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Volume 12 ● Issue 1 Journal Editor

Maurie Cohen (New Jersey Institute of Technology)

Spring 2016
Managing Editor
ISSN: 1548-7733 Brie Betz (ProQuest)

Introduction to the special issue on social sustainability: integration, context, and
Nicole Peterson (The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA)………………………….3

Community Essays
Toward a gender diverse workforce in the renewable energy transition
Rebecca Pearl-Martinez (Tufts University, USA) & Jennie C. Stephens (University of Vermont,

Network priorities for social sustainability research and education: Memorandum of the
Integrated Network on Social Sustainability Research Group
Rachelle Hollander (National Academy of Engineering, USA), Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy
(Georgia Institute of Technology, USA), Sarah Bell (University College London, UK), Frazier
Benya (National Academy of Engineering, USA), Cliff Davidson (Syracuse University, USA),
Craig Farkos (American Society of Civil Engineering Task Committee on Sustainability, USA),
David Fasenfest (Wayne State University, USA), Regina Guyer (University of North Carolina
Charlotte, USA), Angelique Hjarding (University of North Carolina Charlotte, USA), Michael
Lizotte (University of North Carolina Charlotte, USA), Dianne Quigley (Brown University,
USA), Diana Watts (Trinity Washington University, USA), & Kate Whitefoot (Carnegie Mellon

Sustainable dissemination of earthquake resistant construction in the Peruvian Andes
Malena Serrano (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Peru), Marcial Blondet (Pontifical
Catholic University of Peru, Peru), Álvaro Rubiños (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru,
Peru), and Elin Mattsson (Uppsala University, Sweden).……………………….……………...22

Social sustainability dimensions in the seismic risk reduction of public schools: a case study
of Lima, Peru
Sandra Santa-Cruz (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Peru), Graciela Fernández de
Córdova (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Peru), Miryam Rivera-Holguin (Pontifical
Catholic University of Peru/National University of San Marcos, Peru), Marta Vilela (Pontifical
Catholic University of Peru, Peru), Victor Arana (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Peru),
and Juan Palomino (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Peru).……………………….……34

Achieving one-planet living through transitions in social practice: a case study of Dancing
Rabbit Ecovillage
Robert Boyer (University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA)………………………………..47
Managing the triple bottom line for sustainability: a case study of Argentine agribusinesses
Poonam Arora (Manhattan College, USA), Nicole D. Peterson (University of North Carolina at
Charlotte, USA), Federico Bert (La Asociación Argentina de Consorcios Regionales de
Experimentación Agrícola (AACREA), Argentina), and Guillermo Podesta (University of
Miami, USA)……………………………………………………………………………………..60

The social lab classroom: wrestling with — and learning from — sustainability challenges

Danielle Lake, Hannah Fernando, and Dana Eardley (Grand Valley State University, USA)…..76

Systems of access: A multidisciplinary strategy for assessing the social dimensions of

Christopher Wolsko (Oregon State University‒Cascades, USA), Elizabeth Marino (Oregon State
University‒Cascades, USA), Thomas Joseph Doherty(USA), Steve Fisher (USA), Amanda S.
Green (Davidson College, USA), Briana Goodwin (Oregon State University, USA), Ryan Reese
(Oregon State University‒Cascades, USA), and Andrea Wirth (University of Nevada‒Las Vegas,

Published online ● ● ● email:

Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy


Introduction to the special issue on social sustainability: integration,

context, and governance
Nicole Peterson
Department of Anthropology, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28223
USA (email:

Since the late 1980s, the pursuit of sustainability effort to envision a deeply integrated approach to
as a practical effort, rather than as a purely scientific sustainability by rooting their analyses in local places
or descriptive concept, has recognized the importance and actual people, highlighting the importance of
of balancing the competing priorities of grounded perspectives, collaborative processes, and
environmental protection, economic growth, and engaged governance that address multiple issues at
social equity. We now know that we cannot make once and challenge the customary multi-pillar model.
meaningful progress resolving issues like climate While these are not new concerns in sustainability
change and the degradation of global ecosystems circles (see Boström, 2012; Murphy, 2012), the
without also addressing associated economic and authors of the work presented here argue concretely
social equity concerns. As part of this realization, for the interconnections among these elements and
scholars and practitioners in diverse disciplines have suggest specific ways that they can be better included
adopted a “triple-bottom line” or “three pillars” in sustainability efforts.
approach as an expedient heuristic that understands Together, these articles suggest that an integrated
sustainability, or sustainable development, as approach to sustainability can be envisioned and
achieving some balance among environmental, enacted through specific kinds of governance and
economic, and social equity priorities, all at once. educational activities that encourage cooperative
Over time, however, decision makers have earned processes and attention to local experiences. All of
criticism for using this triad of objectives as a policy the authors find separation of the economic, environ-
inventory rather than a model for examining the mental, and social dimensions of sustainability to be
relationships and interdependencies among superficial and impractical for communities that must
environmental, economic, and social priorities in reconcile these objectives every day, and they prefer
diverse places (see, in particular, Boström, 2012). instead to address overarching concerns in terms of
Some scholars, coming to the issue from a range of well-being, livability, security, equity, and
disciplines, have attempted to address the short- community engagement. For example, Malena
comings of the three-pillar model by adding more Serrano and her colleagues assess their experiences
pillars (e.g., Godschalk, 2004; Bendell & Kearins, sharing earthquake resistant building techniques in
2005; Inayatullah, 2005; Seghezzo, 2009). However, Peru and argue that integrated sustainability
the challenge remains that forcing complex and recognizes the need to incorporate local perspectives
unprecedented socio-environmental problems into and values into processes of technology transfer and
three, four, or seven distinct containers represents an to account for the connections between degraded
outdated, unduly modernist way of problem-solving environments and social inequalities. They
that tends to approach environmental, economic, and furthermore argue that construction techniques are
social issues as independent, and consequently, their deeply connected to ideas of well-being and
solutions as separate (Vanclay, 2004; Milne & Gray, acceptable living spaces.
2013). The notion of well-being for effective
New research and practice in sustainability sustainability efforts is crucial for several other
proposes an integrated concept whereby “social authors. Sandra Santa Cruz et al. discuss the
issues” are indistinguishable and inseparable from importance of security and basic services through
economic or environmental issues and vice versa. their case study of earthquake-risk mitigation in
These approaches are based in experiences with real schools in Peru concluding that both social equity
places and real people, pertaining to, as Krueger & and community are crucial to building sustainable
Agyeman (2005) contend, “actual existing sustain- resilience to hazards; ensuring student physical,
abilities.” The articles in this special issue extend the psychological, and social well-being; and providing

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

environmental and economic benefits. Rachelle reflecting concepts developed by other researchers
Hollander and colleagues stress the importance of (e.g., Murphy, 2012; Missimer et al. 2016b). Based
assimilating social elements like well-being into on their analyses, the articles in this special issue
engineering curricula, echoing Serrano et al.’s and consistently assert that equity and access to resources
Santa Cruz et al.’s insistence that infrastructure and governance processes are critically important for
necessarily involves an integrated vision of sustainability. Contributors whose work focuses on
sustainability. structures like homes and schools shed light on how
Other articles in this special issue argue that sustainable infrastructure supports (or could support)
integrated sustainability is crucial given the well-being, livability, security, accessibility, oppor-
importance of community-level coordination. Robert tunities, and basic services (Serrano et al.; Santa Cruz
Boyer’s research on an eco-village in the United et al.; Hollander et al.). Other authors address
States highlights that collective environmental and sustainability as an outcome of collective resource
financial resource management requires management that includes considering both resource
interpersonal-communication and conflict-resolution availability and social relationships (Arora et al.;
skills unad-dressed by typical sustainability planning. Boyer). Finally, a third set of authors finds that
Contrib-utions by Poonam Arora and her coauthors sustainability is deeply enmeshed with issues of
and Danielle Lake et al. also examine interactions access to governance, education, resources, and
and interdependencies across environmental, opportunities (Lake et al.; Pearl-Martinez &
economic, and social concerns, showing that both Stephens; Wolsko et al.). While the articles discuss
environmental education and agriculture blur sustainability in slightly different ways, all address
boundaries. Arora et al. find that Argentine the challenges of diverse populations with varied
agribusiness owners think about risk and the water perspectives, values, and opportunities. There are
table in relation to social responsibilities, rather than also important themes—for example, well-being,
concerns simply requiring economic calculation. security, communication, and conflict resolution—
Lake and colleagues examine a course where students that remain important variables for sustainability
use community engagement to think through wicked efforts more broadly. The special issue as a whole
problems in sustainability, highlighting the value of moreover emphasizes that an integrated view of
multiple perspectives and local concerns for sustainability is inextricably linked to local concerns
associated efforts and education. and contexts, which define processes, perspectives,
The final two articles in this collection examine and even possibilities for sustainability.
how integrated sustainability is enriched by consid- Drawing more deeply on the importance of local
ering issues like access and equity, which are context and meanings, virtually all of the authors
typically and problematically relegated to the argue that sustainability can be defined by the
category of social sustainability. Drawing from integration of diverse perspectives through new
several short vignettes, including decisions about forms of community engagement. The two articles
renewable energy and open-access publishing, focused on earthquake preparedness in Peru advocate
Christopher Wolsko and his coauthors argue that for participatory planning exercises to help identify
accessibility is a critical element of sustainability, community needs and relationships that can affect the
integrated across the three pillars. Rebecca Pearl- success of risk-mitigation strategies. At a minimum,
Martinez and Jennie Stephens examine how gender involving the local community can build trust and
diversity is invaluable for sustainability efforts, interpersonal connections to overcome reluctance to
reviewing how women working in energy-related adopting new techniques. Boyer demonstrates the
fields might make that sector more competitive and value of community decision-making and
sustainable, as they have in other areas. participatory self-governance. Hollander and her co-
Throughout the sustainability field, many authors authors similarly advocate for citizen science as an
find that social sustainability, as well as sustainability inclusive and socially aware approach to
more broadly, remains amorphous, lacking a clear sustainability research, and Pearl-Martinez &
and consistent definition (Dempsey et al. 2009; Stephens argue that including a variety of
Vallance et al. 2011; Boström, 2012; Murphy, 2012; perspectives is needed for a successful energy
Missimer et al. 2016a . Others argue that broad transition.
definitions allow for greater attention to local needs, A multi-perspective approach particularly makes
values, and concerns (Weingaertner & Moberg, 2014; sense if we are to take seriously the idea that context
see also Sen, 2004). In the articles here, the authors’ strongly influences sustainability goals and that
ideas about social aspects of sustainability draw on standard models of individual behavior cannot easily
the specifics of each case study, though also account for the complexities of meanings, skills, and

Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | Spring 2016 | Volume 12 | Issue 1
Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

relationships (a point separately made in the “wicked problems” to comprehending how they are
contributions by Arora et al., Boyer, and Pearl- understood, how they affect different people, and
Martinez & Stephens). In examining the value of how they are tied up in decisions and institutions.
community engagement for sustainability education, Arora et al.’s study of Argentine agribusinesses also
Lake and her colleagues succinctly describe the value suggests that the processes underlying decisions are
of engaging local actors: “inherently context- not just the result of considering risks and outcomes,
dependent and emergent SS [sustainability science] but are engendered by goals tied to relationships with
requires broad social inclusion, demanding we family and farmers alike. How these interpersonal
continuously uncover and weigh the merit of our own connections are built is key. It needs to be done
and others’ assumptions, values, and goals.” The through trust (Serrano et al.), cooperation, and
course described in Lake et al. models this approach empathy (Boyer), cultivation of which can improve
through student projects that build skills for engaging through practice (Lake et al.; Boyer). Yet, as
diverse groups. The authors write that Hollander and her colleagues warn, process can be
“[p]articipatory skills and virtues (like team building, harder to operationalize as a gauge of success than
active listening, collaboration, and integration) must outcomes, which can be counted and assessed. They
be fostered in order to empower more effective and suggest that interdisciplinary approaches can help,
just coaction on wicked problems. In fact, we suggest and the variety of strategies in this special issue
a failure to foster these skills and virtues is at the core suggests specific ways that process can be appraised:
of many current social struggles.” In sum, the articles through commitments (Serrano et al.), access
presented in this special issue collectively argue that (Wolsko et al.), reflection (Lake et al.), and inclusion
integrated sustainability must be locally engaged and (Pearl-Martinez & Stephens).
engaging. This introduction builds on previous work on
Finally, Wolsko et al. push for a transformation social sustainability, particularly the special issue of
in how we think about engagement. The examples in Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy edited by
their article coalesce around a concept of “access” Magnus Bostöm in 2012, which articulated many of
(building on Amartya Sen’s work on this topic) and the challenges to addressing social aspects of
push for a form of engagement that recognizes the sustainable development. In his introduction,
multi-scalar nature of sustainability, relations of Boström outlined the challenge of defining and
power, and inequalities. The authors find that operationalizing social sustainability. He argued that
sustainability is inhibited by both access, often sustainable development, including ideas of social
understood as an individual attribute, and sustainability, is best understood as a frame that can
vulnerability at larger scales. This is particularly be used to communicate, make decisions, and
evident in their decision-making case study where evaluate progress. This frame can be dynamic over
power relations and legitimacy claims determine time and place and encompass a variety of elements
access to decisions. Through their analysis, access such as well-being, governance, and equity. This
becomes a way to consider sustainability as a process special issue uses case studies, examples, and
that engages with diverse ideas and activities. Yet overviews to further refine Boström’s sustainability
access also signals the potential for lack of access, framework.
often tied to inequalities in resources, education, or Part of any organizational scheme is the
political connections. This shift in frame encourages underlying model of how parts of a frame intersect
a focus on identifying and removing barriers to and interact. In advocating for integration, context
access, and similarly raises the issue of how to ensure spec-ificity, and governance issues, these articles
this process through governance strategies. suggest that important hallmarks identified in
The authors assembled in this special issue thus previous work on social sustainability emerge from
largely agree on a vision of sustainability that is considering local governance and community
integrated and engaged with diverse participants and engagement. This collection also highlights that truly
their local perspectives and practices. These elements integrated sustainability is not just an issue to address
push us toward a process-focused idea of through governance and decision-making;
sustainability, in that how we engage with a system sustainability underlies and makes governance
of relations (involving sustainability ideas, practices, possible. In this way, the framework moves beyond
activities, and outcomes) depends not just on the environmental, eco-nomic, and social issues to
identification of these elements, but how they are realize that good governance is sustainability and
arranged and how they can mutually influence one vice versa. Yet, overlaying sustainability with
another. The students at the center of the contribution governance potentially clouds both of these pursuits.
by Lake et al. go beyond identifying environmental Are these ideas too broad and abstract? The cases

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

here, in their specific details, suggest not. Integrating resource conservation. World Development 27(4):629‒
governance into sustainability reveals how 649.
sustainability can be achieved. It requires recognizing Bendell, J. & Kearins, K. 2005. The political bottom line:
and responding to local contexts and concerns and the emerging dimension to corporate responsibility for
sustainable development. Business Strategy and the
can only be achieved through local governance Environment 14(6):372‒383.
mechanisms. Within these cases, we see concern for Boström, M., 2012. A missing pillar? Challenges in
well-being, access, and inclusion as ways to theorizing and practicing social sustainability:
implement sustainability. But how these concerns are introduction to the special issue. Sustainability:
defined and negotiated depends on local per- Science, Practice, & Policy 8(1):3–14.
spectives and governance structures that can engage Dempsey, N., Bramley, G., Power, S. & Brown, C. 2011.
with concerns and help break down barriers The social dimension of sustainable development:
(Shiroyama et al. 2012; Magee et al. 2013; Mutisya defining urban social sustainability. Sustainable
& Yarime, 2014; Donevska, 2015; Milan, 2015). Development 19(5):289‒300.
Donevska, N. 2015. Trade-offs in sustainable urban
The contributions here suggest that sustainability development: the case of Skopje. Journal of
efforts can encourage good governance by making it Environmental Studies and Sciences, Advance online
part of the model and framework, and thus process publication available at
and practice. They suggest that important
characteristics of governance processes might include 014-0216-6.
an integrated vision of sustainability (rather than Godschalk, D. 2004. Land use planning challenges: coping
separate spheres), attention to local contexts and with conflicts in visions of sustainable development
ideas, assurance of access to necessary resources, and and livable communities. Journal of the American
engagement of citizens in decision-making. The Planning Association 70(1):5‒13.
Inayatullah, S. 2005. Spirituality as the fourth bottom line?
concept of sustainability as governance can also open Futures 37(6):573‒579.
the possibility of stronger joint efforts with Krueger, R. & Agyeman, J. 2005. Sustainability
governments and social movements to work toward a schizophrenia or “actually existing sustainabilities?”
shared objective of good governance. Broadening Toward a broader understanding of the politics and
sus-tainability in this way thus encourages specific promise of local sustainability in the US. Geoforum
governance processes while creating the possibility 36(4):410‒417.
for broader coalitions. The holistic view explored in Magee, L., Scerri, A., James, P., Thom, J., Padgham, L.,
this special issue is the next logical step in furthering Hickmott, S., Deng, H. & Cahill, F. 2013. Reframing
the conversation for sustainable development. We social sustainability reporting: towards an engaged
approach. Environment, Development, and
suggest that social implications and social issues are Sustainability 15(1):225‒243.
the cornerstone for such a discussion, and an Milan, B. 2015. How participatory planning processes for
integrated approach is necessary if true progress is to transit-oriented development contribute to social
be made. sustainability. Journal of Environmental Studies and
Sciences, Advance online publication available at
This material is based upon work supported by the Milne, M. & Gray, R. 2013. W(h)ither ecology? The triple
National Science Foundation under Grant Number bottom line, the global reporting initiative, and
corporate sustainability reporting. Journal of Business
1231382. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or Ethics 118(1):13‒29.
recommendations expressed in this material are those Missimer, M., Robèrt, K.-H., & Broman, G. 2016a. A
of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the strategic approach to social sustainability–part 1:
views of the National Science Foundation. The exploring the social system. Journal of Cleaner
author would also like to thank the members of the Production. Advance online publication available at
Integrated Network for Social Sustainability for their
help in thinking through social sustainability, 9652616302645.
particularly the leadership team of Brett Tempest, Missimer, M., Robèrt, K.-H., & Broman, G. 2016b. A
Helene Hilger, Robert Boyer, Thomas Gentry, strategic approach to social sustainability‒part 2: a
principle-based definition. Journal of Cleaner
and Jennifer Munroe. Production. Advance online publication available at
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Murphy, K. 2012. The social pillar of sustainable
Agrawal, A. & Gibson, C. 1999. Enchantment and development: a literature review and framework for
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policy analysis. Sustainability: Science, Practice, &

Policy 8(1):15–29.
Mutisya, E. & Yarime, M., 2014. Moving towards urban
sustainability in Kenya: a framework for integration of
environmental, economic, social and governance
dimensions. Sustainability Science 9(2):205‒215.
Seghezzo, L. 2009. The five dimensions of sustainability.
Environmental Politics 18(4):539‒556.
Sen, A. 2004. Capabilities, lists, and public reason:
continuing the conversation. Feminist Economics
Shiroyama, H., Yarime, M., Matsuo, M., Schroeder, H.,
Scholz, R., & Ulrich, A. 2012. Governance for
sustainability: knowledge integration and multi-actor
dimensions in risk management. Sustainability Science
Vallance, S., Perkins, H., & Dixon, J., 2011. What is social
sustainability? A clarification of concepts. Geoforum
Vanclay, F., 2004. Impact assessment and the triple bottom
line: competing pathways to sustainability. In Cheney,
H., Katz, E. and Solomon, F. (Eds), Sustainability and
Social Science Round Table Proceedings, Institute for
Sustainable Futures, Sydney and CSIRO Minerals,
Melbourne, July 2004, pp. 27–39. Accessed at
Weingaertner, C. & Moberg, Å. 2014. Exploring social
sustainability: learning from perspectives on urban
development and companies and products. Sustainable
Development 22 (2):122–133.

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Toward a gender diverse workforce in the renewable energy transition

1 2
Rebecca Pearl-Martinez & Jennie C. Stephens
Renewable Equity Project, Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, Fletcher School, Tufts University, 160 Packard Avenue,
Medford, MA 02155 USA (email:
Energy-Climate Transitions Research Team, Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, College of Engineering and
Mathematical Sciences, University of Vermont, 81 Carrigan Drive, Burlington, VT 05405 USA (email:

Authors’ Personal Statement

We explore gender diversity in the energy workforce and highlight the value of systematic assessment of women’s
participation in the move toward sustainable renewable-energy systems. A gender imbalance in the energy sector
workforce is apparent in countries throughout the world, yet women’s participation in, and contributions to, the energy
industry have not been systematically characterized. As the energy sector transitions from fossil-fuel dominated
systems toward more efficient, sustainable renewable-based systems, new opportunities for a more inclusive energy
workforce are emerging. We are concerned, however, that if the energy industry does not prioritize gender diversity
now, the renewable energy transition could perpetuate and deepen, rather than reduce, gender inequality. Although
research demonstrates that diversity enhances innovation and creativity, there is minimal attention to considering and
promoting diversity within the energy workforce. In this Community Essay we explore how greater consideration of
the role of gender and the value of diversity in energy could provide multiple social benefits, including promoting more
sustainable practices, accelerating innovation, enhancing women’s opportunities, and empowering communities to
engage in energy-system change.

Keywords: women; gender; energy; renewables; sustainability; transitions; fossil fuels

Introduction highlighting the value of inclusivity and call for

systematic data collection on and analysis of the
Contemporary energy systems are in transition energy workforce to support efforts to reduce the
from predominantly fossil fuel-based infrastructures gender gap.
to more sustainable renewables-based systems. As Gender diversity refers to the representation of
this process continues, it is critical to consider that women and men in a specific organization, sector, or
throughout the world women are less involved in the community (Herring, 2009). While assessments of
energy workforce and in energy-decision making gender diversity, or gender balance, are designed to
than men. A gender imbalance within the energy consider both women and men, we concentrate here
sector is apparent to many observers, yet the role of on the role of women in the energy workforce and the
women in the energy workforce is not being potential for women’s advancement despite persistent
systematically characterized. Diversity and inclusion inequalities. Gender inequalities are apparent in many
are critical in the renewable energy transition. If major business sectors, but industry analysis suggests
intentional consideration of gender diversity is not that they are particularly acute within the energy
prioritized, the changes have potential to perpetuate sector (Ernst & Young, 2015; Herring, 2009; PWC,
and deepen, rather than reduce, gender inequality. 2015).
Greater understanding of the gender gap in energy-
related industries, as well as more widespread Knowledge Gaps on Women’s Participation in the
acknowledgement of the positive potential of gender Energy Workforce
diversity in this sector, would likely promote more
sustainable energy practices, accelerate energy Limited information about the level and nature of
innovation, expand opportunities for women, and women’s employment in the energy workforce
encourage greater social engagement in energy- presents a challenge to exploring the relationship
system change. between gender diversity in relevant industries
In this Community Essay, we review what is involved in the renewable energy transition (Baruah,
known about the level and nature of women’s 2015). One recent assessment of gender-workforce
participation in the energy workforce and highlight imbalances suggests a larger gap in the energy sector
knowledge gaps. We also describe a broad range of than other major industries (Ernst & Young, 2015).
potential benefits of gender diversity and conclude by Within energy organizations, gender diversity is

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found to be most advanced in consumer services and men and women use energy (Carlsson-Kanyama &
consumer goods, while power and utility entities are Lindén, 2007; Räty & Carlsson-Kanyama, 2010).
less gender diverse, and infrastructure entities lag the Comprehensive gender-disaggregated data is not
farthest (Ernst & Young, 2015). The energy industry currently available for the energy sector as a whole or
has the lowest representation of women on boards of for subsectors, including oil and gas, nuclear, and
directors in the United States and a 2012 study of renewables. When gender is excluded as a data point
Russell 3000 companies headquartered in the United in the collection of information about an industry,
States found that 61% of energy companies in the sector analysis can be incomplete or misleading and
country have no female representation on their board sector-specific initiatives are unlikely to integrate
of directors (GMI Ratings, 2012). Only 20% of oil consideration of gender (Doss & Kieran, 2014).
and gas extraction employees were women in the Without gender-disaggregated data on employment,
United States in 2013. The corresponding rate was the prevalent and accepted practice of justifying the
27% in Canada in 2006 while women’s employment hiring of certain types of employees with claims of
in coal mining was about 9% in the United States in “cultural fit” can be perpetuated and often-
2013 and 12% in Canada in 2006 (Catalyst, 2012). unacknowledged gender bias can limit opportunities
Women’s employment rates in wind, solar, for women (Rivera, 2015). In our data-driven society,
wave, and other renewable energies are generally we know that what is measured is more likely to be
estimated to be slightly higher than in the fossil and addressed (Moser, 2007)—in other words what has
nuclear industries. A recent study prepared for the not been counted, does not count. Data collection on
International Renewable Energy Association the complicated and diffuse energy industry is
(IRENA) reported 33% female employment in the already a challenge for many countries (Adib, 2014),
renewable workforce worldwide (Lallement, 2013). so adding another metric may be perceived as an
For industrialized countries, female employment in additional burden. Although the Bureau of Labor
this sector is estimated to be 20–25%, mostly in Statistics (BLS) started to collect data on green jobs
administrative and public relations positions in the United States starting in the 2010 fiscal year,
(IRENA, 2013). In the United States, women’s major budget cuts in 2013 halted systematic assembly
employment in solar jobs rose from 18.7% to 21.6% of employment data by industry and occupation for
between 2013 and 2014 (IRENA, 2015). Among 22 businesses that produce green goods and services
wind-industry companies in the country surveyed in (BLS, 2013). Thus there is limited current infor-
2011, women made up 25% of the workforce and mation about the growing renewable energy industry
11% of senior management (WoWE, 2011). in the country, let alone data on gender in its
Similarly in the European Union, women make up constituent sectors.
22% of the wind-industry workforce (Blanco and Several major new initiatives to collect gender-
Rodrigues, 2009). related data signal how data monitoring is surfacing
Despite a robust literature on gender and as an important tool to achieve gender equality.
environmental issues (e.g., Leduc, 2010; McCright, Data2X, a global project chaired by the World Bank
2010; Kennedy & Dzialo, 2015; Leach, 2015), and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,
gender-related information and research in the energy intends to spark a gender-data revolution and to close
sector is more limited. This phenomenon has been gender gaps through data collection in the categories
attributed to low awareness of the significance of of health, education, economic opportunities,
gender in energy planning and energy-system political participation, and human security (Data2X,
development (Clancy, 2009). To date, research on 2015). Similarly, the United Nations Evidence and
gender and energy has focused primarily on gendered Data for Gender Equality (EDGE) initiative seeks to
uses of energy, particularly household-energy use in “accelerate existing efforts to generate comparable
deve-loping countries (Räty & Carlsson-Kanyama, gender indicators on health, education, employment,
2010), rather than women’s jobs and decision making entrepreneurship and asset ownership” (UNSD,
within the energy industry. Under the umbrella of 2015). These initiatives, however, are limited to
renewable energy, preliminary research is emerging traditional issues that have typically been associated
on gender in the context of the renewable energy as priorities for women—for example health and
workforce (Baruah, 2015). In addition, several earlier education—and do not address the energy sector.
studies called for more attention to gender in all While information on the participation of both
aspects of energy policy (Farhar, 1998; Parikh, 1995) men and women is not generally included in
and recent studies in Europe have addressed energy- employment data, governments, non-governmental
consumption patterns and the different ways in which organizations (NGOs) and the private sector are
increasingly recognizing gender as an important

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factor in the energy sector, particularly in developing environmental behaviors (Kennedy & Dzialo, 2015;
countries (ESMAP, 2011). Several initiatives are McCright & Xiao, 2014).
geared toward development of gender-responsive Awareness of the economic benefit of women’s
energy policies in African and Asian countries, advancement is gaining ground in the private sector.
including the collection of sex-disaggregated national Gender diversity is now recognized as a force for
statistics related to energy access (ENERGIA, 2015). economic growth and is considered “smart eco-
Several government and NGO efforts are also nomics” (World Bank, 2012; WEF, 2014). It is now
working to improve household-cooking technology to acknowledged that a country’s national compet-
reduce life-threatening health impacts that fall itiveness correlates strongly with various metrics of
particularly on women and children in developing gender equality (World Bank, 2012). In an analysis
countries (ESMAP, 2011; GACC, 2015). These of the Japanese economy, closing the gender gap in
endeavors recognize that women’s needs are often employment and focusing on gender diversity was
neglected in the design of energy-delivery systems, identified as an avenue for companies and the
putting a greater burden on their lives and continuing country itself to significantly boost the economy
a cycle of poverty. To more fully understand the (Matsui et al 2014). The literature linking women’s
global implications of the different levels of leadership roles and corporate performance suggests
participation in the energy transition by women and financial, institutional, and environmental gains
men, governments, NGOs, and the private sector through closing gender gaps. Fortune 500 companies
need to expand their attention to gender beyond the in the United States with the highest representation of
household level to consider the full energy-value women on their boards (19 to 44% women) were
chain and to prioritize research and information in the found to enjoy 16% higher net income as a
energy-sector workforce globally (Pearl-Martinez, percentage of revenue than companies with no such
2014). Given that developed and developing representation (Catalyst, 2007). Beyond the bottom
countries share a low level of women’s workforce line, the value to enterprises of investing in women
participation throughout the energy sector, we believe also includes enhanced recruitment and retention as
that research about women in the energy workforce well as the creation of a more welcoming and
would be beneficial in multiple ways in developed inclusive work environment. Analysis of enterprise
and developing counties alike. value of investing in women has demonstrated
increased innovation through gender-diverse teams
The Benefits of Gender Diversity and revenue growth through the leveraging of
women’s relationships to attract new business
The benefits of greater gender diversity in the (Pellegrion et al., 2011).
energy workforce span multiple levels, including Cultural benefits related to interactions, com-
opportunities for women themselves, advantages for munication, and decision making represent another
energy organizations, and improvements in the category of potential gain. Research suggests that
overall energy system. These enhancements can be women’s participation in groups can lead to more
categorized in terms of their environmental, effective and inclusive outcomes. In one study led by
economic, and cultural aspects. the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie
Recent research documenting environmental Mellon University, and Union College documenting
gains associated with women’s leadership suggests collective intelligence among groups of people who
potential environmental benefits to gender diversity. cooperate, researchers found that the tendency to
Companies with more women on their board of collaborate effectively is linked to the number of
directors are more likely to proactively invest in women involved. This was attributed to women’s
renewable energy and to reduce carbon emissions strength at reading nonverbal cues and encouraging
throughout their value chain (CRB, 2012). Potential greater participation of their peers (Woolley et al.,
environmental gains have also emerged in the 2010).
governmental context, as countries with higher Within diversity research, the study of gender
female parliamentary representation are more likely gaps and inequalities establishes a rich literature on a
to cut carbon-dioxide emissions and set aside breadth of negative social impacts of homogenous
protected land areas (UNDP, 2011). Environmental and gender-segregated groups, communities, and
sociologists have also revealed clear gender organizations (Seguino, 2000). The growing literature
differences in engagement in environmental issues; in in gender-policy studies also demonstrates that a lack
industrialized countries, women are more likely than of gender parity in institutional positions can lead to
men to express environmental concern, support harmful social impacts (Cornwall & Goetz, 2005;
environmental protection, and enact pro- Goetz, 2005, 2007; Enloe, 2013). Scholars of peace

