Talking Sustainability

September 23, 2017


Sustainability image

Sustainability is the topic of conversation for the next two days; I am attending a two-day think tank in Waterloo.

The work of the Bruntland Commission in the late 1980s was my first formal introduction to the concept of sustainability. The Commission’s report, Our Common Future, catalysed many multi-stakeholder conversations around the world. National, regional, sectoral and local Round Tables sprung up everywhere. They brought the environment and economy into the same room.

By the end of the 1990s, a third pillar had been added. Sustainability was re-envisioned as a three-legged stool encompassing environmental, economic and social dimensions. During the 2000s, t

he triple-bottom line became embedded in corporate social responsibility programs. In the municipal world, culture was added as a fourth pillar to embrace local identity.

Our understanding o

f sustainability continues to evolve as the stakes get higher. Pre-interviews of the think tank invitees has identified some early themes. Here are three that resonated with me:


One, is that all sustainability work should to be place-based. This is curious to me as this is all I have known. Artificial municipal boundaries may be limiting in the long-run but they do anchor you in place.

Deepening understanding

Another, is our understanding of each pillar is deepening: moving from environmental stewardship to connection with natural world, rethinking social structures, and how to build an economy that works for people and recognizes activities that don’t show up in measures of gross domestic product.


Sustainability is not an incremental transition but a complex transformation. It entails a shift from centralized and hierarchical work to decentralized and distributed collaboration. Silos must be disrupted, taken apart, if we are to achieve interconnectivity between the dimensions of sustainability.

Convening cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary conversations continues to be essential to promote learning, action and knowledge sharing for sustainability.