What kind of future should we be leaving for the next generation? Unprecedented environmental challenges require urgent action, and projects are a powerful tool for change. Richard Hughes MAIPM CPPM examines how projects can improve our planet for the better, with project managers driving the transformation.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability was defined in 1987 by the United Nations Brundtland Commission and means ‘meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. It is more than being green. Sustainability is often broken down into three pillars: environmentalism, social equity, and economic development.

  • Environmental: Balancing earth’s environmental systems so we don’t harm the planet and what we consume can be replenished.
  • Social: Ensuring all people have access to enough resources to keep their families and communities healthy and secure.
  • Economic: Ensuring communities everywhere have access to enough financial or other resources to meet their needs.

The link between sustainability and project management

Past projects have created factories, societies, technologies, and wealth that impact the planet and all life on it. While great for some, the resulting economic growth has created many inequalities. To address this, we need change, and projects make change happen. This puts projects, and project managers, at the forefront of efforts to repair past damage.

We should be using projects to create products and technologies that support a better future for the next generation. If this sounds like a big ask from project managers, it is. But we’re not expected to do this by ourselves.

Sustainability is of global and national importance. Recognising this, the United Nations agreed 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) with 193 countries in 2015. While the SDGs may look random, they are interconnected and can be combined into three logical layers.

Considering the SDGs as three layers makes it easier to see what could happen if the foundation environmental layer fails. For example, we can only achieve decent economic growth or food security by first caring for our oceans. And to use the more recent example of the pandemic, we can only have everybody in good health and achieve no poverty if we look after our land, forests, and our greenhouse gas emissions.

While Australia is doing well in addressing poverty, health, and education, we still have one of the most destructive ecological footprints per capita of anywhere in the world.


Layers of sustainability of the UN sustainable development goals


Australia’s Climate Act came into effect In September 2022. The Act operates as umbrella legislation to implement Australia’s net-zero commitments and codifies Australia’s global greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. This is to be welcomed as our country has, for decades, been regarded as a perpetual laggard on climate change, and our economy is still reliant on coal and gas extraction. But the Act is only part of the solution.

I believe projects are essential to how we plan for and adapt to a changing climate risk both now and in the decades ahead, but projects won’t do this heavy lifting alone. Action is needed to address the emissions from the products we mine and sell to others. We need commitment, dedication, innovation, and schemes to support sustainable initiatives on many different project types. As an example, many initiatives are already in place in the construction industry (see graph below). The message is that if projects and project managers can’t be sustainable, they’ll become obsolete.




How project managers can build sustainability into projects

Academic researchers are exposing problems with how mainstream project management deals with sustainability. If you think about it, many projects and project managers rarely worry about how natural resources are being exploited.

Our project management methods often focus on maximising stakeholder benefits. In doing so, we, as project managers, tend to want to balance the performance of our project’s budget, schedule, and quality. This is a reductionist view that associates project success with project efficiency. It doesn’t address the more holistic and ethical perspectives we need if we are to manage sustainability issues. From now on, we should be thinking about how our projects and the resources they use help or hinder the environmental foundation layer of sustainability.

Our immediate emphasis should be climate change and life on land or below water. Have you ever considered whether the sand we use for construction has been dredged from areas that have worsened local ecologies? How is the transport of materials for our projects impacting global carbon emissions? Are the products we use contributing to slavery and poverty?

We need to start challenging what we are being asked to do. Are we prepared to tell our project clients that their dream project won’t help the environment or society, even if it might make a lot of money? Would our ethical values make us walk away from such projects? As professionals, it’s sensible to ask whether our professional organisations can influence our values for sustainable projects.

There is more to be done. Sustainability features in AIPM’s advocacy programs and some blog posts, but we could be doing much more. The AIPM is a collaborative organisation, so we can all promote, discuss and shape sustainable behaviour among our peers.

Sustainability is entering into methodologies and guidance. In the 7th edition of PMI’s PMBOK® Guide, the stewardship principle connects organisations, projects, and sustainability. It asks us to think about our projects’ financial, social, technical, and sustainable environmental issues.

PMBOK 7 extends our professional stewardship responsibilities outside our own organisations and asks us to collaborate, consider environmental sustainability, and think carefully about how we use project materials and natural resources no matter where the external stakeholders are.

Such concepts are far broader than our tried and tested understanding of what project management has always been. Remember when we thought project management was only about applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements? No longer is this the case.

PMBOK 7 is shaping a global ethical definition of Sustainability Portfolio Management (SPM) using the stewardship principle. I guess we’ll start to see this being developed by other project management organisations, government bodies and commercial organisations. It will only strengthen links between our work and Australia’s contribution to SDGs.

Together we can leave a positive legacy

We are starting to see important aspects of sustainability woven into project management, and we are increasingly aware of why this is needed. Project managers and professional organisations must now pivot towards sustainability, SPM principles, ethical values, and behaviours. The more we know about sustainability, the better our project outcomes can be, so one day we can look back and be proud of the future we left for the next generation.

This article is taken from the Autumn 2023 edition of Paradigm Shift