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

studies and of the militarization of society have have particularly strong potential for increased
highlighted women’s limited role in many critical gender diversification: 1) engineers and technicians;
political and military decisions (Enloe, 2013). Other 2) construction, installation, and manufacturing jobs;
research demonstrates that having more women and 3) public- and private-sector leadership. These
involved in decision making increases governmental three areas move beyond the more typical
transparency, and greater engagement of women participation of women in administrative and public-
enhances the likelihood that issues related to gender relations roles within the energy sector.
equity are integrated into decision making (CAWP,
1991; Carroll, 2001). Engineers and Technicians
At the larger energy-system scale, an additional Although women make up half of the workforce
social benefit of advancing women in the energy in the United States, as of 2009 they held less than
sector is the potential for greater social engagement one quarter of jobs in science, technology,
in energy-system change. When more women work engineering, and mathematics (STEM) (U.S.
in and contribute to the energy sector, social Department of Commerce, 2009). Some of this
awareness about energy and energy decisions will gender gap can be attributed to a low share of women
broaden. As distributed and decentralized renewable in STEM academic studies; however, other factors
energy options expand, individuals, households, and contribute across educational and professional arenas.
com-munities throughout the world have new ways to While half of American women who complete under-
participate in energy decisions and energy-system graduate training report being interested in STEM-
change (Rifkin, 2011). Energy access plays an related careers, 50% of those women depart
increasingly critical role in human livelihood, so employment or further training within the first decade
diversification and distribution of those who control after graduation. Girls and boys express the same
energy-system change is increasingly important. The level of interest in STEM careers and achieve an
term “energy democratization” has emerged to repre- equal level of success through secondary education,
sent new opportunities for more distributed but a major factor for girls and women is the lack of
ownership and engagement in energy (Sweeney, visible role models and mentorship, leading to a
2012; Farrell, 2014). More intentional engagement culture of isolation in tertiary education and entry-
and inclusion of women throughout the energy sector level positions (GSRI, 2012). A study by the
has huge potential to change community awareness American Association of University Women also
and participation in energy-related issues and found institutional culture to be a major factor in
decisions. attaining gender diversity and recommends the
In addition to gender-specific matters, the cultivation of girls’ achievement and interest in these
general value of equality is important (Wilkinson & fields, the creation of college environ-ments that
Pickett, 2009) and researchers, politicians, and the support women, and the establishment of avenues to
public increasingly recognize the social dangers of counteract bias (Hill et al. 2010).
growing inequality (Stiglitz, 2013). Decades of
research on diversity in groups, firms, schools, and Construction, Installation, and Manufacturing Jobs
society demonstrates that diversity strengthens Construction, installation, manufacturing, and
organizations, communities, and entire sectors (Page, other trades involved in building, operating, and
2008). Although studies consistently show that more maintaining energy infrastructure make up a
diverse groups outperform homogenous groups significant portion of energy-industry jobs. In the
(Hong and Page, 2004), a lack of diversity in many solar sector in the United States, women account for
organizations persists due to a confluence of social, about 37,500 workers, or 21.6% of the workforce,
economic, and cultural factors including uneven although only 17.7% are employed in solar
access to education and training as well as conscious installation (The Solar Foundation, 2014). In all
and unconscious bias and assumptions (Fine and energy fields, cultural views often impede women
Handelsman, 2012). from “blue collar” jobs, as employment in heavy
machinery and infrastructure is perceived as male
Job Areas with Strong Potential for Gender activities. For example, female construction workers
Diversification in India have been considered unfit to advance their
masonry skills, although their capabilities and desire
To facilitate the multiple potential benefits of to progress are equal to their male counterparts
greater gender diversification in the energy work- (Barnabas et al. 2009). Several countries are opening
force, it is worth considering specific types of jobs. doors for women in these fields, recognizing the
Three key job areas in the energy sector appear to benefits of gender diversity. For example, companies

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

in Chile, Ghana, and Papua New Guinea note that changes, the energy transition involves complex
machinery is better maintained and operating costs social dynamics that researchers have only begun to
are lower when women run heavy mining equipment. explore (Berkhout et al., 2012; Fri & Savitz, 2014),
In addition, some countries have launched women’s of which diversity and inclusion are clearly critical
technical training programs geared toward infra- issues that have as yet received scant attention.
structure projects. For example in Brazil, one third of During this transition, there is a need to integrate
all households are headed by women and the rate of social logics from diverse stakeholders whose
female unemployment is almost double that of men. priorities are influenced by multiple challenges,
The government developed a program to help women including growing urgency about the risks of climate
enter better paying infrastructure jobs, resulting in an change and other types of environmental degradation,
increase in female employment in hydropower geopolitical insecurity, and economic instability.
projects in the State of Rondonia to 20 percent Among those stakeholders actively involved in the
(World Bank, 2009). Similarly, companies and energy-system transition, gender is one critical factor
industry associations focusing on solar technologies influencing framings and articulations of appropriate
are working to attract more women to installer jobs. responses to climate-energy challenges (WEDO,
In 2014, one of the largest solar companies, 2008; Alston, 2011; Nagel, 2015). While some
SunEdison, initiated programming to improve gender proponents advocate minimal change and a minor
diversity, including having senior executives mentor shift in the mix of fossil fuels, others are actively
high-potential women in the company, and working toward a radical transition to a completely
organizing a speaker series, peer-support meetings, carbon-free renewable energy system (Jacobson &
and trainings on unconscious bias (Barron, 2014). Delucchi, 2009; Jacobson et al., 2013; Lovins, 2014).
The interplay of these different visions influences the
Public and Private Sector Leadership legitimacy of the emerging energy system and
In the public sector, there are few female energy represents a diversity of opinions regarding
ministers worldwide. In Europe, women hold around opportunities and challenges for energy-system
2% of senior decision-making positions across the change (Stephens et al., 2015). Different actors
environment, transport, and energy industries, with a involved in the energy-system transition provide
higher level of women’s participation in envi- multiple perspectives, priorities, and types of
ronmental fields (EIGE, 2012). The gender influence on the transformational pathway. The
imbalance is similar in the private sector. In the incorporation of new voices, particularly women’s
United Kingdom, only 5% of executive board seats in voices, with more female representation in these
the top 100 domestically headquartered energy firms critical decisions, will influence future trajectories.
are held by women. One concrete indication of Increased attention to energy-system change has
systematic gender-based discrimination is the been coupled with recent calls from multiple scholars
disparity in compensation between female and male for more social science in the study of energy
executives. Men often receive higher bonuses than (Webler & Tuler, 2010; Sovacool, 2014; Stirling,
women, and their compensation is generally more 2014). Many energy scholars are recognizing the
sensitive to performance compared to female utility of broadening energy research to integrate
executives (Kulich et al., 2011). Besides equalizing critical social and cultural dimensions of energy-
compensation levels, company leadership can build a system change. (Fri & Savitz, 2014). Within this
solid pipeline toward gender diversity by demanding movement toward enhancing social perspectives on
diverse shortlists for hiring, reporting on gender energy, there has been only limited acknowledgement
diversity, and setting and communicating targets of the need for more studies of gender and identity
(PWC, 2015). (Ryan, 2014).
Opportunities for women to expand their role in
Diversity Contributing to Societal Transformation this industry include, but are not limited to, science
and engineering as well as installation and
The energy transition from predominantly fossil operations, management, sales, communication, and
fuel-based infrastructures to more sustainable finance. The Department of Labor in the United
renewables-based systems is being driven by multiple States has advocated for women to pursue
factors, one of them being increased social awareness employment in the green-energy sector as a
of the harmful societal and environmental implica- nontraditional job opportunity that could lead to
tions of fossil-fuel reliance and the more sustainable greater wage equality (U. S. Department of Labor,
future of renewable energy (Brown et al., 2015; 2010). Potential exists for advancement throughout
IPCC, 2014; Strunz, 2014). Beyond technical the sector, including women’s roles as engineers and

Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | Spring 2016 | Volume 12 | Issue 1
Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy


Network priorities for social sustainability research and education: Memorandum

of the Integrated Network on Social Sustainability Research Group
1 2 3 1 4 5
Rachelle Hollander , Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy , Sarah Bell , Frazier Benya , Cliff Davidson , Craig Farkos ,
6 7 8 8 9 10
David Fasenfest , Regina Guyer , Angelique Hjarding , Michael Lizotte , Dianne Quigley , Diana Watts , &
Kate Whitefoot
Center for Engineering Ethics and Society, National Academy of Engineering, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001 USA
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 709 Atlantic Drive, Atlanta, GA 30332 USA
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University College London, Chadwick 117, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT,
UK (email:
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244 USA (email:
American Society of Civil Engineering Task Committee on Sustainability, 9105 Aspenshire Court, Raleigh, NC 27613 USA (email:
Sociology Department, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202 USA (email:
Energy and Environmental Assistance Office, University of North Carolina Charlotte, EPIC 1150, Charlotte, NC 28223 USA (email:
Sustainability Office, University of North Carolina Charlotte, 9201 University City Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28223 USA (email:;
Northeast Ethics Education Partnership, Brown University, PO Box 1943, 135 Angell Street, Providence, RI 20017 USA (email:
Department of Business, Trinity Washington University, 125 Michigan Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20017 USA (email:
Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA 15213
USA (email:

Authors’ Personal Statement:

The Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) is a research-coordination network supported by
the National Science Foundation that is currently in its third year of activities. Individual and institutional
members, representing a wide range of fields and interests, are devoted to addressing social
sustainability as an important, understudied issue under the broader rubric of sustainability and
sustainable development. The INSS has developed a number of affinity groups and a set of activities to
facilitate its development. An annual conference draws members together to review and report on their
efforts. At the first conference, a group interested in developing a research agenda formed. This
Community Essay shares its members’ perspectives about priorities for future research and education on
social sustainability, highlighting efforts for greater inclusion of marginalized populations in research.

Background populations can be improved, is a research topic for

the Integrated Network on Social Sustainability
The notion of “sustainability” includes environ- (INSS) (Boström, 2012). Research and innovation to
mental, economic, and social aspects. Social sustain- overcome food insecurity is another example of a
ability in particular is a quality of society that social justice issue. Scholars of food systems have
promotes enduring conditions for human welfare, also identified community innovations that meet
especially for vulnerable persons or groups. 1 Much requirements for sustainability, although these inter-
research on and planning for social sustainability ventions have limited applicability given the needs
goes by other names. For instance, work on issues of and circumstances of human populations around the
environmental or social justice, examining how the globe (Marsden, 2013; Hankins & Grasseni, 2014;
lives and status of susceptible or marginalized Arora et al. 2015). Cities with transportation plans
that facilitate the access of low-income groups to
amenities, education, and jobs provide yet another
for some definitions. Normativity in a definition does not preclude
example of attention to social-justice concerns
scientific status—consider “positive” economics and the model of (Fischer & Amekudzi, 2011).
the so-called “rational actor.”

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For INSS, this work qualifies as social researchers if they are to coalesce into a coherent
sustainability research, as does that from numerous field.
social groups that approach the topic with different
priorities based on the specific needs and concerns of
their constituencies. A recent publication of the Engineering for Sustainability
National Association for the Advancement of Engineers interested in sustainable development
Colored People (NAACP) examines the need for should be able to take social sustainability into
socio-technical systems that are inclusive of account in their projects. However, their efforts are
vulnerable and marginalized people to achieve often frustrated by the imprecision of the concept, the
community resilience. The report develops a list of differences in priorities of project stakeholders, and
measures of vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience the lack of appropriate training. For instance, training
in the face of climate change. Patterson (2015) pays little attention to the influence of engineering
explains that on a local governmental level, “The aim and technology on social systems or how those
is for city planners, community organizations, elected systems interrelate with other sustainability goals
officials, and others to consider these equity-based (Jones et al. 2015). Differences in priorities raise
indicators of resilience as they design adaptation conflicts over project goals; again, engineers are
plans.” Among businesses, corporate social poorly prepared to cope with such differences.
responsibility is a rubric with which firms approach Furthermore, they often lack training and experience
social sustainability. The NAACP and business to recognize that process rather than outcome
organizations have developed various measures to measures may be needed to move projects in positive
evaluate whether projects meet social sustainability directions. This section highlights the need for
goals and how these initiatives achieve them.2 engineers to engage with social sustainability through
The concerns of engineering organizations for interdisciplinary research and practice.
sustainable development have influenced their Many colleges and universities have recognized
attention to sustainability directives in their codes of the need to incorporate sustainability content in
practice. For example, in 1993 the American Society engineering education since the late 1980s. However,
of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued a policy on most of these efforts have been confined to
sustainability and then in 1996 amended its first Code departments of civil and environmental engineering
of Ethics Canon to include sustainability as follows: 3 instead of all engineering disciplines, with little
systematic integration across institutions (Davidson
Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, & Heller, 2014). As professional engineering bodies
health and welfare of the public and shall have begun to emphasize the role of engineering in
strive to comply with the principles of addressing twenty-first century challenges, engi-
sustainable development in the performance neering education has sought to raise the importance
of their professional duties. of sustainable development in curricula (Byrne et al.
The INSS focus on social aspects of Especially in developing communities, technical
sustainability includes a commitment to inclusion and engineering solutions can fail to meet full design
diversity in research, education, and practice. expectations because of inaccurate or incomplete
Including a broad spectrum of disciplines and assessment of the social aspects of a project rather
practitioners will require frameworks and than poor technical design.4 Not least for this reason,
methodologies that align diverse, practice-specific engineering training and practical engineering
lexicons for social sustainability. Developing these experience needs to include increased exposure to the
approaches is a key challenge for social sustainability complex relationships between the technical
components and the social and economic circum-
The INSS has created a bibliography of assessment tools that can stances that give rise to them.
be accessed at Both individual and group behaviors have
jects/assessment-tools. INSS member Frazier Benya posted a blog consequences that make a difference to engineering
on the site about assessment tools that do or can include social and policy-making outcomes. Besides problems from
sustainability on the Network. It is available at https://clas- disregard for social behavior, failures may arise from
ASCE Policy Statement 418 available at
4 See, for example,
statement-418---the-role-of-the-civil-engineer-in-sustainable- climate-change/for a demonstration of the need to incorporate local
development/ and ASCE Code of Ethics at http://www.asce. perspectives and priorities into project planning and
org/code_of_ethics. implementation.

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lack of flexibility as new information becomes Research centers and other institutions may be
available, or when there is no exit strategy for when valuable resources on campuses or in cities, but their
problems arise. History has shown that many projects funding is often precarious, relying on short duration
do not account for uncertainty in the planning process individual project grants from governmental bodies
or the need to monitor and maintain performance, or foundations. Finally, differences in acceptable
resulting in multiple unintended consequences. data, particularly between the social and natural
Engineering disasters, such as the Hyatt Regency sciences, can make effective collaboration difficult.
bridge collapse and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Success may require a broader vision and specific
are two spectacular examples. Considering the best means for showing the connections among various
ways to move from prototypes to real-world types of data. For example, understanding poverty
applications, and examining why previous projects requires both qualitative and quantitative data, and
failed, enhance chances of success. National research that gives both big-data overviews and
assessments of infrastructure can help make the case nuanced descriptions can be valuable for creating
for expanding the problem space in engineering to deeper perspectives. Without interdiscipl-inary and
include social sustainability?5 cross-institutional participation, as well as long-term
A more systemic case for emphasizing social support, these conditions are unlikely to be met.
sustainability in planning can be made by examining The relevance of interdisciplinary efforts to
the Interstate highway system in the United States. resolve social problems is becoming more apparent to
Built in the 1960s, it contributed to expeditious many policy makers, scientists, and engineers who
movement of goods and ease of access throughout are looking for ways to encourage research and
the country. However, the system also contributed to education at the interfaces of different disciplines.
the decay of urban downtown areas, creating physical For example, a recent issue of Nature devotes a
and psychological barriers between rich and poor special section to the range of challenges researchers
neighborhoods. The highways also led to sprawling face in developing successful interdisciplinary
suburbs and limited options for walking, bicycling, research and interventions (Brown et al. 2015). An
and public transit. However, these problems should article in this issue lists principles for
be put into the wider context in which redlining, interdisciplinary success, with the need for
restrictive and poor zoning, and discriminatory institutional support, as one of the keys (Brown et al.
housing policies also contributed to socially adverse 2015). Another report issued last year by the
outcomes. More than fifty years later, Americans still publisher Elsevier (2015) examined the status of
struggle with these problems which hamper efforts sustainability science globally and indicated that
across the country to move toward sustainable urban while the field is highly collaborative it lags
lifestyles (TRB, 1997, 2014). somewhat on measures of interdisciplinarity. The
Because of their behavioral and social aspects, report indicates that an increasing portion—almost a
only an integrated approach to engineering for third—of sustainability research in the United States
sustainability can address the problems identified involves international collaboration. Increasing
above. However, the challenges facing interdiscipl-inary effort about sustainability may,
interdisciplinary and policy-relevant academic then, deserve particular attention in the country.
research also include complexities of funding Engineering for sustainability requires broadening the
structures, institutional requirements, and data problem space in both education and practice, with
integration. Some funding sources do not support attention to the need for interdisciplinarity as well as
broad participation—by social scientists, community global collaboration.
members or non-academic practitioners—in research
projects. Where such participation might be allowed, Research Needs Identified in the Literature
reward structures for faculty vary greatly within and Besides discussion of case studies and theoretical
among institutions and from one discipline to approaches to sustainability, we found several
another, making it difficult to collaborate on research research strategies related to social sustainability in
or teaching. Universities are often the literature. This work can be summarized as
compartmentalized, and cooperation involving follows. First, a new model of prosperity must
different colleges and departments, or with potential consider economic development in the context of
community partners, may be difficult to arrange. respect for planetary boundaries and human equity
(Bailey, 2011; Ramaswami et al. 2012; Raworth,
2012). In particular, human well-being and other
See ASCE which
provides the backdrop for discussion of social sustainability and expressions of social welfare over the long term
infrastructure needs for the United States. should drive definitions of sustainability. Besides

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recognizing the influence of technological trajectories undertaking other technical projects. Active members
and phenomena of globalization, the new model will in the northwest, central, southwest, mid-Atlantic,
also need to address interactions among science, and southern United States and the UK are
engineering, and policy and the attachment that undertaking research addressing local and global
people have to ecological, aesthetic, and religious issues for social sustainability. The group has
spaces such as waterways and wilderness (Mallik, identified needs for interdisciplinary research and
2014). Understanding how these spaces are perceived shared methodologies and for composite metrics to
and used is critical to achieving sustainable outcomes evaluate projects in terms of their social
from innovation and globalization. Case studies such sustainability. Research is also needed on improved
as Mallik’s about river use in India provide a useful ways to address social sustainability in formal
resource for identifying and testing certain principles engineering curricula and in informal education, for
of social sustainability, and cross-case analysis can instance regarding how organizations like Engineers
be an instructive way to isolate generalizable factors, Without Borders address social sustain-ability in their
such as those concerning religious priorities that can instructional activities and field projects. Attention is
promote, or alternatively undermine, aspects of social also needed regarding the treatment of social
sustainability (Khan & VanWynsberghe, 2008). sustainability in textbooks for use in engineering
Second, research on sustainable cities indicates classrooms.
the need for a framework involving attention to We have identified several research questions
social, ecological, and infrastructure components, and and areas of exploration as high priority in social
their interactions. The phrase “sustainable sustainability.
development” can help define such a framework
(Bourgeois, 2014). New educational paradigms must 1. How can research help the many social welfare
allow development and testing of a variety of organizations in the United States to support
approaches, including interdisciplinary and cross- social justice and improved conditions for the
cultural learning, and the consideration of urban poor? Are results generalizable to social
distributional, procedural, professional, and cross- welfare activities outside the country—and vice
cultural ethics (Ramaswami et al. 2014). versa?
Additionally, rebuilding and retrofitting 2. How can long-term research on the impact of
American cities to become more sustainable requires economic drivers on environmental sustainability
integrating contributions from public and private be extended to explore how they can be
organizations, including those from federal, state, and harnessed to advance social sustainability?
local governments. It also requires “connections 3. What factors influence how professional
across social-ecological systems and governance organizations view or promote social
linkages…for successful management of connected sustainability? What incentives can encourage
systems” (NRC, 2013). DC Solar United professional organizations to engage with their
Neighborhoods is an example of these connections members in the pursuit of social sustainability?
working to provide solar power to low-income 4. What kinds of interdisciplinary research—for
communities in Washington, DC. instance, research on sustainable cities or on
Finally, the role of “science” in sustainability human interaction with new technologies—
needs elucidation. One view conceives of sustain- address issues of social sustainability? How can
ability as requiring communities at various levels to this effort be strengthened?
envision their future well-being and to draw from 5. Which kinds of social sustainability
sustainability science to make such visions viable. In improvements are likely to occur “from the
this regard, sustainability science and engineering ground up,” on a case-by-case basis, and which
should include the brokering or negotiation of can occur from the top down? How can the
knowledge and pathways to achieve change and phenomenon of “citizen science” play a role in
enable development of capable social institutions improving communication between elites and
(Miller et al. 2014; Schindler & Hilborn, 2015). ordinary citizens?
6. How can developments in our understanding of
Next Steps for Research and Education social movements, human nature and
Members of the INSS Research Group have a psychology, persuasion and marketing, and the
variety of research interests. Many focus on work that drivers of business enterprises, inform social
addresses inclusivity or improving the status of less sustainability innovation and progress? Can
well-off members of society, and on developing social norms evolve to promote socially
perspectives focused on rebuilding infrastructure and sustainable systems?

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7. Given that it is difficult for individuals to learn Bailey, R. 2011. Growing a Better Future. Oxford: Oxfam.
about the intimate relationship between their Boström, M. 2012. A missing pillar? Challenges in
well-being and the state of the planet’s theorizing and practicing social sustainability:
ecosystems, can we identify the attitudes and introduction to the special issue. Sustainability:
Science, Practice, & Policy 8(1):3‒14.
behaviors necessary to accelerate progress Bourgeois, W. 2014. Sustainable development: a useful
toward socially sustainable systems? What family of concepts after all. Environmental Ethics
learning and persuasion principles work and are 36(3):259‒282.
appropriate for attitude and behavior change? Brown, R., Deletic, A., & Wong, T. 2015.
8. Do criteria for social sustainability vary across Interdisciplinarity: how to catalyse collaboration.
regions and areas, given social, economic, and Nature 525 (7569):315‒317.
political differences? What kinds of Byrne, E., Desha, C., Fitzpatrick, J., & Hargroves, K. 2010.
conversations need to occur between those living Engineering Education for Sustainable Development:
in wealthy regions and those living in poor A Review of International Progress. Proceedings of
the Third International Symposium for Engineering
regions to move toward social sustainability in Education. June 30‒July 2, University College Cork,
both? Ireland.
9. What educational courses, workshops, and Davidson, C. & Heller, M. 2014. Introducing Sustainability
materials provide high-quality introductions to into the Engineering Curriculum. International
social sustainability? Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure. November
10. What examples of successful courses in science 6‒8, Long Beach, CA, USA. Reston, VA: American
and engineering address social sustainability? Society of Civil Engineers.
What can be done to enhance the adoption of Elsevier. 2015. Sustainability Science in a Global
social sustainability material in appropriate Landscape. New York: Elsevier.
Fischer, J. & Amekudzi, A. 2011. Quality of life,
courses? sustainable civil infrastructure, and sustainable
development: strategically expanding choice. Journal
Summary and Conclusion of Urban Planning and Development 137(1):39‒48.
Hankins, J. & Grasseni, C. 2014. Collective food
Of the three components of sustainability, social purchasing networks in Italy as a case study of
sustainability is the least studied. Established to make responsible innovation. Glocalism: Journal of Culture,
progress in this domain, the INSS Research Group is Politics, and Innovation 2014(1‒2).
exploring current knowledge as well as critical Jones S., Michelfelder D., & Nair, I. 2015. Engineering
questions that merit research priority. Historical managers and sustainable systems: the need for and
challenges of using an ethical framework for trans-
lessons from less-than-optimal, or even satisfactory, formative leadership. Journal of Cleaner Production
outcomes demonstrate well the need to consider 1(8):1‒7.
social sustainability in major public infrastructure Khan, S. & VanWynsberghe, R. 2008. Cultivating the
projects and complex technological systems. undermined: cross-case analysis as knowledge
Achieving sustainability will require interdisciplinary mobilization. Forum: Qualitative Social Research
studies in which technical personnel and social 9(1):34.
scientists work together. Long-term research is Mallik, B. 2014. Science, philosophy, and policy on the
critically important on issues like ensuring fairness Yamuna River of India. Environmental Ethics
during the redesign of cities and striving for inclusion 36(3):283‒301.
Marsden, T. 2013. Sustainable place-making for
in access to information on critical social equity sustainability science: the contested case of agri-food
issues, partic-ularly those related to the natural and urban–rural relations. Sustainability Science
environment. Also needed is research on effective 8(2):213‒226.
and responsible ways to achieve individual and National Resource Council (NRC). 2013. Sustainability for
institutional change in coming periods of climate, the Nation: Resource Connection and Governance
ecosystem, and societal transition. Linkages. Washington, DC: National Academies
References Miller, T., Wiek, A., Sarewitz, D., Robinson, J., Olsson, L.,
Kriebel, D., & Loorbach, D. 2014. The future of
sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research
Arora, P., Bert, F., Podesta, G., &. Krantz, D. 2015.
agenda. Sustainability Science 9(2):239‒246.
Ownership effect in the wild: influence of land
Patterson J. 2015. Equity in Building Resilience in
ownership on economic, environmental, and social
Adaptation Planning.
goals and decisions in the Argentine Pampas. Journal
of Behavioral and Experimental Economics 58:162‒
adaptation-planning. February 17, 2015.

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Raworth, K. 2012. A Safe and Just Space for Humanity.

Can We Live Within the Doughnut? Oxford: Oxfam.
Ramaswami, A., Weible, C., Main, D., Heikkila, T.,
Siddiki, S., Duvall, A., Pattison, A., & Bernard, M.
2012. A social-ecological-infrastructural systems
framework for interdisciplinary study of sustainable
city systems. Journal of Industrial Ecology 16(6):801–
Ramaswami, A., Russell, M., Chertow, M., Hollander, R.,
Tripathi, S., Lei, S., Cui, S., & Singh A. 2014.
International, interdisciplinary education on
sustainable infrastructure and sustainable cities: key
concepts and skills. The Bridge 44(3):11‒21.
Schindler, D. & Hilborn, R. 2015. Prediction, precaution,
and policy under global change: emphasize
robustness, monitoring, and flexibility. Science
Transportation Research Board (TRB). 1997.
Consequences of the development of the Interstate
highway system for transit. Research Results Digest
21 (August).
Transportation Research Board (TRB). 2014. Sustainability
as an Organizing Principle for Transportation
Agencies. Volume 4 of Strategic Issues Facing
s/170762.aspx. February 15, 2016.

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Sustainable dissemination of earthquake resistant construction in the

Peruvian Andes
Malena Serrano1, Marcial Blondet1, Álvaro Rubiños1, and Elin Mattsson2
Department of Civil Engineering, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Avenida Universitaria Cdra, 18 S/N, San Miguel, Lima–32,
Peru (email:;;
Uppsala Universitet, P.O. Box 256, SE-751 05 Uppsala, Sweden (email:

This article describes the challenges and initial accomplishments of a project developed by the Pontifical Catholic
University of Peru (PUCP) to disseminate technology and to train low-income families in the Andes Mountain region to
build earthquake-resistant homes made of adobe bricks. The initiative has focused on improving the livability of
households through affordable seismic reinforcement of traditional construction processes to enhance the social
sustainability of housing in the area. We selected the rural Andean community of Pullo as a case study because of its
preponderance of non-reinforced adobe construction and poverty. The research team developed tools and
methodologies for technology transfer, worked with local residents to raise awareness of the high seismic vulnerability
of adobe dwellings, and introduced the concept of seismic reinforcement. This article explores the barriers to
disseminating earthquake-resistant technology in the study area and presents adaptive measures to overcome these
challenges. Initial results demonstrate the positive impact of educational workshops to raise seismic awareness and to
introduce earthquake-resistant construction among rural dwellers. The project is deemed to have wider applicability to
other communities in seismic areas with similar housing, social, and economic conditions.

Keywords: adobe; housing; safe construction; technology transfer

The research reported here contributes to

Introduction literature on sustainability education and the social
aspects of housing in the Peruvian Andes. The
Researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University intention is not to assess the sustainability of a single
of Peru (PUCP) and other institutions have been reinforcement technology, but rather to investigate the
working to improve the structural safety of earthen effectiveness of the technology after educating the
houses located in seismic areas of Peru for the last four population about the importance of seismic
decades (Vargas et al. 2005; Blondet & Aguilar, reinforcement. In particular, we address the challenges
2007). Research has resulted in development of of taking technology from the academic world, where
reinforcement techniques for reconstruction and it is conceived in a theoretical way, and implementing
training programs by nongovernmental organizations it in rural towns, where reality is much more complex
(NGOs) following major earthquakes (Blondet et al. and variable. The study area is located in the Peruvian
2008a; Macabuag & Quiun, 2010). Unfortunately, Andes and we focus in particular here on work carried
efforts to encourage the uptake of these technologies out in the rural community of Pullo, which has been
in local communities have largely failed. People selected because of its high seismic exposure, both in
continue to build in the traditional way and not one terms of infrastructure and social vulnerability, and the
person in the rural Peruvian Andes has independently danger signaled by recent seismic events.
built his or her house using the proposed This article begins with background on the
reinforcement techniques (Macabuag & Quiun, 2010; initiative and the proposed technology, including the
Blondet & Rubinos, 2014). In an attempt to solve this technology-transfer tools relevant to the project. We
problem, PUCP has developed a new training program then identify the major challenges of technology
in earthquake-resistant adobe construction that transfer that the research group encountered, focusing
incorporates a previous educational campaign to on issues, pertinent in the rural town, of trust, literacy,
increase acceptance among dwellers. This article cultural differences, lack of permanent personnel, and
examines the value and success of this project for transportation. The article also highlights the adaptive
disseminating new building technologies. measures taken to overcome those challenges, such as

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audiovisual resources, creative advertising methods, connectivity, and democratic governance to provide a
and special private transportation for the equipment. high quality of life (WACOSS, 2002). However,
Next, it describes the familiarizing educational despite the importance of social sustainability, the
experience and concludes with a brief discussion about economic and environmental dimensions are
the proposed technology, the technology-transfer prioritized in planning housing and communities
experience, and the initiative’s success. (Woodcraft, 2011) and this neglect of social
sustainability is paramount in the case of housing
Background (Dempsey et al. 2011).
The social sustainability of housing can be
To provide a more complete picture of the work assessed quantifying the livability of households
presented in this article and how it contributes to (internal housing conditions and external residential
sustainable implementation of earthquake-resistant quality) while also considering equity in housing
housing in rural Andean communities, we describe distribution and consumption (Chiu, 2003). In
some of the background context. This section also addition, one of the predominant physical factors
discusses the relationship between social sustainability needed for a community to achieve urban social
and housing to provide a deeper understanding of the sustainability is decent housing (Dempsey et al. 2011),
importance of communicating about earthquake- which provides shelter, basic to community well-being
resistant construction. We then present the PUCP (Magis & Shinn, 2009). However, beyond shelter,
initiative as an example of the human development- housing should also promote social integration and
capability approach, which provides an opportunity to safeguard the environment to preserve the ability of
apply innovative technology-transfer tools and to future generations to meet their needs (Murphy, 2012).
critically assess their effectiveness for future projects. Furthermore, housing only promotes well-being if
Finally, it describes the seismicity of the study area planners understand what people need from the places
and develops an overall characterization of its housing in which they live and work (Woodcraft, 2011).
conditions to create a more detailed depiction of the Therefore, to achieve social sustainability at the
Andean area of Peru. community scale, housing should promote well-being
and not only meet basic needs. This objective can be
Social Sustainability and Housing achieved by improving the livability of structures,
Sustainable development of a community is based where livability is understood to create conditions for
on achieving balanced economic growth, environ- healthy, safe, affordable, and secure households within
mental protection, and social progress (McKenzie, a neighborhood with access to utilities, transport,
2004; Adams, 2006). Development should provide an healthcare, and education (Mitlin & Satterthwaite,
acceptable quality of life, both for individuals and 1996). This article concentrates on how to implement
communities, and maintain healthy financial markets safe and affordable housing as a first step to improving
while preserving natural resources by assuring that the livability of households and thus securing social
depletion does not occur more rapidly than sustainability in rural communities of the Peruvian
replenishment (Fisher & Amekudzi, 2011). Balancing Andes.
these objectives means that the various sustainability
dimensions are not isolated, but that an integrated view The PUCP Training Project
is maintained. For example, social and environmental The technology-transfer initiative described in
aspects of sustainability are interwoven because this article is part of a larger PUCP training project that
degraded natural resources can compound social aims to provide sustainable earthquake-resistant
inequity and segregation, conflicts, instability, and housing for Andean communities. The effort is based
dissension (Chiu, 2003). on experiences from a small-scale reconstruction
Social sustainability is essential for sustainable program developed by PUCP and CARE-Peru (a
development, although there is no consensus on how nongovernmental organization (NGO) specializing in
to incorporate it in practice (Cuthill, 2010; Casula development) after the Pisco earthquake of August
Vifell & Soneryd, 2012). Sustainable communities are 2007 (Blondet et al. 2008a). The project is
places where people want to live and work, now and interdisciplinary, bringing together partners from
in the future (ODPM, 2006), and socially sustainable engineering, psychology, anthropology, history, and
communities need to guarantee access to basic needs communications with the goal of achieving acceptance
while featuring equitable outcomes, diversity,

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of seismic reinforcement among homeowners and The Andean Community of Pullo

residents in Andean communities. Pullo is a small rural community located in the
The central idea of the initiative is that people Ayacucho region of the Peruvian Andes (Figures 1 &
should not be mere recipients of external aid, but 2). Earthquakes are relatively common in this area
become agents of their own development by acquiring because it sits near the boundary between the Nazca
the skills to live the life they want (Sen, 2000). In this and South American tectonic plates. In August 2014,
project, this means that people living in adobe an earthquake registering 6.6 on the Richter scale
dwellings should learn how to build earthquake- injured around 100 people, adversely affected 55
resistant houses by themselves. Therefore, the houses, and rendered 30 of these structures
program consists of training community members in uninhabitable (INDECI, 2014). After this event,
the construction of safer adobe houses using a simple Cáritas, a local NGO, asked the Academic Direction
low-cost reinforcement technique. The expectation is of Social Responsibility of the PUCP (DARS-PUCP)
that the acquired skills will allow community members for relief aid. As a first response, an interdisciplinary
to continue improving their housing conditions once team traveled to the community and assessed the post-
the project is over, thus enhancing their quality of life earthquake situation, in terms of both structural
in an ongoing and sustainable way. There is the damage and psychological effects. The team also
additional prospect that trained community members identified community leaders (e.g., local and church
could use their acquired skills to earn income as authorities and the Commoners’ Association) who
technicians on construction projects. might serve as potential collaborators for organizing
The PUCP training initiative is divided into three and advertising future projects (Cribilleros et al.
phases to increase acceptance of one seismic 2014).
reinforcement technique, ease the technology-transfer
process, and create a platform where trained people
can work on similar projects:

 Phase One: Familiarizing educational workshops

that include field demonstrations using a portable
shaking table and scaled models. The main
objectives are to educate community members
about the high seismic vulnerability of their
dwellings and to show the value of building
earthquake-resistant adobe houses.
 Phase Two: Training workshops that consist of
teaching community members how to build an
improved earthquake-resistant adobe house using
a simple low-cost reinforcement technique
through an illustrated construction manual. The
main objectives are to train community members
through practical skills and to provide a reference
document for future construction. The developed
skills (capacities) are applied in the construction
or reinforcement of a community building with
the collaboration of all inhabitants.
 Phase Three: Assessment based on identifying
improvements for future training programs. The Figure 1 Geographic location of the Andean community
project’s success is evaluated by the application of Pullo.
of the technique beyond the structures built during
the training (e.g., the number of independently
built or reinforced houses). Another potential
outcome to assess is the extent to which local
governments have developed similar training

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mainly limited to academics (Blondet & Rubiños,

2014). Entire communities continue to build houses
with the traditional non-reinforced adobe-construction
technique, leaving them exposed to extremely high
seismic risk (Blondet & Aguilar, 2007). Therefore, the
first step toward sustainable earthquake-resistant
housing is reducing the communication gap between
academia and earthquake-prone communities. The
next section briefly presents one simple, low-cost, and
highly available seismic reinforcement, the nylon-rope
mesh, and the communication strategies and edu-
cational tools we developed to disseminate this
technology in the Peruvian Andes.

