The Management and Practice of Sustainability: Part 1

“Society is widely acknowledged as having many detrimental impacts on the planet; sustainability offers a pathway to mitigate these impacts.

Sustainability

Sustainability

This was the start of the abstract for my MSc research project back in 2009/10: Whilst we see the term ‘sustainability’ mentioned every day, I would have thought that by now society and my own industry would have been thoroughly engaged with the concept and would be implementing sustainable practices and management plans as a matter of routine. How wrong I am, and to say disappointed is pretty understated.

Why we pay such lip service to trying to positively steer our future in a way which can benefit us all is a matter of unease and bewilderment; it is quite illogical but here we are, almost a decade later and lots of talk yet little real action.

I’m revisiting my research with an aim to develop a comprehensive template and interactive model for the sustainable management of a turf grass surface as this is something which is clearly lacking within the industry.

I’ve decided to publish significant parts of the research where it might still be relevant and of interest to others, and also as a refresher for myself to act as a catalyst to achieve the above stated aim.

The title of my MSc, “Effective use of information and communication technologies in delivering a sustainable amenity service within local authorities” and where better to start then the rationale for the research. I’ll include the list of references at the end of the blogs I upload for this.

1.1 Background to problem

Climate change, social impoverishment along with environmental degradation and resource depletion are problems that are having serious consequences for the planet (IPCC, 2007; UN, 2008; WWF, 2008). This undesirable state of affairs will critically impact on humankind’s future if positive remedial action is not implemented soon. Sustainability requires that guiding principles such as living within environmental limits, ensuring a strong, healthy and just society and developing a sustainable economy are followed (Defra, 2005). Whilst this is a contested concept (Sneddon et al, 2006; Blewitt, 2008), it does offer a pathway for modern society to effectively mitigate planetary concerns at both a global and local level, although the measurement of the sustainability concept can be problematical (Bell & Morse, 2008).

Local authorities deliver over 700 different services (SDC, 2008a), each of which will impact on the environment in different ways and degrees. The effective use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in business processes provides an opportunity to reduce the impact of service delivery on the environment by delivering a sustainable service (Sarkis et al, 2006).

The outdoor amenity environment is a large sector managed by Local Authorities (LAs), National Park authorities, Water Companies, the National Trust, private sporting organizations and others. However, the size of the sector is difficult to quantify because there is no single organization that routinely collates this information (CABE, 2009a). Floral displays, shrubberies, hedges, trees and woodland all form part of the outdoor amenity environment, although amenity grassland is the most significant component. Amenity grassland is typically represented by sports turf surfaces, golf courses, lawns, parks, grass verges and countryside areas, such as grasslands that are managed for conservation value (BSI, 1991).

Amenity grassland has been estimated to form about 4% (8,500km²) of the UK land area (NERC, 1977) and can be defined as “all grass with recreational, functional or aesthetic value, and of which agricultural productivity is not the primary aim” (BSI, 1991, p.1). With an inferred estimate of 2,500km² of LA maintained public open space (APSE, 2008a) the amenity grassland component maintained by LAs could be estimated as about 2,000km².

The number of employees involved in maintenance and management work in this sector has been estimated as 172,000 for both private and public sector organizations (Lantra, 2009), although this figure will include employees from outside the area of research it does give an indication of the overall size of the sector.

Within the outdoor amenity sector the consumption of natural resources and manufactured materials, which includes fuel, fertilizer, soil, sand, gravel, peat, plant seed, pesticides, water and other materials will be considerable, however, no comprehensive national figures are readily available. An indication of the general scale of annual resource use for some maintenance activities on the more intensively maintained amenity grass surfaces can be estimated as a minimum of 45 million litres of fuel; 40,000 tonnes of fertilizer; 30,000 tonnes of grass seed and 1.6 million tonnes of top-dressing; with carbon dioxide emissions of 0.2 million tonnes from these four resources alone (Cobham, 1990; Grisso et al, 2004; Appendix 4). These figures, however, are only inferred estimates and the totals for the entire sector would be expected to be considerably more. Being able to reduce material consumption, through improved decision-making and process management by the integration of ICTs, will contribute in the delivery of a more sustainable service.

