IPMA International Project Management Association
20 September 2017 / 7:14

Sustainability and Project Management – Perspectives, Challenges and Threats (Part 1)

I was born in the Black Forest, a rural area in the South-West of Germany, well known for its beautiful forest and the world-famous Black Forest Cake. Some of my ancestors cut the trees and shipped them on the Danube river down to the Black Sea, where they were used for ship building. But still there is plenty of forest in my home region, not all of the trees were cut down to prevent erosion of the soil and wind to destroy the forest. New trees were planted and the people took care of the forest because the forest is a treasure, from a social, economic and environmental perspective. Trees being planted by one generation can be harvested by the next, or for some trees, the second-next generation. This means you need to thoroughly think ahead, you need to plan and act taking two generations into account. I would call this “sustainability” and it´s very closely related to project management…

In Wikipedia the term sustainability is described as follows: “sustainability (from sustain and ability) is the property of biological systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. In more general terms, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes. The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.” Since the 1980s, the term “sustainability” has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth. The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations coined the challenges as follows: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Official Agenda for Sustainable Development highlighting the following seventeen Sustainable Development Goals:

  1. Poverty – End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. Food – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Health – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Women – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Water – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Economy – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Inequality – Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Habitation – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Consumption – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Climate – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Marine-ecosystems – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Ecosystems – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels[105]
  17. Sustainability – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Projects are a means to make change happen, deliver new products and services, and thus shape our society. Projects and project management help our society to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Thus, project management needs to consider sustainability as one, if not the most important success factors. Professor Gilbert Silvius (LOI University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands) recently concludes in a paper that sustainability qualifies as a new school of thought in project management. This finding is based on three criteria, looking at the content (having a shared perspective or vision and common methods and/or tools), the community (a significant publication base, a number of leading authors and presence on events) as well as impact (integration into practice and standards). However, the author recommends to broaden the perspectives by looking at different situations, their challenges and suitable approaches.

The next parts of this blogpost series will have a closer look into how projects and project management can support the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It shall also trigger a discussion across the PM Community and will be summarized during the 31st IPMA World Congress in Mexico (2019).

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.