August 2014 Meeting Discussion: Sustainability Thinking for Technical Communicators

Presented by by Linda Urban, and reviewed by Sherry Nugent

Sustainability in the Bay Area has been done before and will, by its very definition, live on. However, this subject of sustainability was tackled head on as Linda Urban, award-winning technical communicator and instructor, presented Sustainability Thinking.

As a native San Franciscan, the ideas of focusing long term and considering a habitable future are not new to me. However, how do I, a technical writer of 13 years, view sustainability within my profession? Our room of technical writers pondered this question as Urban lead with talking points.

Where does the work of professional technical writers fit? What is corporate social responsibility? More generally, what is our part in today’s impact on the future? Can each of us take time in our day-to-day activities, whether it is work or play, and assess our actions toward the next generation? Linda explained how this thought process, which is often delayed or indirectly ignored, addresses the triple Ps: People, Profit, and Planet. This can be as simple as technical writers as people, profit from corporations, and the planet as our next generation.

Earlier in the day, caught up in my own world, I began to define sustainability as a technical writer quite literally. How do I ensure my employment through the changes of economy and technology? Already my status as an employee has been abbreviated to contractor. My role as contractor is more sustainable as I’m likely to be hired for several short term projects fitting a budget and much less likely to find a fulltime permanent employee position. I’ve risen to the challenge of becoming more technical to produce developer documentation whereas traditional written user guides are shorter and taking on new forms. In fact, several known colleagues are seeking higher education in instructional design as content is being reformatted for speedier communication (video et. al.) onto smaller landscapes (mobile apps et al.).

In the discussion, Urban stressed that this topic was a conversation needed from and among us all in the ‘real’ world and likewise within our culture of communicators. As she pulled us into conversation she explained her lecture was not finite and that she, in fact, was continuing and hoping to develop a complete lecture on sustainability. So as she plied us with questions and I listened to colleagues define their own meanings of sustainability, I quickly became amused as the lecturer herself aimed even to find sustainability for her future presentation. Developing a ‘complete’ lecture on sustainability seems impossible, in as much as sustainability means to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.* Wherein, the “the needs of the present” is forever changing.

So for now we focus on the present and how it might affect/improve/sustain the future. What ‘stuff’ is in our life and lives, and what replacements or cut backs can we endure and afford to ensure a better future. Sure, I can take the time to separate my daily rubbish into three recycling bins and a landfill bucket. However, coming up with the necessary $38,000 or more to adapt my 15-year old home for solar panels in an effort to conserve energy and yield me returns, that will be spread over 30 years, is much harder. It is my personal belief that one reason corporations and, even, conscious individuals, are short sighted in sustainability efforts is the capital and due diligence it requires to effectuate good for the long term. Urban thoughtfully responded to my criticism by stressing there are a multitude of means in the process and not all are costly implementations. Her response did not address the high expense (which does exist), but rather remained focused on availability of lesser costs measures. Regardless, her influence and insistence on a beginning focused on knowledge and the sharing of knowledge for sustainability will spread farther than if she did a 72-line-item cost analysis of paper harvesting in the rain forests or a comparison of consumption and connected-sub-systems weighted down by numbers.

As Urban led this sustainability discussion it appeared to touch each of us and ignite a thought process for life in the future. Specifically, how our life today affects life in the future. In her presentation, she introduces ‘backcasting’ as found on the website, www.naturalstep.org. Ironically, this process, which is visualizing the future and working backward from that vision, is identical to a corporate culture ‘success point’ recently expected of me from a global software manufacturer client. As managers, we are instructed to lead our teams to success through the thought process that begins with “the winning picture I see is. . .”

There is no better example of conscious-sustainability thinking than from the makers of Levi’s jeans. After our session with Urban, one can easily imagine the marketing and brand managers discussing and creating Levi’s winning picture in the drawing room. In a land of drought, water consumption on everyone’s mind, Levi’s jeans rolls out the campaign Jeans That Save Water and focuses on the minimal water used in the finished process of making the famous pants. This is in addition to the less structured message of ‘don’t wash your jeans’ that has perplexed some cleanly consumers.

In fact, if you own Levi’s jeans, a little bit of sustainability may just be in your pocket already.

*Brundtland Report (“Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development,” 1987)

Sherry is a native San Franciscan who has returned to the Bay Area after living 10 years in Europe. As a professional technical writer, Sherry enjoys studying and employing the diverse methods that continue to broaden, and yet, focus documentation for today and the future. Currently, she manages API documentation for a leading San Francisco bank.

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