Figure 2 Main square of Pullo.

Despite the region’s seismicity, almost 80% of

houses in the area are made of traditional adobe
(sundried mud bricks) and built without technical
assistance or seismic reinforcement techniques.
Dwellers know that non-reinforced adobe houses have
very poor seismic performance (Figure 3). However,
sadly, more than 30% of the rural population lacks
access to industrialized materials and more than 60%
live in poverty or extreme poverty without access to
utilities like water and electricity (INEI, 2007).
Therefore, adobe is the only affordable and available
housing for many families. Furthermore, lack of Figure 3 Inhabited damaged adobe house.
awareness of construction techniques prevents
homeowners from investing additional time and
money on seismic reinforcement or repair of existing Nylon Rope-Mesh Reinforcement
damage (Blondet et al. 2008b; Macabuag & Quiun, The nylon-rope mesh is a recent reinforcement
2010). As a consequence, observed damage technique developed by PUCP (Blondet et al. 2013).
corresponds to lack of seismic-resistant building In 2013, a pilot project demonstrated that a previously
techniques during construction (absence of collar damaged full-scale adobe model could be repaired via
beams and presence of excessive thickness of mortar mud injection combined with an external mesh made
joints) and insufficient maintenance over the years with nylon strings (Figure 4). The reinforcement
(Cribilleros et al. 2014). procedure consisted of covering the walls with a mesh
made of horizontal and vertical ropes tightened by
Technology turnbuckles; later, the meshes on both faces of each
wall were joined together by thinner ropes (crossties).
Adobe buildings are cheap to build and have good During a sequence of unidirectional earthquake
thermal properties, but they are also highly vulnerable motions of increasing intensity, the structural behavior
to earthquakes (Blondet & Rubiños, 2014). Therefore, of the repaired and reinforced model was considered
several reinforcement techniques have been developed excellent. The external reinforcements worked to
to strengthen adobe dwellings against seismic events maintain structural integrity and stability and pre-
over the years (Zegarra et al. 1997; Minke, 2001; Iyer, vented the partial collapse of wall portions that had
2002; El Gadawy et al. 2004; San Bartolomé et al. separated during the shaking (Blondet et al. 2014).
2004; Blondet et al. 2006; Turer et al. 2007; Smith & The PUCP training project selected the nylon-
Redman, 2009). However, the availability of technical rope mesh due to its great potential as a sustainable-
solutions is not sufficient because this knowledge is reinforcement technique for low-cost earthen dwell-

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Andes. Furthermore, the nylon-mesh technique costs

US$120 at most for reinforcing a typical single-floor
two-room adobe house, which is less than other
industrialized reinforcements (Blondet & Aguilar,
2007; Blondet et al. 2008a).

Portable Shaking Table Demonstrations

The portable shaking table is a tool developed to
raise awareness of the high seismic vulnerability of
non-reinforced adobe dwellings and to build
confidence in reinforced adobe construction among
rural communities (Blondet & Rubiños, 2014). During
demonstration sessions, two reduced-scale adobe
models can be tested simultaneously, with the
Figure 4 Full-scale adobe model reinforced with nylon
differences in their seismic performance easily
rope mesh. observed (Figure 5). The non-reinforced adobe model
collapses just like traditional Andean adobe houses
-ings in seismic areas (Blondet et al. 2013, 2014). The during an earthquake, but the reinforced model does
reinforcement procedure is considered simple enough not collapse even though it can suffer moderate or
to be learned without any previous technical severe damage. Disregarding the magnitude of the
knowledge in construction. It does not require extra damage, the nylon-thread mesh prevents the collapse
machinery, and it produces no additional pollution of the reinforced model as the nylon-rope mesh did on
compared to non-reinforced adobe construction. the test program, thus showing the effectiveness of the
Additionally, nylon ropes are widely available at local nylon-rope mesh to protect the inhabitants of adobe
stores, while most natural reinforcement materials are houses from earthquakes.
not easily obtained in large quantities in the Peruvian

Figure 5 Differences in seismic performance of reduced-scale adobe models.

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

Figure 6 Illustrations from the construction manual.

The Construction Manual 2011). More important, many rural projects by the
The construction manual is a technical document government were forced upon residents without their
that describes in detail how to reinforce an adobe consent in the past, contributing to rejection of
house with nylon ropes. Each step of the construction external interference in general (García, 2008).
process is described with familiar, simple language Additionally, while assessing the post-earthquake
and clearly illustrated with easy-to-follow drawings situation in Pullo, informal conversations showed us
(Figure 6). Furthermore, the manual presents three that the idea of earthquake-resistant housing raised
types of houses that differ in the number of rooms and suspicion and skepticism among residents. They
shows their construction plans in detail. This considered adobe dwellings extremely vulnerable to
educational tool is mainly directed to masons and earthquakes and only aspired to own masonry
residents of rural areas where informal construction structures considered to be “noble” and “resistant” but
with adobe is prevalent and technical assistance is not unaffordable at the same time (Blondet et al. 2008b;
easily available. Cribilleros et al. 2014). Therefore, the first challenge
we found to disseminate earthquake-resistant
Dissemination Challenges and Adaptive Measures technology was building trust in the research group
and the proposed technology.
The reinforcement systems that the PUCP project We employed two different strategies that
team has studied have proven that adobe construction attempted to overcome this challenge. First, we
can be earthquake resistant. Indeed, the application of presented ourselves to community leaders and
technical solutions would provide enough structural carefully explained the motivation for the project and
safety to prevent collapse of earthen buildings, thus what we hoped to achieve in the community. This
protecting human life and building social sustain- allowed us to establish relationships and to build trust
ability into their construction design (Blondet et al. with the research group and regarding the project, so
2008b). However, despite the benefits of safer that community leaders later helped engage the
affordable housing, disseminating earthquake- population (Pérez-Salinas et al. 2014). Second, during
resistant technology faces a number of impediments work sessions, we included selected motivational and
among dwellers, as discussed below. laboratory test videos from previous projects that
showed the effectiveness of seismic reinforcement in
Trust addition to the live portable shaking-table demon-
Many adobe dwellers resist changing their stration.
building techniques because they dislike external
interference in their traditional practices (Blondet,

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Literacy organizing educational workshops would benefit from

Another challenge we encountered while local familiarity and the ability to assemble 80 to 150
assessing earthquake preparedness in Pullo was lack people (InWent & Mesopartner, 2005). Lack of such
of literacy. Most community members only have an an institution made it difficult to coordinate and
elementary school-level education and close to 15% of advertise educational and training sessions when other
the population is not able to read (INEI, 2007), communication was limited.
requiring explanations using simple language. More The project team implemented several strategies
importantly, a high illiteracy rate required us to to overcome this problem, such as conducting personal
consider inclusiveness in the training program since and group interviews with community leaders to enroll
lack of skills could lead to social exclusion, lack of their help with advertising; greeting participants upon
access, and conflicts (Khan et al. 2015). To overcome arrival and departure using a megaphone; placing
this barrier, we planned the educational familiarizing posters with simple, familiar, and inviting language in
and training phases of the project around audiovisual strategic places such as the main square and local
resources, oral explanations, live demonstrations and stores; making regular telephone and cellular calls to
exercises, and step-by-step illustrated printed mat- remind community leaders of upcoming sessions; and
erials. finally, using some specific field trips for promoting
the events. However, these adaptive measures had to
Cultural Differences be continuously assessed to improve less successful
One obstacle during training-session planning components.
was finding dates and schedules that respected the
cultural expectations in the Pullo community. A Transportation
culture is a set of acquired forms and ways to Transportation was a logistics challenge on our
understand the world, to think, to speak, to express first trip to the Pullo community because of the
oneself, to perceive, to act, to socialize, to feel, and to number of different legs required to reach the village.
value oneself as an individual and part of a group The trip entails a seven-hour bus ride from Lima to
(Heise et al. 1994). Peruvian rural villages have Nazca, a two-hour minivan ride from Nazca to Acari,
different traditions and festivities from each another and a four- to six-hour truck ride from Acari to Pullo.
and from the country’s urban areas. For instance, Pullo The duration of the truck part of the trip depends on
has a flag-raising ceremony on Sundays, which also the different routes, including dirt roads frequently
serves as an open space to bring up community issues. closed due to mudslides during the rainy season. More
In addition, Andean communities have subsistence importantly, transportation became a bigger dilemma
economies based on agricultural activity and residents while transporting the portable shaking table, which
prioritize certain times of day to farm and take care of was too big and heavy to take in the bus or the
cattle. minivan. We had to hire special private transportation
In this context, we used several strategies to find for the first trip, and on following journeys a truck
appropriate meeting times and places. In particular, we replaced the minivan.
considered the different civil and religious traditions The difficulty reaching Pullo also highlights the
and festivities to respect community beliefs. Special need for this project. External aid from the
events, such as the chacco de vicuña (a traditional government, NGOs, and other institutions is minimal
Andean wool-shearing process), were avoided in due to Pullo’s remoteness, and so its inhabitants must
planning activities, as were agricultural working rely on their own wherewithal in the face of
hours. As a result, two-hour Saturday afternoon and earthquake emergencies (Cribilleros et al. 2014).
two-hour Sunday morning sessions were validated However, knowledge of the attendant risks, and ability
with community members and main leaders. to anticipate and reduce potential consequences of a
Additionally, we followed traditional protocol by disaster (resilience), could increase the speed of
asking local authorities to welcome participants at the recovery after an emergency (Fitzgerald & Fitzgerald,
beginning of each session. 2005).

Lack of Personnel in the Study Area Familiarizing Educational Experience

Perhaps the biggest challenge that we encountered
during this initiative was the lack of university In May 2015, we began the PUCP training
representatives in the study area. Institutions program in earthquake-resistant construction in the

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

district of Pullo. We assembled an interdisciplinary to observe up close the expected seismic performance
team, which included three civil engineers, one of a non-reinforced adobe house during an earthquake
psychologist, and one communications professional, (Figure 7). When we asked them which house behaved
to travel to the community. The main objective of the like theirs during an earthquake, they identified the
trip was to conduct a familiarizing educational non-reinforced model. After the shaking table test,
workshop with participants from all ages and genders. they commented on the importance of seismic
Attendance was free and voluntary; participants did reinforcement for the enhanced model. Finally, we
not receive any form of compensation. However, to repeated the description of the PUCP training project
increase community interest in the educational and its main objectives and asked participants if they
workshop, we conducted a small promotional wanted to register for future training workshops.
campaign on arrival.
Fifty-three community members, including men,
women, seniors, and children, attended the two-hour
familiarizing educational workshop. First, we
presented ourselves and the results from the evaluation
conducted during the first visit, then we presented the
motivation for the project and what we hoped to
achieve in the community. We were careful to avoid
misunderstanding or misinterpretation: participants
would not be given construction materials but would
receive training in earthquake-resistant adobe-
construction techniques.
As an introduction to the familiarizing educat-
ional part of the workshop, we showed a video from
the 1970 earthquake in northern Peru. The team asked Figure 7 Dynamic test with the portable shaking table.
participants open questions (e.g., “How did you feel
watching the video?”) that allowed community Discussion
members to express their thoughts—and fears—about
earthquakes and how they perceived their adobe The Technology
houses. Participants confirmed the need for safer Nylon ropes are well known, available, and
housing in Pullo. They regarded adobe to be a brittle affordable in rural areas, unlike other industrialized
material, but the only one they could afford; thus, they materials such as polymer mesh or wire mesh with
feared losing their households and their lives to cement mortar. On arrival in the Pullo community, the
earthquakes. team found the nylon ropes needed to reinforce a
Next, the project team elicited responses to one dwelling at two different local stores in various colors
specific question: “Do you believe construction with and sizes. While reinforcing with the nylon rope-mesh
adobe can be earthquake resistant?” Participants technique increases a dwelling’s cost by US$3–4 per
unanimously answered in the negative. Expecting this square meter, this is considered affordable, as very
answer, the team showed previously selected technical poor and poor families in Peru have an average income
and motivational videos displaying the effectiveness of US$700–1,000 per year and usually invest US$20–
of seismic reinforcement, while adding commentaries 30 per square meter in constructing their dwellings
and questions for the audience. The final video (Macabuag & Quiun, 2010). However, the team noted
presented the full-scale adobe model reinforced with that the metal turnbuckles used in the laboratory tests
the nylon-rope mesh and tested in the full-scale are relatively unknown and expensive for the Peruvian
shaking table at PUCP. Some questions from the Andes; additional research at PUCP suggests that
participants showed their interest (e.g., “How thick do residents could replace them with knots (Mattsson,
the ropes have to be?”) while others showed 2015).
skepticism (e.g., “So those thin ropes are going to The nylon-rope mesh and other reinforcement
protect my house from earthquakes?”). techniques studied by PUCP researchers have only
We later conducted the shaking table test on the been developed for one-story buildings (Vargas et al.
reduced scale models in front of all the participants. 2005; Blondet & Aguilar, 2007). However, in the rural
This live demonstration allowed community members Peruvian Andes, building adobe dwellings without

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

technical assistance often leads to the unregulated

construction of two- or three-story earthen buildings
despite their illegality under the Peruvian Building
Code. Therefore, the team was concerned when
community members asked if this technology could be
applied on their already existing two-story dwellings.
Unfortunately, as of now the nylon-rope mesh has only
been used to reinforce one-story dwellings and further
research is needed to examine if this technology can
also be used with similar results for multi-story
Figure 8 Participants raising hands as a sign of
Educational Experience confidence in the proposed technology.
The educational workshop applied many
Success of the Initiative
strategies to sharing knowledge about earthquake-
In the long term, the success of the PUCP training
resistant construction in the Peruvian Andes. The
project will be measured by the number of repaired
schedule for these events and the small promotional
houses and new houses that use nylon rope-mesh
campaign was aimed at increasing the number of
reinforcement. Full assessment of the technique’s
participants. In addition, the live portable shaking
acceptance is not possible at this early stage, but one
table demonstration and the selected audiovisual
optimistic indicator occurred at the end of the
materials were focused on overcoming barriers to trust
educational workshop, when 32 out of 45 adult
while also avoiding social exclusion due to illiteracy.
participants signed up for upcoming training sessions.
Using the portable shaking table as a
communication tool generated a playful environment
that raised interest and confidence among community
members. After the live demonstration, the team asked
participants to raise their hands if they believed
earthquake-resistant construction with adobe was
possible. The answer was affirmative and unanimous
(Figure 8). Later, through informal conversation,
participants confirmed this belief to the different
members of the team. This interaction appeared to
successfully motivate Pullo’s inhabitants and establish
relationships with the team. Moreover, by bringing
elements of research into the field, the team was able
Figure 9 Participants registering for upcoming training
to show people the efforts made by PUCP to find sessions.
sustainable housing solutions for them. Therefore, we
considered the educational workshop successful as it The registration process involved community
increased confidence in the nylon-rope mesh as members writing their full names, providing identity-
seismic reinforcement and raised interest in upcoming card numbers, and signing; illiterate participants could
training workshops. dictate their information to team members (Figure 9).
Despite the initial success overcoming barriers to In total, over 70% of participants committed to the
trust, the number of participants represented only training program.
approximately 1% of the total population of Pullo,
much of which is scattered across farming lands. Conclusion
Therefore, we plan to repeat the educational
methodology using the live portable shaking table Technical solutions to reinforce adobe dwellings
demonstration to reach a wider audience and to exist although they vary in cost and accessibility. The
reinforce trust with community members. main challenge is not to develop affordable and more
sustainable solutions (Ness & Akerman, 2015), but
rather to disseminate these alternatives to commun-
ities. Greater emphasis must be placed on developing

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy

educational tools and methodologies that can handle Century. Report of the IUCN Renowned Thinkers
the difficulties and unexpected challenges that arise Meeting, January 29–31. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.
during the technology-transfer process. Blondet, M., Vargas, J., Torrealva, D., Tarque, N. &
Our initial success reaffirms the importance of a Velasquez, J. 2006. Seismic Reinforcement of Adobe
Houses Using External Polymer Mesh. First European
familiarizing educational phase to achieve sustainable Conference on Earthquake Engineering and
dissemination of earthquake resistant construction, as Seismology, 3–8 September, Geneva.
dwellers must trust seismic reinforcement in order to Blondet, M. & Aguilar, R. 2007. Seismic Protection of
incorporate it into their building practices. The Earthen Buildings. International Conference on
educational workshop succeeded among inhabitants of Earthquake Engineering, August 20–22, Lima, Peru.
Pullo as it raised awareness and willingness to Blondet, M., Vargas, J., Patron, P., Stanojevich, M. &
participate in future training sessions and learn the Rubiños, A. 2008. A Human Development Approach
nylon rope mesh technique. Therefore, we recommend for the Construction of Safe and Healthy Adobe Houses
that future studies and training programs include a in Seismic Areas. Fourteenth World Conference on
Earthquake Engineering, October 12–17, Beijing,
familiarizing educational phase when working with China.
technology transfer in rural communities. More Blondet, M., Vargas, J., Tarque, N. 2008. Low Cost Rein-
importantly, the project team envisions that, if the forcement of Earthen Houses in Seismic Areas.
project succeeds, the communication and educational Fourteenth World Conference on Earthquake
tools that we have developed might be applicable or Engineering, October 12–17, Beijing, China.
adapted to be used in other seismic areas where people Blondet, M. 2011. Mitigation of seismic risk on earthen
build with earth—specifically in poor areas of western buildings. In H. Gökçekus, U. Türker & J. LaMoreaux
South America, Central America and southern Asia— (Eds.), Survival and Sustainability: Environmental
with the hope of improving household livability for Concerns in the 21st Century. pp. 391–400. Berlin:
more families. Blondet, M., Vargas, J., Sosa, C. & Soto, J. 2013. Seismic
Our work has not been easy and is not finished. Simulation Tests to Validate a Dual Technique for
The project team continues to conduct research in rural Repairing Adobe Historical Buildings Damaged by
Andean communities and this ongoing learning Earthquakes. International Conference Kerpiç 13 New
process is aimed at planning and improving Generation Earthen Architecture, September 11–14,
appropriate workshops. Without such understanding, Istanbul Ayden University, Turkey.
community members are unlikely to adopt the Blondet, M., Vargas, J., Sosa, C. & Soto, J. 2014. Using Mud
proposed technology despite its benefits. However, the Injection and an External Rope Mesh to Reinforce
people involved in this initiative are optimistic that Historical Earthen Buildings located in Seismic Areas.
Nineth International Conference on Structural Analysis
their efforts will lead to improvement of household of Historical Constructions, October 14–17, Mexico
livability for many families and contribute to social City, Mexico.
sustainability of housing in the Peruvian Andes. Blondet, M. & Rubiños, A. 2014. Communication Tools for
the Construction of Safe and Decent Earthen Houses in
Acknowledgments Seismic Areas. Annual Conference of the Human
Development & Capability Association, September 2–
The authors would like to thank the staff of 5, Athens, Greece.
Casula Vifell, A. & Soneryd, L. 2012. Organizing matters:
PUCP’s Office for Social Responsibility (DARS)–
how “the social dimension” gets lost in sustainability
especially Maria Teresa Rodríguez and Ruth Nevado– projects. Sustainable Development 20(1):18–27.
for their support on this project, and the staff of the Chiu, R. 2003. Social sustainability, sustainable develop-
Structures Laboratory for their help with the ment and housing development: the experience of Hong
experimental tasks. Special thanks are due to Nicole Kong. In R. Forrest & J. Lee (Eds.), Housing and Social
Peterson who reviewed this paper and provided Change: East-West Perspectives. pp. 221–239. New
insightful comments. Finally, the financial support of York: Routledge.
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Social sustainability dimensions in the seismic risk reduction of

public schools: a case study of Lima, Peru
Sandra Santa-Cruz1, Graciela Fernández de Córdova2, Miryam Rivera-Holguin3, 4, Marta Vilela2, Victor Arana5, and Juan
Department of Engineering, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Avenida Universitaria 1801, Lima, Peru (email:
Department of Architecture, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Avenida Universitaria 1801, Lima, Peru (email:,
Department of Community Psychology, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Avenida Universitaria 1801, Lima, Peru (email:
Faculty of Psychology, National University of San Marcos, Calle Germán Amézaga 375, Edificio Jorge Basadre, Ciudad
Universitaria, Lima, Peru (email:
Department of Civil Engineering, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Avenida Universitaria 1801, Lima, Peru (email:,

The provision of education is a vital feature of a socially sustainable system. However, students in highly seismic areas
are under permanent hazard, a critical situation for student populations with high vulnerability factors such as insecure
infrastructure, low teacher salaries, and poor living conditions due to social exclusion and inequity. In this article, we
use community-based elements, such as institutional arrangements and a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach,
to develop a comprehensive multi-scale risk model for socially sustainable seismic risk reduction in schools. We analyze
the case of schools in the city of Lima, Peru, integrating aims, objectives, and methodologies based on risk-reduction
strategy from previous disciplinary studies. Identifying schools that, on one hand, can be most useful during emergency-
relief work and, on the other hand, educational facilities that could cause the most harm to students are priorities for a
risk-reduction strategy. We identify social sustainability factors in schools, such as security and well-being of the student
population, accessibility, incomes, basic service provision, and community organization. Specifying the spatial and
territorial relationships within public school surroundings is essential to guaranteeing the effectiveness and efficiency
of risk-mitigation strategies.

Keywords: Social sustainability, seismic risk, mitigation, community-based disaster risk management

Introduction Risk reduction challenges decision makers

because of the sheer number at factors and the
The effective provision of education is a main lack of economic capacity to attend to them
feature of a socially sustainable system (Harris et simultaneously (Freeman et al. 2003; Cardona,
al. 2001). However, educational arrangements— 2010).
including students, teachers, administrators, Academics and international agencies have
authorities, curriculum, equipment, and been working for the past several decades to
infrastructure—in highly seismic areas are under develop risk-reduction strategies for educational
permanent hazard. This situation is critical for systems. These efforts have ranged from
student populations that attend public schools programs to reduce structural vulnerability to
with high vulnerability factors, such as insecure initiatives focused on nonstructural elements like
infrastructure, low teacher salaries, and poor retrofitting building infrastructure, improving
living conditions due to social exclusion and earthquake preparedness, and contingency
inequity (including populations living in planning. Although these endeavors involve
conditions of poverty and extreme poverty). The different knowledge areas, no opportunities have
combination of hazard, vulnerability, exposure, been created for interdisciplinary and
and low resilience results in a high-risk situation.

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participatory work to create an integrated vision as well as to facilitate post-disaster reconstruction

of the problem. processes (Rivera, 2010; Velásquez et al. 2016).
More specifically, retrofitting measures in For instance, participatory multi-sectoral
schools proposed from an engineering point of partnership and community engagement has also
view tend to rely on a “top-down” management been deployed by a grassroots parents group in
(TDM) approach that prioritizes the most urgent Berkeley, California (USA) as part of a process to
tasks from a multifactor standpoint based on retrofit a local school (Chakos, 2004). Although
physical and structural risk analysis and student these initiatives are useful examples entailing the
numbers (Grant et al. 2007; Pina et al. 2012; empowerment of target beneficiaries, they lack an
Grimaz et al. 2010; Tesfamariam et al. 2012). interdisciplinary vision that can encompass all
Strategies focused on preparedness, especially risk-management activities in greater detail.
through the training of teachers, principals, and The community-diagnosis method is a tool of
administrative staff, and informing parents and CBDRM that enables a knowledge-creation
students, have shown little increase in school- process that combines local knowledge and
team and parent awareness about the importance technical know-how for implementing
of taking precautionary actions such as participatory disaster preparedness (Matsuda &
participating in emergency simulations and drills Okada, 2006). It consists of two phases: a
(IASC, 2007; Rivera et al. 2016). By contrast, diagnostic survey and a prescriptive meeting, the
strategies aimed at children have been more latter providing space for face-to-face interaction
successful because messages disseminated by to share survey results and to combine the local
youngsters have a high level of acceptance among knowledge of various participants. The
parents (Izadkhah, 2005). prescriptive meeting also plays the role of
In this article, we use community-based providing a community with a solution for risk
elements, such as institutional arrangements reduction.
(UNDP, 2015) and collaborative and
interdisciplinary approaches, to understand the Social Sustainability Dimensions
risk factors and to develop comprehensive, Social sustainability is based on two
socially sustainable risk reduction strategic plans dimensions: social equity and the sustainability of
for educational systems. We aim to demonstrate a community itself (Bramley & Power, 2009). An
that 1) design of seismic risk-reduction strategies equitable society is one with no “exclusionary” or
should include an emphasis on social discriminatory practices hindering individuals
sustainability and 2) a participatory and from participating economically, socially, or
interdisciplinary approach should integrate aims, politically. Within an urban context, social equity
objectives, and methodologies used by previous is related to access to services, facilities and
TDM studies in a knowledge-creation process. opportunities, public transportation, and adequate
infrastructure. Community sustainability
Community-based Disaster Risk Management involves social interaction among community
members, including the opportunity to participate
Community-based disaster risk management in public life, the existence of formal and
(CBDRM) is a complementary approach to TDM informal organizations, as well as the presence of
(Birkman, 2007). The concept of CBDRM is interpersonal trust, security, and positive sense of
based on a multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary identification.
strategy, experience, local knowledge-sharing, In this article, we examine an ongoing project
and community empowerment and ownership by for developing a strategic plan for seismic risk
the target beneficiaries. reduction of the student public school population
Programs based on CBDRM have been used in Lima, Peru using the community diagnosis
extensively worldwide (Maskrey, 2011), mainly method. Both TDM and CBDRM benefits are
to improve emergency-response capabilities, integrated in a participatory manner, with a focus
urban planning, and disaster prevention (Chen et on an interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral
al. 2006; Vilela & Fernández de Córdova, 2013) approach to yield a risk-reduction proposal that

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takes into account the dimensions of social According to previous studies, if a seismic
sustainability. event were to occur (similar to the one that
affected Pisco, located 250 kilometers south of
Case Study: Student Population in Lima Lima, in 2007), 92% of public schools would
Lima, Peru, is located in the seismically become inoperative and 89% of students would
intensive “Ring of Fire” of the Pacific Ocean and be adversely affected (Santa-Cruz, 2013). This
has been subjected to many earthquakes over the situation is mainly due to the fact that schools
years (Tavera & Buffon, 1998). Since the 1950s, have been built in accordance with obsolete
Lima has grown largely on an informal basis to earthquake-resistant criteria and poor quality-
an estimated population of nine million people control processes. For typical modules built
and today lacks adequate public infrastructure before 1997 (Figure 1), a shear failure in columns
and urban facilities including schools, hospitals, (called a short-column failure) is likely to occur,
health clinics, and cultural centers. causing the structures to collapse if the event
The city’s current residential and commercial scores higher than VII on the Modified Mercalli
patterns are scattered and uncoordinated, leading Intensity (MMI) scale. More than 50% of the
to socio-spatial segregation (Fernández de school buildings in Lima require total
Córdova, 2012). Informal settlements located in replacement to bring them into conformance with
the expansion areas occupy lands exposed to the Peruvian building code (MINEDU, 2015).
hazards and poor performance during seismic Furniture and placement of doors and
events. This configuration fails to incorporate windows in public school classrooms often do not
notions of compactness and inclusion that are comply with the current Peruvian safety
inherent in most urban models of a sustainable legislation. This situation is mainly a
city and reduces the resilience of student consequence of the staged self-build process. The
residents. The large number of public schools lack of technical inspections, along with
located in these problematic expansion areas insufficient training of people involved in
increases the risk to this portion of the population. construction and those responsible for use of the
School buildings also suffer from poor space and furniture, hinder correct definition and
construction practices arising from a lack of maintenance of safety areas and emergency exits.
regulated procedures and quality supervision
(Blondet et al. 2004), increasing the likelihood of
injuries to students during a post-disaster
evacuation. This situation degrades resilience and
will likely delay the recommencement of school
activities following an emergency. With no
regular budget for investment in facilities, parents
frequently build schools themselves after pooling
their own financial resources. Most of the schools
in Lima were built in a staged construction
process and additional capacity has been added
when there has been money from either families
or the government (Santa-Cruz et al. 2013). Figure 1 Typical school building in Lima, Peru built before
In school buildings, the presence of 1997
unsupervised alcoves, dead ends, and narrow
corridors are prevalent due to a lack of planning.
In addition, some evacuation routes include Schoolchildren in Lima have been targets of
staircases with low parapets and are likely to previous campaigns to raise risk awareness and
become overcrowded. Safety areas are located build capacity for emergency preparedness.
near elevated water tanks, but do not meet Elementary and high-school students have
structural safety standards, presenting increased achieved a basic level of risk awareness after
risk for evacuees. community training and monitoring activities

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involving teachers, parents, and the students needed to help communities organize themselves
themselves (Roca, 2011). However, government to face seismic events and to encourage
entities, academic staff, teachers, and healthcare coordinated activities to foster integrated risk
workers lack the proper training required to management.
provide information or humanitarian aid to
students adversely affected by seismic events Community Diagnosis for Seismic Risk Reduction
(Rivera et al. 2014). The experience in Pisco in Lima’s School Population
demonstrated that poor communication skills In September 2014, Pontificia Universidad
could increase injuries and psychological Católica del Perú (PUCP) organized a
problems for students. participatory workshop using the community-
In summary, Lima’s student population is diagnosis method to develop a comprehensive
exposed to earthquake risks in many aspects of risk-reduction and strategic plan for Lima’s
daily life and at different scales: classroom, educational system. The objective was to adopt
school building, neighborhood, and the city an interdisciplinary vision in seismic risk
(Table 1). These hazards are to physical, management and to incorporate CBDRM
psychological, and social health, including elements in the diagnosis and formulation of the
quality of life, well-being, education, and plan.
development. An interdisciplinary approach is
Table 1 Seismic risk analysis scales and examples of main issues

(a) City

Social-spacial segregation due to diffused patterns

(b) Urban areas

Poor community preparedness and inadequate construction and land-use practices

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(c) School building

Inappropriate emergency exits, obsolete earthquake-resistant criteria, and acceptable level of risk
awareness in some schools

(d) Classroom

Furniture does not comply with safety recommendations

Community Diagnosis for Seismic Risk Reduction represented by officers from the Regional
in Lima’s School Population Directorate of Metropolitan Lima (DRELM). The
In September 2014, PUCP organized a participation of the stakeholders was possible due
participatory workshop using the community- to the relationship that all parties had built while
diagnosis method to develop a comprehensive participating in research and social responsibility
risk-reduction and strategic plan for Lima’s projects previously implemented by the PUCP
educational system. The objective was to adopt Engineering Department.
an interdisciplinary vision in seismic risk
management and to incorporate CBDRM Diagnostic Survey
elements in the diagnosis and formulation of the The participants presented the main aspects
plan. of seismic risk facing Lima’s student population
A diverse group of primary stakeholders from based on three recent studies of public schools in
academia and the government participated in the Peru: 1) Short-term strategy for immediate
workshop. Participants included authorities and upgrade of the educational infrastructure in the
decision makers, with officers from the National city (MINEDU, 2014), 2) Probabilistic seismic
Program of Educational Infrastructure (known by risk assessment of local schools and hospitals
its Spanish acronym PRONIED); Office of (Santa-Cruz, 2013), and 3) Program Vulnerability
Investment Planning; Office of Strategic Reduction and Emergency Disaster—PREVAED
Planning; Office of Strategic Planning and 0068 (DRELM, 2014). All of these studies
Measurement of Educational Quality, Office of estimated risk indexes using hazard and structural
Community and Environmental Education; and fragility factors. While the first two reports
researchers from the World Bank and the PUCP recommended carrying out structural measures
Departments of Architecture, Engineering, and (retrofitting or replacement) to most high-risk
Psychology. Lima school principals were schools, the third proposed a strategy focused on
school preparedness (Table 2).

