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Sustainability, Change, And The “End Of History Illusion”

In the January 2013 issue of Science, authors Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson write about their findings of what they call the “end of history illusion,” in which “people tend to underestimate how much they will change in the future.” In other words, when we look at our past selves, they seem quite different, but when we look ahead to the future, we expect we will pretty much remain the same.

“people tend to underestimate how much they will change in the future.”

The applications of their study are far-reaching. I find they are particularly relevant to the sustainability movement. Much has been made of the fact that sustainability has reached Main Street and yet it hasn’t permeated far along or beyond Main Street. The recent Brainstorm Green conference, for instance, was attended by a record-high 54 CEOs, indicative of just how engaged leaders are in discussions and efforts to reduce our environmental footprint. Attendees generally agreed that most companies today are making efforts to reduce waste, replace toxic substances with more benign materials, and invest in energy-reducing capital improvements so long as those investments have a reasonably short payback period. But where are we on making the bold moves necessary for the long-term viability of where we live and work and play?

The study by Quoidbach, Gilbert, and Wilson provide us with the tools for some tentative answers.

First off, if we compare the state of sustainability today vis-à-vis ten years ago, I think we would all agree that a significant amount of progress has been made. Back then, for instance, USGBC’s LEED program was in its infancy, and, I, along with a handful of others, was working on some of the first green buildings in the U.S. Back then, most people thought this was a fad. It wouldn’t last. We can see now that our past, collective self is very different today. Secondly, using the same logic of the Science article, we are very likely to underestimate the extent to which change is likely to occur in the years to come.

But what is that change likely to look like and how is it likely to be effected? Drawing upon our work with both corporate and community clients over the past number of years, I think we have at least a veiled sense of what the ensuing decade holds in store, among them:

THINKING STRATEGICALLY FROM DESIGN ALL THE WAY ‘DOWN’ THROUGH PRODUCTION AND ‘AFTER-LIFE.’ Whether we are talking about a business or a community, virtually all systems have a long legacy of doing things a certain way. It takes time to re-conceptualize a business model or to re-think the way a blighted city needs to be designed and populated. It also isn’t easy, typically requiringa sea-change in culture in order to make those changes. But the cities that re-think how planning is done and executed are going to be the real winners in the urban migration that is just beginning to take hold in the US. And the businesses that re-think the way they design and produce goods and services will be the ones who will have the competitive advantage when it comes to addressing increasing resource constraints.

WORKING CROSS-FUNCTIONALLY. We have a legacy, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, of working linearly, where each person contributes his or her specialized skills to an assembly-line like approach to production. In other words, we do a great job of working in silos. It will take time to re-engineer the way we function. For cities, this means that planning, transportation, housing, parks & recreation, economic development all need to be re-wired to function collaboratively (think what this means for annual municipal budgets!). For businesses, this means that R&D is tied to materials/procurement which in turn is tied to facilities/operations, and so on (think what this means for HR, which has to entirely re-tool its evaluation and incentive processes!).

BROADENING THE CONCEPT OF VALUE. When most of us think about the value of a company, our thoughts immediately focus in on a multiple of annual earnings. And yet clearly the value of a business is derived from multiple line-items: brand equity and reputation, intellectual property, insulation from regulatory risk, capacity to hire and retained a talented workforce, etc. Similarly, when most of us think about the attractiveness of a city, our thoughts immediately focus on affordability and job prospects. And yet clearly the value of place is more broadly derived at when one begins to broaden the analysis to include quality of life criteria.

It would be no surprise to me and my colleagues at Melaver & Associates that we collectively will be astonished to find ten years from now the strides we have made in these areas.

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