The Smart Office Reboot – A 20-Year Retrospective

When I began writing The Smart Office in 1993, I had just left a year-long fellowship at a large environmental organization in Washington, D.C. I’d been struck by how “non-green” it was and committed to trying to figure out how any company, whether it was for profit or non-profit, could be more sustainable.

I spent the next four years writing The Smart Office, which was published in 1997. During that time, I worked to understand what the term “sustainability” meant with regard to businesses and their relationships with the natural world… and to write a book explaining how companies could be more environmentally friendly. There was little information on business and sustainability at the time. For those who are younger or weren’t involved in corporate/business sustainability in the early ‘90s, it was a near-barren wasteland. There was no field of sustainability to speak of and few sustainability consultants.

However, there were a few bright spots. In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published a report titled Our Common Future. This report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It established sustainable development as a global goal. In 1992, representatives from around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit to determine how to make sustainable development happen.

This, of course, didn’t come from nowhere. It was the result of the ongoing hard work of many people around the world who had seen the waxing and waning of the environmental “movement” and who understood the fragility of the one life-sustaining planet of which we’re aware. Still, the ‘90s saw a resurgence of environmental awareness and a better understanding of the interconnectedness of living systems.

Interesting work was happening in the world of architecture and product design, and I gravitated toward the one field that appeared to hold answers to my sustainable business questions – green building. There were conferences and papers and the slow birth of books discussing how buildings should be designed and act as part of – rather than apart from – the natural environment. It was an exciting time. The U.S. Green Building Council was formed, and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program began.

My book – called The Smart Office because, I was told, “green” office had negative connotations and wouldn’t be taken seriously by business people – focused on greening the workplace. Specifically, it focused on efficiency and health.

In the ensuing years, much has happened. The burgeoning field of sustainability has developed a rigorous academic underpinning and continues to grow and mature. Further, several sub-fields have grown up as well, including sustainable building, sustainable architecture, sustainable business, sustainable agriculture, and more. Because sustainability is a quality required in every aspect of our lives, it makes perfect sense that it be tied – both conceptually and operationally – to all that we do. With the development and deepening of sustainability fields there have emerged a number of tools (e.g., life cycle assessments, certification programs) that can be used to determine how sustainable an activity or a thing is or how to make it more sustainable.

I’ve been heartened by the growth and changes I have seen in the thoughts and practice of sustainability. Even though I don’t believe that most corporate sustainability practices have gone far enough to result in actual sustainability, there have been some improvements.

In the years since The Smart Office was published, other concepts – such as resilience, adaptation, and regeneration – have added to and, at times, challenged the concept of sustainability. It is in this space that this blog begins… in the afterglow of early sustainability thought and action as it applies to business. And in the recognition of the need to go further – much further – if we are to continue to live on this planet in a way that enhances the likelihood of survival for most species, including our own, for the foreseeable future.

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