He opened by offering two big questions to the audience: if sustainability is about sustaining life, then what is life about? What will our design practices and organizations look like if we are intentional about sustainability?
As one of his main points, he discussed that the words we use are powerful tools for both inspiring and deluding ourselves, so it's important to be honest about what we mean. "Sustainable" and "regenerative" are words which, when spoken conscientiously, evoke a much more comprehensive and long-term vision than "green," "recycled," or even "energy efficient." Even "carbon neutral," he argued, isn't really his idea of sustainability. If the ultimate goal is to replicate nature and to create systems for sheltering and feeding ourselves that are truly regenerative, it's important to recognize that sustainability is not the same as zero.
As an example of what this philosophy looks like in a business venture, he described his interaction with a cooperative grocery store in Brattleboro, Vermont. The client originally wanted to create a LEED-certified building to house its store, a goal to which Reed (a founding board member of the US Green Building Council and original LEED faculty) responded with a question he said he asks often: "'do you want to do LEED, or do you want sustainability?'" During what he referred to as the "Double Train Wreck Meeting," he proposed a set of recommendations for systemic change. His clients, not ready to move beyond their idea of a simple green grocery store, politely asked him to leave, and didn't call back for a year.
When they did call back, however, he said they apologized and told him that the ideas he'd left them with were "the best thing that ever happened to them." They have since worked with Reed's firm to change the co-op's relationship to the community, to food suppliers, to the local forest service and more, transforming from a grocery store into what he called "a fooding process," a place where people could come to shop for food, but also to engage with community, learn to grow and prepare food, and move the community toward self-sufficiency and food security.
His description of interactions such as this with new clients made me wish I could be a fly on the wall in one of these sessions. He often must rely on word-of-mouth, or on extending free first consultations in order to overcome the initial skepticism from those who feel his ideas are too far out there to make sound business sense. It seemed that in his experience, many have simply become so used to thinking at the level of individual, segregated components that they're unable to easily see the system or their place within it. In order to think systemically, one needs to reestablish relationships; to feel connected and to care; to be personal and up-close rather than academic and arm's-length. To underline this point, Reed quoted Wendell Berry: "no one ever called his home an 'environment.'"
One audience member, a designer who had worked with Reed on the Willow School in New Jersey, left the audience with an interesting thought: he found that the collaborative, integrative and comprehensive nature of the project lent more to his own personal development than conventional design work. As he put it, it's important to remember that "living systems aren't just about buildings and things. The people who work on them are regenerated, also."
You can read more about Bill Reed's work on his website.
Editor's Note: This post is part of our recap of the 2010 Living Future unConference. Click here for more.