October 7, 2020

Understanding the Mechanics of Change is Integral to Addressing Sustainability in Design

To adequately address climate change, it needs to be a priority on individual basis, organizational levels and beyond.

But because sustainability and climate change is such a large, intimidating issue that affects everyone on this planet, it can be difficult to discern where to start. Should we be using paper straws and reusable grocery bags? Should we be pushing our employers for more sustainable office and travel policies? What about pushing for reform and laws on city, state and national levels?

Figuring out where we can affect the most change is difficult. For those of us within the design industry, there is the ability to create immense and sweeping change within the built environment as well as the planning and operations conducted within those spaces. For Josie Plaut, Associate Director for the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University, she’s learned that figuring out what drives people to make meaningful change can be even more impactful than adding sustainable elements to a building.

After years of working to integrate sustainability into various projects, she found that the make or break moment was whether or not key decision makers identified with or valued certain sustainability components. So she shifted her work to dissecting how change works, and realizing it starts with personal motivations, beliefs and values. We spoke with Josie about this evolution in her work, personal vs. systemic responsibility and some of her current impactful work.

Josie is the keynote speaker for this year’s Environmental Awareness Week. Register for her presentation on Weds, October 22, “Beyond Numbers and Tech- Getting to Zero Carbon is All About You,” here.

How did you get into this field and your current work?

Josie: I’ve been working in the field of sustainability and green building for more than 20 years. I began my career in this area as a student at Fort Lewis College when they were building a new student life center. The student body there had expressed sustainability was the top priority for the building. This was pre-LEED. There weren’t many green building consultants out there , but a couple of them were on this project. I was really fortunate to, as a student, be part of a leading-edge sustainable design and construction project. 

After college I worked at a development-funded non-profit environmental center, focused on the relationship between the natural and built environments. Eventually I decided to pursue a master’s degree and was deciding between an MBA and the sustainable design and construction degree at Colorado State, which is where I met my great friend and mentor Brian Dunbar.  In addition to being a professor, Brian was also leading the Institute for the Built Environment (IBE), where I began working on a LEED v1.0 project as an intern in 2004.  I like to say that I’m IBE’s longest standing intern – it’s been 17 years.

Since those early LEED days, how have your conversations with people working in the built environment evolved or changed over the years?

Early on, LEED provided a ton of space for innovation and creative thinking. It demanded a very high degree of teamwork to realize these new ambitious goals. Today, LEED has become more of a commodity and no longer demands the creativity it once did – it’s becoming more of a  compliance and accountability exercise than a driver for creativity.  The only direction for rating systems to go has been to become more rigorous and more complicated. There is a value in what LEED and other rating systems provide, but I have personally lost interest in them as a means to powerful change. I say that tentatively. They have been incredibly effective in creating large shifts in the market. Yet there are limits to those systems and boundaries for what they can achieve. My work has moved away from individual buildings and more toward organizational development and community engagement.  

What made you take this shift?

Early in my career, I was intrigued by the idea of a good business case was the way to sell sustainability. What I observed was that when presenting the same business case to two people, they would see very different opportunities. Some would see no opportunity at all and others saw opportunity well beyond what was being proposed.

So this got me curious. It turns out that money, or more specifically how people related to the business case, had more to do with their beliefs and aspirations than with the financial opportunity. And I became curious why projects would achieve such different outcomes – even in the same market.  Why would one school district make remarkably sustainable buildings while others would just say that was completely impossible? What I’ve come to believe is that it comes down to one thing, and it’s what your grandma told you: when there’s a will, there’s a way. 

That led me on a path to learning more about how will is generated and toward developing a more complete theory of change. I’ve also invested heavily in growing my understanding and ability to work from a regenerative paradigm.

How do you get people on board with your approach and build momentum towards change?