ICT is the “technology and tools that people use to share, distribute, gather information and to communicate with one another, one on one, or in groups” (APC, 2009). ICTs can be grouped into three categories of information technology, such as computers; telecommunications, such as telephony; and networking technologies, such as the Internet and are often seen as providing an opportunity to improve social cohesion and equality (ITU/UNCTAD, 2007), as well as a means of achieving a more technologically clean and sustainable future (Climate Group, 2008). If ICT is adequately integrated into the management of business processes then these aspirations may be realized (Hilty et al, 2006a).

Unfortunately savings from resource efficiency do not always materialize as expected because consumers will typically use more of a resource as it has become cheaper to use due to the improved efficiencies (Hertwich, 2005); this is known as the rebound effect. This can be an unfortunate negative consequence of improved process management, impacting on both business (Hilty et al, 2006b) and society (Druckman & Jackson, 2009). It is an issue that should be integral to any evaluation of sustainability, because it reinforces the need to think over a longer term to ensure that the negative effects of technological innovations are considered and mitigated when planning for sustainability.

1.2 Justification for the research

The UK Government has emphasized the need (Defra, 2005) to engage society in the sustainability concept if a sustainable future is to be delivered. Local authority managers can positively contribute to this engagement by implementing operational processes that focus on sustainability.

One of the UK Government’s visions is for sustainability to be a central component of local communities. The Sustainable Development Commission’s report on the delivery of sustainable development at the local level (SDC, 2008a) identifies challenges and opportunities that LAs will face in achieving this vision. This research has helped in exploring how ICTs might support the delivery of locally sustainable amenity services, including how ICT might improve social connectivity (Ashton, 2007), which would see a local community more actively engaged in the decisions that affect its development.

A key driver in addressing sustainability at the local level is the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (HMG, 2007) because it provides a mechanism by which LAs can make changes to their current remits in promoting the sustainability of a local community. An example might include proposals to change the management of leisure facilities and open spaces where one LA undertakes the provision of these services on the property of another. Such a proposal would be considered only after ensuring a panel of local persons had been adequately represented; social inclusion is a key part of this Act, requiring all people resident in an area to be given the opportunity “to play an equal role in the economic, social and civic life of the area” (HMG, 2007, p. 7).

Initiatives taken to utilize low energy consumption in ICTs and features that reduce consumption within them are well documented (Climate Group, 2008), with examples including smart meters which are new types of electricity or gas meter that communicate with an energy supplier (Brogden et al, 2007). These meters will enable users to monitor energy use and costs in real-time, adjust energy consumption in a home or work place, for example, by programming appliances to use cheaper energy overnight. Even more significant is that users will be able to contribute energy back to the power grid through the use of their own micro-generation technologies, such as solar panels fixed on roofs or small wind turbines, however, the viability and effectiveness of current technology is questioned by some authors (Monbiot, 2007).

The effective and intelligent integration of ICTs into business processes can offer practical operational benefits, such as improving financial return or exceeding regulatory requirements (Gaughran et al, 2007). The identification and demonstration of additional, especially operational, benefits of ICT use that are shown to improve sustainability performance could encourage LAs to address further the issue of how to integrate ICT use with sustainability outcomes into management systems.

The outdoor amenity environment can contribute to improving and maintaining people’s health, by influencing behavior to increase exercise in green space areas and increase the social cohesion of communities through the interactions that walking or exercising in green spaces can create (Newton, 2007; SDC, 2008b). The benefits offered by ICTs in the management of these areas provides an opportunity that will not only enhance the sustainability of delivered services and the local community, but will also provide added positive benefits of lowering the costs imposed on national finances by reducing some causes of ill health, such as lack of activity due to unsuitable spaces in which to exercise in.

Services provided by LAs offered a potential fertile area of research because they had shown to be sympathetic and interested in addressing green issues related to ICT use in their organisations (IPL, 2008).

The potential to improve sustainability across LAs as a whole is considerable and can be illustrated by the LA schools estate sector, which has been estimated to be responsible for some 10.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (SDC, 2008a), or through improvements in procurement activities that support service delivery (Walker, 2008): reducing consumption in these areas alone would positively contribute to a more sustainable future and could act as a catalyst for further innovations and action.

Chris Gray, 21st October 2018