What's Sustainability Got to Do with Business?

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Mahebourg, Mauritius waterfront with monument and mountains across the sea

   I made a startling discovery while working to finish New Media for Designers + Builders, which is my latest book: the virtues and ethics that underlie the construction of sustainable places and buildings and the virtues and ethics that I believe will underlie business in the age that is now dawning are exactly the same! How can this be? What can business-building possibly have to do with place-making? Let's look:

Virtues and Ethics

   A virtue, for the purposes of this discussion, is something we aspire to be: Be patient. Be kind. Be hopeful. An ethic, on the other hand, is something we aspire to do. Treat people fairly. Recycle. Buy local. To be and to do. Virtues are within us; ethics are what we do with the people and things outside us.

   The three prime virtues of business since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have been quality, speed, and economy. Or better, faster, cheaper, if you prefer. I believe we're now in a time of transition so great that even the prime ethics of business are changing. The new prime virtues, I'd suggest, appear to be patience, generosity, and connectedness.


sundial at Mugdock Castle, near Charleston, South Carolina

   Nothing you do today with the New Media is going to yield a measurable benefit in the first week, or even the first month. But if you are patient, the rewards you'll enjoy eventually will be far greater than what you would have reaped looking for immediate gratification. So patience is in many ways the opposite of speed.


three loaves of bread and buns

    Giving useful things away sounds insane when people are broke. But if you put things out there that are truly useful, not just teasers, which someone can download and never come back to you again, you'll receive a larger recompense someday. Like patience and speed, generosity is in many ways the opposite to economy.


two men debating in a Madrid park

   The relationship between quality and connectedness is a little different. For all of our lifetimes until now, you first did excellent work and that work got you published so that you became connected with many people. In other words, you became famous. Now, we have the tools to easily connect with others to begin with. I founded the New Urban Guild a decade ago, and working side-by-side with Guild architects has made me a much better architect. Starting with quality and ending at connectedness tends to arrogance because it's easy to say: "I'm so famous because I'm so good." Starting with connectedness, however, leads to humility because you realize "I'm better at what I do because of those around me."

Sustainable Place-Making

   Here's where it gets interesting. Sprawl development, especially since World War II, has been built squarely on the old virtues of better-faster-cheaper, and those virtues have created the most unsustainable development patterns in human history. Truly sustainable places filled with green buildings are almost impossible under the better-faster-cheaper regime, but would flourish among the virtues of patience, generosity, and connectedness. Here are a few examples:

Patient Places

house overlooking vegetated dunes at Schooner Bay in the Bahamas

   Build a place patiently, like Orjan Lindroth is doing at Schooner Bay, and you reap an enormous ecological dividend on many counts. Build at a high "development velocity," on the other hand, and you're left at the mercy of the interest clock ticking down at the bank.

Generous Places

   If you build a neighborhood generously, you plan lots of parks, greens, squares, and plazas for people to gather. If not, you try to squeeze every dollar out of the land by cutting every acre of your subdivision up into lots.

Connected Places

   A highly connected place is one where you can turn down many streets walking to many places where you might meet someone, or catch up with an old friend. Quality first, however, puts us in slick cars that cruise at high speed down a supposedly efficient highway system, but where the only interaction we have with others is called "road rage."

Patient Buildings

   Buildings built patiently start small, and grow over time as the homeowners' needs change through life, resulting in several side-benefits including the fact that they're often more charming. But if you want that whole house immediately, you have to mortgage yourself into a deep hole… a hole that millions have recently found themselves unable to get out of.

Generous Buildings

   A generous building is green in so many ways, and frees its occupants from much of the burden of energy and resource costs. It even entices people outdoors into gardens where they get acclimated to the local environment and are able to cut the equipment off and live in season for much of the year. Paradoxically, buildings built for economy try to control everything with machines and are therefore under a mechanical tyranny where their tolerance decreases to the point that the machines must be on every day of the year.

Connected Buildings

passage through a building at Harvard University

   It's easy to think that buildings aspiring to be more connected must have the fastest fibre optics cable and the like, but this is only a small part. Real connectedness connects us with each other in homes designed to bring families together and workplaces designed to foster better collaboration. And they connect their inhabitants to their neighbors by turning human faces, not garage doors, to the street.

What Do You Think?

   There are many more examples of the types of sustainable places and green buildings that patience, generosity, and connectedness produce. What are the first ones that come to your mind?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

I discovered a really strange thing... I'm working on a book about New Media, and it's for designers and builders. My last book was called the Original Green, and it's about sustainability. Nothing similar, right? Not so fast! It turns out that the virtues and ethics behind both are exactly the same! For example, giving away your expertise in a blog post relies on the same virtue as building a public square. Have a look at the post and let me know what you think!

Jan 15, 2013 10:22am

Chris Lewis · Chief Technology Officer at ROMABIO

Great Post!

Jan 15, 2013 12:58pm

Richard Bono · Owl Valley Studio at Richard J. Bono, Architect

Steve...I taught a course on virtue ethics last year. It's the classical version of Socrates and Aristotle. To the ancients...born of the harsh military necessity of making clear and correct decisions...the mother of the virtues was what Aristotle called WISDOM, later described by Thomas as PRUDENCE. This is the practical virtue of seeing the world as it is, not as we would want, as objectively as possible, and including all the elements affecting correct perception of reality. To Prudence, to the Christians was later added the role of spiritual virtue of CHARITY, the highest of the Spiritual Virtues, which also includes Faith and Hope. CHARITY is the virtue which enlightens and embues the prudent decision beyond mere calculation. The second of the Cardinal Virtues was JUSTICE, in proper hierarchical order, this second depends upon the clarity of Wisdom and Prudence to make judgments on the human sense of obligation we have to each other, to the community, and to those in authority in the state...these relationships are reciprocal. What you describe a patience, the ancients would describe as one of the two elements of the Cardinal Virtue of FORTITUDE. This is the concept of Perseverance, the everyday courage of daily life. The second component is the Fortitude of Attack, used much less, but sometimes necessary..described as the resistance of the soul to the unacceptable. The last in hierarchical order of the practical Cardinal Virtues is TEMPERANCE, which is described as the cultivation of the tranquility of the soul, the better put aside egocentric concerns, to more objectively see the nature of reality, the context of a decision. Classically, this virtue is also linked directly to Wisdom and Prudence.

Jan 15, 2013 2:09pm

Patrick Kennedy · Owner at Space Between Design Studio

I agree that they are the same and it shouldn't really be surprising. The city (rather than anti-city) is a profit center. Otherwise, it wouldn't exist throughout the course of civilization. The difference between sustainable businesses and towns and what we know today can be distilled down to a simple dichotomy, value creation vs value extraction.

Jan 15, 2013 4:16pm

Tan Siew Cheng · Coffee unlimited at Kaffa Kaldi Pte Ltd

I agree with what you wrote. Commercialism and high costs are driving Singaporeans. We need patience, connected fengshui as well!

Jan 17, 2013 10:15pm


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018