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Sense and sustainability – how to ‘green’ our digital work

By Suzanne Maxted9 January 20208 min read

Acknowledging feelings

Frequently nowadays I am overcome with worry for my children. This is a natural state of mind for most parents, however, for the purposes of this article I am referring to ecological crises and how to make sense of our working lives.

The Climate Change Empowerment Handbook (Australian Psychological Society, 2017) is a really helpful guide to cope with what, for many of us, must be feelings of great anxiety, concern for others, despair or apathy. I particularly like the C and V of their ACTIVATE framework:

  • “Create social norms about protecting the environment so that people see that ‘everyone is doing it’ and ‘it’s normal to be green’.
  • Value it – show people how their core values are often linked to other values that are about restoring a safe climate, and that caring about these issues actually reinforces their core values.”

I use all of the ACTIVATE recommendations in this article, as sub-titles (not in order), in my own attempt to ‘green’ our digital world of work.

Talking about ecological crises to break the collective silence

Australia is burning as I write. My sister lives there. In the peer-reviewed academic paper “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, Cook et al. (2013) found that, of about 12,000 climate scientists “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”, and that “the number of papers rejecting the consensus … is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.” The IPCC has also built a scientific consensus and has accurately predicted temperature rises for decades.

Denial worries me (internet ‘science’ is not peer-reviewed of course). Walker and Leviston’s (2019) article “There are three types of climate change denier, and most of us are at least one” is useful for dealing with one’s own and others’ states of mind. It is helping me deal better, in my own mind, with my denying brother-in-law whose livelihood is dependent on fossil fuels and race cars. The article describes my own kind of denial – when I am overcome with not knowing what to do. The authors call it “dissociation. Ignoring the moral imperative to act.” I think for some it is triggered by cognitive dissonance, pretending it isn’t happening, the head-in-sand tactic.

The Common Cause Foundation in its UK Values Survey (2016) found that of 1,000 people asked, “74% of people value compassionate values <such as ‘protection of nature’> over selfish values <such as wealth>”. Our values underpin our concern and our behaviour. And yet, of those same people, 77% believe their fellow citizens hold selfish values to be more important. I conclude that this belief in itself is silencing us. The website Common Cause Foundation has some inspiring quotes on the home page from current influential people.

So what can we do? As service providers rather than policy makers, we cannot determine government spending but we can talk to every person we meet in government. Everyone I talk to seems immensely relieved that I’ve started the conversation, as if it’s a sackable offence to care, and so must be kept secret. We can nudge our politicians and policy friends along, step by step, now, every day.

The greatest problem we have is political will and apathy. The protests are addressing that – even Boris Johnson’s father supported and attended the recent London climate actions – and making it easier for people to talk about ecological crises and climate breakdown. There is a growing global wave of support.

Silence and denial lead to a dangerous future! Imagine what we could do if we all talked to each other! So let’s talk!

Inspiring positive visions, and valuing core values

How exactly can we talk about it? I believe the most powerful influence we can have on behaviour change, in every walk of life, is to tell stories.

We could tell stories about how we never see insects on our windscreens anymore (the car was splattered with them in my childhood), or how the vibrant coral reefs my father used to see 30 years ago are now pale and broken. But these stories make us sad and trigger apathy.

Or we could inspire colleagues by telling new stories about amazing projects. As a thought exercise, imagine a future project that is relevant to your colleagues’ realm of influence and set of core values, and then find a similar real project in the world that could be presented at a lunchtime gathering. For example, I wish for millions more mini-farms. There must be new school farms in the world that receive extra funding reward from government for including sustainable food production in the curriculum, where the attendance of the children involved has improved, as well as their mental health. Tell that story.

Understand the side benefits of projects; cities like Freiburg have already achieved incredible progress in their cityscape and public transport that makes the UK look embarrassingly amateur. Freiburg saves money on transport infrastructure, and not only carbon emissions but obesity and health costs there have dropped significantly, because of transport transformation. A myriad of core values are serviced here.

Creating social norms about being green

I think ‘talking green’ is already becoming a social norm. We need – now – green action to become a social norm.

Fundamental to sustainability and adaptation planning is a labour shift to protect, restore and fund nature, for its own value, and in order to sustain life for humans. I suggest that there is huge potential in the public services digital space to support the adaptation required; we can build the external or internal-facing services to support the policies of protecting, restoring and funding.