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Table 2 Studies of seismic risk of schools in Lima City

Short-term strategy for Program Vulnerability
Probabilistic seismic
the immediate Reduction and
risk assessment of
attention of the Emergency Disaster—
local schools and Participatory proposal
educational PREVAED 0068 “Safe
hospitals Lima (Rivera
infrastructure in Lima Schools in Lima”
et al. 2014)
2015 (MINEDU, 2014) (DRELM, 2014)
Implement some of
Incremental retrofitting
three actions: maintain, Urgent structural Distribution of basic prioritizing schools that
retrofit, or replace retrofitting or safety kits to schools could be more useful
Recommended schools prioritizing the replacement in schools with higher risk and during emergency and
actions and most vulnerable and
prioritizing criteria located in the most with highest expected award to the most could cause the most
annual loss (EAL) prepared schools harm to students
densely populated

Multi-criteria and GIS

analysis, related to
Establish an index of weaknesses or
Determination of EAL
structural interventions Evaluation of safety capabilities in all risk-
Methodology for each school using
according to ad-hoc index of the schools generation levels:
algorithm classroom, school,
environment, and city

 Expected structural
performance in
 Technical expertise future events
of the constructor  Distance from main
 Interior free area
 Year of construction  Seismic hazard street and facilities
 Surrounding density
 Predominant  Type of soil  Interior free area
 Accessibility
Factors structural system of  Predominant  Structural
 Socioeconomic
the building structural system of inspection results
 Condition of the the building  Basic services
 Community
structure coverage
 Basic services

The last part of the diagnostic survey was

aimed at preparing a comprehensive and
participatory diagnosis of seismic risk to students
based on discussion of previous risk-analysis
studies (Vilela & Fernandez de Córdova, 2013).
To facilitate discussion, participants were divided
into groups (Figure 2) and received maps and
tables with information on the location and
characteristics of the school buildings, land uses,
routes and roads, socio-economic characteristics,
and soil types for three representative districts
located in the expansion area of Lima: Comas,
San Juan de Lurigancho, and Villa el Salvador
(Figure 3). An effort was made to create
multidisciplinary working teams to identify the
risk problems and their associated factors in a
collaborative manner from different approaches
and areas of knowledge.

Figure 2 Development of the diagnostic survey and

participatory diagnosis of seismic risk

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Based on the information analysis and the structural weakness of some schools. Another
reflections of the participants on the potential factor was the soil’s low load bearing capacity.
disaster and post-disaster situation, participants Buildings located in areas with soft soils were
identified possible critical situations, as well as identified as the most at risk, because poor quality
their associated factors. Factors were found in soils can amplify seismic ground motion.
relation to weaknesses that would increase the Students at these schools could suffer harm from
physical, psychological, and social impacts on fallen objects or partial collapses during an
students, and capabilities that could decrease the earthquake.
adverse effects of a seismic event. Positive Accessibility in a post-disaster scenario was
factors, that is strengths and capabilities, were another factor that the workshop participants
written down on green cards with negative identified. For example, the location of main
factors, weaknesses, and lack of capabilities, on avenues in lower elevation and plain areas of the
red cards (Figure 4). Comas District was considered positive because
such conditions could allow for distribution of
humanitarian aid or, if necessary, evacuation of
injured victims. However, the district’s upper
areas pose serious difficulties due to
overcrowding, slope instability, and the lack of
well-maintained roads and highways. By
contrast, the large number of schools in the
vicinity was considered to be a positive factor
because the existence of these buildings could
increase the possibility that local habitants would
be able to continue classes and have a focal point
if some schools in the area became inoperative.
Participants highlighted the need for information
about the total number and built-up area of school
Figure 3 Representative zones of the expansion area of Lima buildings, deemed to be relevant information
used in the diagnosis survey because vacant areas would be useful for setting
up prefabricated classrooms in a post-disaster
reconstruction scenario. A finding that produced
major concern was the high number of public
school buildings without property title, a result of
the informal settlement and construction process.
This is a risk factor since it could delay the
provision of financial aid in post-disaster
reconstruction process.
The working groups also discussed social
sustainability with respect to socioeconomic,
class-based, and community resilience. In the
three study areas, most of the population is low to
medium income which was considered to be a
negative factor because insufficient financial
Figure 4 Identification of positive and negative factors related
resources are associated with a slow recovery
to the risk of the student population process. Problems of alcoholism, violence, and
crime in parts of these districts were also
Results of Diagnosis Survey identified as social gaps for community cohesion.
Participants first cited factors related to the Workshop participants indicated that a good
structural fragility of buildings. Construction relationship between the school and the
prior to 1997 was the main indicator of high community would be a significant factor in the

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whole reconstruction process. They suggested Lima. A summary of identified factors and
that the government should provide training to related problems appears in Table 3.
teachers to help them respond to a crisis without
allowing feelings of distress and sadness to Prescriptive Meeting
intervene with respect to the children and other The participants arrived at the first part of the
community members. Finally, participants workshop with various forms of tacit knowledge
stressed the importance of the school building as and this diversity of perspectives led them to
a community-meeting point, especially in areas discuss a range of risk-reduction procedures for
characterized by low socioeconomic status. schools. Specific topics included structural
The working groups also took land-use retrofitting, planning evacuation routes and safety
information into account. The arrangement of a areas, preparedness, community responses, and
residential area was considered a positive factor psychological support teams. In the second part
for responding to emergencies, together with the of this session, groups worked together to
presence of wide green areas in strategic locations comprehensively define the aims, objectives, and
for post-disaster humanitarian logistics. methodologies of strategic planning for seismic
Likewise, isolation from industrial areas was also risk mitigation.
considered to be helpful because such districts are With respect to risk reduction, the structural
usually associated with secondary risks caused by retrofitting measures that participants presented
seismic events, like explosions and fires. included adding complementary frames, energy-
However, the workshop participants questioned dissipation devices, and enlarging columns. First,
the official land-planning and land-use data the complementary frame technique, used in
because they were not reliable given the previous interventions in other Peruvian cities,
widespread informal construction process in consists of supplementing the original structure

Table 3 Problems, factors, and measures identified in the participation process from two sessions
Factors Problem Measures

Soil type Complementary frame technique

Structural fragility Potential physical damages Enlargement of columns
caused due to fallen heavy
Population density objects or partial collapses. Installation of energy-dissipation devices
Disruption of classes Specific regulation for rehabilitation of existing
constructions and use of new materials
Distribution of the buildings and Potential physical damages Upgrading corridors and ramps that do not meet the
free areas inside the school caused by falls, crashes, and required standards
Implementation of emergency overcrowding of students during Awareness-raising activities for students to correctly
exits and safety areas the evacuation follow instructions during evacuation procedures
Accessibility and closeness to Adopting urban models of sustainable cities with
main routes Deficiency and delays in compactness and inclusive solutions
humanitarian response and Improvement of water supply, electricity, and telephone
Basic services difficulties in evacuation communication systems
procedures during the
Socio-economic level related to emergency response and
social segregation and little rehabilitation stages Civic and social empowerment to face the disaster
Level of preparedness and Psychological impact due to Training teachers, health workers, parents, church
commitment of neighboring poor crisis management by local leaders, and NGO representatives through “community
communities authorities and humanitarian aid interventions”
Regulation of the Ministry of
Difficulty to obtain funds for
Economy and Finances for Public Legal clearing of property
retrofitting projects
Investment Projects

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with a reinforced concrete frame. This technique their organized participation in rehabilitation and
is suitable for low-rise structures and eliminates emergency-relief processes. Due to their roles
the short-column problem in typical modules and positive influence on the population,
built before 1997. Second, the technique of stakeholders like teachers, healthcare workers,
incorporating energy-dissipation devices, like church representatives, and employees of
dampers and base isolators, was considered too nongovernment organizations (NGOs) would
costly by the experts. Finally, the enlarging- also be involved in such interventions. In
columns alternative was questioned because it addition, they noted the importance of training
has a very disruptive construction process. potential members of the psychological support
To decide the optimum retrofitting team to identify harmful emergency-relief
alternative, it is necessary to analyze all of the practices, such as healthcare workers prescribing
options using multi-criteria decision-making unnecessary drugs or “antidepressants” to
methods (Caterino et al. 2004; 2009) or life-cycle students.
economic assessments aimed at maximizing Workshop participants also proposed a third
benefits or minimizing costs and losses (Santa point of intervention, namely to formalize
Cruz & Heredia, 2009). The implementation of ownership of school buildings in accordance with
all of these structural interventions typically the law. This measure requires the help of
requires rapid assessment and analysis methods architects, engineers, and lawyers to gather
for strengthening existing structures and new relevant data, necessitating the involvement of
technologies and materials (e.g., carbon fiber, pertinent professional associations.
electro-welded meshes, geo-meshes and fabrics). Participants agreed that all of these measures
Unfortunately, Peru has no precise regulations should include regular follow-up assessments. In
pertaining to structural intervention in existing particular, contact with disaster victims was
structures so local engineers have no guidance on recognized as important for identifying
which to rely when applying new techniques. intervention results and verifying whether goals
Another proposed measure was to improve were accomplished. Table 3 includes a summary
school-evacuation routes by building ramps, of the proposed measures.
removing obstacles and stairs from safety areas, We now turn our attention to specific
constructing additional staircases, and recommendations raised at the workshop for
strengthening walls, elevated tanks, and parapets. achieving seismic risk-reduction objectives.
For the immediate school surroundings, According to the guidelines established by the
workshop participants suggested enhancing road Ministry of Education and the objectives of the
infrastructure and removing informal facilities National Risk and Disaster Management Plan
and open dumps. In addition, they stated that 2014–2021 (PLANAGERD), the school is the
awareness-raising campaigns should continue as intervention target (e.g., infrastructure,
well as preparedness activities (like the scheduled equipment and furniture, teacher training and
simulations carried out by the Ministry of teaching management). The first action calls for
Education), and regular emergency-management acknowledging the high risk levels in most school
workshops for teachers and students. To address buildings, as well as the limited resources and
a potential post-disaster crisis, the workshop time for their retrofitting and improvement. We
participants proposed changes to the urban posed the following questions: What should the
model, including compactness, inclusivity and strategic goals be? What methodology or criteria
social cohesion, and improvements to the water should be followed to attain them? How can
supply, electricity and telecommunication viability of the proposals be ensured?
systems. Workshop participants agreed that the
In terms of community organization, strategy should be to implement priority
workshop participants proposed mobilizing interventions in: 1) schools likely to be most
social and human resources to respond to useful during emergency-relief work and 2)
potential crises through community interventions schools with the greatest risk of injury to students.
that promote solidarity among neighbors and The first objective was to list buildings with

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higher capability and preparedness in terms of structure. In relation to these constrained scopes,
high accessibility, quality services, well- the workshop participants agreed that it would not
distributed free areas, and effective community be feasible to approve a structural project with
organization. The second objective was to lower design performance than required in the
prioritize the least adequate buildings by construction standards.
accounting for structural weakness, poorly An option for implementing these
planned evacuation exits and safety areas, and emergency measures would be to include
segregation by socioeconomic class. incremental retrofitting which entails adapting
To achieve the objectives, the participants the school to regulatory requirements in partial
reviewed the risk factors identified in the interventions or stages (Krimgold et al. 2002).
diagnostic survey which could be useful to Under these arrangements, an improvement
establish an index or ranking to measure the need would be made in the structural performance in
for interventions. It was deemed that a list of every stage until the performance reached the
priority schools could be prepared later. For requirements of existing construction codes.
instance, the project team started a qualitative Some progress has occurred regarding
assessment of risk factors in schools located in regulations in Peru and designers have since 2016
one of Lima’s represented districts. The year of begun to apply this concept to existing structures.
construction was used as an indicator of structural Regarding this proposal’s feasibility, the
weakness of school buildings and socioeconomic team members were skeptical about the efficacy
class as a measure of resilience (i.e., conditions of of the requirements set by the Ministry of
extreme poverty were deemed to be less Economy and Finances for the approval of Public
resilient). They next established a ranking and Investment Projects (PIP), as these are too
prepared a list of the priority schools. However, complicated and slow to address the problems of
this strategy was found to be inappropriate school buildings in need of urgent intervention.
because in some cases highly ranked school The time that it takes for the preliminary design
buildings were relatively close to each other or and the comprehensive approach required by the
lacked access. The project team therefore realized Ministry are not consistent with the timescale
that algorithms and multi-criteria tools for risk- associated with emergency interventions.
management decision-making processes in It merits observing, though, that there is
school buildings had to be correlated with the previous experience with rapid approval
relationship between schools and urban systems processes in hospitals in Peru. A 2014 decree
to be reliable. stipulated that special measures should ensure
Workshop participants identified that the their operation even during seismic disasters.
infrastructure of some school buildings could be Through similar measures, the national
so severely damaged that safety could no longer government has been able to speed up
be guaranteed, risking injuries to the student interventions in school buildings identified as
population, as happened in Pisco’s 2007 seismic “representative.” The workshop concluded that
event. Thus, the group understood that this topic required political attention and
multifactorial prioritization needed restrictions, commitment from legal and regulatory
since particularly vulnerable school buildings authorities.
need an emergency intervention owing to their
high fragility, as is the case of adobe-wall Conclusion
buildings and typical modules built before 1997
(Muñoz et al. 2004). Community diagnosis is a tool that is
With regard to healthcare, emergency appropriate for developing strategic plans for
intervention would require an immediate measure socially sustainable seismic risk reduction in
to stabilize patients, although that might not mean schools. In the case described here, the
that they could be discharged. In the case of prescriptive meeting provided a comprehensive
school buildings, an emergency intervention and participatory framework for risk reduction-
would have limited objectives to stabilize the strategy planning and introduced social

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sustainability dimensions into the scoping This project was an opportunity for
process. This approach integrates TDM and interdisciplinary discussion that led to consensus
CBDRM benefits and can create knowledge from on risk management in a participatory manner
previous risk studies that have been developed involving different areas of knowledge. It also
separately from the perspectives of different allowed members of the PUCP academic
disciplines. Therefore, a new comprehensive community from different departments to attain a
multi-scale risk perspective has been created. more complete vision of the cross-cutting topic
Aims, objectives, and methodologies of the risk- pertaining to the safety of vulnerable students and
reduction strategy are redefined by integrating raised the need to continue holding similar
previous studies. We have found that social meetings.
sustainability factors such as social equity and the The next steps are: 1) to determine a
sustainability of a community itself must be taken methodology to analyze the feasibility of the
into account to achieve these new goals. retrofitting measures to reduce structural fragility
To address the situation of high risk and and interventions to increase the resilience and
limited resources, we suggest a prioritizing capacity of the education systems from a multi-
methodology, one that is based on indicators or criteria point of view and 2) to develop a
rankings that take into account factors related to methodology for risk reduction of public schools
weaknesses or capabilities at all stages of risk based on the prioritization criteria presented in
occurrence: classroom, school, neighborhood, this article.
and city. It is also necessary to analyze physical,
psychological, and social factors that may have Acknowledgements
an impact on the student population.
During the course of the workshop, The workshop described in this article was
participants prioritized two sets of schools: those partially funded by Common Funds 2014 of the
that could be more useful during emergency- PUCP Academic Office of Social Responsibility
relief work and those where students faced the (DARS), the National Council of Science,
greatest risk. The most highly ranked facilities Technology, and Technological Innovation of
were identified through social sustainability Peru (CONCYTEC), and the National Fund for
factors such as security and well-being of the Scientific and Technological Development
student population, accessibility, income, (FONDECYT) within the framework of the 012-
presence of basic services, and community 2013–FONDECYT Agreement. We would like to
organization. Identifying spatial and territorial thank Nicole Peterson for her comments and
relationships in public school surroundings is review of this article.
essential to guaranteeing the effectiveness and
efficiency of risk-mitigation strategies. References
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Management: Program for Latin America and the Zini, L. 2010. An Holistic Approach in the
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Disaster Risk Management Division. Conference of Earthquake Engineering, Ohrid,
Chakos A. 2004. Learning about seismic safety of Macedonia, August 30–September 3, pp. 4733–
schools from community experience in Berkeley, 4740.
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Keeping Schools Safe in Earthquakes. Paris: 2001. A Survey of Sustainable Development:
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Social and Economic Dimensions. Washington,
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Chen L., Liu Y., & Chan, K. 2006. Integrated Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). 2007.
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in Taiwan: a case study of Chang-An Village. Psicosocial en Emergencias Humanitarias y
Natural Hazards 37(1):209–223. Catástrofes (IASC Guidelines on Mental Health
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retrofitting existing buildings. Natural Hazards Geneva. https://
and Earth System Science 4(4):485–499. (in
Dirección Ragional de Educación de Lima Spanish).
Metropolitana (DRELM). 2014. Plan de Gestión Izadkhah, Y. & Hosseini, M. 2005. Towards resilient
de Riesgo de Desastres de la Dirección Regional communities in developing countries through
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GESTI%C3%93N_DE_RIESGOS_DE_DESAS FEMA–395 Incremental Seismic Rehabilitation
TRES_DE_LA_DIRECCI%C3%93N_REGION of School Buildings (K–12), Virginia Polytechnic
AL_DE_EDUCACI%C3%93N_DE_LIMA_ME Institute and State University. Washington, DC:
TROPOLITANA_-PGRD_DRELM_2014-2021 Federal Emergency Management Agency.
(in Spanish). Matsuda, Y. & Okada, N.2006. Community diagnosis
Fernández de Córdova, G. 2012 Socio-spatial for sustainable disaster preparedness. Journal of
Diversity as a Strategy for Metropolitan Lima’s Natural Disaster Science 28(1):25–33.
Urban Sustainment, 2007. Proceedings of the Ministerio de Educación (MINEDU). 2015.
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7–9. oxi-minedu.pdf (in Spanish).
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K., & Pflug, G. 2003. Gestión de Riesgo de Resolución Ministerial 562–2014 (Ministerial
Desastres Naturales: Sistemas Nacionales para la Resolution 562–2014). http://www.pronied. gob.
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Estrategias Financieras para la Reconstrucción en pdf (in Spanish).
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Financial Strategies for Natural Disaster Muñoz, A., Blondet, M., Quintana, U., & León, H.
Reconstruction). http://www.bvsde. 2004. Earthquake-Resistant Performance of (in Spanish). Peruvian School Buildings. Proceedings of 13th
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August 1–6, Vancouver. concrete civic infrastructure: case study for State
nicee/wcee/article/13_2447.pdf. of Oregon schools and emergency facilities.
Pina, F., Taylor, G., Ventura, C., & Finn, L. 2010. Natural Hazards Review 13(3):188–195.
Seismic Risk Assessment Tool for Seismic Velázquez, T., Rivera-Holguin, M., & Morote, R.
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Participación y fortalecimiento comunitario en un del Perú (in Spanish).
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Zyber, R., & Dextre, J. 2013. Daños En Locales
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Setiembre Yauca-Acarí 2013 (Local Public
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of Peru: Physics of the Earth, North America).
Tesfamariam, S. & Wang, Y. 2012. Risk-based
seismic retrofit prioritization of reinforced

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Achieving one-planet living through transitions in social practice: a

case study of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage
Robert H. W. Boyer
Department of Geography & Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Boulevard, Charlotte,
NC 28223 USA (e-mail:

The per capita resource consumption for inhabitants of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (DR) is less than ten percent of the
average American in most major categories, approximating “one planet” living in a nation that contributes
disproportionately to global resource consumption. This article examines DR’s extraordinary energy and resource
savings through the lens of social practice theory, which focuses on the meanings, competencies, and materials that
individuals combine to form everyday practices. Participant observation and interviews with DR community members
reveals how this rural ecovillage achieves remarkable energy and resource savings by transitioning away from the
exclusive ownership of capital goods, investing in skills that facilitate the collective management of resources, and
eliminating waste by taking advantage of locally available resources. Results suggest that local governments
interested in sustainability and climate mitigation should encourage systems of collective resource management
rather than maintaining a traditional focus on influencing changes in individual consumption choices.

KEYWORDS: social sustainability, social practice theory, ecovillage, intentional communities, one-planet living

Introduction While DR has received abundant media attention

for its inspirational environmental and energy
During the spring of 1992, a small group of accomplishments, this ethnographic study highlights
environmentally conscious Stanford University how understanding and deconstructing social
undergraduates decided to form an “eco-town.” After practices—the day-to-day convergence of materials,
graduation, they pooled their resources, developed meanings, and competencies—at DR is critical to
plans for a community that reflected their ideals, and understanding how “Rabbits” (a local term) survive,
began searching for land. By October of 1997 the six and by several accounts thrive, at uncommonly low
remaining founders had purchased a 280-acre former levels of energy and material throughput. 3 As
pig farm in rural Scotland County, Missouri. isolated units of analysis, the physical technologies,
Eighteen years later, the population of Dancing skills, and ambitious environmental goals at DR are
Rabbit Ecovillage (DR) has grown by nearly tenfold, neither novel nor inherently sustainable. Yet, when
including 46 adults and 9 children.1 The experimental the ecovillage is viewed as a site for the production
community, which now includes inhabitants of and integration (or “bundling” in the terminology of
diverse ages and family composition, demonstrates Shove et al., 2012) of social practices like car
the possibilities and challenges of a lifestyle that sharing, human-excrement composting, renewable
consumes less than 10% of the energy and material electricity production, and natural building, two
resources of the average American in several major things become clear. First, choice-based models of
consumption categories. This level of resource environmental change employed implicitly or
savings approximates “one-planet” consumption explicitly by local governments miss opportunities
(BCSD, 1993; Moore & Rees, 2013; Rees & for transitioning to more sustainable consumption.
Wackernagel, 1996), and may therefore serve as an Second, social competencies of interpersonal
existing model of an ecologically sustainable
community in a nation that represents less than 4.5%
of global population, but 13.7% of humanity’s eco- ecological footprint of DR Ecovillage is beyond the scope of this
logical footprint (WWF, 2014).2 article, and even if such data were available both the community’s
ecological footprint and global biocapacity change from year to
year. In this article, therefore, “one-planet” living is used as a
E-mail correspondence with Dancing Rabbit, May 14, 2015. symbol, and I have been careful to qualify DR’s achievements as
An individual or community living at “one-planet” consumption “approximating” one-planet living.
levels consumes no more than their fair share of global 3
See DR’s media coverage page, which can be accessed at
biocapacity, which is approximately 1.7 global hectares per person
(Moore & Rees, 2013). Calculating the precise per capita ecovillage/press/media-coverage.
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communication and conflict resolution are critical to and ecosystem trends as an overhaul of entire moral
sustainable consumption. paradigms (Rees, 1995) and/or socio-technical
The 18-year existence of DR coincides with the regime transition (Rotmans et al., 2001; Voss &
diffusion of local plans and regulations for Kemp, 2006). However, these ambitious visions lack
sustainable development (Beatley, 1995; Saha & a clear picture about the day-to-day realities that lie
Paterson, 2008) and climate action (Lutsey & on the other side of a hypothetical socio-technical
Sperling, 2008; Wheeler, 2008) at multiple scales in transition. In other words, we have relatively few
the United States. Thousands of local officials, satisfying examples of what sustainable consumption
representing hundreds of millions of residents across looks like in practice. This article takes advantage of
the country, have signaled their commitment to the willing and ongoing experimentation at DR to
lowering greenhouse-gas emissions by signing the sketch a picture of the daily practices associated with
Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (MCPA, n.d.). one version of sustainable community. While the
Similarly, more than 1,000 municipalities in the radical socio-material practices at DR may not
country have signed on as members of ICLEI-Local transplant directly into mainstream contexts, and DR
Governments for Sustainability, committing their community members are far from representative of
jurisdictions to conducting at least a baseline individuals in the general public, extreme case
inventory for sustainable development and/or climate studies like the description that follows “activate
action. Despite these encouraging trends, progress on more actors and more basic mechanisms” than case
the most substantial environmental issues has at best studies that claim to be representative (Flyvbjerg,
inched forward incrementally (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2006: 289). In other words, the DR case study offers
2007; Culotta et al., 2015; Lane, 2015; Wheeler, a window into an exceptional context that
2008). Multiple studies indicate that the association demonstrates the multidimensional challenges that
between verbal commitment to climate action and mainstream communities may face if they aspire to
actual investments that reduce carbon emissions in accomplish savings of a similar magnitude. The
the United States is weak or undetectable (Krause, example also contributes to existing social practice
2011; Sharp et al., 2011; Wang, 2013). In recent theories by offering an in-depth ethnographic account
years, state and local governments have even begun of sustainable practice.
to block or abandon plans for sustainability and The following section offers an overview of
climate action in the face of ideological opposition social practice theoretical approaches. The article
(Frick et al., 2015; Hurley & Walker, 2004) and/or then provides a background discussion of DR before
perceived ineffectiveness (Krause et al., 2015). diving into a detailed discussion of the community’s
Sociologist Elizabeth Shove (2010) describes systems of cooperative automobility and human-
how climate action policies in the United Kingdom excrement reclamation. I argue that neither the
and the United States have adhered to what she labels preferences of individual “Rabbits,” nor the strong
an Attitude-Behavior-Choice (ABC) approach that community environmental rules, nor the materials
assumes improving environmental outcomes is a employed can—as isolated units of analysis—explain
matter of modifying individual preferences, and the ecovillage’s impressive achievements. Rather,
consequently consumption choices. If only we could interviews and participant observation reveal that
change individuals’ attitudes through information active investments in interpersonal-communication
campaigns and economic incentives—follows the and conflict-resolution skills are critical to lowering
ABC model—then they would choose more material and energy consumption. In the final
environmentally benign behaviors, “doing their bit” sections, I reflect on implications for policy and
to address major environmental challenges like planning outside this niche context.
climate change. This approach is evident in the
popularity of incentive-based energy-efficiency Sustainability as Transitions in Social Practice
standards for buildings and neighborhoods (Retzlaff,
2009; Sussman, 2008), Smart Growth programs that As discussed above, contemporary attempts to
rely principally on financial “carrots” rather than steer communities toward more sustainable
regulatory “sticks” (Krueger & Gibbs, 2008; Lewis et consumption are dominated by a model of change
al., 2009) and the prominence of “voluntary” policies that focuses primarily on transforming individual
for lowering local greenhouse-gas emissions attitudes, and then behavior and choices. Social
(Wheeler, 2008: 488). practice theory (SPT) has emerged in recent years as
The ABC approach competes with perspectives an alternative approach. Drawing heavily from the
that view reversing the most troubling environmental separate work of sociologists Anthony Giddens
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(1986) and Pierre Bourdieu (1990), SPT shifts the example, the city of Groningen in the Netherlands
ontological focus away from transforming the has increased the number of cyclists through decades
preferences of individuals, without devoting attention of mutually reinforcing policies that encourage
entirely to inescapable social structures (Shove & compact land use, restrict driving, and invest in
Walker, 2010). Instead, SPT highlights the cycling infrastructure (Watson, 2012). These policies
production and reproduction of practices—mundane, have layered upon one another over many years and
everyday activities like driving a car, skateboarding, can be understood alongside an enduring cultural
or showering—and the material and symbolic milestone of learning to ride a bicycle as a child in
elements that individual “carriers” of practice the country. Watson explains that understanding
combine to reproduce these practices every day policy decisions as interventions in practice
(Reckwitz, 2002). “broadens the suite of potential interventions to
Shove et al. (2012) simplify older social practice promote either recruitment or defection from a
models by dividing practices into three elements: 1) practice.” In other words, policies that address major
materials like physical artifacts, tools, and issues like energy consumption can engage new
technologies; 2) meanings such as norms, rules, meanings and new skills that are typically overlooked
emotions, and symbols; and 3) competencies as outside the realm of public policy. Shove et al.
including skills, routines, and background (2012), for example, discuss how a Japanese
knowledge. Individual practitioners tend to initiative to reduce indoor-energy consumption began
recombine these “ingredients” of social practice in by changing meanings of appropriate work attire that
their day-to-day lives (Shove & Walker, 2010), but promoted lighter clothing (and less need for air
individuals can reshape practices by integrating new conditioning) in the summer and heavier clothing
materials, meanings, or competencies that circulate (and less need for indoor heating) in the winter.
through space. For example, SPT understands the To date, most SPT adherents have employed
worldwide diffusion of mechanical air conditioning historical case studies and secondary data sources to
as inseparable from conceptions of luxury, health, document changes in social practices. Given the
and professional attire that have diffused incremental, typically long duration of transitions in
internationally through specific economic sectors and practice, such an approach is appropriate. However,
industries (Shove et al., 2013). Similarly, the practice SPT stands to benefit from detailed, ethnographic
of daily showering has coevolved with perceptions of explorations of the production and reproduction of
propriety, freshness, relaxation, and routines social practices. As Tom Hargreaves (2011) explains,
associated with the modern white-collar workday “Social practice theory directs research attention
(Shove & Walker, 2010). These and other transitions towards the practical accomplishment or ‘doing’ of
in practice are difficult to explain by the changing everyday practices. Accordingly, it implies the use of
preferences of individuals or the introduction of methodological techniques capable of observing what
physical technology alone. actually happens in the performance of practice such
Watson (2012) proposes a “systems of practices” as ethnography, rather than relying solely on the
perspective that focuses on the overlapping structures results of either questionnaire surveys or interviews
that normalize and extend particular practices in as is typically the case within conventional
favor of others. Automobility, for example, has come approaches.” The case study that follows employs an
to dominate transportation in the United States and ethnographic approach to illustrate the details of day-
most of Europe due to decades of decisions that have to-day practices that allow for dramatically lower
extended the practice of driving while recruiting consumption at DR. The narrative begins with an
practitioners from other forms of mobility like overview of the community and continues into more
walking and cycling. Automobiles-as-objects have specific practices.
not simply displaced bicycles, nor do individuals
have an inherent desire to drive, but the practice of Methods
automobility has extended itself through interrelated
changes in infrastructure, land use, safety, and the Data collection for this case study began with the
skills required to operate a vehicle. Transitioning objective of explaining the extraordinary energy and
away from automobility and its associated materials savings at Dancing Rabbit, and narrowed to
environmental ills, then, requires a series of policy an analysis of daily social practices through
decisions that reconfigure meanings, competencies, participant observation and interviews with
and materials associated with driving, and encourage community members. Between the summers of 2010
momentum toward alternative modal options. For and 2011, I spent a total of twelve weeks living and
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working at DR, engaged in routines similar to change rarely, although the community can amend
ecovillage members. In the summer of 2010, I them with a consensus vote.5 Members of DR agree
assisted on a small building project and in 2011 that they will neither use personal motor vehicles nor
returned as an intern for a privately owned bed-and- keep them on the community’s land; that they will
breakfast inn. Like most full-time inhabitants of the avoid using fossil fuels for most purposes (cooking
ecovillage, I contributed to community-wide cleaning with propane is an exception); that they will follow
duties and attended regular community dinners and organic gardening standards; that all electricity
meetings. Although most days were structured by consumed on-site will be produced by “sustainable”
work obligations, I found time on weekends and off- non-fossil sources or that the community will offset
hours to conduct semi-structured interviews with any electricity it imports from the grid by returning
community members. Detailed memos about daily clean electricity back; that all structural lumber will
interactions supplemented my interviews. be harvested within the bioregion or acquired from
Initial interviews (16 total) gauged members’ recycled sources; and that they will reclaim all
day-to-day routines and how they differed from organic waste (including human excrement) on site.
routines prior to taking up residence at DR. Questions
probed 1) the events that led to the decision to move Table 1 Dancing Rabbit Covenants
to the ecovillage; 2) a “typical day” in the
community; 3) a “typical week”; 4) the community’s DR members will not use personal
Covenant 1 motorized vehicles, or store them on
role in the larger region; and 5) sources of success DR property.
and concern at DR. Questions were designed to elicit At DR, fossil fuels will not be applied to
candid stories about resource-consumption decisions the following uses: powering vehicles,
at the ecovillage. Responses often led to lengthy Covenant 2 space-heating and -cooling,
refrigeration, and heating domestic
discussions and follow-up questions that explored the water.
challenges of cooperative resource management. All gardening, landscaping, horticulture,
Interviews typically lasted an hour and were recorded silviculture and agriculture conducted
and transcribed. Interview participants were selected on DR property must conform to the
standards as set by the Organic Crop
to achieve a balance in gender, age, and parental Covenant 3 Improvement Association (OCIA) for
status, although women outnumbered men in the organic procedures and processing. In
sample ten to six, as they constitute a larger addition, no petrochemical biocides
may be used or stored on DR property
proportion of the community overall. 4 Following for household or other purposes.
Corbin & Strauss (2007), initial observations were All electricity produced at Dancing
tested against follow-up interviews, which challenged Rabbit shall be from sustainable
the data’s internal consistency. I returned to DR sources. Any electricity imported from
Covenant 4 off-site shall be balanced by DR
about once every year for four years for brief visits, exporting enough on site, sustainably
while keeping in touch with members over e-mail generated electricity, to offset the
and social media. imported electricity.
The following section presents an overview of No lumber harvested outside of the
bioregion, excepting reused and
the environmental accomplishments of DR before Covenant 5
reclaimed lumber, shall be used for
describing the daily practices that enable the construction at DR.
community to achieve impressive resource savings, Waste disposal systems at DR shall
and ultimately into the importance of social Covenant 6 reclaim organic and recyclable
competencies to achieve these outcomes.

