Published on 17 July 2018

Seven sustainable design principles

A modern organisation must devote attention to the sustainability of its operations. In addition to maintaining a sound financial position, it must strive to make a positive contribution to society. For companies that perform design consultancy work, the greatest impact can be achieved by producing sustainable project proposals. But what is a ‘sustainable’ project proposal? And how do you ensure that concern for sustainability is part of the company’s DNA?

In a context of ongoing globalisation and the quest for profitability, it can no longer be automatically assumed that all companies also strive to make a positive contribution to society. Some no longer feel any strong ties with their physical location, perhaps due to the absence of transparency within the chain, the pressure from financial stakeholders, or mounting international competition.

The objective of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is to restore the inherent ability of companies to make a positive contribution to society, and to embed the necessary aims and procedures within their business processes. But how does an organisation begin to offer any added value to society? How should a consultancy firm set about doing so?

A sustainable world
In November 2015, the United Nations presented its Sustainable Development Goals (which build upon and supersede the Millennium Development Goals). The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) form a global action plan to arrive at a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable world by the year 2030. Although formulated with a focus on the developing countries, they cover a broad range of topical issues and provide a useful guide for private sector organisations, particularly those that operate internationally.

Materiality analysis
A company wishing to provide accountability for both its financial results and its contribution to society can usefully follow the guidelines set out in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the most recent edition of which devotes particular attention to ‘materiality’. This term refers to reporting the aspects that actually matter, i.e. those with greatest potential impact. A ‘materiality analysis’ identifies the points on which the organisation should focus, and can therefore be seen as the basis for an effective strategy. Such an analysis also reveals where improvements are possible and desirable within the chain, and therefore provides a starting point for dialogue with stakeholders. For consultancies, the challenge is to carry out projects that are likely to have the greatest positive impact on people’s health, well-being and economic stability. The engineering consultancy Witteveen+Bos performed a full materiality analysis in 2016, in which internal and external stakeholders were asked to identify ways in which the company can maximise its social impact.

A materiality analysis involves identifying the aspects with greatest potential impact, which then become the focal points of strategy

Impact
The analysis drew upon the United Nations Sustainable Goals to determine which areas of the company’s operations are likely to create the greatest impact. The first step was to identify the areas in which Witteveen+Bos can indeed have a significant impact. The analysis then looked at the current impact in each area. Internally, the process involved conducting interviews with key personnel and a survey held among a randomly selected group of staff. External stakeholders, including clients, major suppliers and regular project partners, were also interviewed. The result was a Materiality Matrix which could provide a basis for all strategic decisions. The symbols in bold print indicate the current impact in the various areas, while the shaded symbols indicate the desired added value. The arrows show the transition path by which goals are translated into policy, and thereafter embedded in all project proposals and the projects themselves.

Sustainable design principles
Most proposals produced by Witteveen+Bos relate to design projects. The design process involves making certain choices ‘with the benefit of foresight’. The designer must include measures that will solve a certain problem or issue, perhaps one that has yet to emerge, and thus make a tangible contribution to society’s requirements. It is a creative process in which certain principles can be applied to ensure ‘good’ choices. The materiality analysis served to identify those aspects that are to underpin the organisation’s project management, and those for which accountability is to be provided in its various reports. Because the original SDGs were formulated with a view to improving the situation in developing countries, not all are entirely relevant to the markets in which Witteveen+Bos operates. 

DNA
If the course of the organisation is to do justice to the relevant societal issues, the sustainable design principles must be firmly embedded within the DNA of the designers and design processes. Senior management therefore designated the implementation process as a policy spearhead. A programme was launched under the guidance of an overall project manager and a project team comprising one or more experts from each of the company’s sectors. Output included promotional materials, presentations, best practice examples and workshop sessions.

The coordinated use of the sustainable design principles now forms part of our own quality assurance system

It was decided that the coordinated application of the sustainable design principles should form part of the company’s quality assurance system. In 2017, the principles were incorporated into the Quality Manual, which means that it is now mandatory to consider all seven during the planning phase of each project. Staff must determine whether each principle is likely to represent added value, and if so, how it is to be applied within the project itself. Not all projects will lend themselves to all seven sustainable design principles in combination, and there may be good reason to deviate from one or more of them. However, such decisions must be made following thorough consideration. They must be reported in the project plan and discussed with both the project team and the client. The result may be a proposal that departs from the client’s original instructions but offers an alternative, more sustainable solution with clear added value.

Management practice based on social impact
Witteveen+Bos is also using its materiality analysis as a management tool to ensure sustainable business operations, and as a framework for the integrated annual report. When steering a strategic course based on social impact, it is essential to consider the ‘soft’, non-financial parameters alongside the ‘hard’ parameters of the balance sheet. A number of non‑financial Key Performance Indicators have been introduced. They too are derived from the materiality analysis:

  1. Added value in projects
  2. Talent development
  3. Added value within the business operations.

The first of these KPIs – added value in projects – relies heavily on the sustainable design principles, and focuses on the degree to which the principles are known, the percentage of projects in which they are properly considered beforehand, the reputational gain represented by client satisfaction, and the number of staff who have attended first-time or refresher training in sustainable design.

Ongoing improvement
Even those companies that have already begun to develop an effective CSR policy and are devoting attention to sustainability in their project proposals are only just setting out on a long path. The monitoring process not only calls for careful strategic management, but also the ongoing adaptation of the system based on interim experiences. It is clear that our KPIs and sustainable design principles will be subject to frequent modification and development to stay abreast of market expectations and society’s changing requirements. The CSR team at Witteveen+Bos, which includes representatives of all four of the company’s sectors, is ready to rise to the challenge.

This article was originally published on www.sigmaonline.nl 

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