A Conversation with Mr. Sustainability

CoSphere interviews Dr. John Robinson, professor and sustainability changemaker.


Editor’s note:

Known broadly as Mr. Sustainability, Professor John Robinson is one of Canada’s foremost environmental thinkers. A Trudeau Fellow, and 2012 Canadian Environmental Scientist of the Year, John has been at the forefront of institutional change towards sustainability. As the West coast of Canada was buffeted by four atmospheric river events in three weeks (including the costliest disaster in Canadian history), we caught up with Dr. Robinson at his new home in Toronto, where he is now a University of Toronto professor and Presidential Advisor on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability.


Given John’s capacity for deep thinking, we took this opportunity to get into some nuance and philosophy. We hope that the links below help interested readers explore more deeply.

Q: There is a big divide in the sustainability literature between thinking about necessary future pathways as transitions versus transformations (which we see as roughly aligning as incremental versus transformational change). What are your thoughts about that distinction, and if you were to put yourself in one camp or the other which would you choose?


A: The transitions literature has made the crucial point that we need to move beyond changes in policy, technology and behavior, to consider changes in socio-technical systems and, more recently, systems of governance. Paying strong attention to such systems level considerations is extremely important.


The more recent transformations literature says (among other things) that we also need to pay attention to values and culture, at both the collective and individual levels. I think that is an important addition, since culture and values often guide and structure decisions made at the systems level [Ed: We agree! See this post for more].


So, I see these two approaches as additive not competitive, at least in principle. I would put myself in a third camp, which adds another dimension: that of ontological multiplicity (recognizing that we live in multiple different worlds simultaneously).


So, in a somewhat simplistic formulation of a complex set of academic literatures, we can think of four strata of change:

  1. Policy, technology and behaviour (much of the sustainability literature focuses on these)

  2. Socio-technical and governance systems (transitions literature)

  3. Cultural and value change (transformations)

  4. Changes in world-views, and in worlds themselves (including both epistemological and ontological changes, e.g. ontological turn in anthropology and history; some science and technology studies (STS work) [Ed: more to come on this].


Q: Which of your many projects and initiatives do you feel have most sparked change for sustainability?


A: I would group my efforts into two categories.


A. Highly applied work

  1. Conceiving of, finding funding for, helping to design, creating, and studying the CIRS building was the project of a lifetime. Not many faculty get to be involved in creating a highly sustainable building. One of my proudest moments was in 2016, five years after CIRS opened its doors, when a member of the architectural firm that designed CIRS said to me: “You have no idea, John, how much that project influenced the practice in our firm”.

  2. My work with two grad students (Mike Walsh and Dave Biggs) in the early 1990s led to the creation of the QUEST modeling system. Dave and Mike later commercialized this and it has morphed into Metroquest, an award-winning and highly successful community engagement tool. Between Jan 2017 and Apr 2021, 1250 surveys were created and launched on Metroquest, in cities across North America, which attracted 786,000 participants, creating over 20 million data points.

  3. My work at UBC and U of T is trying to create substantial institutional culture change in the service of sustainability, which involves working to make sustainability part of the essential identity of the university, in terms of teaching and learning, research, operations and community engagement. Given my involvement my views should be taken with a grain (or more) of salt, but I feel we have moved the dial significantly at both universities.

  4. The living lab courses I have been teaching for 6 years at U of T have put hundreds of students to work on applied sustainability projects that came directly from sustainability professionals on campus or in the community. This is a different kind of learning than in most coursework, since the students are trying to address the real-world sustainability problems of actual practitioners.

B. Conceptual/theoretical and methodological

  1. Developing and applying the concepts of regenerative and procedural sustainability, which focus on ways of constructing sustainability as a net positive process of improving both human and environmental wellbeing

  2. Developing and applying participatory ‘backcasting approaches to futures’ studies (where we imagine first where we want to end up, then the paths to get there)

  3. Teaching Sustainability and the Western Mind course for about 35 years

  4. More recent explorations in art and sustainability (2020 book with David Maggs; Kai and I discussed this work in this popular-albeit-long series of blog posts) and ontological multiplicity

Image by CIRS Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

Q: You designed a building on UBC’s campus called the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) that was intended to be net-positive on energy, carbon emissions, water quality and structural carbon. Getting this building built ended up being a much bigger ordeal than you had initially bargained for. If you had a chance to do it again, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?​​ If so, what?


A: It actually took about 12 years from the initial concept that emerged from a 1999 meeting with Peter Busby, the architect, to occupancy in the fall of 2011. In that period we moved the site of the building 4 times and got all the way to working drawings twice in the design process. This is not a good idea if one wants to keep costs in line, but we learned a lot in the process.


If I was doing this again, I would build on some key lessons:

  1. Choose, and don’t compromise on, extremely ambitious design and project goals. These are what makes the project distinctive and interesting, to funding partners, to other stakeholders, and to institutional ambitions. Being counter-cultural adds a lot of challenges which can be best overcome by the trail-blazing nature of the project.

  2. Develop very strong relationships with external stakeholders who can be crucial allies when things get difficult internally at the university. BC Hydro was a crucial partner for the CIRS project and their support helped get us through some very dark periods.

  3. Apply the five metaphors for steering institutional change that we developed as a result of our learning. I have used these ever since.


Q: What did your experience trying to implement CIRS teach you about what needs to happen to make net-zero buildings the norm? Who needs to do what to enable that?


A: A critical point is the need to engage with the private sector. The retrofits and new buildings we need to reach our climate targets are going to have to be delivered by the building industry: developers, design professionals, builders, trade professionals, etc., and financed by the financial services industry. So we must find a way to transform these sectors such that deep sustainability is the norm, the default behaviour.


Our experience with CIRS showed that the barriers were not primarily economic or technical. Instead, we need changes at the level of the institutional rules that determine what people do on Monday morning: the job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria, codes of practice, professional standards, regulatory requirements, etc. For example, very strong sustainability goals need to be written into the terms of reference of the design consultants, not just expressed in public statements.


In turn this means that while policy changes are important, to normalize sustainability we need to get into the institutional guts of how buildings are financed, designed, built, retrofitted and operated. Those rules of the game need to be changed at this level in order for sustainability to become the default behaviour, in much the same way that health and safety and labour rules have been normalized. A full service approach by the public sector, the private sector, civil society and the academic sector is needed.

Image by CIRS Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

Q: You used to teach this wonderful course at UBC on the history of environmental thought that primarily focused on Western views. Today, arguments that the global environmental crisis is largely a product of colonialism and capitalism are becoming increasingly mainstream. If you were designing this course now, what aspects of Eastern and Indigenous perspectives would you bring in and how do you think these could help steer towards sustainable pathways?


A: I still teach the course, now called Sustainability and the Western Mind. I believe it is very useful, indeed essential, to take a critical look at the underlying attitudes towards nature and human nature in Western cultural history, since this is where a lot of the required change needs to happen. In the Western world, we need to examine and critique our own cultural underpinnings.


If I could add a complementary course at the University of Toronto (where I teach now), it would be on non-Western views, including of course Indigenous knowledge, coupled with a closer look at esoteric and mystical traditions in Western history. I think there are a lot of potential parallels that might be very fruitful to explore between Indigenous knowledge systems and esoteric traditions in many cultures. I believe that we need to create change at these fundamental levels of being in the world, if we are to avoid superficial solutions that simply treat the symptoms of the problem, and risk intensifying the underlying diseases of unsustainability.





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