Human life deprived of the natural environment would not be authentically human. However, at the same time, protecting the environment without authentic human life—authentic in the sense that Man is co-author—would not be sustainable. Both of these elements—appreciation of the environment and development of our humanity—are interdependent and together they generate the quality of our future.

Sustainability as added value

Today there are many organizations, enterprises, companies and institutions that see added value, in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), in sustainability, in environmental protection, and in social, economic and human resources.

The drafting of a social statement is an important step for an organization dedicated to the production of knowledge, such as the University of Florence. It’s a question of creating, in a participatory way and with contribution from many different subjects, a document able to transmit the principal characteristics of the organization and of the University, as well as the results achieved in the various areas of social and environmental relevance, to stakeholders.

An excerpt from University of Florence Chancellor Luigi Dei’s letter introducing the 2016 Social Statement of the University of Florence, toward which the CfGC made important contributions

Every day the CfGC comes face to face with the fact that many organizations, in various contexts, demonstrate the need to redefine their relationships between:

  • communication and resources—many economic, financial, and human resources are invested in communication and technological innovation with scarce results;
  • individual creativity and the system, the organization to which one must refer and which is too often experienced passively, with little desire and capacity for innovation;
  • internal and external communication—an enduring relationship
  • companies, enterprises and territories—we living in a historical period of rediscovery regarding the value of proximity and geospatial vicinity, while aiming to build a global market dimension.

Communication for sustainability

There is an increasing need for a new communication paradigm to come to the forefront and, at the same time, a need to redefine the concept of sustainability: social, economic, political and, above all, cultural. Sustainability as communication between physical and symbolic environments, material and human resources, and tools and human liberties; and let’s not forget the traditional idea of persuasion.

Certification as a driver of sustainability

The ever greater necessity for certification can be, in various sectors, a phenomenal model of community building. Certification can shift the sense of values and of the business at the beginning of any productive process, not relegating it to marketing or offer-to-user phases.

The CfGC approach to “Sustainable Behaviors”

Uncommunicable sustainability; unsustainable communication

Sustainability as a universally felt need is a highly debated topic in very diversified contexts: scientists, politicians, and normal citizens talk about it. And yet, we still have a long way to go before we have a path to sustainable development at systemic level. Interventions at the level of individual sectors may be positive and successful but it’s difficult for them to promote change on a grander scale.

This is what we define at the CfGC as the “sustainability paradox.” Even those who consider environmental (quality), economic (development) and social (equality) sustainability poorly sustainable in realistic terms don’t ignore its importance, or sometimes they disown the problem. Those individuals are however worried, if for nothing more than the effect it has on them personally in terms of their quality of life or perhaps for spiritual aspects.

Communication and the sustainability paradox are strongly intertwined.

With communication understood in its original meaning as putting things in common and sharing, the desire to communicate better the value and meaning of sustainability comes from many directions. The challenge is finding a way that is sufficiently effective to impact the behavior of subjects, individuals and collectives, and to transform increasingly irrational lifestyles that continue to be at the base of our human society.

However, communication–the fundamental tool to render sustainability a common project–however proves to be increasingly ‘unsustainable’. People, after having complained about its lack, begin to sense its invasiveness and liberticidal value; communication, which links everyone to everything and automatizes thoughts and behaviors, expropriates our critical sense of our own creativity and freedom. We suffer from too much communication and at the same time we complain about its lack: unsustainable communication and uncommunicable sustainability.

The CfGC’s research and consultancy consists in planning and developing communication that fosters sustainable behaviors within organizations. Behaviors that, first of all, regard people but that by now cannot overlook automation systems that increasingly guide our activities, thinking and feeling. For this reason, the CfGC carries out careful analysis and, when necessary, redesigns interactions between people and automated mechanisms.

Our work revolves around the need to:

  • redefine radically new relationships between resources and complex structures (whether they’re enterprises, institutions, agencies or any other type of organization);
  • develop a suitable communication model to foster forms of activity and more evolved and better collective and individual living.

In other words, to go beyond the current tendency to keep quantity and quality, organization and creativity, enterprise and values separate from each other. In order to do so it’s necessary to change the communication paradigm that we employ in every aspect of our lives: whether it’s in the economy or society. Because sustainability regards, first of all, values, objectives, and the meaning we want to give to our community of human beings, it is the mode of communication between people, between people and their environment, and between our interiority and the entire world that needs to be rethought and reorganized. And this is the case whether we’re speaking about private or public life.

A complex approach to sustainability: it’s a question of time and space

Communication determines the social, economic, and cultural system as it generates, maintains and transforms the entire world system. In the same way, sustainability regards the complete system in which we live. For this reason, taking steps toward sustainability means redefining relations between micro and macro environments. Speaking about sustainable management in one sector or another is essentially useless–a systemic point of view is what’s needed, a complex approach. We’re firmly convinced, in fact, that interventions must include strategies for a rapid spread to all reference organizations, otherwise it’s not possible to guarantee sustainable innovation, and there’s the risk that only partial solutions generating further critical issues may result. Important figures in the history of thought as well as researchers and scholars have intuited this. For instance, Gregory Bateson in the last century and, more recently, Pope Francis with his Laudato Sì encyclical letter.