What do I mean by labour shift? World War II is an example of labour shift. The men went off to fight, the women came out of the home to work the land and engineer ammunitions; my own grandfather taught them how to use the machinery in the Woolwich Arsenal. All non-essential work was shifted to prioritised work for a massive war effort. Whether we agree with the objectives of that project or not, we managed to completely reshape the labour force and get the job done – it was a social norm to work in that way.

Therefore, we can do it again. The scale of labour shift required to protect, restore and fund nature is apparently equivalent to WWII and the moon race projects rolled into one.

In addition, it can be done because it has been done in places like Freiburg; we have all the technology we need already.

Imagine a scenario where the thousands of people employed by and promoting the mad, mad epidemic of swollen lips and plucked and painted eyebrows (the so-called beauty industry) were redeployed to insulate homes. We’d all be more beautiful, cosy and sustainable by next winter. There are probably few non-essential jobs; I chose the one above, a personal bug-bear, to make my point about labour being diverted to the most urgent works, such as housing retrofit (see the Green Building Council’s “Zero Carbon”, 2018)

I am not suggesting we all become chick pea farmers or house insulators – I enjoy the skill set I’ve honed over the years and want to make good use of it and …. it is needed. We don’t all need to change profession, just our sensibilities.

Everybody everywhere, to meet the labour shift required, needs to ‘green up’ the job they are already in. In this way, working on sustainable interventions will become more and more a social norm and business-as-usual. Greening our jobs means diverting our digital efforts.

To do that, we need to have the audacity and courage to question what we do; measuring against the SDGs can help us ( “Government as a public service”, Suzanne Maxted, 2017, at DigiLeaders) Does this new digital service support a better living environment for future generations? Or shall we paint more eyebrows and give people ever more senseless and unnecessary government administration work to do online?

I’ll explain by way of example. Estonia are removing senseless administration i.e. the idea of citizens having to toil away applying for government services, thereby freeing up people’s time to do more important things. Estonia’s new parents automatically receive child benefit; the effort freed up from developing a citizen-facing digital application service could be diverted to providing digital support for an initiative that helps create a better world. For instance, we could seek the necessary digital consents to do away with valueless form filling, and connect, digitally, those new parents to local community and environmental projects that bring parents and their new babies together. All those people then become part of community-based decision-making, sharing and governance, in collaboration with the local authority. Imagine the value in that. And we digital people could help make that happen. But only if we are brave.

Oh! Indulge me now. Let me at the data architecture to help subsidise farmers repurpose their land and grow more plant food for humans. Let me be the one, please, to specify the enterprise architecture to fund schools to do the same and connect the young ones to local food production? This is what I mean by ‘greening’ our jobs.

Every day, let’s encourage new sustainability and environmental policies that generate greener work opportunities for us, and engineer partnerships across government and communities, for instance, between Education and DEFRA, to kickstart school farm funding.

We can build the digital services to support the new environmental policies. We must be ready, informed and prepared to support our government colleagues as the policies come through.

Engaging with nature

Finally, enable yourself and others, every day, to directly experience the benefits of protecting, restoring and funding nature. One way to do this is to connect more with, and notice, nature – try ‘walking meetings’ with our colleagues through the park and touch those extraordinary CO2 eating machines called trees. Experience together the well-being benefits of say, moss art covering a wall in an eco-fitted office.

It has been proven that people’s well-being and productivity increase when they are more connected to nature, and that they are more inclined to pro-environmental behaviours. For evidence, look at “Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention” (Capaldi et al, 2015), “Conservation Volunteers’ Connection to Nature” (Giuney and Oberhauser, 2009) or at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (Living Future) to understand what I mean.

Acting personally and collectively, and the time is now

We must wake up to the emergency that has befallen us and act today, not tomorrow. And we must, as my friend says, look at all our decisions, at work and at home, though a ‘net zero’ lens. I want to tell the story that I helped build better public services to administer school farms, sustainable homes and forest regeneration – things we know in our hearts are good and right things to do in our efforts to make the world a better place. I want my work to feel important not only to me, but to the children – the people who are the Greta Generation.

For their sake, for nature’s sake, for god’s sake – let our work make sense.

Suzanne Maxted, 2019, with loving thanks to my children, and to friends, for inspiring me to write this, unknowingly through their own actions.

Please feel free to get in touch if you have any thoughts or comments: suzanne.maxted@methods.co.uk