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Different interpretations of “sustainability”

Approached in 2014:
Somewhere in 2014 I was approached by our Italian partners, the PLEF Foundation, with the question to help the student Caterina Dada by answering some questions on our interpretation of the word and concept of “Sustainability”. The line of questioning was very much based on the old Brundlandt definition of sustainable development.

My own definition
I answered from the perspective of my own definition of sustainable human progress as used to define complex Sustainocratic ventures to “sustain humankind” as a wellness seeking species. Her research was looking at mediterranean countries and the interpretation of the concept in the different cultures. She also had a closer look at the precize meaning of the word used in each culture. The Netherlands is of course not mediterranean but we were a welcome addition to the list.

My own practical approach in the Netherlands is to see Sustainable human progress as an innovation driver, a leadership opportunity for (co) creation of new values for global expansion. The Dutch authorities have been seeing sustainability issues as “a cost” with a challenging demand for change of everything that the Netherlands has grown into and that could now be questionable in terms of sustainable progress. My own approach turns things around and sees the development as an evolutionary chance.

The thesys
Recently Caterina presented us with her summary of conclusions and allowed me to blog them. With great pleasure I share it with you. It is of importance to me too because we look into the expansion of our citizen driven ventures, s.a. AiREAS for the co-creation of healthy cities. The way cultures and demographic, historical differences react around individual and collective responsibility, authority and ethics in value driven progress and innovation, including the effects of technology and communication on behavior and change, will be subject for research and growth development of our concept of “Global issues, local solutions, global expansion”. The thesis of Caterina shows that interpretation of the concept is not uniformly developed around the world, adding an interesting dimension to our own drive for expansion of Sustainocracy.

Conclusion of the thesis

“The different interpretations of the concept of sustainability

in the Mediterranean area”

by: Caterina Dadà

From the research on the concept of sustainability in the Mediterranean area conducted through the survey that you kindly filled in, several agreements, several disagreements but also a wide range of shades. From the analysis of the answer to the question about sustainable development definition (a topic that is implicitly given for granted in a project about sustainable touristic development) almost every association answered in a different way. Some associations consider sustainability as an answer to current world issues, some as a natural evolution of humanity, some others look at it as a method to enhance local territory. Furthermore some associations link sustainability to a decrease of consumption, some others to a transformation of consumption and the Italian one even with a growth of this phenomenon. There is also an association, the German one, who even does not give any definition because it considers sustainability a subjective topic.

This disagreement on the concept of sustainability is well shown in the language. Two different roots at the base of the translation of the term sustainability are used: on one side the root at the base of the Arabic term التنمية المستدامة o “Istidameh”, or of the French one “développement durable” is related to the underlying concept of duration and renovation; on the other side languages such as Italian, Spanish and English translate the concept using the root “sustain”, from the Latin “sub teneo”, which is related to the semantic field of conserving, preventing one thing from changing.

However from the analysis of the remaining answers important agreements also emerge. Every association, for example, agrees on the fact that the present generation has responsibilities towards the coming generations. Another common point is that sustainability concerns the environmental sphere as well as the economic and social one. Finally, all the associations of the Mediterranean area link sustainability with the promotion of local areas and with community engagement.

As already mentioned, there is also a wide range of affinities and slight differences that allows the enrichment of intercultural communication: if, on one hand, common values are needed in order to build up the common ground upon which establishing the dialogue, on the other hand, small subtleties of interpretation allow “contamination” with other points of view without feeling one’s own believes threatened. We could say that these small differences build up a bridge that prevents diversity to become. As a consequence of what stated before, the existence of different interpretations of the concept of sustainability within the countries of the Mediterranean area should not be a concern: once a common vision on some basic agreements has been established, the existence of a wide range of big and small differences in the interpretation of the concept of sustainability, if accepted with awareness, does not make the concept of sustainability too loose or too wide, but it make the concept deeper, richer and adaptable to the different contexts of the real world. And this seems to be the situation of ONMEST2.

Although some disagreements about the concept of sustainability and differences in the organisation and management of projects, associations are brought together by the will to develop their region in a way that is lasting, effective and inclusive: a common view on some aspects of sustainability that offers an excellent. Finally, this enrichment deriving from diversity would be lasting and effective if, at the end of the project, participants will make a formal reflection on the differences they have run into during the collaboration: this would make every association aware of the acquired knowledge about other participants’ values, interpretations and habits, thus facilitating future potential dialogues.

Positioning the interpretation per country input

Positioning the interpretation per country input

How to interpret air pollution?

One of the citizen’s sustainocratic initiatives that we initiated in Eindhoven (Netherlands) is the co-creation of the healthiest city of the world using air quality as guiding principle. We invited the local government, business enterprises and scientific researchers to take responsibility with us. That is how the formal Local AiREAS Eindhoven was born in 2011. Air pollution is one of the most deadly problems that we face in the world. Since mid October this year the World Health Organization recognised it to be level 1 cancer producing.