Background: Dancing Rabbit’s Ecological 5

As a brief example, for thirteen years DR remained proudly
Covenants disconnected from an external electricity source (e.g., it was “off
the grid”). In 2010, however, the community amended its
covenants to enable a grid connection (see Covenant #4 in Table
Since its founding in 1997, DR has operated 1), which allows the community’s solar electricity cooperative to
under six “ecological covenants” that impose “borrow” electricity during dark winter months and return surplus
extraordinary restrictions upon inhabitants’ electricity to the grid during summer months. The amendment did
consumption behavior. The covenants (see Table 1) not receive unanimous approval as several members felt strongly
that connecting to the grid would contradict a cornerstone of the
community’s mission and preclude individuals from closely
See Appendix A for a breakdown of gender, age, and parental monitoring their electricity consumption. These members
status of interview subjects. The names and personal details of articulated their disapproval of the amendment without blocking its
respondents have been modified to protect the identity of human passage, a move called “standing aside.” Such a stance is not
research subjects. considered an impediment to a consensus decision.
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services cooperative, with zero clothes dryers on site.

DR members have developed a series of Many of these collectively-owned appliances reside
practices to live within these restrictions and work inside the community’s common house which
toward the community’s mission to “create a society includes a kitchen, offices, a small library, showers,
the size of a small town or village, made up of sinks, a children’s playroom, and a “great room” used
individuals and communities of various sizes and for social events and meetings. Similarly, the four
social structures, which allows and encourages its automobiles at DR are owned by a vehicle
members to live sustainably.” 6 The results of this cooperative that members support by paying a flat
experiment are encouraging. By the community’s rate proportional to the number of miles they drive.
own calculations, inhabitants of DR consume less This per-mile fee covers fuel, maintenance, and
than 10% of the resources of the average American insurance. Electricity in the community is generated
resident in categories like vehicles per person (7%), almost exclusively by solar photovoltaic panels and
vehicle miles traveled per person (9%), motor-fuel delivered on a micro-grid maintained by a
use (7%), electricity use (7.5%), natural gas community-wide cooperative called Better Energy
consumed (8%), water consumed (9%), and still for Dancing Rabbit (BEDR). Services like Internet,
substantially less than average in categories like landline telephone, health insurance, and human-
pounds of household waste per person (26%), and excrement recycling (called “humanure”) are all
square feet of housing per person (31%).7 managed by cooperatives as well.
As the following sections detail, achieving these This type of coordination requires that
savings—especially in a rural county with no public individuals commit to deliberate and ongoing skills
transportation—requires a level of skill and development, as almost all inhabitants have migrated
coordination that is remarkable in contemporary from settings in which consumption decisions occur
American society. According to the U.S. Census at the household or individual scale. Shared
Bureau, 95.8% of all housing units in the country ownership of everyday infrastructure reduces the
have their own “complete” kitchens, 97.5% have a individual dollar cost for basic services, but
refrigerator, 97.6% have a stove or cooking range, individuals also “pay” through investments in skills
78.6% have a washing machine, and 76.6% have a and routines that appear cumbersome to an
clothes dryer. 8 By contrast, DR meets many basic uninitiated observer. These practices are critical for
services through shared access to a limited number of coping with the conflict that coincides with shared
appliances. Household kitchens, for example, are the ownership of resources. After elaborating on two
exception rather than the norm at DR. One specific practices below, this article discusses how
community member described how beginning her transitioning to low-consumption practices involves
day by brushing her teeth in her own dwelling each changes in meaning, skills, and technologies rather
morning was “a luxury.” While individuals live in a than attitudes, behaviors, and choices, as is typical at
variety of custom-built dwellings—ranging from a the municipal scale.
six-bedroom house to small individual cabins—
households typically share cooking, dining, and Collective Automobility: From “Individualized
gardening space in multiple food cooperatives. The Transport” to “Community Infrastructure”
entire community of 55 people shares two clothes As discussed above, Rabbits navigate their rural
washing machines that are part of a larger general- surroundings with a small fleet of four cooperatively-
owned vehicles: three sedans and a pickup truck. The
DR community is situated two miles from the small
The DR mission statement is available at
town of Rutledge (population 106) and about thirteen
vision/mission-statement. The DR website clarifies that miles from the county seat of Memphis (population
“sustainably” means, “[i]n such a manner that, within the defined 1,822), but DR’s location offers few convenient
area, no resources are consumed faster than their natural employment opportunities. The nearest metropolitan
replenishment, and the enclosed system can continue indefinitely
without degradation of its internal resource base or the standard of
center, Iowa City, is 125 miles to the north.
living of the people and the rest of the ecosystem within it, and Fortunately, DR members have found ways to subsist
without contributing to the non-sustainability of ecosystems with relatively little cash income. What money they
outside.” have, they typically earn through small online
These data, including explanations about calculation methods,
can be accessed at
businesses and local enterprises that require minimal
average-american-vs-dancing-rabbit-2011. travel. One particularly entrepreneurial member
Table C-03-AH, American Housing Survey. Available at explained, “I have ten jobs,” including two online- clothing businesses and multiple small remunerated
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duties inside the community. One couple started the individuals can share some of the per-mile cost of the
Milkweed Mercantile Eco Bed ‘n’ Breakfast, where trip or return the favor later. The system appears to
guests stay and attend workshops ranging from food serve the community well. As discussed above, the
canning to straw-bale construction. Two women have average DR member drives 9% the number of miles
started a regional midwifery business that requires and consumes 7% the volume of motor fuel as the
only intermittent travel outside the ecovillage. average American motorist. Oren continues,
Several members have drawn from their experience
building their own homes to start independent design- [W]hat a relief it is to go from having to
build companies, which also offer temporary work to drive everywhere [prior to living at DR] to,
other members and residents.9 Other individuals have ironically enough, being here practically in
founded small web-design and online-marketing the middle of nowhere where you’d think
businesses that they operate from inside the you have to drive for anything and I get in
community. my car once every few weeks…And there
While DR members reduce commuting trips by are days when [the cars] don’t get used.
earning income onsite, they still travel by automobile
to nearby towns to purchase building supplies, Of course, such a system is not immune to
borrow library books, shop for clothing, access conflict. Decisions about maintenance and insurance
schooling and medical appointments, see movies, typically made by households as isolated units are
among other reasons. For these trips, automobiles are subject to a greater variety of demands when vehicles
the most practical option. Whereas car use in the are owned cooperatively. During my brief residence
United States is typically an act of individual in the community, members of the vehicle
discretion, the Dancing Rabbit Vehicle Cooperative cooperative were struggling to decide whether and
(DRVC) approaches vehicle use as a social act that how it should accept rate increases brought on by
begins with the exchange of information about the inexperienced drivers or members with a poor driving
timing and destination of each trip. Members of record. The issue emerged as a teen raised in the
DRVC can reserve a car at any point during the week community approached driving age and wished to
by indicating the departure date, time, destination, join the vehicle cooperative. Was the cooperative
and estimated return time on a clipboard stored in the willing to pay for the large and imminent insurance-
common house. Reservations are read aloud at a rate increases as a consequence of a new teenage
weekly meeting called the “WIP” (week-in-preview), member? Should the teen (or his parents) have to pay
attended by most of the community. The WIP allows a higher rate, or should all members of the
information exchange that facilitates shared trips, cooperative absorb the more expensive rate?
which further reduces vehicle-miles traveled. As one Addressing this conflict involved a series of
member named Oren explains, highly structured meetings. At one session, the
conversation began with an introduction from several
Often we’ll find out [at the WIP meeting] if appointed “facilitators”—community members
someone is going into town on a certain day. trained to summarize, steer, and set the ground rules
You might call the hardware store and say I for discussion. The facilitators of this particular
need, this, this, and this, pay for it over the meeting spent the first twenty minutes “filtering” the
phone and have that other person pick it up discussion, having spent the previous week speaking
when they’re in town, and I’ll do that for one-on-one with different stakeholders, and began by
others. admitting that they were themselves “exhausted”
from the process. The meeting touched on a large
Another member explained how she had recently number of topics: insurance rates, the neurological
relied on a neighbor to return a book to the county’s development of teenage drivers, different child-
public library. In exchange for such services, rearing philosophies, intergenerational justice,
interpersonal tensions, automobile culture, and even
At DR there is an important distinction between “members” and the morality of insurance. Advocates of each
“residents.” Members are relatively permanent inhabitants. They perspective provided passionate and personal pleas.
can both lease land and build permanent structures it. Members At one point, a father entrenched strongly at one
have also pledged to follow the community’s ecological covenants.
To become a member, individuals must live for at least six months
extreme of the argument repeated, almost verbatim,
at DR as a “resident,” and complete an interview process before the perspective of an individual with the opposing
being accepted as a member. Residents can lease land, but cannot opinion. Such “reflection” is a critical element of
build permanent structures it. Both members and residents can nonviolent communication (a technique described
subscribe to any of the community’s cooperatives.
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below), and it ensures that discussants listen and When humey buckets are nearly full, they are
know they are heard. covered with a tight-fitting lid and placed in a
The community did not resolve this dilemma by designated outdoor spot to await a weekly pickup.
the end of the ninety-minute meeting, and would Every member, resident, and visitor must contribute
continue to discuss the topic for over a year. 10 Yet labor, or “humey duty,” by collecting the buckets in a
even in the midst of an emotional debate, the wheelbarrow, depositing the excrement in designated
gathering concluded with a reflective dialogue about humanure-compost bins, rinsing the buckets (a
the meeting itself. Such reflection is a routine fixture marginal use of potable water), and returning them to
in important meetings at DR, but in a mainstream their origin. The whole process takes a few hours to
municipal hearing such an undertaking might seem complete. Depending on the specific humeys to
bizarre. Open and emotional self-expression and which individuals subscribe, they complete “humey
reflexivity is discouraged in mainstream public duty” as little as once a year and no more than once a
hearings, which have received criticism for their month. The individuals responsible for humey duty in
intimidating, expert-driven, and unidirectional any given week receive a reminder at the weekly
dialogue (Halvorsen, 2001; Innes & Booher, 2004; WIP. Humanure compost is kept separate from food
Lowry et al., 1997). scraps and other organic compost in the community
because it takes more time to decompose completely.
Managing Excrement: From “Waste Removal” to After two years, however, the compost is safe to
“Nutrient Reclamation” distribute for application on the community’s fruit
Another extraordinary resource-saving practice trees and ornamental plants. 11 The entire system
at DR involves the recycling of human excrement helps Rabbits achieve their obligation to reclaim all
through a network of five-gallon buckets called organic waste onsite (Covenant #6) and offers an
“humanure” (human plus manure), or the “humey” organic fertilizer that allows the community to
system. In a study of indoor-water consumption at enhance local soils without resorting to synthetic
twelve different sites around the United States, chemicals (Covenant #3).
(Mayer et al., 1999) estimated that the average
individual uses 18.5 gallons of water per day for Discussion: New Meanings, New Skills, New
flushing toilets. While federal regulations that Materials
mandate more water-efficient toilets have likely
lowered this figure in recent years, DR members have It is clear from observing practices of collective
effectively eliminated the consumption of potable automobility and excrement reclamation that
water for sanitation by composting solid and liquid accomplishing these resource-saving practices
excrement. This community-wide system transforms involves transitions in the “ingredients” of social
the acts of urination and defecation from “waste practice—in meanings, competencies, and materials.
removal” to “reclamation,” and involves a These changes transcend the traditional ABC model
substantially different routine than what is customary of change typical in the realm of public policy.
in contemporary water closets. A “humey” (the
alternative word for “toilet”) is simply a five-gallon Transition in Meanings
bucket capped with a typical toilet seat. Like The impressive savings of DRs in vehicle-miles
mainstream toilets, humeys are enclosed in indoor traveled and volume of fuel consumed cannot be
stalls, often with the bucket hidden inside a wooden explained by individuals willingly suppressing their
fixture. Alongside the humey bucket is typically use of a vehicle or choosing an alternative mode of
another bucket with wood shavings or sawdust and a transportation. DR’s covenants do not restrict driving
plastic scoop. As one member explained, “After you per se; rather, they forbid individually owned
make your contribution [emphasis added], you cover vehicles onsite. As a consequence, DR members have
it with sawdust.” The sawdust works to mask the accepted automobiles as components of a
odor and jumpstart the composting process. Toilet community-scale transportation system, signifying an
paper is deposited directly in the humey bucket as important shift in their meaning. Since all users own
well. and manage the system, and pay by the mile, it is in
everyone’s best interest to limit total mileage by
The vehicle cooperative ultimately resolved to switch from a
“family” to a “commercial fleet” insurance plan, which is less 11
. While properly composted humanure is theoretically as safe as
sensitive to the age of drivers. Premiums for DRVC increased commercial fertilizer, the community applies it conservatively,
$100 per year, rather than $8,000, as was projected with the family avoiding application with food that comes in direct contact with
plan. what people put in their mouths.
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“sharing” trips. One casualty of this transportation with romantic partners and co-workers. These
system, however, is the symbolic “freedom of the practices create space for emotional transparency and
road” upheld as a right-of-passage to young allow community members to isolate interpersonal
Americans throughout the twentieth century (Jackson disputes from day-to-day tasks integral to community
1985). The personal automobile emerged from a functioning. One member found such transparency
sports-and-leisure niche in the United States (Geels refreshing when he moved to DR.
2005), so a pivot away from these historical roots is
significant, although in parallel with nationwide If somebody was upset, they didn’t stuff it.
decline in enthusiasm about driving (Delbosc 2016). It came out. They’d show it, and it was dealt
The DR automobile cooperative also demands that with. It was okay to say, “Y’know I
individuals relinquish some privacy that exclusive car understand that you’re in a hurry or
ownership generally affords. While revealing the whatever, but this just really caught me the
duration and destination of car trips is meant wrong way and I’m feeling a little upset
primarily to improve the efficiency of use, it also about it, and so, I'm hoping that maybe
requires a level of transparency uncommon in the you’ll think about that before you do it
mainstream. again.” It was powerful.
The humanure system is also founded on a
reinterpretation of the meaning of human excrement, Emotional transparency is enhanced by
from “waste” that is typically flushed away to a adherence to nonviolent communication (NVC), a
“contribution” managed and reclaimed for technique that most Rabbits train themselves to use
agricultural purposes. Individuals in developed when addressing concerns with others. Perhaps
countries learn from an early age that they can simply surprisingly, an individual employing NVC begins by
and permanently separate themselves from their observing and articulating her own needs, and how a
excrement with the flick of a lever or push of a button particular action has affected her feelings. Explains
and no shortage of technologies have emerged to Rosenberg (2003), “NVC guides us in reframing how
improve the efficiency of a toilet flush. Yet by we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of
inverting the meaning of the act of urination and habitual, automatic response, our words become
defecation, DR undermines the practice of “flushing” conscious responses based firmly on awareness of
completely. what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting.” One
interviewee explained that NVC was
Transition in Competencies
Individuals also invest time developing [R]eally key in terms of getting along with
competencies to manage collectively owned people in such close proximity and in terms
resources and resolve inevitable conflicts. Both car of, like, dealing with your own [problems]
sharing and excrement reclamation at DR require an which you also need to do to get along with
atypical level of scheduling and interpersonal people. It’s not just listening to other people;
transparency. These social competencies prove useful it’s also having to listen to yourself in a
far beyond the vehicle cooperative or the humanure deeper way.
system, and are worth discussing in some detail.
A surprising portion of day-to-day life at DR is A short anecdote illustrates how one member
devoted to maintaining interpersonal relationships. used NVC to address a violation of her personal
The schedules of members and residents are filled living space. In the summer of 2010, a veteran
with regular “check-ins,” “co-counseling” sessions, member, Shirley, left her home under the temporary
women’s groups, men’s groups, and other meetings care of a young resident while undergoing medical
with the express or ancillary purpose of supporting treatment. When she returned, she found her self-
friends and neighbors emotionally. A “check-in,” for built house in disarray. The week prior, a group of
example, is a formal technique used in the ecovillage young residents and interns—this author included—
to increase empathy under challenging had taken advantage of the empty space for a small
circumstances. Different individuals practice check- gathering and neglected to clean up the mess.
ins differently, but one typical version invites people At the first community meeting after Shirley’s
to verbalize physical, intellectual, emotional, and return, she announced that she was “very saddened”
spiritual needs (“PIES”), without time restrictions or to arrive home and find empty bottles and dirty
interruptions. Some individuals practice check-ins dishes all over her house. She explained that she
only as needed, and others schedule regular check-ins “trusted” we would take care in her absence and that
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she expected future visitors to show respect for her without the financial capital to install new public
home as if it were their own. Her message was short, transit infrastructure may still find ways to achieve
clear, and extremely powerful. Instead of accusing or climate-action goals by encouraging shared-access
blaming, her speech focused on how the event systems that simultaneously lower costs and reduce
affected her. We had betrayed her trust and invoked road congestion.
sadness in her. It was a situation I wanted very much The practice of excrement reclamation clearly
to remedy, and I worked consciously to respect employs new materials, including five-gallon
individuals’ space in the subsequent weeks. The buckets, sawdust, compost piles, and wheelbarrows,
member’s choice to express her own emotions invited much of which is recycled from construction
the “offenders” an opportunity to rectify the situation initiatives in the ecovillage. Excrement itself is also
without feeling attacked or damaged. reframed as a new type of “material” that can be
applied in a new context and used in lieu of
Transition in Materials petrochemical fertilizers imported from far away.
Low-consumption practices at DR also involve
alternative materials, tools, and technologies.
Encouragingly, however, all physical technology is Conclusion
either readily available for retail purchase or
extracted from DR’s property. Transitions in It is perhaps unreasonable to expect urban and
meanings and competencies discussed above position suburban jurisdictions to adopt DR’s exact practices
DR members to achieve their environmental goals which have evolved to fit a specific context and
without having to import costly new technologies. community mission. The ecovillage members unite
For example, Covenant #5 requires use of only ideologically around sustainable living and they
recycled lumber or wood products sourced within the agree to covenants exceptional in the United States.
bioregion. As a consequence, Rabbits have reclaimed DR is also a small community in a rural region with
lumber from abandoned barn structures throughout limited land-use regulations or legal constraints on
depopulating northeast Missouri. Members also take building design or materials. Yet the DR case study
advantage of locally-sourced straw bales (a waste reveals a blind spot in contemporary sustainable
product of wheat) to insulate their dwellings. development and greenhouse gas-reduction efforts
Covenant #4 restricts electricity consumption to which have both emerged as mainstream
“sustainable” sources, which members interpret as undertakings in recent decades (Lutsey & Sperling,
solar- and wind-generated electricity. In the 2008; Saha & Paterson, 2008). Municipalities tend to
community’s first thirteen years, members relied on initiate the climate action-planning process by
multiple individual solar photovoltaic and micro- reducing emissions from municipal operations, with
wind systems. In recent years, however, DR has the intention of modeling smart practices to the
received of state and federal subsidies to establish a community at large (Sussman, 2008; Wheeler, 2008).
community-wide solar-energy cooperative and Cities and other local and regional governments
micro-grid, which saves individuals the upfront cost invest in fuel-efficient vehicles, increase their
of energy infrastructure and batteries. renewable energy portfolios, replace aging
The DRVC has taken advantage of the infrastructure, and improve public transportation
community’s solar-energy cooperative to power its options, with the expectation that the private sector
newest vehicle with electricity generated onsite, will follow suit. When municipalities use public
while previously DR has deliberately chosen small, policy to extend climate-action efforts beyond their
fuel-efficient vehicles to save on the cost and own operations, they tend to focus on changing
quantity of fuel consumed. Multiple case studies in individual attitudes, behaviors, and choices without
the social practice theory literature (Watson, 2012; challenging systems of exclusive ownership that
Spotswood et al., 2015) focus upon transitions in render even successful climate action incremental
practice that involve the displacement of one (Shove 2010).
transportation mode (e.g., automobiles) for another The DR ecovillage, as viewed through the lens of
(e.g., bicycles), yet the DR case study shows how a social practice theory, reveals the possibility of
transition away from the environmental ills of incredible environmental and economic savings by 1)
automobiles is possible without eliminating transforming individual and household practices into
automobiles per se. This is an encouraging finding collectively managed community systems; 2)
for communities that have invested for many years in investing in interpersonal communication skills that
vehicular infrastructure. Rural communities and those help guide collective management processes; and 3)
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taking advantage of readily available, locally sourced of their own decision-making processes, providing a
materials that might otherwise be considered “waste.” first step toward low-consumption systems at the
Similar practices are not difficult to imagine in local scale. To the extent that conflicting values and
“mainstream” urban settings. Because of a barrage of competing demands are inherent in all sectors of
new mobile applications, an emerging collaborative democratic decision making, DR’s communication
consumption movement is allowing individuals models offer local planners and elected officials tools
worldwide to share access to goods and services to navigate through myriad conflicts including, but
without necessarily owning them exclusively not limited to, social equity, economic development,
(Botsman & Rogers, 2010; Belk, 2014). Private and public safety, and land use.
nonprofit initiatives like car sharing (Shaheen et al., Of course, DR’s experiment is not perfect. Some
2009; Shaheen & Cohen, 2013), bicycle sharing interpersonal conflicts endure for years despite
(Shaheen et al., 2010), cohousing (Williams, 2008; earnest efforts to work through them, and every year
McCamant & Durrett, 2011), and co-working some members depart in the face of irresolvable
(Spinuzzi, 2012) allow individuals to access goods problems. Like any community, the ecovillage’s
and spaces without the expense or time commitment residents cope with emotional fatigue, isolation, and
of exclusive ownership. Other peer-to-peer power imbalances. Over nearly two decades, its
applications like Couchsurfing and Neighborgoods specific practices have evolved as new meanings,
allow shared access to living spaces and household competencies, and materials circulate within a
goods for free, reducing idle capacity and landfill dynamic population. Likewise, transitions outside the
waste, respectively (Botsman & Rogers, 2010). 12 ecovillage context are unlikely in practice to resolve
Local governments can assist these initiatives by issues of resource consumption completely or
reforming regulatory barriers and/or encouraging permanently. New meanings, competencies, and
shared-access services in planning documents. materials will continue to challenge or reinforce old
The DR ecovillage pushes one step beyond practices. Yet DR illustrates that radically low-
private and nonprofit “collaborative consumption” consumption, low-waste living is possible without
initiatives by investing in social skills that allow abandoning democracy or relying on hyper-
individuals to work productively through conflict, sophisticated (and necessarily undemocratic)
facilitating democratic management of limited technologies. The potential for sustainable living,
resources. Its members have chosen to live in an then, resides in human cooperation and empathy,
intentional community where shared-access resources which can improve with practice.
are the rule. The skills necessary to function in such a
setting are bound to increase in importance outside Acknowledgements
the ecovillage context as growing urban populations
confront unprecedented environmental and resources Many thanks to the members and residents of
shocks. Skills like NVC have already established a Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, especially the unnamed
foothold in other applied social science fields like individuals who took time to sit down for interviews.
public education (Rosenberg, 2003a), criminal justice Thanks also to Tony Sirna and Ma’ikwe Ludwig,
(Marlow et al., 2012), and nursing (Nosek, 2012). It who have helped with many last-minute inquiries,
is increasingly common for American municipalities and to Ted Stirling, Sara Peters, Alline Anderson, and
and public libraries to sponsor home-maintenance Kurt Kessner for hosting me in the community. Three
workshops that help homeowners save on electricity anonymous reviewers helped shape the manuscript
and water bills. The DR case suggests that local significantly.
governments may benefit from investing in social
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Appendix A: Interview subjects, gender, age, and parental status


1 Female 33 yes
2 Male 40 yes
3 Male 57 yes
4 Female 26 no
5 Female 41 yes
6 Female 27 no
7 Female 37 yes
8 Male 27 no
9 Female 36 no
10 Female 58 yes
11 Female 26 no
12 Male 61 no
13 Female 55 no
14 Male 35 yes
15 Male 40 no
16 Female 35 yes

Males (n) = 6
Females (n) = 10
Average age = 39.6 years
Parents (n) = 8
Non-parents (n) = 8

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Managing the triple bottom line for sustainability: a case study

of Argentine agribusinesses

Poonam Arora1, Nicole D. Peterson2, Federico Bert3, and Guillermo Podesta4

Department of Management, Manhattan College, 4513 Manhattan College Parkway, Riverdale, NY 10471 (email:
Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Boulevard, Charlotte, NC
28223 (email:
La Asociación Argentina de Consorcios Regionales de Experimentación Agrícola (AACREA), Sarmiento 1236, Buenos
Aires, Argentina (email:
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science/MPO, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami,
FL 33149 (email:

Using surveys and interviews with Argentine agribusiness owners and managers, we examine the relative
importance of economic, environmental, and social goals in their planning processes. While in one survey,
respondents rate these three objectives as equally important, they also prioritize economic goals over
environmental and social targets when assigning points based on the importance of decisions made for
various sub-categories. Discussions of specific scenarios illuminate goal importance, but also demonstrate
that perceived losses can be valuable for understanding how managers think about sustainability in terms of
comparative economic gains, social relationships, and different social and economic outcomes. Subsequent
analyses suggest that the three categories of the “triple bottom line” are overly rigid and cannot capture the
integration among environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainability. Given these findings, we
suggest future directions for research on losses, time scales, and sustainability.

