husITa and sustainability

Sustainability is a difficult term to define. Wikipedia states sustainability should be viewed as humanity’s target goal of human-ecosystem equilibrium (homeostasis), that is, satisfying present needs does not threaten meeting future needs. Today, most organizations claim the popular goal of sustainability. For example, Starbucks is eliminating an estimated 1 billion plastic straws per year worldwide. The only problem is that the new cup lids and some replacement straws contain more total plastic than what they replaced. This common practice of sounding sustainable is considered greenwashing by many environmentalists.

Most human services agencies have typically not expressed environmental or sustainability goals. They often put human welfare above the welfare of the planet. However, as the number of people on the planet grows and the impact of humans on the environment increases, sustainability becomes a key concept in human welfare, that is, good environmental and sustainable policies protect the planet as well as humans. It is noteworthy that World Social Work Day in 2017 had “Promoting Community & Environmental Sustainability” as its theme. And, one of the 12 challenges of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare is “Strengthening the Social Response to the Human Impacts of Environmental Change”. Strengthening community resilience through engagement and empowerment is a key preventive strategy mentioned in achieving sustainability. Also mentioned as key are skills at collaborating with experts from other disciplines and community partners.

How does sustainability apply to husITa? Can we add sustainability in the human services, technology equation? husITa is about designing and implementing technological approaches to human service problems, sharing implementation experiences, forecasting on future technology application needs, etc. husITa members often play linking roles between professional who have an in-depth understanding of technology and professionals who have an in-depth understanding of people and their problems. When developing and implementing sustainable IT solutions to human service problems, we need to include professionals with environmental and sustainable expertise to ensure that their considerations are included. Often sustainable problem in IT solutions only show up after extensive use. Two examples are hacking vulnerabilities and the weaponizing of Facebook to attack vulnerable populations. Including sustainability concepts during the IT design and implementation process may have prevented these problems. Including sustainability in IT systems design can produce more ethical and long-lasting products as illustrated by the husITa18 keynote address by Walter LaMendola.

Another example of how sustainability can add valuable insights into husITa work concerns app development. Solid research suggests that for most mental health issues, medications, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and getting out into nature all are about 30% effective. Medications usually have negative individual and societal side effects, e.g., the opioid epidemic. CBT is expensive and finding a knowledgeable practitioner for your problem can be difficult. However, nature has no side effects, is free, and promotes the sustainability of people and the planet. Sadly, few social work schools educate students on the research and practices they need to maximize nature during their client intervention. Many human service professionals are currently environmentally and sustainability illiterate.

The husITa18 conference wisely chose sustainability as a theme. However, a search of the abstracts of all types of presentations delivered found only about 18% mentioned the terms sustainable or sustainability. A search of the husITa18 presentation abstracts also found 18% mentioning these terms. Clearly, we have a long way to go to understand and incorporate sustainable concepts and practices in the human services.

In summary, sustainability is a complex term to define and practice. An old song by Pete Seeger titled “If It Can’t Be Reduced” can help us think about environmental and sustainable considerations of IT applications, especially those involving social media.

I suggest you play the song as you read the words below to increase your thinking about sustainability in the human services.

If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired
Rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold
Recycled or composted
Then it should be restricted, redesigned
Or removed from production

Image credit : Marco Verch