Now what? How do we deal with it as a citizen’s cooperative with institutional memberships? We seem to know that pollution comes from high level concentrations of burning stuf (fuel, wood, waste, etc) but our entire lifestyle depends on that. Mobility, heating, industry, logistics….if we want a healthy city we would need to change everything, from design to culture.

Where do we start? No one wants cancer and no one wants to give up a wealthy lifestyle. The consequences however do not just show in economics due to illness, lack of productivity or costs of health care. They also show in quality of life, global problems and huge amount of people with chronic diseases. This mismatch suggests a transformation process. But how do we choose our priorities?

The first project of AiREAS was to create a backbone infrastructure of measurement equipment to visualize our air pollution in the finest detail. One of the most modern requirements is to analyse the ultra fine dust that we create through combustion of fuels or wood and friction. These particles are smaller than a virus and settle in our arteries, creating infections that can give rise to all kinds of health problems, even cancer. Larger particles may be captured by our natural defences, such as nose moisture and small hairs. But the smaller ones go straight through.

Our network

Measuring such minute air particles in the open air in a city is very difficult. Expensive technology so far only reached to a certain point of detail. At AiREAS we managed to cocreate much less expensive equipment that measures a vast amount of variables, and in real time. In Holland we say that “measurement is knowledge”. But what do we know when we measure?

Just imagine this little red dot:


This represents a particle in the free, open air in your city. Now we want to know what it is and how it affects our wellbeing? One way to do this is to filter the air through a membrane. We can then analyse the membrane and whatever it has captured. This did not work for us because we wanted to measure in real time, all the time, without having to go to the measurement station (normally hung up on a light post or so) to change filters or tubes. Another technique is with to measure with light or laser. Air in an air chamber of the measurement station is analysed by the way light is distorted by air particles.

Now we know the quantity of particles per cubic “something” in space somewhere in the city in close to real time. We also know the size.  We can distinguish particulate matter (PM) from below 1 micron to the traditional 2.5 and 10 PM.

This is great and already a huge advantage over other measurement techniques in the world. Scientists helped define the location of the measurement equipment so that information could be interpreted with some degree of reality. But what reality? We are interested in human health. So where can we measure, link with the respiratory reality and health consequences? Why would the measurement at 2.5 meters above a sidewalk under a light post be representative for what happens with people who live in the area? Scientific research talks about modulation. This is a mathematical technique to extrapolate our knowledge at the point of measurement and its validity for interpretation at a certain distance.

Modulation has to do with smart guessing based on behaviour models that take all kinds of variables into account. Every situation is different. Think of the way the wind affects the particles, or rain, gravity, temperature, turbulence around buildings, etc. Should we measure at the light post close to where pollution originates or at home of a local resident where people spend most of the time? Is the health hazard related to what we ingale while on the move or when we are at home? Or is it the accumulation of both. How then does pollution spread? Are our modulation models correct for interpretation? Do we measure at the right places for correct judgement.

These are relevant questions because based on the answers we influence policies on where roads should be changed, how traffic is routed, what needs to be changed in our lifestyle by law or suggestion, etc. These are big responsibilities.

The second backbone we put in place in the city is a health measurement infrastructure with real doctors measuring heart, lung, arteries. By choosing the spots right we could get to see if adjustments in the city or our behaviour would prove to be successful, not just by showing an improvement in air quality but also in related health and quality of life.

Linking public health and air pollution in true real life research with the involvement of the entire city population is quite unique. It is a living lab that teaches us as much as the rest of the world, especially because we do it with all participants at the table, not just fragmented research topics. That is also why we can react instantly on impulses that occur and surprise us. We become aware and conscious as we move.

Recently for instance we had a huge storm, up to hurricane power. This sucked all the polluted air right out of the city. The measurements however did not show uniformity. Strange things happened. The particles did not behave the same way and certainly not the way we would have expected.

Going back to our red dot we realize that we know only the size and quantity of particles. We do not know their weight, mass or properties. So in reality we know very little. These properties behave differently in different circumstances where gravity, climate, weather, electromagnetism, turbulence, etc influence them all the time. How can we interpret air pollution and attach values to it if we have so many doubts? How can we communicate pollution to the public if we don’t even know what kind of pollution we are talking about? How can we take measures in the city if we don’t know how the particles behave before they even get to our lungs and arteries?

We concluded that we need to initiate a new scientific project just to focus on “interpretation” of data.

We decided two things:
1. With two years of citizen’s cooperative work at AiREAS we have accumulated much awareness and experiences to share with others. We will get people to visit us for regular seminars that will allow them to do the same in their home town.

2. We will establish a research team to see how we go about interpretation and communication. We will finance the research through the income from education. Like this we keep ahead of the crowd so to say but let the others in on all our experience building through the trainings.

If of interest please mail. You can also forward this initiative and progress to people in your network who deal with this complex issue.