longer periods of return, the payback could be much greater.

We truly need to focus on creating sustainable value for our communities by working on much more social value driven projects. But how do we understand social value?

Social value is about having more engaged people within the community, with new or strengthened interactions between them, with a higher ability to respond to inside or outside changes, with a more complex arrangement of roles and activities, with better conditions for the people, and new and stronger capacities to produce better outcomes; particularly with a big influence and impact in other people (from supra communities and interacting communities).

As we said previously, small and distributed efforts are a fantastic approach for building sustainable communities, but few small and distributed efforts are not enough, we need a large amount of small and distributed efforts to make a difference. We need agents of change, people willing to reconnect in real life, people willing to do something for others, people wanting to be better persons. We need to start thinking not just about our ecological footprint (carbon footprint) but also about our social footprint (the social impact we have in our communities, in others). We need to enable and encourage people to track and grow their social footprint by addressing real social issues in their communities, by helping and supporting each other.

There are many real social issues waiting for the right people to address them. Would you participate in addressing them just for the good of doing right, just for be more humans, just for being responsible of our roles as agents of change, just for building sustainable communities, just for creating a better world?

If everybody could spend 5% of their time/effort/money/attention for doing something good for others, we definitely would have better people. Then we would have communities with a high social value: the capacities and conditions required to develop economic and environmental value too. Building sustainable communities counts on us, on how many of us grow our social footprint.