Keywords: managing for sustainability, Triple Bottom Line, agribusiness, Argentina, social goals

Introduction companies in 41 countries), the number of

firms voluntarily reporting some non-
Businesses in many parts of the world are economic (environmental and social) metrics
discussing sustainability more than ever, to corporate sustainability rating agencies
often to understand what the word means increased from approximately 10% to over
within different organizational decision- 90% between 1993 and 2013. This increase
making contexts. Perhaps the most common has been fueled in part by greater stakeholder
definition measures a firm’s focus and expectation that reputable businesses are
progress along three trajectories, the so- concerned with sustainability (Sridhar,
called triple bottom line: economic well- 2012).
being, environmental quality, and social In 2013, almost all of the top 250
justice. The notion of a triple bottom line corporations on Fortune’s Global 500 list
became popular in the early 1990s following provided some type of reporting on their
publication of the Brundtland Report and corporate social responsibility (CSR)
during intervening years an increasing activities. Eighty-two percent of them
number of companies have chosen to report referred to the Global Reporting Initiative
non-financial measures. According to the (GRI) guidelines which emerged from work
KPMG 2013 Survey of Corporate carried out by CERES, a Boston-based non-
Responsibility Report (which covers 4,100 governmental organization (NGO) focused

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on encouraging the adoption of sustainable bottom line accounting focuses to an overly

business practices and solutions by economic large degree on the economic values of
entities. 1 Though GRI’s original purpose sustainability, ignoring a long history in
(dating back to the 1990s), was to provide business of incorporating non-economic
mechanisms to determine environmentally values into decision making.
responsible conduct, over the years the The question then remains: How do we
framework and protocols have expanded to incorporate sustainability into business
also include social and governance activities activities, thereby moving from the realm of
(ESGs). In its latest iteration, the fourth talk into action? In this article, we examine
generation of the guidelines (called G4) sustainability as a decision-making process in
provide reporting principles and standard which owner-managers make tradeoffs
disclosures. They also identify the criteria among different options facing their
that an organization should use to prepare its organizations. The concept of the triple
sustainability report, including evidence of bottom line and discussions of tradeoffs
economic, environmental, employee, already suggest that sustainability is about
shareholder, and stakeholder impact.2 decisions, but this article takes this starting
A major problem, however, is that simply point and uses real-world situations to probe
disclosing about sustainability is often what decision making for sustainability
confused with actually making progress means in practice. We consider four aspects
toward being more sustainable (Milne & of decision making and sustainability.
Gray, 2013). While concern with First, decision making for sustainability
sustainability is usually accompanied by usually occurs under conditions of
measurement across the triple bottom line, uncertainty, both in terms of the context
simply reporting ESG outcomes is not surrounding the decision as well as
evidence of positive overall impact on associated outcomes and probabilities
environment and society (Sridhar, 2012). (Chichilnisky et al. 2012). Mangers
Additionally, evidence shows that firms tend unavoidably make decisions that affect
to report cherry-picked positive ESG environmental, social, or even economic
activities while overlooking aspects of their sustainability without full knowledge of the
operations that have negative impacts and context or a clear understanding of causal
connotations (Cho et al. 2015). relationships between choices and outcomes.
Nonetheless, a benefit of reporting is that To understand decision making for
it has introduced the triple bottom line into sustainability requires that we examine
the conversation in boardrooms, drawing conditions of uncertainty.3
attention to existing environmental and social Second, although decision making is
consequences of economic decisions and frequently characterized as involving trade-
introducing new levels of transparency and offs among the components that comprise the
changes in legislation (Wilburn, 2014). triple bottom line, there is little discussion
Greater cooperation among different CSR about the relative importance and weighting
rating agencies also suggests a move toward assigned to the three areas. Arguably, balance
understanding that economic growth, social assumes that the economic, environmental,
well-being, and environmental quality are and social consequences (and measures) are
interdependent (Stutz et al. 2012). However, equally weighted in terms of significance
Norman & McDonald (2004) argue that triple (Santiago-Brown et al. 2015). However,

1 3
CERES was previously known as the Coalition All managerial and business decisions involve some form of
for Environmentally Responsible Economies. For further uncertainty about causal relationships and future outcomes.
details, see http// Sustainability highlights uncertainties added by environmental
Refer to and social relationships, often not made explicit in business

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social justice and environmental quality are bottom line because firms need to balance
not typically considered at par with economic land use, technology, and labor to be
outcomes for businesses (Kumar, 2014), and economically sustainable. They arguably also
an unequal weighting of the three elements must give credence to all three aspects to
effectively changes the definition of ensure their survival; yet their primary
sustainability. As the balance among the success measures are economic in nature.
three elements changes, so does the context More broadly, agribusinesses are
surrounding the decision maker and the primary players in determining the continuity
organization’s decision process, and and sustainability of agricultural systems
therefore its actual choices (i.e., the relative globally. Our work complements studies on
weighting of the three elements of industrialization (Boehlje & Gray, 2007;
sustainability is crucial and can depend on the Drabensott, 1995) and globalization
context). (Pimentel, 2004) in the food and agricultural
Third, we consider the role of decision sector and the impact of “corporatization” of
priorities for choices that are made. agriculture in the form of agribusinesses
Traditional business measures of outcomes (Schertz & Daft, 1994) on sustainability and
(e.g., profitability) do not necessarily predict maintenance of the triple bottom line.
importance, but goals can and do signal likely While clearly not representative of all
choices and therefore outcomes (Krantz & businesses, Argentine agribusiness allows us
Kunreuther, 2007). We therefore focus on to examine how such companies perceive the
how decision makers (typically CEOs of relative risks across the triple bottom line and
family-run enterprises) prioritize and make prepare for contingencies under conditions of
tradeoffs among economic, environmental, climatic and economic uncertainty. In taking
and social goals given their socioeconomic this approach, we find that decision making
and political contexts. Specifically, we for sustainability necessarily involves a more
examine whether businesses consider integrated view than is currently promoted as
elements of the triple bottom line as goals for a triple bottom line approach. Our research
their decisions and the relative importance shows that decision makers often focus on
that they give to these objectives. expected losses, but in a much more nuanced
Finally, we investigate the role of risk way than the literature on loss aversion
perception in decision making. Do the suggests. We argue that our findings point to
assessments of agribusiness managers the need for a much more dynamic view of
incorporate social risks as well as decision making for sustainability.
environmental and economic risks? How do
social considerations in their decision making Background on the Argentine Pampas
relate to environmental and economic
factors? Given the novelty of these questions, The Argentine Pampas is among the most
we ask more broadly how we can begin to naturally fertile regions in the world (Hall et
characterize the intersection of triple bottom al. 1992; Calviño & Monzón, 2009).
line accounting and risk perception. However, climate fluctuations, technological
This article considers decision making innovations, and global and local economic
for multiple aspects of sustainability under and political contexts have shaped the
conditions of uncertainty as a way to expand evolution of agricultural systems in the
ideas about sustainability in business and Pampas (Bert et al. 2011). Specifically, over
decision making under uncertainty. We use a 80% of the agriculture in the Pampas is rain
real-world case in which uncertainties are fed, mainly due to the high cost of irrigation.
very important—agriculture. Agribusinesses Over the past two decades, climate change
are ideal candidates for studying the triple has increased the variability in precipitation

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(Seager, 2010) with extremes becoming more equity, and social cohesion (Murphy, 2012).
frequent. As a result, despite its natural Not only do these conceptual and practical
fertility, agricultural outcomes in the region, objectives constitute good social policy, but
in terms of yield and profitability have research in psychology shows that social-
become unpredictable (Giorgi, 2002). contextual conditions are central to the
There have been significant changes in creation of meaningful work, an essential
land use and the structure of the farming feature of human well-being and productivity
sector. Due to its higher profitability (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
compared to other enterprises, cropping- The economic focus in the Pampas on
related activities now encompass over 70% export crops is inexorably coupled with
of the cultivable land, displacing pastures and environmental and social changes. Unlike
native grasslands (Magrín et al. 2005; Pengue, pastures, which are multi-year investments
2005; Viglizzo, 2011). The growing global present on the land year-round, agricultural
demand for grains, together with local crops are annual choices that may remain for
changes in the Argentine economy, cost anywhere from four to eight months. When
savings, and the simplification of land is fallow, it collects water through
agronomical management, have recently rainfall, but does not lose nearly as much
enhanced the relative profitability of through evaporation as it would through the
agriculture in Argentina (Qaim & Traxler, evapotranspiration that occurs when plants
2005). Approximately 23 million hectares are are in the ground. Thus, the depth of the water
currently cropped in the Pampas, nearly 60% table has shifted upwards throughout the
by those who rent the land (MAGP, 2015). region by an estimated two meters over the
Argentine agriculture is not a subsidized course of the last twenty years (Aragón et at.
sector and farmers accordingly take on the 2011), increasing the probability of
full risks inherent in commodity markets; inundation from severe rainfall. Floods and
their economic incentive is the potential droughts have varying social and economic
profit based on actual crop prices (Chaddad implications. Floods cause greater disruption
et al. 2009). Since “losses loom larger than of social life and capital, while droughts lead
gains” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1991), to greater economic hardship.
agribusinesses should be highly concerned The decision processes of agribusinesses
with overcoming their initial loss (financial in the Pampas present an interesting real-
outlays for, say, rent, seeds, and fertilizer) world case study because of an apparent
and stemming additional losses. In other contradiction. On one hand, decision makers
words, the initial outlay of costs is likely to are heads of businesses with profitability
determine choices and tradeoffs vis-à-vis the goals for the current cropping cycle and they
triple bottom line. have a desire to ensure their immediate
Agriculture in Argentina currently survival by preventing a loss. On the other
employs 10% of the country’s workforce hand, their very existence is linked to
(FAO, 2012). Traditionally, farmers lived on maintaining the long-term productivity of the
the land and maintained deep connections land and employees, who have the local
with the local community, hiring from within knowledge to help maximize each farm plot.
and sourcing most of their needs from Environmental and social goals are therefore
proximate sources. Recent structural changes inexorably intertwined with economic goals,
have altered these relationships through and essential to the long-term sustainability
changes in contract forms, outsourcing, and of agribusiness in the region. These goals,
external investments (Chaddad et al. 2009). however, are neither easy to measure nor
This raises issues central to social direct in their impact upon the bottom line
sustainability, such as local participation, (Sridhar, 2012). Agribusinesses thus provide

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an invaluable opportunity to examine the decision makers from agribusinesses in the

relative importance of economic, Pampas and a series of in-depth interviews
environmental, and social considerations and with fifteen agribusiness CEOs. The
to investigate how they connect to ideas following sections discuss our methodology
about risk in agriculture. and results, as well as theoretical and policy
Current Research
Study 1: A Field Survey
Our research reported here was We used the thirteen goals (five
exploratory in nature and we did not seek to economic, three environmental, four social,
test concrete hypotheses. Our goal instead and one personal) relevant to typical Pampas-
was to explore three questions. First, do based agribusiness or farm development
agribusiness decision makers in the Pampas (Arora et al. 2015) as the starting point of our
consider economic, environmental, and analysis. Although we collected data on
social goals? Second, what is the relative importance ratings for all objectives (see
importance they assign to these goals (i.e., Arora et al, 2015), we only report results for
how do they make tradeoffs)? Finally, what the twelve goals (listed in Table 1) that we
is the role of risk perception and losses in deem to be relevant to the triple bottom line.
their decision processes? The personal goal of simplifying life,
Although we did not have specific although it can be thought of as a social
predictions, we did expect to find a greater objective, maps on to a different factor and
focus on economic goals and risks compared hence we do not consider it here. Participants
with social goals. Based on prospect theory also made tradeoffs across six pairs of goals
(Kahneman & Tversky, 1979), which posits (Table 2), two each for economic vs.
that decision makers are motivated environmental goals, economic vs. social
differently in the domain of gains versus goals, and environmental vs. social goals.
losses and likely to show loss aversion having Our first study surveyed ninety
experienced a loss, we expected minimizing Argentine agricultural decision makers
losses beyond the initial financial outlays to regarding their business goals. Participants
be a priority. Since the initial investment were attendees at one of a series of
would be experienced as a loss prior to a workshops hosted by the Asociación
cropping cycle, our decision makers would Argentina de Consorcios Regionales de
likely prioritize maximizing economic gains Experimentación Agrícola (AACREA), a
ahead of their social obligations to employees, non-profit farmers association (the largest in
family, and community. Since profitability is Argentina) that supports farm efforts through
connected to land quality, we expected dissemination of information and
environmental goals to be important, technology. 4 Their membership includes
although perhaps less so than economic goals, medium to large farms and agribusinesses
particularly given the longer time scale for (smaller farms tend not to be sustainable in
environmental outcomes. We anticipated that the Argentine Pampas—see Bert, 2011 for a
issues of human capital development, such as review) that are involved in growing crops,
creation of social capital, concern with dairy-related activities, ranching for beef, or
education, and maintenance of long-term some combination of these three activities.
employees, to be a lower priority. Thus, though all participants were members
We examine the three questions outlined of the same organization (although with some
above in two studies—a field survey with selection bias), we contend that the inherent

For information about AACREA, refer to

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Table 1 Mean, Standard Deviations, and 95% Confidence Interval for Participant Self-reports of Importance of Goals in
Service of the Triple Bottom Line in Study 1 (N = 64 participants)
Goal Mean 95% Confidence Interval
Lower Bound Upper Bound
(M-2SD) (M+2SD)
Economic Goal
Meet or exceed profit objectives 3.30 0.683 1.93 4.67
Maximize productivity 3.28 0.723 1.83 4.73
Manage yield variability 3.19 0.664 1.86 4.52
Expand farm/grow agribusiness 3.08 0.762 1.56 4.60
Manage price obtained for crop 2.75 0.836 1.08 4.42
Average economic goal 3.12 0.435 2.25 3.99
Social Goal
Fulfill immediate responsibility to 3.66 0.511 2.64 4.68
Create a learning organization 3.45 0.641 2.17 4.73
Create local social capital 2.97 0.755 1.46 4.48
Attain status 2.91 0.811 1.29 4.43
Average Social Goal 3.25 0.477 2.30 4.20
Environmental Goal
Preserve land quality 3.50 0.667 2.17 4.83
Ensure future viability of 3.44 0.794 1.85 5.03
Avoid environmental damage 3.34 0.739 1.86 4.82
Average Environmental Goal 3.43 0.619 2.19 4.67

Note: Ratings are assigned on a 4-point scale where 1 = not at all important and 4 = very important.

Table 2 Points Assigned Out of 100 Where Number of Points Reflects Relative Importance of Each Goal in Six-Goal Pairs
Used to Test Tradeoffs Between Goals in Study 1 (N = 64 participants)
Average Average
First Goal Type & Points Second Goal Type & Points
Pair Sample T-
Goal in Pair Assigned out Goal in Pair Assigned
of 100 out of 100
Environmental: Maintain t = 3.22
1 Meet or exceed 56.09 43.91
productivity of land p = 0.002
profitability goals
Economic: Expand Preserve and maintain t = 2.57
2 56.88 43.13
farm operations land for future p = 0.013
Economic: Social:
t = 4.11
3 Meet or exceed 56.48 Create social capital in 43.52
p < 0.001
profitability goals community
Economic: Social:
t = 6.99
4 Meet or exceed 66.87 Meet obligations to 33.13
p < 0.001
profitability goals employees and family
Preserve and t = 3.46
5 57.27 Create social capital in 42.73
maintain land for p < 0.001
future generations
Environmental: Social:
T = 8.07
6 Maintain 62.07 Meet obligations to 37.93
P < 0.001
productivity of land employees and family

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diversity of the membership makes the methodology shown to have validity (Arora
results credible. Participants were either et al. 2012).
provided a link to an electronic version of the
survey or given a paper copy, as per their Importance Ratings
preference. Both options allowed for As a starting point, we calculated the
anonymity. mean (M), median, and standard deviations
Sixty-four participants returned surveys (SD) for the importance ratings provided by
that were sufficiently complete for our the participants for each of the twelve
analysis. To best capture underlying goals relevant goals included in the survey. As
that influence decisions, we targeted the main Table 1 shows, the overall ranges, means, and
decision maker, the owner or a CEO-manager. standard deviations did not vary significantly
In addition, 60% of the total land in the across goals. We tested this finding by
Pampas is farmed on a rental basis, so our calculating the 95% confidence interval (CI)
participants included those who own, rent, or for each goal rating as the M ± 2 x SD for
both own and rent the land used in their each goal. All goal means fall within the
agribusiness. Typically, crops are grown on ranges calculated for all other goals, so that
rented land while owned land is used for all importance ratings are statistically similar.
multiple activities, such as growing crops, Table 1 also provides the 95% CI for each
maintaining pasture for dairy, and beef goal. Since ratings were on a 4-point scale,
ranching. Specifically, respondents who and all goal ratings were above 2, all were
rented over 50% of their land grew crops on rated as important to very important in the
74.7% of it, while those who owned over decision process.
50% grew crops on only 41.2% [t(45) = 2.373, To further test this uniform rating of
p = 0.022]. This pattern is typical of the importance across the three categories of the
Argentine pampas (MAGP, 2015). There triple bottom line, we averaged the
were no other statistical differences based on importance ratings across the four economic
tenure (rental vs. ownership) status of land. goals, three environmental goals, and four
We asked respondents to consider the social goals to create average scores for each
main agricultural decisions that they had criterion. The average importance scores are
made during the most recent cropping cycle 3.12 (SD = 0.43) for economic goals, 3.25
(e.g., whether to rent additional land, how to (SD = 0.48) for social goals, and 3.43 (SD =
allocate land use mix, and what crops to 0.62) for environmental goals. All three
grow) and to rate the importance of all goals average importance scores fall within ±2 SD
on a scale of 1 to 4 (where 1 = not important of each other, or within the 95% CI,
at all or not considered in decisions and 4 = suggesting that their relative importance to
extremely important or always considered in the participants is not significantly different.
decisions). Thus respondents focused on the Respondents self-reported that they treat all
critical decisions that ensure the three aspects of the triple bottom line equally
sustainability of their agribusiness, requiring in their decision processes.
them to balance all three areas of the bottom
line—economic prosperity, environmental Tradeoffs Among Goals
well-being of the land, and social capital and We were interested in exploring how the
learning within their organizations. importance ratings translated into decision-
Participants then divided 100 points between maker choices when tradeoffs were required.
two sets of goals such that the points assigned Respondents assigned points to each goal in
to each reflected the relative importance of the six pairs shown in Table 2, out of 100
that goal in their decision process, a total points. Table 2 shows the average
number of points assigned to each goal type

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vis-à-vis the other goal type as well as the social goals. A hierarchy of importance
results of a paired-sample t-test for each pair emerges: economic goals, followed by
of goals. The points assigned reflect the environmental goals, and finally social goals.
relative importance of each goal in decision Since goals serve outcomes (Kruglanski &
processes. We created an average point score Kopetz, 2009), there is likely a similar
for economic goals when paired against hierarchy in outcomes: economic
environmental goals by considering the two sustainability is considered most important,
pairs that compare economic and followed by environmental sustainability,
environmental goals. We calculated similar and in third place, social sustainability (see
point scores for all three combinations— also Santiago-Brown et al. 2012).
economic vs. environmental, economic vs. Agribusinesses, however, are arguably more
social, and environmental vs. social goals. reliant that other enterprises on
This allowed us to conduct a paired-sample t- environmental and social sustainability to
test for each set of averaged point scores. ensure economic sustainability. Thus, in
In general, and as is seen in trends with Study 2, through qualitative interviews, we
individual goal pairs, more points were sought to understand the process by which
assigned to economic goals [M = 56.48, SD decision makers prioritize the three
= 12.63) when paired with environmental categories of the triple bottom line, and to
goals (M = 43.52, SD = 12.63, t(63)= 4.11, p explore how the explicit assignment of equal
< 0.001), and a similar pattern was observed importance to all goals from the survey
for points assigned to economic goals (M = contrasted with the implicit hierarchy across
62.07, SD = 11.97) when paired with social the three categories revealed by the forced
goals (M = 37.93, SD = 11.97, t(63 )= 8.07, p assignment of points.
< 0.001]. Thus, economic goals, which serve
the financial bottom line, appear to be the Study 2: In-depth Interviews
main priority for the decision makers. We Our second study consisted of in-person
also measured environmental goals against interviews with the CEOs of fifteen
social goals to be able to conduct a complete agribusinesses in the Argentine Pampas.
three-way comparison. Average points Specifically, we wanted to determine if these
assigned to environmental goals (M = 60.74, individuals actually considered all three
SD = 15.59), compared with those assigned categories of the triple bottom line during the
to social goals (M = 39.26, SD = 15.59), were decision process and, if so, whether they also
significantly higher [t(63) = 5.51, p < 0.001]. followed the hierarchy observed in Study 1.
If all goals are equally important, as We wanted to avoid inadvertently priming
suggested by the explicit importance ratings our respondents to consider all three
for each goal in Study 1 (see Table 1), then categories, so that we could see which
points assigned to each goal in a pair should categories of goals emerged implicitly, and
be closer to a 50–50 point split. A statistical their natural ranking in the decision process.
difference in points assigned suggests that Therefore, we only asked open-ended
importance ratings may be more like questions about the main factors that
aspirations, or even “cheap talk,” while mattered to interviewees during their
actual choices may be made based on a planning process.
relative ranking: the three aspects of the triple Our respondents were all male (typical
bottom line are likely not implicitly valued and therefore representative of the region),
identically. Specifically, economic goals and each was the main decision maker (CEO)
clearly are considered more important than of a family owned Argentine agribusiness
the other two categories, and environmental that employed between two and twenty
goals are considered more important than people with the specific number associated

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with the size of their specific land holdings. 6. Changes in operations or decisions based
Net worth varied between US$20–200 on inputs about economic, environ-
million. All but two interviewees were mental, or social factors.
members of AACREA, and all of them
volunteered their time. Land use, which is often economically
We conducted interviews in Spanish or driven, affects groundwater availability. We
English depending upon the respondent’s therefore focus on the understanding of water
preference and all authors of this article are availability and impact of human actions on
either fluent in or have a working knowledge land use and water availability.
of both languages. Meetings were held at a Four coders initially listened to the
location chosen by the respondent, such as recorded interviews and identified general
their office, home, or a restaurant, in various themes. They then discussed these themes to
towns in the Pampas, or at the offices of identify main trends, after which the same
AACREA in Buenos Aires. We recorded all group conducted a second round of coding to
interviews with the consent of the tabulate responses to specific questions to
respondents and we gave them as much time better analyze them. There was general
as they wanted for each response to learn agreement among the coders on the
about their underlying motivations without tabulation of responses.
any external priming or elicitation. If, in a We wanted to understand our
response, an interviewee did not mention a respondents’ criteria for land-use plans,
specific category of goals (economic, which would in turn determine their
environmental, or social), we asked him to economic profitability for the current year,
clarify his answer. We encouraged environmental outcomes such as ground
respondents who were very succinct in their water levels for the next year, and social
initial responses to elaborate as an open- outcomes such as continued employment.
ended follow-up question. Initial questions We therefore asked them to describe and
were often followed with additional prioritize these factors. All interviewees
clarifying or probing questions. The mentioned economics (including commodity
interviews averaged 65 minutes, ranging prices, soybean demand, global economic
from 46 minutes to 89 minutes. concerns, and foreign exchange issues) as
Interview questions were open-ended key considerations, and all but two
and covered the following topics: respondents mentioned inter-annual crop
rotation to maintain environmental quality.
1. Main factors and goals in the planning Other considerations included political
process (description, ranking, and context (seven mentions), crop yields (seven
comparison with neighbors). mentions), soil quality (five mentions),
2. Information regularly tracked pertaining climate (five mentions), and social
to major decisions (e.g., prices, rainfall, considerations (five mentions).
groundwater, crop selection). Six interviewees listed economic factors
3. Understanding of the environmental as the primary consideration, while another
consequences of land use and crop six ranked yields in first place. However,
selection strategies on groundwater since yields determine how much crop can be
available, including main sources of sold, and thus overall profits for that year, we
water for crops. combined profits and yields to create a
4. Concern about floods versus droughts. category of economic concerns. We
5. Perceived changes in water availability separated yields from soil quality, which
over the past decade. would be another determinant of how well
the crops grow, but is clearly an environmen-

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Table 3 Total Number of Unprompted Mentions and Rankings for Triple Bottom Line Categories by Interviewees in Study
2 (N = 15 Interviewees)
Ranking Environmental Social & Human
Economic concerns Other Factors
provided by Concerns (e.g. inter- Concerns (e.g.,
(e.g. prices, costs, (e.g. political
interviewee* annual crop rotation, quality of life,
yields, consumption) climate)
soil quality) local community)
1 12 5 0 1
2 4 7 2 2
3 3 5 2 2
4 0 1 1 2
Total Mentions* 23 21 5 7

*Note: Some factors were ranked at similar levels. Also, some mentions raised during the interview are included above,
but were not ranked.

tal concern and was identified separately by As a final step, we explored how triple
the interviewees. We combined soil quality, bottom line considerations might affect
climate issues, and crop rotation to create the decisions in a real-world scenario. We asked
category of environmental concerns. Table 3 participants how they would respond to
shows both the number of mentions by triple drought and flood, to get a better sense of the
bottom line category, and the number of economic, environmental, and social impacts
times each category was ranked in first place. of these events. We presented our
Respondents mentioned economic and respondents with a scenario requiring them to
environmental concerns 23 and 21 times choose between buying insurance that
respectively, suggesting that they view both protects against floods versus drought. They
as equally important. Concerns for could only choose to cover one potential risk,
employees and other stakeholders were thus revealing their greater concern. As
mentioned only three times, while other shown in Figure 1, ten of the fifteen
factors like the political situation were interviewees chose drought insurance over
mentioned seven times. These results flood coverage. Socially, floods disrupt life
replicate findings from our first study (see when standing water inhibits the movement
above), namely that when interviewees are of people, perhaps more so than droughts.
asked to discuss goals, they mention Economically, however, participants view
economic, environmental, and social ones in floods as having a lower potential for causing
that particular order. a total loss, since the higher level of water
To test perceived differences in makes otherwise dry land productive,
importance, we asked respondents to rank the providing sufficient harvest to break even, or,
factors that they listed. As Table 3 in some years, make a small profit.
demonstrates, economic concerns are ranked Participants perceive droughts, in contrast, as
in first place twelve times, while leading to a full economic loss as land ceases
environmental concerns are given that status to be productive, leaving no feasible path to
only five times. Interviewees never ranked break even or to achieve profitability. Five
social factors first, but political factors are respondents discussed the potential of losing
listed once. Thus, when it comes to rankings, land to floodwaters, though only two were
we duplicate the tradeoffs observed in the sufficiently worried to select flood insurance.
first study among the categories of the triple Several of the interviewees who selected
bottom line—economic concerns come first, the hypothetical drought insurance
followed by environmental concerns, with mentioned their fear that with drought, “one
social concerns in last position. loses everything, and with flood, at least in
the high areas I can recuperate.” Another


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6 Flood

Controllable Fear of Total Increasing Insurance
Risk Loss Frequency Type
Figure 1 Insurance Choice, Perceptions of Risk and Loss, and Changes in Frequency for Floods and Droughts by
Interviewees in Study 2

respondent stated that he would “Always from droughts—is it simply a concern with
[buy] drought [insurance], because in floods economic sustainability, or are other factors
there is loss from flooded land, but there is involved? We asked our respondents to
better yield in the higher lands from elaborate what occurred during droughts. The
additional water. In a drought, there is most common reply referred to the total
nothing. There is no yield and the animals suffering inflicted upon all in a drought—
suffer. It’s just bad.” While four respondents they expressed concern about their inability
mentioned total loss from drought, only one to take care of their employees, families, or
highlighted total loss from flood and felt it even animals. Although the explicitly stated
was a bigger economic danger. When asked reason here is economic in nature, the
whether floods or droughts had increased in prevention of a monetary loss, preliminary
frequency over the past two decades, six evidence suggests that implicit social
answered “floods” while another six said concerns underlie that economic focus.
“droughts.” We asked this question to The respondents did not just compare
ascertain whether our interviewees were losses between drought and flood, but also
aware of the increasing level of groundwater, engaged in social comparison and concern
which has the potential to increase the with their own expectations to define a loss.
probability of flooding and hence the One interviewee discussed loss in terms of
likelihood of small but more frequent losses. not gaining as much as others: “I would
Three were not sure and chose not to respond. prefer if everyone gained…not that I gain and
What is not evident from the above another loses…” Another respondent
responses, however, is the underlying described loss in terms of not getting
motivation for avoiding economic losses expected results, particularly in comparison

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to others, and the fear this created: “That I drought narratives reveals a dominant loss
lost what I expected one year, I see that from frame, perhaps because of the initial outlay of
this perspective, that is the loss I have even if funds, making the potential for loss a key
I made money”. Thus the perception of loss decision parameter. It is further the case that
or potential loss is perhaps more important economic, environmental, and social
than the actual amount of loss itself. Here too, sustainability are framed in terms of losses,
the underlying reason for this concern is the often of total versus partial impairment, that
inability to meet obligations for family and affect how decisions and trade-offs are
employees. Concern with economic loss understood. While assessing potential losses
appears linked to the consequences of that through measurement may be challenging,
loss on other variables, particularly social our respondents found ways to communicate
ones. This corresponds to much of the work their loss perceptions in ways that complicate
in psychology on decision making under risk a separation of economy, environment, and
(e.g., prospect theory) and the role of society. Losses for them are relational and
emotions in driving priorities and tradeoffs relative, not absolute, and include animals
when making choices (Lowenstein et al. and neighbors, as well as social status. Others
2001). have found that relative positioning is
important for loss aversion (Gill & Prowse,
Conclusion 2012), though our study suggests that it is not
just about competition, but may even be
Although we find that decision makers in about social standing and self-concept (e.g.,
Argentine agribusinesses assign similar being someone who fulfills obligations).
importance ratings to economic, Understanding decisions may depend on loss
environmental, and social goals, when asked perceptions, which in turn may be more
to reflect on the relative importance in a set difficult to quantify due to the social
of tradeoffs, they do not treat the various implications of losses.
dimensions of sustainability in equal terms. We also find business owners are
We expected economic concerns to dominate concerned about losing local knowledge and
environmental and social considerations livelihoods, though these appear to be of
mainly because money spent at start of the lower importance. Perhaps the importance
cropping cycle on agricultural inputs such as ratings reflect an aspiration to value equally
seeds, is thought of as a loss to be recouped, all goal types, or are simply social impression
and losses, psychologically, loom “larger.” management, and therefore “cheap talk.”
We see this in our first study, where despite Brown and colleagues (2009) argue that the
explicit statements of equal consideration of accounting focus of “the triple bottom line”
all three goals, the points assigned do vary by prioritizes measurements usually unavailable
category. Similarly, in the second study, for environmental or social aspects,
although economic and environmental providing no easy way to incorporate them
factors are mentioned with equal frequency, into planning. It is as if, because the social
economic considerations are consistently elements are not the measured reasons, they
ranked higher. However, probing deeper are also not stated as top-of-mind, but are not
through interviews and scenarios reveals that entirely missing either. Perhaps this is an area
the economic focus is often motivated by a for future research and, drawing on work in
concern for fulfilling social obligations to behavioral economics, possible opportunities
family and employees, as well as doing well for policy-based “nudges” for increasing
in social comparisons. social responsibility.
In our interviews that informed the Our research suggests that Argentine
second study, we found that the risk of agribusiness owners consider economic,


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environmental, and social factors in their decision process both behaviorally and
decision making, though these are not easily motivationally will allow us to grasp more
separable, as when economic outcomes are fully how to use the triple bottom line as a
desired for social reasons. Other research tool for creating sustainable organizations
suggests that some indicators, like aesthetics and, eventually, a sustainable society.
or community health, may be linked to Third, the impact of the temporal scale of
economic, environmental, and social the decisions and quantifiable nature of the
concerns at the same time (Santiago-Brown outcomes needs to be clearly delineated.
et al. 2015). In our study, examining ideas When approaching a decision, temporal
about losses helps clarify these relationships framing influences the options evaluated and
by highlighting the perceived relative nature strategies pursued. Asked to consider their
of losses (to past or expected outcomes of decision cycle, our participants focused on an
selves or others) and the importance of annual timeframe since that is the average
meeting obligations for ideas about loss length for agribusiness decisions, and also the
across economic and environmental average period for relatively quantifiable
considerations. economic outcomes. Environmental and
These results challenge the idea of a social outcomes and consequences are not
triple bottom line as a set of separate issues— only harder to quantify and measure, they
Argentine agribusiness owners clearly see frequently lag behind the annual economic
them as integrated. Talking about losses cycle (Boström, 2012). This begs the
provides a sense of how these might be question of whether underlying motivations,
integrated, but also suggest next steps for this such as concern with fulfilling social
research. First, the focus on loss as a obligations, would manifest themselves
dominant frame in the decision-making explicitly if the decision timeframe were
process may highlight a deeper psychological longer—say five to ten years. The importance
variable. It may not be the amount of the loss of social elements for decision making also
that matters, but its impact on the decision highlights the continuing challenge to
maker and others, and its degree of measure, calculate, and assess the triple
controllability. Thus, even as floods become bottom line in a more integrated manner
more likely, and multiple years of floods (Norman & McDonald, 2004).
might result in greater losses than those In conclusion, sustainability needs to
caused by a drought, decision makers may be encompass all three aspects: economic,
focusing on droughts as a cause for greater environmental, and social. Although there
concern because they perceive the appears to be a hierarchy in descriptions of
accompanying circumstances as beyond their the decision process, discussions of loss bring
influence and droughts leave them unable to elements together in new and provocative
meet immediate social obligations. ways. Understanding the multi-faceted
Understanding how loss is perceived, both manifestations of sustainability that may not
economically and psychologically, becomes be sufficiently captured or resolved by a
an important next step. simple tripartite definition is a vital next step.
A second research direction is to This research illustrates that decision makers
empirically test whether the immediate already view the various dimensions as more
economic focus is indeed supported by a integrated than the conventional demarcation
second order of logic that includes suggests. There are, however, many
environmental and social concerns. The challenges in how we handle the integrated
open-ended responses provide some considerations. Moreover, if the final choice,
preliminary evidence, but subsequent due to metrics or timescales, places one
research is necessary. Understanding the dimension above others, then the value


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derived from an integrated approach is Bert, F., Podesta, G., Rovere, S., Menéndez, Á.,
diminished. Perhaps the perception of losses North, M., Tatara, E., Laciana, C., Weber, E.
gives us a window into how the triple bottom & Toranzo, F. 2011. An agent based model to
line and other contextual variables are simulate structural and land use changes in
agricultural systems of the Argentine Pampas.
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The social lab classroom: wrestling with—and learning from—

sustainability challenges
Danielle Lake, Hannah Fernando, & Dana Eardley
Liberal Studies Department, Grand Valley State University, 241 Lake Ontario Hall, Allendale, MI 49401 USA (email:;;

Unlike the traditional disciplinary approach to research and problem-solving still common in higher
education, this article explicates and recommends an interdisciplinary, holistic pedagogical approach that
takes seriously the interconnectedness of our wicked social sustainability challenges (e.g., poverty, global
climate change, food access, among others). We argue that educators can better prepare students to tackle
such wicked problems by requiring they engage with locally based problems connected to large-scale
systemic challenges. By discussing the design and outcomes of the course “Wicked Problems of
Sustainability” from both the students’ and instructor’s perspectives, we seek to extend and enhance
effective pedagogical strategies. As a laboratory for sustainability education and innovation we have
developed a transdisciplinary, community-engaged, upper-division undergraduate course that engages
students in participatory research on the inextricably linked dimensions of social sustainability.
Collaborating with community partners to work across networks, disciplines, and institutions, students have
the opportunity to ameliorate real problems in the local community. In doing so, the course confronts
students and the instructor with a series of robust challenges from intensive collaborations, to logistical and
time-management dilemmas, to real-world execution issues. This article details the obstacles associated
with messy inquiry, participatory research, and community engagement and provides recommendations for
overcoming them.

