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CSRlive Commentary

01.12.2010 - 05:41PM

Category: Sustainability

Telling the Stories of Sustainability

Sustainable_systems

By Benjamin Erulkar, Senior Advisor, Business Civic Leadership Center

As much as the word “sustainability” and sustainable principles have embedded themselves in our culture over the past five years, I’m very surprised that it’s never been selected as someone’s “Word of the Year.” What it means, who appropriates its use, even what political party it’s associated with – I don’t know of another word that has been more dominant or subject to more discussion in our lexicon. (2009’s Word of the Year, “unfriend,” sounds needlessly hostile to me, but maybe I’m just getting old.)

But for all the talk, it’s easy to forget that sustainability, boiled down to its essence, is all about what happens on the ground, in our communities. To really understand how economic growth, community cultivation and environmental conservation best leverage each other into a sustainable community, you have to tell, and hear, the best stories. What’s more, nearly everyone has such a story – generally, we know the community that’s doing it well.

These are the stories, the ones you might never otherwise hear about, that the Siemens Sustainable Community Awards tell. For the third year, Siemens Corporation is sponsoring, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center is hosting these awards, which honor outstanding sustainable public-private partnerships that our country has produced. The awards honor governments, local chambers of commerce, environmental groups, economic development authorities and other public and private nonprofits that have broken new ground in sustainable practices, creating the stories that benefit us all. In recognition that sustainable success comes in different sizes, the awards are presented for three community categories: small (< 50,000 population), medium (50,000-500,000 population) and large (> 500,000 population).

If filling out a form and crafting a thoughtful essay within 1000 words don’t throw you for a loop, then you should nominate your community for the Siemens Awards. Just be sure to do so before January 29th, 2010, since that’s the application deadline for this year’s selections.

The more substantive exercise for those who apply is to think about how your community pushed the innovation envelope with its sustainable strategies and programs. What overarching problem did your community face? Did you bring fresh thought that added value to your solution? How many new stakeholders came to the table to work things out? And since we’re all about metrics these days, were you able to measure your outcomes – jobs created, emissions reduced, acres restored, degrees conferred?

Looking over the stories of 2008 and 2009 prior Siemens Award winners, it seems pretty clear that those who found success did so by breaking down some of the traditional stovepipes that kept effective partnerships from forming. For example, Denver, last year’s large community winner, formed the Greenprint Denver Neighborhood Collaborative, which brought together ten different government, nonprofit and business groups. As a team, the Collaborative targeted one neighborhood to pilot a sustainability campaign: replacing wasteful fixtures in homes and on the streets, planting trees, as well as conducting home energy improvement audits and financing the recommended improvements. The pilot, which achieved remarkable savings in energy costs and reductions in carbon emissions, is now being expanded to other areas.

Can shining an awards spotlight on an effort like Denver’s actually help the community? Let Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver answer that question: “The Siemens Award brought national recognition to our collaborative partnerships, instilled confidence in our funding partners and energized our staff to continue building and maintaining a program that has a real impact on our city. Recognition from the Siemens Foundation continues to pay dividends to the city by building momentum and encouraging greater community, donor and participant support.”

Small communities have scaled great heights to sustainability. Kingsport, Tennessee, the 2008 Siemens Small Community Siemens Award winner, struggled in the late 1990s with a deteriorating local economy, job layoffs, and a dwindling population, similar to what many traditional manufacturing communities in America faced. One city leader was quoted as saying, "The last one to leave — turn the lights out." Then the city hosted an economic development summit to bring together area leaders from the government, business, educational, and service sectors to identify solutions for the city. Education emerged as the key to turning the city around. In 2001, Kingsport launched "Educate and Grow," a first-of-its-kind plan to expand the conventional K–12 public school program to a K–18 program, with the final two secondary years being optional for students wanting to learn a trade.

Over the next six years, Kingsport built on this effort, focusing on recruiting partners and investors to construct a multi-purpose downtown education campus. The results? Kingsport recorded $164.48 million in new business construction for 2007 (a record for the city), nearly doubling the prior year’s total. From 1990 to 2005 Kingsport’s population increased from 36,315 to 44,130, a nearly 18% growth rate. Forbes magazine ranked Kingsport 3rd in the nation for the lowest cost of doing business in a metro area. In 2009, Kingsport was named a Top 100 Community to Live by Relocate America, and the town also received the Ash Institute’s Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University.

It’s the kind of story that the Siemens Awards look to celebrate. Everyone has their favorite community. What’s yours? Tell someone. Nominate your favorite community for the Siemens Sustainable Community Awards.

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