The main challenge when approaching sustainability consists in identifying the Communicative Matrix Object that can trigger, in a timely and tangible way, sustainability in an organization’s entire system.

We know that cities are complex organisms characterized by constantly ongoing interactions between institutions, organizations, and social and economical players, and those interactions activate nonlinear dynamics and evolutionary processes that are not always predictable. The difference now, compared to the past, is that we are discovering new dynamics. This is why once we act on a single element–such as mobility, tourism, or welfare for example–the whole system ends up being rewritten in a completely new way. We have a new paradigm for the system before us, and it in turn needs a new paradigm of communication.
From “Generative Communication Paradigm. The MCO (Matrix Communication Object) to transform complexity into resources”, speech by Luca Toschi at the New sciences and actions for complex cities conference held in Florence Italy, 14-15 December 2017.

Adopting a systemic approach to sustainability means redefining concepts of time and space. It’s no longer possible–assuming it ever was–to think of sustainability as something regarding an undefined future and place. Sustainability has temporality and spatiality that are different compared to the past.

Just think about the impact of climate change on agriculture and other sectors that are far removed from it. For instance, even if today desertification seems like a problem that is distant from our own regions, its consequences are very tangible at our latitudes as well. Agricultural productivity falls when there’s desertification, which can cause political instability, resulting in massive migratory movement. For this reason it’s necessary to analyze the relations that link the different elements, also those that appear distant in time and space, and act on them to trigger transformations in the entire system. This is the case at all the levels we take into consideration. It regards the global interconnections between ecosystems, and, on a much smaller scale, the reality of a single company where it’s not possible to consider and act separately on single parts because there’s a risk of losing comprehension and control of the overall system.

This approach goes beyond visions of sustainability that aim to recover a presumed, past, idyllic equilibrium between man and nature (see Latouche).

Limits versus resources, growth versus development

The concept of resources needs to be completely rethought, and communication plays a fundamental role. Resources are not only those that already exist, but are also those created through the generative process, activated by communicating with other subjects, whether they’re living or nonliving. This means that through communication it’s possible to generate energy (resources) that either didn’t previously exist or that wasn’t considered as such. In this sense, the only limits to resources come from the human capacity to create new relationships and add value to single elements within a system in which and for which we are working.

Marco Sbardella, interviewed during the 2016 edition of the Notte dei ricercatori, Florence, 30 September 2016.

It’s also necessary to carefully analyze and study the concept of carrying capacity (i.e. the capacity of an environment to sustain the existence of a certain number of individuals) and evaluate its meaning in view of the above redefinition of resources. The risk is that of putting quantitative and qualitative aspects on the same plane. No less dangerous is the widespread confusion between growth and development. It’s enough to remember a Club of Rome report (1972) that translated The limits to Growth into Italian as I limiti dello sviluppo (The limits of development)! If the finiteness of Earth keeps us from thinking of infinite growth (quantitative), the same is not true for development which is a qualitative concept.

This means acting in the here and now to reach beyond what currently exists.

Technique of persuasion, certification, and the role of technology

Sustainability cannot be communicated using marketing techniques and persuasion, like we do with a product or service to be sold. If we adopt sustainable behaviors passively or if we’re “coerced” in some way, it’s not true sustainability. Sustainability relies on active, informed, and creative participation on the part of all those involved. 

Turning again to The Imperative of Responsibility (Das Prinzip Verantwortung, 1979) written by Hans Jonas, we can say that human life deprived of the natural environment is not authentically human. At the same time, protecting and preserving the natural environment without authentic human life–authentic in the sense of man as co-author with all the risks and errors that may entail–would not be life. Both the adding of value to a natural environment and the development of our humanity are interdependent and together generate the quality of our future.

From this point of view, we should consider certification systems not as a seal affixed at the end of the production process to provide a guarantee for the user, a sort of self-promotion, but rather as a project that enterprises, companies, various organizations, and let’s not forget institutions, should develop to create and congregate communities of interests, knowledge, and practices. With this logic, certification becomes a joint project.

Many researchers and policy makers believe that technology is the panacea for sustainability. Others are firmly convinced that technology is not the solution but the cause of our problems. Instead, technology is both part of the problem and one of the solutions. There are also other questions to consider: What technology are we talking about? Who’s planned and designed it? What are its objectives?
Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.

Sustainability in daily life

One of the pillars of the CfGC’s research regards the relationship between knowledge and its application, between knowing and knowing how to do something, between scientia and usus. In the context of sustainability, this is particularly relevant. The increasing distance that exists between the scientific knowledge we possess and our daily behaviors is proof of the importance of this issue.

With increasing frequency, we find ourselves in the position of knowing what would be the right to do but not knowing how to do it, or not wanting to or not being able do it.
The objective of communication must then be to bridge this gap, to put all of us in a position of living sustainably–as our duty and as a condition that is natural and belongs among our daily behaviors, and not as just one more weight to bear.