KEYWORDS: social sustainability, education, wicked problems, pedagogy, innovation, community

challenges we must be cognizant of how our actions

Introduction affect issues of justice and equity, infrastructure,
governance, and capital (Cuthill, 2010). For instance,
Efforts at increasing our social sustainability justice requires that we develop infrastructure and
(SS)—at establishing systems, products, and services employ capital so as to meet the basic needs of a
designed to better the overall health and well-being of community. We should similarly govern so as to
all community members for the long-term—are ensure access, opportunity and capacity, health and
frequently stymied by the “wicked” nature of our security, diversity and inclusion, as well as overall
collective problems. For instance, poverty, climate well-being (Boström, 2012); and we should do so in
change, and food insecurity, as wicked social phe- an inclusive manner across generations (Dujon et al.
nomena, are dynamically complex, interdependent, 2013). Yet our dominant educational practices in the
high-stakes dilemmas with no simple or evident United States (focused on linear, disciplinary
definition (let alone any simple or obvious solution). progression) and common abstract pedagogical
These problems evolve with high levels of uncertainty strategies (focused on narrow problem solving) fail to
in situations where both action and inaction carry prepare students with the tools to collaboratively and
serious and long-term consequences (Rittel & Webber, iteratively act on wicked problems (WP). Therefore, it
1973; Salwasser, 2004; Brown & Lambert, 2013). The is imperative that educators do more to empower
need to act and act now must be grounded in a general students to become effective “change agents”
stance of epistemic humility and openness, a (Svanstrom et al. 2008).
willingness to return and reconsider, revise, and redo. With these concerns and commitments in mind,
According to SS scholars, when addressing such this article describes lessons learned from a specific
undergraduate course entitled “Wicked Problems of


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Sustainability.” As a transdisciplinary, community- summarize the underlying framework supporting the

engaged, upper-division undergraduate course at course, its learning objectives, and the assignment and
Grand Valley State University, this course focuses on assessment strategies found to be most valuable (for a
fostering collaboration, integration, and problem- full list of assessments see Table 2). In place of an
solving by bringing interdisciplinary teams of students exhaustive chronological description of course
together with community partners seeking to tackle content, we next highlight the value of the key
local sustainability problems.1 Topics in the course pedagogical strategies employed, specifically
range from WPs to design thinking, environmental detailing the importance of a problem-framing and
justice, food systems, policy, and citizen science (Lake reframing process, the necessity for revision and
& Fauvel, 2015). Students study local SS challenges, iteration, and the importance of asking students to
thus far having addressed issues of food insecurity and disseminate their work in the real world. Following
urban farming in the inner city, sustainable funding for these recommendations, we candidly discuss the
local nonprofits, K–12 student-lunch policies, obstacles involved in such a pedagogy and its potential
sustainability education programs, local farmers’ to contribute to tipping points in local sustainability
markets, along with issues of food waste and access, efforts. Finally, we offer possible measures for judging
among a host of other projects. the “success” of such courses. By providing a flexible
The course was offered for the first time in the fall framework, a set of tools, and a diverse set of
of 2013, again the subsequent semester, and most perspectives on those tools, we ultimately hope to help
recently in the winter of 2015 (undergoing three instructors and their students collaboratively tackle SS
iterations and substantial revisions). Paralleling the challenges within their own fields and communities.
evolving nature of the course described, this article
evolved through deep and sustained dialogue among Methods
the teaching apprentice (and a graduate of the
inaugural course), an alumna of the course’s most As a case study, this article analyzes the course
recent iteration, and the designer and instructor. The “Wicked Problems of Sustainability” using a holistic,
struggles emerging from each version of the course single-case design and a wicked-problems framework
confirmed both the need and value of working directly (Yin, 2012; Lake et al., 2015). The authors—the
with students to iteratively and collaboratively revise designer of the course, the teaching assistant, and a
its various dimensions. Through our experiences recent student alum of the course—used qualitative
researching, designing, teaching, taking, and assisting research methods to study the merit of the pedagogy
in “Wicked Problems of Sustainability,” we address described. This included analyzing student findings,
the following two questions: How can we better tackle reviewing student and community-partner surveys and
SS challenges within undergraduate courses? What anonymous end-of-semester evaluations, observing
pedagogical methods can help students respond to student interactions during course time and team
interdependent, high-stakes systemic problems? In meetings, and conducting ethnographic interviews.2
answering these questions we show how the strategies Interviews with students and community partners were
emerging from our collective experiences align with largely unstructured, resulting from anecdotal
and extend sustainability teaching practices discussions during office hours, community-partner
recommended in the literature. We ultimately meetings, and volunteer hours in the community.
conclude that courses designed to address our social Following discussions with students and community
sustainability problems can and must do more to foster members, we recorded comments by summarizing key
epistemic humility, “creative confidence” (Kelley & themes and consistent concerns. In addition, we
Kelley, 2013), and “open-minded advocacy” (Shrader- elicited student perspectives through various
Frechette, 2002). assignments throughout the semester, a final synthesis
We begin by laying out the methods used to arrive essay detailing student insights on the course, self- and
at our recommendations and then briefly describe the peer-assessments, and publication of student-team
nature and scale of wicked problems. We then action plans in an open-access ScholarWorks

Grand Valley State University (GVSU) is a public university main and satellite campuses, GVSU currently enrolls approximately
committed to combining the ideals of liberal education with 25,000 undergraduate students.
practical, professional learning. Situated in the western part of The findings are derived from reflections on normal classroom
Michigan, the main campus is located just outside of the Grand activity and are exempt from Internal Review Board oversight under
Rapids metropolitan area in a rural farming community. Across its category one: normal classroom activities. In addition, students have
signed a release form agreeing to the publication of the findings.


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repository. The findings, described below, were then Norton, 2005). Table 1 illustrates this continuum of
compared to prominent themes emerging from a complexity and wickedness along seven factors.
review of the literature on wicked problems, social Juxtaposing Table 1 with SS literature shows that
sustainability, and pedagogical practices surrounding efforts to move social sustainability forward have been
change-agent skills. Aligned with recommendations stymied by vague and fluid definitions of key terms,
emerging from systemic-action research, this differences in how various stakeholders measure
collaborative, hands-on approach allowed the authors success, numerous unknowns, sporadic and
to assess the different perspectives involved in this fragmented funding, and limited stakeholder support
course as the semester unfolded (Burns, 2014). Given (Factors 1, 2, and 3 in Table 1) (Cuthill, 2010;
that interventions on local wicked problems are likely Boström, 2012). Stakeholder values are not only
to yield unforeseen or unintended consequences, these frequently in tension, they are often diametrically
emergent research practices encouraged reflection on opposed under the highest of stakes (Factors 4 and 5).
the effectiveness of the course in real time. As we For instance, while we fail to meet the most basic
show next, opportunities for iterative interventions are needs of many across the globe, we simultaneously
essential for ameliorating dynamic wicked problems. encourage extreme, unsustainable consumerism and
opposed under the highest of stakes (Factors 4 and 5).
Scaling Wicked Problems For instance, while we fail to meet the most basic
Whereas simple problems are easily defined and needs of many across the globe, we simultaneously
amenable to replicable, formulaic interventions, encourage extreme, unsustainable consumerism and
complex problems often involve high levels of waste (Dujon et al., 2013). Aspirations for triple-
uncertainty, undergo change over time, and require the bottom-line “wins” often ignore unavoidable, on-the-
coordination of a wide range of expertise (Snowden & ground tradeoffs (Fitzpatrick, 2011).
Boone, 2007). As the intricacies increase, we see that Both the SS and WP literature warn readers: we
the problem is interconnected with many others, that must give up on the idea that technological innovation
the stakes have risen, and that the level of or expert intervention is enough (Factor 6 in Table 1).
disagreement among stakeholders has intensified Rather, inherently context-dependent and emergent SS
(Brown et al., 2010; Brown & Lambert 2014). As we requires broad social inclusion, demanding that we
move along this sliding scale, we reach a wicked level continuously uncover and weigh the merit of our own
of messiness, finding ourselves confronting “mega- and others’ assumptions, values, and goals (Fischer,
crises” like the healthcare quagmire in the United 2000; Wynne, 2007; Hiedanpää et al. 2012; Dujon et
States or the 2007–2008 housing crisis and subsequent al. 2013).3 Furthermore, both SS and WP scholars
global recession (Alpaslan & Mitroff, 2011). At this emphasize that the implementation of effective
level, problems resist standard efforts designed to processes in one region cannot simply be replicated in
yield final, ideal solutions (Rittel & Webber, 1973;

Table 1 Contrasting Simple, Complex, and Wicked Problems.


1. Definition Easily defined Messy Chaotic

2. Variation Static and linear Dynamic and emergent Host of “unknowns”

3. Learning Process Replicable answers No “one” formula; no guarantees Cannot replicate; inherent tradeoffs

4. Values Alignment Tension Conflict

5. Stakes Low Higher Highest

Expert and technological Technological innovation and
6. Intervention Lay intervention
intervention helpful expertise not enough

Both sets of literature also highlight current struggles to cooperate Failure to cooperate means general lessons learned from local
regionally and globally, systematically and comprehensively. efforts often go unreported.


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Ameliorative and adaptive

7. Solution Ideal resolution No ideal solution; impending crisis
responses possible
Example Baking bread Space travel Global climate change

another (Factor 7). Since our social lives are 3. Facilitate deliberation with stakeholders on
comprised of vastly differing habits, customs, and possible action plans;
laws, a flexible SS framework is necessary (Boström, 4. Synthesize research with deliberative conclusions
2012). We need new narratives; we need to consider and propose action efforts;
what processes and institutions will foster “mental and 5. Engage in local action; and
emotional models for experiencing a good life for 6. Disseminate the results.
everyone”; we need, that is, to expand our ethical These objectives build upon the five key
framework, develop a greater capacity for change, and sustainability competencies synthesized by Wiek et al
create broad participatory practices (Lorek et al., (2011) as well as in Marzano & Kendall’s New
2012). Since actors seeking to develop more socially Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2008). For
sustainable systems and processes confront WPs, instance, the first and second objectives move students
Cuthill (2010) argues that we cannot fruitfully quickly through their first three educational objectives,
segment our SS challenges into university disciplines. requiring that they retrieve, comprehend, and analyze
Indeed, even a cursory overview of these fields the local issue through a WP lens. As authentic tasks
illuminates the urgent need for the recommendations necessitating investigation into systems thinking and
that follow, for “engaged scholarship, a collaborative anticipatory competencies, they align knowledge
and integrative educational model, and more acquisition with its use. In practice, these first two
transparent and participatory democratic” practices objectives prevent narrowly framed, inflexible
(Lake & Fauvel, 2015). As we show next, the flexible problem definitions, which are likely to leave us blind
framework we developed for this course encourages to multiple facets of the problem and mistaken about
more comprehensive and iterative problem framing the assumptions under which others are working
from which more equitable student-with-community (Norton, 2005; Thompson & Whyte, 2011).
actions are likely to emerge. The third and fourth learning objectives—that
students present action plans, facilitate deliberation on
The Framework their merit with local stakeholders, and analyze their
conclusions—require that students specify their goals
Where to Begin? Issue-Framing, Re-Framing, and and clearly articulate their values (metacognitive
Re-Re-Framing… objectives highlighted by Marzano & Kendall, 2008).
As the course was focused on WPs, students The fifth objective, specifying that students engage in
ultimately wrestled with and enacted various local action, entails experimental problem solving and
definitions of sustainability. In general, students were decision making. The final objective, that students
challenged to consider how we can live “in such a way publically disseminate the results of their work,
that there are enough resources to live well in an alive, encouraged the examination of the overall merit of
diverse, thriving environment—indefinitely” their efforts through both public forums and scholarly
(Jeavons, 2012).4 In large measure, the value of the presentations and publications. These systemic
course came from not only studying, but also enacting, engagement practices required issue framing and
these various definitions. reframing. They also inspired students to seek out on-
The overarching learning objectives of the course the-ground stories from community members, experts,
asked students to: and other stakeholders, observe—if and when
appropriate—facets of the problem first-hand, and
1. Identify and apply the WP literature to the course share the insights gained, mind-mapping the
topic; dimensions of an issue. Mind maps, like rich pictures,
2. Study a complex local problem through different soft systems modeling, and other tools, ask students to
disciplinary and value lenses; visualize their understanding of complex issues as they
study them (Burns, 2014; Morris & Warman, 2015).

As Werkheiser & Piso (2015) note, sustainability requires actors
who are willing and able to do the work of sustaining.

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In general, these practices furthered students’ collaboration, and integrative outcomes. This stance
collective understanding and, where possible, helped encourages individuals to begin with “the
them to integrate across perspectives. In recent years, particularities of a situation in order to get in sync with
SS scholars have consistently argued that such it,” instead of beginning with “prescriptions” already
engagement work is the critical first step toward just in mind (Frodeman, 2014).
and equitable sustainable development (Ling et al. Creative confidence, by contrast, can prevent the
2009; Cuthill, 2010; Dujon et al. 2013). move from naïve optimism into apathetic cynicism
Through these objectives, students began to that often accompanies education on wicked
acquire the framing and tools from which they could problems.5 To foster this confidence, students
reconstruct—or map—aspects of SS situations. For considered how their own education, experience, and
example, the first two sections of the course asked skill sets were valuable to their team and their
students to confront issues of access to local and community work. Open-minded advocacy promotes a
healthy foods for school-age children. The WP more widely inclusive search for information-at-play,
framework required students to consider the varying motivates public engagement, and encourages careful
degrees of complexity. To begin, students explored the reflection on the uncertainties at hand (Shrader-
wide-ranging list of individuals invested in and Frechette, 2002).
affected by the problem that they were seeking to Scholars and practitioners have developed a
address, as well as their conflicting perspectives, number of methods and facilitation techniques to
implicit assumptions, and values. Students also encourage these mind-sets. One such method is
explored the uncertainties involved in the issue, the “design thinking,” an iterative, project-based, and
high stakes, and the need for (and limitations of) collaborative problem-solving process that seeks to
various forms of expertise. They sought out local move students from a predetermined state of mind
narratives, expert perspectives, and organizational about the situation that they are confronting, toward a
knowledge, speaking with school-age children, more open stance of perplexity. 6 The process begins
teachers, and administrators, as well as nutritionists, with empathetic listening, and this—as one student
farmers, distributors, food-justice advocates, and, in team wrote in their analysis—was integral to their
one case, a food-service director. efforts to “come alongside those already working with
The action projects that emerged from the the community.” It was their community engagement
learning outcomes fostered epistemic humility, that ultimately led them to see “the transformative
“creative confidence,” and “open-minded advocacy,” power of this [nonprofit gleaning] initiative” and “to
building students’ capacity to “span boundaries” find a means to support their efforts” (Cook et al.
(Shrader-Frechette, 2002; Kelley & Kelley, 2013; 2015). Ethnographic interviewing, mind-mapping,
Ramley, 2014). For example, after engaging and stakeholder mapping (among many other
stakeholders from across these disparate perspectives, processes recommended within this method) helped
one student team concluded that “it is in the deep students wrestle with (instead of avoid) the
reality of a community that we…connect with one complexities of WPs.
another…and make progress with the messy, intricate, Taken together, these learning outcomes provided
wicked problems of that neighborhood” (Fernando et students with opportunities to integrate their
al. 2015). Since epistemic humility, creative experiences with their education and then—in
confidence, and open-minded advocacy are essential collaboration with others—apply their findings in the
for effectively ameliorating our large-scale systemic community. Such goals better prepare students to take
sustainability problems, intentionally encouraging on the role of an integrator and “boundary spanner”
their development in students is critical (Kolb, 2003; (Ramley, 2014) while aligning with outcomes
Alpaslan & Mitroff, 2011). For example, epistemic identified as essential within the sustainability
humility is necessary for open listening across literature (Svanstrom et al. 2008).7 Collaborative,
differences, lifelong learning, stakeholder project-based learning and participatory action are the

Within the design-thinking process, creative confidence is defined that takes ‘wild ideas’ and transforms them into real solutions”
as “the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them (Morris & Warman, 2015). According to Tim Brown (2009), it
out” (Kelley & Kelley, 2013). requires that we willingly embrace “competing constraints” and
With a motto to “hear, create, and deliver,” design thinking is consider what is desirable, feasible, and viable.
biased toward action, encouraging “radical collaboration” (Miller, 7
Svanstrom et al. (2008) argue skill building, attitude development,
2015). As a process, it “focuses on users and their needs, encourages integration across the disciplines, and systems thinking are essential
brainstorming and prototyping, and rewards out-of-the-box thinking


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means by which students met these objectives and opportunities to revise. As students seek to address
iteration was the path by which their projects unfolded. WPs, it is helpful to emphasize that various levels of
To support them in developing these skills and mind initial failure are to be expected and revision rewarded.
sets, we designed a host of scaffolded activities, There are, in fact, a number of methods to
practices, and projects. Table 2 provides a encourage collaborative and iterative problem solving,
comprehensive overview of course assignments. The including strategic doing, Kolb’s experiential learning,
table aligns these assessments with both the course Brown & Lambert’s collective learning for
learning objectives and the sustainability transformational change, and design thinking. These
competencies promoted within the literature. processes generally require students to consider what
Iteration they could do, then what they should do, what they will
Iterative methods are, the WP literature confirms, do, and when they will do it.8 The processes encourage
essential to effectively addressing wicked problems, visualizing, enacting, and testing various problem
since any conclusion is likely to be partial and any definitions and interventions, ultimately inspiring a
action implemented to have unintended consequences wider range of creative ideas. Since iteration is a
(Norton, 2005; Ramley, 2014). That is, intervention particular challenge, and since it requires consistent
efforts are, at best, partially wrong and, at worst, opportunities to learn-by-doing, we next discuss how
entirely mistaken. Engendering this fallibilistic and we incentivized reflective action throughout the
flexible mindset has been particularly challenging. We semester.
have found that students often begin the semester with
a plan of action in mind and are reluctant to subject Reflect, Act, then Reflect and Act Again
this initial vision to critique and revision. For example, As students’ action plans emerged, they shared
seeking to help a local nonprofit gleaning initiative their plans with key stakeholders and begin to
promote their cause and transport their produce in the implement—and thus test—aspects of their ideas. For
winter of 2015, one team posited the creation of a instance, with their revised vision of a mobile food cart
mobile food bus, simultaneously expressing in mind, this group of students sought out engineering
apprehension about sharing this vision with their faculty to discuss the merit of various cart designs.
community partner and thereby exposing it to Weekly “seven-seven” commitments to help students
criticism. However, this critique was ultimately move through an iterative and action-oriented learning
essential to their plan. The team had not fully process included conducting traditional research,
considered simple, real world constraints nor the interviewing community stakeholders, canvassing the
potential drawbacks of their initial idea: a bus would neighborhood, attending community events,
be difficult to maneuver through the initiative’s target prototyping their team plan, crafting promotional
neighborhood; it also requires a special license to drive media services, devising K–12 curricula, designing
and a special parking space. After overcoming their community events, and so forth. Team members
aversion to criticism, the team was able to integrate the returned to the next class session to discuss the results
expertise of the nonprofit, ultimately allowing them to of their actions and to strategize about the most fruitful
create a more practical and implementable proposal: a next steps. These seven-seven requirements turned big
mobile food cart. With the WP recommendations and ideas into concrete, manageable weekly actions
this narrative in mind, we advocate that courses subject to real-time reflection. In essence, these
support students work on real world problems through commitments took the demand for cautious action that
iterative feedback loops, providing them with ample “preserves options for continual course correction”

to sustainability efforts. They provide educators with a long list of direct feedback from school-age children about the origin of their
skills valuable to this work, including tenacity, commitment, food. Asking elementary school children to talk about and illustrate
passion, assertiveness, and persuasiveness. These skills are their understanding of the food cycle led to the insight that local
juxtaposed alongside the development of patience, emotional school children often do not realize that food comes from the land.
intelligence, empathy, self-awareness, curiosity, resiliency, These insights shifted the nature of the curriculum students wanted
competency, and optimism. to design (Haapala et al., 2014). For example, one team in the third
iteration of the course researched crowdfunding methods and best
These processes also tend to foster a broader understanding of what practices for their nonprofit partner, ultimately putting together a
counts as legitimate knowledge, requiring that students not simply how-to pamphlet on crowdfunding. When the students shared their
conduct traditional academic research, but also seek out diverse work at the final dialogue event, several nonprofits and community
narratives by listening to community-member stories and members in the audience expressed interest in gaining access to their
institutional perspectives. Students in the second iteration of the findings, recommending the team widely disseminate the pamphlet
course, for instance, ultimately shifted their efforts after receiving (Cook et al., 2015).


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seriously (Cohen, 2014). The weekly movement measures increased the quality of the projects that
among collaborative brainstorming, action, and were ultimately submitted.
reflection also motivated the teams to rapidly
prototype their ideas within the limitations of one Where to End? Community Dialogue
semester, encouraging accountability and At the end of the semester, students shared their
counteracting procrastination. Since a single semester efforts with a wide array of stakeholders from across
is a relatively short period for addressing the the university and the community. This exercise
objectives outlined in the methods and framework bridged the divide between the production of ideas and
section, the use of practical, weekly accountability their use, helping to develop the partnerships necess-

Table 2 Course Assessments.

Assessments Description Objectives Competencies

Articulate how experiences,
Study different
Point-of-view disciplinary training, skills, and values Systems-thinking (ST),
disciplinary and value
Presentation contribute to one’s perspective on Normative, Interpersonal
Align vision, goals, and roles;
Integrate disciplinary and Anticipatory, Normative,
Team Charter communication plan; conflict resolution
value lenses Strategic, Interpersonal
Reflect on actions;
Team Guide A system for collaboration, capturing ST, Anticipatory, Normative,
analyze and integrate
(Agenda and Notes) ideas, integrating information. Strategic, Interpersonal
Collective action and
Seven-seven Weekly team-member action Anticipatory, Normative,
reflection, accountability,
Commitments commitments and reflections. Strategic, Interpersonal
time management
Essays demonstrating comprehension Identify and apply WP Anticipatory, Normative,
and application of issues. literature Strategic
Community-Partner Draft visions detailing: What is at
Disseminate ideas and ST, Anticipatory, Normative,
Presentation and stake? What could and should be
revise findings Strategic, Interpersonal
Dialogue done? How it could be done?
Evaluate collaborative efforts in
Reflection, feedback, and Normative, Strategic,
Team Evaluations relation to charter; revise policies and
improvement Interpersonal
Team Poster Visualize and talk about action efforts, Present findings and ST, Anticipatory, Normative,
Presentation elicit feedback facilitate deliberation. Strategic, Interpersonal
Team Project Formally summarize efforts, open- ST, Anticipatory, Normative,
Disseminate findings
Analysis access publication Strategic, Interpersonal
Reflect on lessons
Synthesis Paper Synthesis of the course ST, Anticipatory, Normative

-ary for sustainable change (Lake & Fauvel, 2015). creating a celebratory space for students’ work and
Students presented their work and elicited feedback by fostering networks essential for effective and
1) framing the issue that they were seeking to address, collaborative local action.
demonstrating that they had a comprehensive
understanding of its wicked dimensions, 2) The Challenges and Rewards
highlighting the research they conducted, and 3) Community-engaged project-based courses on
describing the work they chose to pursue and the WPs are likely to confront students and the instructor
reasons for it (making clear their team values and with a series of robust challenges, from intensive
goals). They also detailed 4) the concerns they had, 5) student-team and community-partner collaborations,
the constraints they faced, and 6) the resources they to logistical and time-management problems, to real-
needed. By inviting a wide range of community world execution issues. Course outcomes indicate that
stakeholders and experts, students could then elicit students often struggled 1) to identify and define
feedback that was critical to the future implementation problems through integration across epistemological,
of their projects. In general, we found that this final political, and ethical divides, 2) to reach out to and talk
dialogue event was rewarding on a couple of fronts, with real-world stakeholders, and 3) to execute action


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plans once established. These obstacles are detailed one another and their community partners was
next. ultimately crucial to the development of trust and
camaraderie, which was necessary for uncovering
You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know assumptions, working effectively across disciplinary
Confirming the value of experiential learning, it and personality differences, building networks in the
was not until students put the theories and methods community, integrating across differences, and
surrounding WPs into practice that they began to prioritizing local action (O’Rourke & Crowley, 2013).
viscerally appreciate the nature of social issues. The
process of engaging in collaborative, local action Motivating Action and Reflection
made it quite clear why society is struggling to Collaborative and interdisciplinary teamwork was
progress on complex, interdependent problems of also effective because students entered the class with
sustainability. To foster collaboration among diverse vastly ranging motivations and commitments to the
perspectives, students were placed in five-person issues engaged in the course. For instance, they
interdisciplinary teams representing at least three studied the wicked dimensions of economics, politics,
different majors and two different colleges from across food, culture, the environment, sustainability, and
the university. For instance, one of the teams was water in addition to immersing themselves in various
comprised of students majoring in natural resource democratic practices, technologies, science and ethics,
management, sociology, environmental studies, policy issues, network analyses, and collaborative
education, and entrepreneurship. Not only were problem-solving processes. As assignments escalated
students joined with one another, they were also and the semester unfolded, a lack of ownership, a fear
partnered with a nonprofit organization seeking to of creativity, and a reluctance to “act” was noted
address local sustainability challenges. While early across a number of student teams. Upon reflection,
collaborative partnerships were helpful in providing their motivation seemed contingent upon an
context for brainstorming and implementing action understanding of 1) the content of the course, 2) the
plans, with no similar previous educational local issue being addressed, and, most importantly, 3)
experiences, most teams struggled to begin. how the content and the issue are relative and
Through this confusion, students realized that important to each of us. That is, while students were
addressing their collective problems required that they exposed to literature clearly exemplifying the urgent
first address each other. Furthermore, effective need to address WPs and to a host of tools for
collaboration requires more than understanding the ameliorating these issues, making sure they invested
relevant disciplinary perspectives of each team time in reflecting upon the material’s relevance proved
member; it entails that they acknowledge one difficult. Verifying these insights, research shows that
another’s positionality: the values, personalities, respecting student perspectives, demonstrating the
motivations, learning preferences, and organizational practical relevance of their learning, and integrating
practices each individual brings with them. Thus, student experiences into the course tends to motivate
initial point-of-view presentations, team charters, as transformational learning (Wlodkowski, 2008). Thus,
well as commitment to in-class team time, a team instructors should emphasize the wider social
guide, and evaluations all helped students to foster relevance of the issues, but also consistently connect
normative and interpersonal competencies that experts (and reconnect) students to the systemic issues they
say are needed for this work (Marzano & Kendall, are seeking to ameliorate.
2008; Ferkany & Whyte, 2011).
Returning to the “Glean Ride” example illustrates Learning in the “Real World”: Working with the
this point. In being forced to revise their initial vision Community
from a mobile food truck that could collect and Rather than developing ideas and concepts in the
distribute freshly gleaned produce to target classroom setting and then attempting to “apply” them
neighborhoods in the city, the team concluded that, in the community (a one-way flow of knowledge
“our most exciting idea...simply was not a viable production to action), in our class students were
option… given the overall cost to operate and to partnered with a community organization from the
insure, as well as the need for a special operator’s
license and location for parking” (Dorking et al.,
2015). They discovered it was imperative to
understand the perspectives of project stakeholders in
order to make real-world progress. Coming to know


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beginning.9 Forming these relationships early overcoming fear, denial, and resistance is key to
encouraged a “working with” model, grounding effectively managing WPs (Alpaslan & Mitroff,
students’ efforts in the context of the local situation. 2011).
This option better fosters reciprocity as well as more While resistance may be common, it is also
comprehensive and socially aware action plans (Lake, troubling. The classroom can be an incredibly
2014). effective and safe space for practicing collaboration on
While at first intimidating to co-develop new WPs, requiring students to tackle their fear of failure
ideas with community leaders, doing so can lead to head-on before they move to engaging their own
more realistic and comprehensive plans as well as professional realm. To some extent, team structures
deeper learning than is likely when plans are seeded and deliberative processes help them acclimate to the
within the classroom’s narrow confines. These early messy nature of this work. By selecting a team leader,
partnerships can be effective because nonprofit breaking up larger tasks into manageable and
directors and community leaders can articulate a measurable weekly actions, and coordinating regular
number of areas in which they could use help, frame meetings, students experience tangible progress.
initial visions for effective interventions, and make the An anonymous end-of-semester survey confirmed
issues the course addresses very real, contextualizing that these facilitation techniques were effective at
the work and its value. For instance, one community encouraging self-efficacy. For instance, when asked
partner, hoping to develop a self-sufficient farm to whether the community partnerships helped them
foster sustainable and healthy farming practices and understand how the issues of the course applied to
communities in western Michigan, said he could use real-world problems and situations, every student
help developing partnerships with other organizations, answered affirmatively. They all also confirmed that
assessing the community’s needs, and creating the participatory engagement requirements helped
business plans that incorporate stakeholders’ them to recognize that issues can be viewed from
perspectives. This initial list of possible entry points multiple perspectives, improved their communication
provided a broad structure from which students could and collaborative skills, and increased their awareness
then brainstorm. While community-partner prompts of cultural differences. All but one student confirmed
for aid narrow the scope of possible action plans, broad that community work enhanced their ability to
recommendations from local stakeholders can still evaluate real-world programs and processes. Finally,
give each student team ample freedom to formulate a all but two of the eighteen respondents also agreed that
plan of action that aligns with their own hopes, values, the community partnerships were valuable, that they
and goals.10 were more likely to participate in community work
because of this course, and that they would enroll in
Following Through: Learning-by-Doing another course requiring similar participatory
In trying to develop and implement an integrated practices on real-world problems. Given the often
plan of action, teams experienced both constructive overwhelming and depressing, intractable nature of
and destructive collaborative processes. Increasing our SS challenges (i.e., that they can often be
both the number of stakeholders involved in the categorized as wicked), we suggest these responses are
project (e.g., the professor, the nonprofit director, a limited but powerful affirmation of the practices
community members, local experts) and the creative recommended within these pages.
license afforded to students increased their collective
anxiety, leading to worries that ideas were “off the Defining Success: Contributing to “Tipping Points”
mark.” With conflicting goals and amorphous Given the enduring and dynamic difficulties
objectives, “success” becomes a tricky and daunting surrounding these problems, there is a tendency to
target. Noting this very issue, scholars suggest that question the ultimate merit of this experiential,

For example, in the last iteration of the course, both community students struggled to decide how to intervene in the community and
partners served as directors of newly established nonprofits in Grand were largely unable to move beyond formulating and publishing
Rapids, working on initiatives to address problems with the local more abstract and idealistic future plans for action. Nevertheless,
food system. Through these partnerships, students focused on food one team’s vision became an experiential and community-engaged
justice and literacy, nutrition education and health, equity, food food course for local middle-school students after a team of students
access, and waste. in the subsequent semester read the initial published plan, sought out
The inaugural course did not provide student teams with a local middle-school teacher interested in the proposal, and co-
community partners, nor did it provide students with a framework designed and implemented it (Lake & Fauvel, 2015; Bell et al.,
for possible community actions. Without any scaffolded framing, 2013).


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community-engaged pedagogy at numerous points action efforts require “openness to new perspectives, a
throughout its three iterations. However, the nature of willingness to admit the inadequacies of one’s own
WPs encourages us to question traditional point of view, to be wrong and to play the fool, and
perspectives on what counts as effective. According to generosity in interpreting the position and motives of
service-learning expert Barbara Jacoby (2010), we can others.” Using the terms proffered here, effective
judge the outcomes of community-engaged courses by collaboration on sustainability challenges fosters
considering whether students have 1) grown “to change-agent skills and encourages a host of real-
understand the interdisciplinary nature of problems world competencies, ultimately requiring epistemic
and solutions,” 2) learned “about the complexity of the humility, creative confidence, and open-minded
social fabric,” and 3) come to see “how they can be advocacy.
part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” The
pedagogical strategies and methods employed in the Conclusion
course moved students along a sliding scale toward all
three of these goals. Participatory skills and virtues (like team
In addition, the course offered students the building, active listening, collaboration, and
opportunity to influence local issues and to meet real integration) must be fostered to empower more
needs, to develop community partnerships, and to effective and just co-action on WPs. In fact, we
establish networks potentially valuable to their life suggest a failure to foster these skills and virtues is at
after graduation. On this front, such courses can be an the core of many current social struggles.11 The
additional factor in moving toward local tipping points university should and could be a prime place for
by drawing in “supporters”; they can contribute to practicing such skills. The personal stakes and risks of
what becomes a “critical mass,” replacing “the working to ameliorate our collective shortcomings are
dominant attractor of the status quo” (Burns, 2014). likely to increase post-graduation, as students move
These long-term potential of these efforts should not fully out into the “real world.” When traditional
be easily discounted or quickly dismissed. Tipping coursework occurs in isolation from other courses and
points depend on using an iterative and participatory from students’ larger lives we forego key opportunities
process of reflective action subject to “real time” to integrate and test the knowledge and skills that they
assessment and adjustment and “rooted in learn. The traditional model of education encourages
relationships” (Burns, 2014). In our view, the an ever narrowing of focus, specialization but not
pedagogical strategies recommended here are integration, leaving students with dangerously
consistent with these aims. incomplete perspectives and a host of unexamined
Using a separate metric culled from the literature assumptions.
on WPs, we recognize a similar need for judging the Empowering students to take responsibility for
relative success of student efforts. In this metric, we aspects of our WPs forces us to confront the current
can weigh the value of such courses by reflecting on educational paradigm. Given the nature of our shared
how students’ final analyses 1) comprehensively SS challenges, educators can and should play a vital
frame the issue they seek to address and 2) role in helping students come to terms with, and
acknowledge the inherent conflicts and uncertainties practice, failure. College, as a stepping stone from
in their work. We should also consider 3) who is childhood into adulthood, offers one of the last
involved in—and left out of—the planning process, 4) relatively risk-free environments in which to learn-by-
what types of evidence are examined, 5) whose trying. Thus, we recommend pursuing pedagogies that
perspectives are influenced, and 6) how reality has incentivize wrestling with real-world issues without
been (or could be) changed because of student efforts predefining the problems or routing the plan of action
(Turnpenny et al. 2009). Judging the effectiveness of in advance.12
the pedagogy on either rubric leads to the conclusion Since courses studying SS challenges are
that this course is not just about the application of addressing WPs, they present a prime opportunity for
particular methods, but is more broadly about encouraging students to “work with” others across a
character building. According to Frodeman (2014), diverse span of interests—even when these interests

As one commentator on this work at a recent conference noted, it contradictory and incomplete knowledge; as well as who lack
may often be the case that our efforts to stymie many of our public participatory virtues and skills), not WPs.
crises are stalled by “wicked” people (those who hold narrow, self- 12
The authors also believe universities should do more to provide
serving agendas; unexamined, convenient assumptions; the space, opportunity, and incentives for instructors to pursue
messy, community-engagement practices in their courses.


