I recently presented a paper at the 2012 Northumbria Research Conference titled 'Project Management as if the World Matters'. In it I argue that most project managers are not yet integrating sustainability principles into project management practice, and that the profession needs to evolve to incorporate wider social, environmental and economic impacts. In fact I believe that we need to facilitate an evolutionary leap in the way in which we define, manage and communicate projects.

My interest in this subject arose from a study carried out as part of my PhD - Greener Homes for the Future? Sustainability in Local Authority PFI Social Housing. I was investigating the contextual factors that impact on sustainability within public/private partnerships - specifically why many large public infrastructure projects fail to meet wider environmental, social and economically sustainable goals. One if the most striking findings to come out of the research was that it was the management of the project which appeared to hold the key to success or failure from a sustainability prospective, rather than technical or economic constraints as might be expected.

I believe that the problem may be inherent to the way in which project management is currently perceived and understood. The traditional definition of a project is "an endeavour with a defined beginning and end, undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives" or as the project management profession's UK based institute, the Association for Project Management (APM) puts it “A unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve a desired outcome” . These definitions should be considered alongside definitions of sustainable development; the most commonly used being taken from the World Commission for Environment and Development (WECD) “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) define sustainable development from a business perspective as "adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future" .

The definitions of a project and project management seem to be at odds with the definitions of sustainable development that aim to recognise the long-term nature of environmental or societal impacts arising from business activities. Consider the table below which list some of the main differences between project management and sustainable development principles

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Project Management vs Sustainable Development (source: adapted from Silvius and Schipper, 2011)
The concept of 'sustainable project management' (or Green Project Management in the U.S.) is relatively new, but its role in contributing to sustainable development is increasingly gaining interest amongst project management practitioners and industry bodies. Sustainable project management is a response to the realisation that many of the current project management frameworks do not effectively address the three goals of sustainable development, i.e., social equity, economic efficiency and environmental performance.

Academically, there are only a handful of researchers working in this area (see here for an excellent overview of literature on sustainability in projects and project management) and little of the emerging literature seems to find its way into the mainstream academic journals. This is an area that I am currently researching in an attempt to better define the relationship between the management of projects and and sustainable development. Working with colleagues and students on the project management MSc programmes on which I teach, the aim is to update existing tools and develop new methods for assisting project managers in embedding sustainability into every stage of their project and beyond.

If anybody has any view on the subject of Sustainability in Project Management, I would love to hear from you in the comments..

Thanks

Alex

 


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