Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

FRAMEWORK | Creative Sustainability

Over a period of time we’ve been working on diverse strategies and ways of framing our work. In a broad sense, Harbinger Consultants is focused on creative sustainability and most of our work nests under the rubric of this big aspirational idea and recognises the relationships and flows across natural, social, cultural and economic capital. Given our attention to social enterprise, cultural development, social planning, non-profit sector development, corporate responsibility, community engagement and other aspects of social and cultural vitality and impact, our work is clearly focused on the creatively social and socially creative dimensions of places, organisations and communities.

According to the Western Australia Council of Social Services (WACOSS), “Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes; systems; structures; and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life.”

There is an inherent aspect of sustainability that is focused on inter-generational parity and this means having a futures orientation. We approach social sustainability through a number of frameworks focused on development, resilience, design, futures and planning. We also understand that there is a need to approach sustainability in a way that doesn’t mean ‘more of the same’. One of the models that underpins our work is the matrix of human needs developed by Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde and Martin Hopenhayn, an approach to human needs that frames a system of needs rather than a hierarchy. Strongly evidence based, our process design is also attentive to top down/bottom up approaches and we work to enrich our working space through consultation, collaboration, knowledge sharing, innovation and learning. Social sustainability requires that societies make social investments to develop social capital and realise opportunities for communities. Within a creative sustainability framework there is also a need to be attentive to the other dimensions of sustainability – being the environment, culture and economy – in an integrative and generative way.

Further to the WACOSS definition, social sustainability has the following dimensions:

  • Equity – equitable opportunities and outcomes for all its members, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community
  • Diversity – promotes and encourages diversity
  • Interconnection/Social cohesion – processes, systems and structures that promote connectedness within and outside the community at the formal, informal and institutional level
  • Quality of life – basic needs are met and foster a good quality of life for all members at the individual, group and community level (eg. health, housing, education, employment, safety)
  • Democracy and governance – democratic processes and open and accountable governance structures.

Definitions are fraught, as discussed in a paper by Dr Kathryn Davidson and Dr Lou Wilson titled A critical assessment of urban social sustainability, and while we generally accept the above parameters of social sustainability, we are also exploring other interpretations and analyses to grow our understanding of this important idea. It’s vital that ideas about social impacts, social equity, human relationships and community development are factored into decisions. For some, social sustainability is at risk of becoming a catchphrase, subject to the same kind of abuses as environmental sustainability. So, we also wonder what the social equivalent of a ‘greenwash’ might be called or might look like. In a post from last year, we mentioned that the Green Building Council of Australia had developed a sustainable communities tool which articulates five principles – liveability, economic prosperity, environmental responsibility, design excellence and governance – and this important initiative is recognising that the built environment is inherently social. Major building and development projects, including shopping centres, increasingly include a response to place-based social development. Our concern, though, about some of the social sustainability discourse is that culture can be overlooked or marginalised. The recently released Department of Infrastructure and Planning guidelines for Transit Oriented Developments recognises cultural development as integral to urban sustainability.

Harbinger Consultants has a strong focus on cultural development – for example, through cultural planning, public art, arts development, community engagement and values driven planning – and is attentive to local articulations and representations of identity and place. Clearly, negotiating meaning and meaningfulness plays a pivotal role in how a place happens and changes. As a rider for our work, creative sustainability ensures a strong theoretical and practical knowledge base for our work that we can be extrapolated in place and context specific ways. It provides a means of considering processes and outcomes that are integrate, offer resilience and provide choices and opportunities for communities. Having said that, social sustainability is also a space for interdisciplinary and innovative thinking – we like that prospect too. Only this morning we noted a line in an email promoting an upcoming art exhibition: “Creativity … is not the privilege of artists, but rather a renewable social energy”. We want to work with that idea.

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