When we come in wanting to impose our values or aspirations onto someone, that’s when you get into the mode of selling. I got tired of selling sustainability. So I expanded my ideas about what to work on and how. Much of my energy is focused on seeing the potential and in being a strategic thinking partner for our clients. This has nothing to do with trying to sell anyone on an idea. That said, during the strategy and process design, and through engagement activities, we often invite people to reflect on their relationships with and responsibility to people and place. It’s not about telling or selling. It’s more of an invitation to work from a higher sense of purpose. It doesn’t always work, but I find it’s way more effective than trying to get people on board. 

Developing how we think about change, and moreover what change is worth working on, is where we fall short. Everyone who is interested in making positive change needs a more complete theory of change. The responsibility to make a difference is relentlessly personal.  

What differences are there in working towards change with organizations/communities versus trying to get a single impactful building created?

I’m looking to create meaningful shifts in the way we relate to each other and the places we call home. Working with whole organizations or communities or neighborhoods has the potential for really significant impacts. At the same time, working at these scales is less tangible than working on buildings. A building is a really tangible product, whereas working on shifting mindsets and developing relationships is more subtle. Changes can be seen over time, but it’s not as tactile. Relationships and mindsets are more ephemeral than “we installed this high-efficiency chiller and these LED lighting systems.”

How do you approach the battle between personal responsibility vs. corporate/government responsibility when it comes to the climate change conversation?

That goes back to incomplete theories of change. Both are correct and both are incomplete. There are individual actors and we can do things in our personal lives like recycling and using cloth bags, which are good. On a personal level, our higher order responsibility and impact is through our professional work. Your professional practice as architects and engineers has infinitely greater impact than the choices you make in your personal life. 

When we look to create systems change it’s about individual actors (or even individual organizations), relationships between those actors and organizations, and the larger systems of policies, regulations, markets, and technologies. All of these forces are in relationship with each other. So in order to effect change, we need to develop our ability to see these forces at work and make positive disruptions or interventions that create desirable change. 

The notion of personal agency and responsibility moves from individual actions and behaviors to developing one’s capacity and capability as an agent for positive change. The ideas about personal vs. corporate or government responsibility aren’t wrong, they are just incomplete.  It’s a false duality.  In reality, these things are deeply intertwined.  

The more relevant questions to be asking are, “where is it in your life you have the opportunity to create the greatest impact? What is the quality of thought around how you go about doing that?”  You can say no to a straw and it’s not going to save the world. It won’t hurt, either. At the same time, is that really the most impactful thing you can do to fulfill your responsibility as a human being during this time in our history? The answer is pretty plainly “no.” 

What are the biggest challenges in architecture/engineering when it comes to embracing sustainability?

You have to ask yourself how you grow your ability – individually and collectively as a firm – to meet this moment. It’s not easy work, but it is immensely important. Half the challenge is being awake to the challenge and not becoming complacent or satisfied with our progress.  The other half of the challenge is about growing our capacity and capability to be effective.   

That demands an incredible amount of focus, effort, and attention. It’s not easy to do, but it’s worth it.  

What are some examples of your work and how it shapes outcomes? 

Much of my work today is focused on elevating group processes, strategic thinking, and community engagement. It’s more about structuring and guiding people through their work than on an individual building. We have worked on several early LEED platinum buildings and net zero buildings, and with other ambitious projects like the National Western Center redevelopment. We have also written guiding frameworks such as the Whole School Sustainability Guide, which was adopted by the Center for Green Schools, the LENSES Framework for regenerative development, and the Regenerative Practitioner Field Guide

We’ve also had great success working with municipalities and other government agencies to engage community members in identifying their priorities for topics around redevelopment, equity, transportation, and climate change.  Then there are, of course, dozens of design and construction teams and companies who we have guided through creating leading edge buildings and project outcomes. 

Whether that’s a project team or an executive team, a working group or a community neighborhood, my work is about structuring the thinking and interactions in a way that builds capacity and catalyzes the inherent potential of our work to create positive outcomes.