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seem to be at odds—to foster change. By integrating Burns, D. 2014. Assessing Impact in Dynamic and Complex
recommendations from the literature on WPs, Environments: Systemic Action Research and Partici-
experiential and community-engaged learning, and patory Systemic Inquiry. Brighton: Centre for
processes and methods designed to deal with our Development Impact.
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SS instructors can offer students opportunities to Science, Practice, & Policy 10(2):1–3.
engage and affect real problems in the community. Cook, K., Gallagher, C., Holzman, E., Neracher, J., &
The strategies recommended, from mind-mapping, to Miotke, E. 2015. The Grand Gleaners Project Analysis.
ethnographic interviewing, to facilitation techniques, LIB322: Wicked Problems of Sustainability Paper 17.
and seven-seven action commitments, help students
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collectively tackling our high-stakes public problems. development: developing a conceptual framework for
These skills and virtues include—but are not limited social sustainability in a rapid urban growth region in
Australia. Sustainable Development 18(6):362–373.
to—epistemic humility, creative confidence, and Dorking, S., Eisen, P., Godfrey, J., Lopez, R., & Smith S.
open-minded advocacy. In the end, courses designed 2015. Heartside’s Glean Ride: Bringing Fresh Food and
to respond iteratively to place-based SS challenges Ideas to the Heart of Grand Rapids. LIB322: Wicked
have the unique opportunity to foster not only the Problems of Sustainability Paper 18. http://scholar
capacities necessary for tackling our large-scale social
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Experience, Access to Farming, Local Foods and Life Interdisciplinarity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Systems of access: A multidisciplinary strategy for assessing the

social dimensions of sustainability
Christopher Wolsko1, Elizabeth Marino1, Thomas Joseph Doherty2, Steve Fisher3, Amanda S. Green4, Briana
Goodwin5, Ryan Reese1, & Andrea Wirth6
Graduate and Research Center, Oregon State University‒Cascades, 650 SW Columbia Street, Bend, OR 97702 USA (email:;;
PO Box 3174, Portland, OR 97212 USA (email:
886 53rd Street, Unit E, Oakland, CA 94608 USA (email:
Environmental Studies Department, Davidson College, Davidson, NC 28035 USA (email:
Strand Agriculture Hall, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331 USA (email:
UNLV Libraries, University of Nevada‒Las Vegas, 4505 Maryland Parkway, Mailstop 7012, Las Vegas, NV 89154 USA (email:

The concept of access to natural resources has been a specific concern of economists and ecologists and is a distinct
component in recent models of social sustainability. Using a series of conceptual and empirical examples, this article
extends the notion of access broadly to social institutions and sociocultural norms. We argue that access may be
usefully construed as an analytic tool that has direct applicability to many sustainability issues as it allows for cross-
disciplinary and public engagement. Here the concept of access, linked to Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities, also
makes visible the multi-scaled and interconnected social processes that influence the material world and from which
certain individuals and communities are excluded. This article examines access as a set of culturally appropriate and
equitable engagements that promote social sustainability with a series of four examples: access to actions necessary
to reclaim a polluted river; access to restorative natural environments; access to information and research findings; and
access to decision-making processes. Insights from these examples are integrated within the wider discourse on

KEYWORDS: social sustainability; access; power; sociocultural norms; equity; public discourse

Introduction the goal of improving the clarity of cross-

disciplinary and public discourses.
When scholars from a variety of disciplines Comparing research across our disciplines,
gather to discuss the social dimensions of one concept emerged, around which multiple
sustainability they inevitably encounter chall- disciplinary methods of assessment remained
enges finding relatable concepts, terminology, coherent and legible. That notion is the idea of
scope, and methods of assessment. Depending on “access.” Across disciplines, we find that access
the vantage point of the discipline and the acts as a common theme of engagement within
individual researcher, social sustainability can be which multi-scaled systems of inquiry can
conceived of as the health and well-being of an evolve, and around which compounding systems
individual psyche (psychology), the individual of inequity and unsustainability can be discussed.
attainment of basic needs (economics, For the purposes of this article, we define access
engineering), the well-being of the self within a as the ability to influence processes and lay claim
healthy social context (public health), the well- to resources that create, alter, or maintain social
being and health of a cultural group or commun- systems (including social institutions and
ity (anthropology), or the larger social system sociocultural norms) across scales.
itself as robust and long-lasting (sociology, Access has been previously used as a starting
economics), among others. This article is an point to critically analyze social systems and
explicit attempt of a diverse group of social complex problems, and with great success. It has
scientists to identify similarities in theoretical and been more than thirty years since Amartya Sen
empirical approaches to social sustainability with (1981) identified “famine” not as the absolute

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lack of food available in a given community or trends that underpin disaster outcomes (Cutter et
geographical space, but as the “result of [one’s] al. 2003, 2010). This article encompasses both of
inability to establish entitlement to enough food.” these research traditions, but expands the notion
From this premise, Sen reconceptualized ideas of of access to the sustainability literature and
poverty, famine, and even drought as the “lack of broadens the concept of access to point out the
access” to the resources necessary to sustain complex, intersecting, and multi-scaled flows of
oneself and one’s quality of life. In other words, power, decision-making, and other social
those entitled to food did not die of starvation and systems, processes, and cultural norms that carve
malnutrition, even under conditions of out vulnerable geographies, vulnerable
insufficient water and the deterioration of crops. communities, and vulnerable individuals. We
Conversely, those without entitlements to food— argue that it is the sum of these limits to access
entitlements enacted and maintained through that ultimately inhibits social sustainability.
social and economic systems—did die of In the remainder of this article, we show that
starvation and malnutrition. the concept of access has wide applicability to a
Furthering the argument, Sen insisted that the range of issues falling under the rubric of the
entitlements framework is not necessarily about social dimensions of sustainability. While access
entitlement/access to objects (food) or income to natural resources has been a specific concern
(wealth), but rather that it exists to point out a of economists and ecologists (Hardin, 1968;
prerogative to capabilities, decisions, and actions Berkes et al. 1989; Ostrom, 1999; Ostrom, et al.
that realistically allow one to achieve goals. Who 2002) and has been discussed as a distinct
has the capability to earn a livable wage? Who component of recent models of social
has the capability to work enough hours, at a high sustainability (Cuthill, 2009; Dempsey et al.
enough salary, to provide food for one’s family 2011; Vavik & Keitsch, 2010), here we extend
during times of drought? Who is ultimately free the concept broadly, arguing that access is a far-
to pursue that which has value (Sen, 2001, 2005)? reaching analytic tool with direct applicability to
Sen’s observations corroborated research many sustainability issues.
from 1980s disaster literature that even extreme To best articulate our arguments, we start
natural disasters are experienced as such because with a poignant example of the sociocultural
of the social constructions of vulnerability that construction of vulnerability due to obstacles to
take place prior to and during a hazardous event access in the community of El Salto, Mexico.
(see Hewitt, 1983; Oliver-Smith, 1996, for Second, we apply our conceptualization to better
reviews). In this conceptualization, hazardous understand how culturally appropriate access to
events are not threatening in and of themselves, green spaces is a form of equitably distributed
but are made dangerous when they come into health benefits. Third, we assess the state of
contact with vulnerable communities. Disasters, access to information as an investigation into the
therefore, are social constructions created by culture of information and research,
flows of power, lack of access to systems of conceptualizing “open access” in information and
protection, and political marginalization over research as an emerging embodiment of social
time, which can result in significant harm to sustainability. Finally, we look at the
vulnerable communities (Oliver-Smith, 1996; development of a wave-energy test site to
Oliver-Smith & Hoffman, 2002; Cutter et al. understand access to decision-making processes
2003). as contestations among individuals, communities,
Both of these literatures articulate the and stakeholders. We chose the examples listed
processes that render human injustice in some above because they illustrate how access interacts
communities while sparing others. Sen’s (2005) substantially with the social dimensions of
argument largely applies on the individual scale, sustainability and because they highlight the wide
or in reference to the capabilities of people based applicability of the concept across geographic
on personal differences, while the disaster spaces, social circumstances, and research
literature is widely used to assess community- disciplines. We conclude with a discussion of
and city-scale vulnerabilities and sociocultural how the concept of access can make visible the

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multi-layered obstacles to social sustainability members themselves, aligned under the name Un
that exist across scales and can act as a common Salto de Vida, went completely unheard north of
language for researchers to speak to one another the Mexican border, where a majority of the
and engage the public. manufacturing firms that line the river are based.
This news story, in fact, is in the process of being
Un Salto de Vida broken to an American public as we write (Fisher
& Jaacks, 2015), decades after the contamination
The Santiago River runs through the began and seven years after Miguel Rocha died
community of El Salto in the Mexican state of of exposure to toxic levels of arsenic.
Jalisco. Its toxicity level is unknown, but it is The social dimensions of sustainability
generally accepted by local residents that the encompass the social, political, and cultural
river is intocable, or untouchable. On January 25, infrastructure that must be in place to both
2008, Miguel Àngel Lopez Rocha, a young prevent and mitigate “wicked” problems. Where,
school boy, fell from the banks of a canal close to then, can we locate the systemic cracks in
its confluence with the Santiago River while institutional and other social processes that enact
playing with friends and was submerged in river sociocultural and political obstacles to
water. Rocha was quickly retrieved, but allegedly community-driven desires for change? As stated
died eighteen days later of arsenic poisoning.1 earlier, we think the lens of access is a useful way
Community activists of El Salto, best to frame this and other sustainability issues.
exemplified by 24-year old Atawalpa Sophia, In the case of El Salto, Sophia lacks access to
protested in the wake of Rocha’s death for the large-scale political power that has enabled
changes to the way industries in the Guadalajara Guadalajara to become a friendly locale for
region near El Salto handle environmental waste. American firms. Sophia and her community also
Sophia wants the river cleaned of the lack access to the justice system, meant to enforce
contaminates that are locally believed to cause the environmental regulations that do exist. They
cancer and other sickness, but considerations lack access to research and biomedical
about how to detoxify the river lead to a rabbit information that could substantiate their claims
hole of social, economic, political, about the disastrous health effects of the river, to
environmental, and legal obstacles. This example a source of uncontaminated water for drinking
provides us with a profound illustration of a and irrigation, and to a safe, natural place for
“wicked” problem, marked by the social and recreation and communal gathering. In the wake
situational complexities that lead to an of environmental abuses, the community lacks
entanglement of power, inequity, neoliberalism, access to broad public attention and media
and environmental degradation that define many exposure. Finally, the community also lacks
of the world’s greatest challenges (Rittel & access to defining the sociocultural norms of
Webber, 1973; Blanco, 1994; Head, 2008; decision-makers which currently underlie
McCall & Skrtic, 2009). Here, the industrial neoliberal economic assumptions about what is
corridor that lines the Santiago River has grown best for the region. Sophia does, however, have
substantially in and around Guadalajara since access to her community and the relationships of
implementation of the North American Free solidarity that she has created within it. Finally,
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. she has access to journalist Steve Fisher, which
Environmental protection is mandated, yet while enables the beginning of a conversation about the
it is generally accepted that the river acts as a ecological and social sustainability of the
waste dump for industry, between 2005 and 2011 Santiago River, and provides potential links to the
no fines were imposed on any of the more than world of decision-makers outside of her
300 industrial facilities in the region for being out community.
of compliance. Protests from community

This determination is premised on research by co-author Steve

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Access to Restorative Natural Environments leads to premature mortality (Owen et al. 2010).
In familial contexts, greater television usage also
In El Salto, individuals suffering from predicts an increase in children’s levels of
pollution and poor health embody the consumer behavior, which then contributes to
community’s inability to access change through poorer relationship quality with parents (Schor,
formal institutions; however, the inability to 2004).
access and alter sociocultural norms that underpin In the context of widespread urbanization,
economic models of growth and urbanization is consumerism, and indoor immersion in electronic
equally in play. In the field of ecopsychology, media—of reduced access to natural
furthermore, many scholars argue that the environments—it is not coincidental that we now
cultural norms of neoliberalism and the see a robust emerging literature demonstrating
imperative for economic growth not only extensive mental, behavioral, and physical health
compromise the health of ecological systems, but benefits of exposure to natural environments.
also undermine the health of human communities “Exposure to natural environments” or “exposure
(Ryan et al. 2007; Kasser, 2009). This may occur to green spaces” has been operationalized in
through a variety of mechanisms. Perhaps most numerous ways, including having designated
centrally, individuals who have higher parks in one’s neighborhood (Mitchell &
materialistic value orientations, or who place a Popham, 2007), having plants and other natural
higher priority on financial success, not only features in and around the house (Wells & Evans,
engage in an array of less friendly environmental 2003), gardening or participating in horticultural
behaviors (Sheldon & McGregor, 2000; Brown & programs (Wichrowski et al. 2005), viewing
Kasser, 2005), but also experience a range of nature through windows or in photos (Ulrich,
negative psychosocial consequences, including 1984; Berman et al. 2008), experiencing higher
having shorter, more conflictual interpersonal levels of biological diversity in local parks (Fuller
relationships, engaging in fewer prosocial and et al. 2007), and walking outdoors (Hartig et al.
more antisocial activities (for a review, see 2003).
Kanner et al. 2007), and display lower levels of The empirical health benefits of exposure to
psychological well-being (Dittmar et al. 2014). nature are extensive, including increased capacity
Additionally, the highlighting of financial for directed attention and reduced mental fatigue
success, image, status, and fame in (Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995; Kaplan, 2001),
advertisements has been shown to harm viewers’ improvements in cognitive functioning for
self-esteem (e.g., Kasser, 2005). individuals with attention deficits (Cimprich &
Heightened consumer behavior, increased Ronis, 2003; Taylor & Kuo, 2009), increased
immersion in mass media, and reduced time spent positive emotional experiences (Fuller, et al.
in nature also tend to mutually reinforce one 2007; Van Herzele & de Vries, 2012), reduced
another. For example, individuals in the United anxiety and depression (Gonzalez et al. 2009),
States and Japan spend a shrinking percentage of reduced stress along with stress-related illness
time engaging in, and enjoying the documented (Leather et al. 1998; Wells & Evans, 2003; Van
health benefits of, nature-based recreation den Berg et al. 2010), improved recovery from
(Pergams & Zaradi, 2008). In conjunction with surgery (Ulrich, 1984; Park & Mattson, 2009),
this trend, individuals devote an increasingly lower disease morbidity (Maas et al. 2009), and
large percentage of time to electronic media lower mortality, including mortality related to
indoors: the average adult in the United States income deprivation (Takano et al. 2002; Mitchell
devotes approximately five hours per day to & Popham, 2008). In addition to directly
watching television, and an additional 2.5 hours facilitating psychological and physiological
on non-work related viewing of smartphones, health (e.g., via stress reduction), natural
tablets, personal computers, and other screen environments also have indirect positive effects
devices (often using more than one device on health by providing attractive locations for
simultaneously) (Nielsen, 2014). The sedentary physical activity (Kaczynski & Henderson, 2007;
nature of such viewing greatly harms health and Hartig, 2008) and for enjoying higher quality

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social interaction and social support (Coley et al. stated perceptions that they were unsure what “to
1997; Shinew et al. 2004). do” in national parks.
Additionally, active engagement with nature While we understand the research on nature
has been shown to contribute to a coherent, and wellness to date to be valuable, it is
paramount for researchers and institutions (e.g.,
meaningful sense of connection with the natural parks and recreation departments, urban planning
world, which in turn is positively associated with commissions) to begin identifying how their own
a variety of mental health indices (Wolsko & conceptualization of recreational engagement
Lindberg, 2013; Zelenski & Nisbet, 2014). In with the natural world may influence outcomes
specific cultural contexts, the mental and physical for diverse communities. Much of the literature to
health benefits of this existential connection with date focuses on access to green spaces as a means
the natural environment are due to a life in nature to reduce stress and facilitate the restoration of
that is not only recreationally enjoyable, but is mental processes, largely through “appreciative”
also pragmatically imbued with rich sociocultural and often solitary recreational experiences in
value, for example through the spiritual, social, nature (see Wolsko & Lindberg, 2013), which
economic, and physical ramifications of might conflict with the worldviews of some
subsistence practices in indigenous communities communities, especially those that have been
(Izquierdo, 2005; Wolsko et al. 2006; Labun & historically oppressed. Multicultural competency
Emblen, 2007). in environmental health-related research and
While this literature on exposure to nature policy decisions can be promoted through
and health is encouraging, the distribution of dialogue, consensus, and community-based
natural spaces favors ethnically and racially participatory methods to formulate meaningful
privileged communities (Wolch et al. 2014). research questions and to determine relevant
Certain ethnic minority and low socioeconomic outcomes and policy decisions for specific
status communities, already suffering from communities. Thus, access issues in this case
numerous mental, physical, and behavioral health revolve not only around access to green spaces,
disparities, also tend to live in neighborhoods but also on the ability of specific communities to
with less access to green space and greater access and alter the sociocultural norms of
exposure to environmental toxins (Adler & acceptable behavior within such places.
Newman, 2002; Heynen et al. 2006). Even when
access to natural spaces is available, the Access to Information
normatively sanctioned manner of access is
frequently directed by affluent, ethnically and Increased access to information and
racially privileged voices (Kessel et al. 2009). knowledge, underpinned by universal
Byrne (2012), for example, explored the literacy, is an essential pillar of sustainable
perceptions of barriers of a Latino community’s development (IFLAI, 2014).
access to parks in Los Angeles. Many research
participants reported that they felt unwelcome or Education is a critical component of social
out of place, and some also felt discriminated sustainability, alongside healthcare, housing, and
against based on their way of using a park, which food access (Cuthill, 2010). Education inherently
favored a large gathering over quiet hiking. Byrne relies on access to information, an essential
concluded that there appears to be a “dominant component of information literacy. In fact, the
nature narrative,” which he termed “white International Federation of Library Associations
nature,” that may serve as a barrier to some and Institutions (2011) provides specific
communities accessing parks for fear of being recommendations for governments, which stress
judged and/or discriminated against. Butler and how access to information is critical to a global
Richardson (2015) reported similar findings in society, lifelong learning, and individual well-
their investigation of national park use by black being, stating that “Media and Information
South Africans. In particular, many of the Literacy is a basic human right...and promotes
participants indicated feeling unwelcome and greater social inclusion.” Such access is essential

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for individuals to be information literate and, by Springer’s Open Choice option). The number of
extension, to fully participate in conversations publishers that embrace OA (only) is growing in
and decisions about issues that affect their lives. number and, in some fields, these journals have
While the Internet has increased global the highest rankings (e.g., PLOS).
access to information of all types, a significant Researchers (used here to refer to anyone
portion of research-based information remains seeking access to scholarly information) have
unavailable to many people. Research literature is long been stymied by requests to pay for access
often reserved for those affiliated with to online journal articles. Even scholars and
organizations that pay for access, a model held students at research institutions that provide
over from a pre-Internet, print-based information subscription-based access are frequently
society. And even though not every individual frustrated by complicated systems that require
can benefit directly from research publications, authentication (Schonfeld, 2015). However, the
the widespread communication of such work is barriers for access to those unaffiliated with
critical for ensuring that scientists, students, research institutions are much higher because the
politicians, stakeholders, and other engaged only route to research literature for most is by
individuals can use the best information costly payment.
available. The United States, the United Kingdom,
Recent shifts in scholarly publishing are Australia, South Africa, and many other countries
creating a more openly accessible acknowledge the inequalities in access to
communication system that encourages the use of research and the problems associated with the
research findings by non-traditional audiences subscription model. These issues are currently
(those outside academia and other research being addressed through policies developed by
institutions). Authors, libraries, organizations, funding agencies (governmental and otherwise).
governments, and publishers are making “open For example, in the United States, the White
access” to information a priority. Open Access House’s Office of Science and Technology
(OA) in this context refers to scholarly research Policy (OSTP) (2013) issued a directive to
that is made freely available to anyone with an federal agencies that “[s]cientific research
Internet connection and is free to use, adapt, and supported by the Federal Government catalyzes
redistribute so long as the original “authors innovative breakthroughs that drive our
[retain] control over the integrity of their work economy. The results of that research become the
and the right to be properly acknowledged and grist for new insights and are assets for progress
cited” (Chan et al. 2002). It should be noted that in areas such as health, energy, the environment,
open access to natural resources (e.g., Schlager agriculture, and national security.” In other
& Ostrom, 1992) is quite distinct from the words, access to research fuels more research,
conceptualization of open access to information creativity, innovation, and empowerment. With
discussed here. The genesis of OA to scholarly OA, a small business can have the same
research derived from a number of interrelated information as a large corporation, and an
concerns, including the consideration of informed citizenry can have access to the same
information as a public good, the recognition that science covered by news media and cited by
the current subscription-access model is policy-makers. The OSTP directive requires
unsustainable given decreasing library budgets, agencies to develop plans to ensure that the
and authors’ interest in communicating their published results and data generated by research
research to both their peers and a wider audience. they fund is available to everyone (typically after
Even traditional publishers, while slower to a brief embargo period).
embrace OA as a publishing model, are Education, which is inherently dependent on
increasingly making open access an option for accessing information, is essential to an informed
their authors, typically by asking authors to pay and engaged society, whether it be for access to
an article-processing charge either in a fully open current healthcare information or to accurate
format or a hybrid journal in which some content climate-change research. One argument against
resides behind a paywall and some is free (e.g., public distribution of scholarship is that

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individuals without disciplinary training will not ultimately sought proposals to host the site from
understand, and therefore be unable to benefit, two communities—Reedsport and Newport.
from access to research literature. However, the When examining access to decision-making
“public” includes medical practitioners and processes, it is essential to first identify the
others who can improve their practice through stakeholders in the process. Freeman defines a
enhanced access (O’Keeffe et al. 2011; NIH, stakeholder as “any group or individual who can
2014). One example of the general demand for affect or is affected by the achievement of the
access is the “We the People Petition” (2012) to organization’s objectives” (1984). In contrast to
“[r]equire free access over the Internet to Freeman’s broad definition, Clarkson (1995)
scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer- defines stakeholders as those who may be put at
funded research,” which gathered over 65,000 risk by a manager’s decision. The point here is
signatures (at a time when only 25,000 were not to determine which definition is the more
required for a response from the White House), correct, but rather to illustrate that identifying
underscoring that access to scholarly information stakeholders can be a contentious process.
is something people do indeed view as a right. In the context of the Oregon coastal regions
Like the examples before, examining access here in which we (Goodwin and colleagues) have
serves as an analytic tool to assess the ability of examined access to decision-making processes,
multiple publics to acquire a resource (in this case oceans formally fall under the Public Trust
research and other information); and the ability to Doctrine, “the legal concept that the government
change the status quo—the social and economic holds the common water resource in trust for the
norm of publication companies making large public and regulates the commons in the public
profits from publishing the research literature. interest” (Scanlan, 2006). Under Freeman’s
(1984) definition, the stakeholder list for ocean
Access to Decision-Making Processes management would include all citizens of the
United States. Using Clarkson’s (1995)
Access to healthy ecosystems, restorative definition, the stakeholder list would be more
natural environments, and educational explicit. For example, commercial fishermen,
information can be enhanced only when engaged who have made significant investments in their
stakeholders are given meaningful access to businesses, would be primary stakeholders
decision-making processes. However, who has because placing a wave-energy development in
access, how one establishes and protects the prime fishing grounds would put them at risk for
“right” to access, and who gets counted as a declining income. Likewise, if a nearshore wave-
“stakeholder” are often profoundly contested energy facility were placed in sight of a luxury
matters. Our final example illuminates how hotel, the owner could be vulnerable to losing
access becomes contested due to different claims business due to diminished views.
of ownership and in terms of the degree to which Considering the potential impacts of ocean-
one has a stake in development plans. management decisions on “stakeholders” and the
These access issues are examined in the legal requirement to allow public comment on
context of a 2011–2012 effort by the Northwest those decisions, an effective decision-making
National Marine Renewable Energy Center process has to contend with multiple challenges.
(NNMREC) and Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) to One is creating reasonable access, or the
carry out a community-based process to choose capability of stakeholders to participate in
the site for North America’s first full-scale, grid- decision-making processes (Sen, 2005). Another
connected wave-energy test facility (called the is wrestling with who among the public is
Pacific Marine Energy Center–South Energy Test considered a “stakeholder” in the first place.
Site, or PMEC-SETS). The siting process, With regard to the first challenge, we see that
developed by NNMREC and OSG and access to decision-making processes can be
independently evaluated, included stakeholder hindered in multiple ways. Not having access to
engagement along the Oregon coast and comprehensible information can hinder a
stakeholder’s ability to engage in a decision-

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making process (Bryson et al. 2013; Dalton, make alternative recommendations. Another
2006). Additionally, the ability to participate can participant recognized the importance of the
be stifled when the avenues for involvement are commercial fishing industry, but said, “the
not accessible. Specifically, relying on electronic fishermen do not own any ocean areas or
means of input severely limits access by ethnic bottom…these places are instead owned by the
and racial minorities and those with lower levels public and should be treated as such.”
of education and socioeconomic status This example demonstrates that access as
(Mossberger et al. 2006). Furthermore, physical such is not necessarily a “good” in and of itself,
access to a process can be hampered by the but that legitimate access to decision makers and
location and timing of public deliberations (Tuler decision-making processes will be continuously
& Webler, 1999; Bryson et al. 2013). For contested. Investigating these processes of
example, holding a meeting in a place contestation is also a vehicle for understanding
inaccessible by public transportation is likely to social sustainability. As in our other examples,
limit attendance. Similarly, scheduling a meeting we find that access to the sociocultural norms that
during a standard workday precludes underpin social processes, in this case the process
stakeholders who work at that time. of defining the term “stakeholder,” is paramount.
Regarding the problem of delineating
stakeholders, Mitchell et al. (1997) proposed a Conclusion
theory of stakeholder salience to explain “the
degree to which managers give priority to As noted in the introduction, using access as
competing stakeholder claims.” Stakeholder an analytic tool to investigate issues of social
salience is based on the stakeholder’s perceived sustainability brings to mind Sen’s theory of
power, legitimacy, and urgency. Power is defined capabilities. However, as our examples have
as “the bring about the outcomes shown, explicitly identifying whether or not an
[stakeholders] desire” (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1974), individual or group has access to governance
legitimacy is “a perception or assumption that the systems, sociocultural norms, and decision-
actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or making processes extends the implications of that
appropriate” (Suchman, 1995), and urgency is perspective. Sen (2005) defines capabilities as,
“the degree to which stakeholder claims call for “the opportunity to achieve valuable
immediate action” (Mitchell et al. 1997). The combinations of human functionings—what a
amount or type of attention paid to a stakeholder person is able to do or be.” Because the locus of
is generally based on these attributes. Definitive his investigation is necessarily on the individual,
stakeholders are those who possess all three Sen (2005) continues, “they [capabilities] fall
attributes, and they often, but not always, receive short of telling us enough about the fairness or
the most consideration from managers, and are equity of the processes involved, or about the
therefore most likely to gain access to decision- freedom of citizens to invoke and utilize
making processes. procedures that are equitable.”
Viewed through this lens of stakeholder In all four examples presented above,
salience, our research (Goodwin and colleagues) individuals and communities must do just that—
indicated that commercial fishermen were to instigate change or to promote the social
definitive stakeholders in the PMEC-SETS dimensions of sustainability they must
process, as they possessed power, legitimacy, and simultaneously negotiate multiple sociocultural,
urgency. However, the priority given to the political, and institutional systems or processes.
commercial fishermen marginalized other In these cases, access—the ability and means to
members of the local community. In interviews catalyze change in or maintenance of social
conducted by Goodwin and colleagues, one systems, which have material and social
participant reported that commercial fishermen consequence—is limited by various obstacles and
“put some pretty serious constraints on the in diverse ways. In the cases of access to research
locations that they’d ‘allow’” and other findings (literature) and to green space, both
participants were not comfortable enough to actual goods and/or services may be limited for

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certain individuals and groups, along with access individual’s or a community’s ability to evoke
to processes that may alter the sociocultural change in and across social, economic, and
norms that prioritize, for example, the profit ecological systems. The term is distinct from
motives of publishers and the preferred outdoor conceptions of empowerment in that it locates the
recreational experiences of dominant cultural analysis and prospective changes within the
groups. More insidiously in the case of El Salto, systems themselves instead of in vulnerable or
norms that exclude the well-being and desires of historically disenfranchised communities. The
marginalized groups pose complex obstacles to tool is also distinct from notions of participation,
access, with serious material and social because “access” allows us to discuss both
consequences. material capital and social capital using the same
As in the equitable management of common- analytic concept. Because access can be deployed
pool resources, in some instances it may be in the across material, social, and ecological systems
interest of social sustainability to limit access, and because it can assess both individual- and
while in other cases social sustainability rests community-level engagement, it becomes
directly on opening up processes of decision- particularly helpful for discussions of
making and development. Recent work by Klain sustainability.
et al. (2014) shows the political and cultural From a pragmatic perspective, talking about
challenges involved in striking this balance of access is a way to articulate complex analyses
access in the context of marine-resource using a simple term from the vernacular that had,
management. In the El Salto example and in the and has, meaning outside of research traditions.
development of a wave-energy test facility, there In this case, the access concept allows for
is public debate surrounding what constitutes immediate engagement among researchers and
equitable and legitimate access to decision- has the potential to facilitate involvement outside
making processes. The persistent discourse over of academic circles. We anticipate that using the
“who has the most to lose” in the development of common term, “access” will make it possible to
the wave-energy project remains unresolved. discuss critical research on social sustainability
Some of the examples that we have described with the public, and across publics in a
help inform parts of others. Limits to the open comprehensible way while maintaining
access of information and research affect situational complexity. In other words, we can
Atawalpa Sophia’s ability to gather information talk immediately with the public about the ability
that could help her community understand the or inability of individuals and communities to
biochemical makeup of the river, which in turn access systems of power and change without
could be used to access public, political, and legal having to translate academic jargon. This
support. Conversely, increasing access to increase in transparent communication is in line
information and experts via the Internet provides with the focus of participatory action research on
opportunities for Sophia to meet and engage with improving the accessibility of language used to
journalists and filmmakers. While arsenic convey research findings and was a specific goal
poisoning and the public health consequences of of our collaborative effort (see also Kemmis &
living along a polluted river have reasonably McTaggart, 2006).
garnered the most attention from community Finally, using access as a mechanism for
members in El Salto, lack of access to green understanding sustainability also shifts focus
spaces might have longer-term consequences to away from goods and/or steady-state social and
mental and physical well-being that community ecological systems and refocuses the broader
members have yet to address. sustainability discourse on processes of change
Most helpfully, framing the issue of social (see Dillard et al. 2012). This approach is in line
sustainability around access allows us to use with current social science research across
common language to talk about the multiple topics, such as in the study of
interrelatedness of our research. The notion of environmental migration (see Marino, 2013). The
access, unlike the concept of capabilities, gives us world, writ large, is in a state of flux and
an analytic platform from which we can assess an uncovering who has access to systems of change,

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Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | Spring 2016 | Volume 12 | Issue 1