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Fostering Cultures of Sustainability in a Multi-Unit Office Building: A Theory of Change

Dreyer, B. C., Riemer, M., Spadafore, B., Marcus, J., Fernandes, D., Taylor, A., Whitney, S., Geobey, S., Dennett, A.


“It is not only in the external physical environment, but just as much in our cultures […] that change has to take place, if we are to have a world that is sustainable for the human race in the future” (Packalén, 2010, p. 121).

There is growing recognition that significant cultural transformations are needed to successfully respond to ongoing global crises, such as the climate change crisis (Packalén, 2010). However, solutions have been primarily focused on technical innovations rather than culture shifts (Agyeman, 2005a). We were faced with this discrepancy when our team was approached in 2016 by a local environmental Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with an opportunity to contribute to the ideation of a multi-tenant high-performance office building. Together with several partners (the leadership team), this NGO wanted to create a building that is not only carbon-neutral and regenerative, a building “that gives back” (See Riemer et al., 2021, for the story of this building), but is also commercially viable so it could be easily replicated.

High-performance buildings (HPBs), also referred to as “green” or “sustainable” buildings, can be defined as structures created with the intention of reducing resource use, emissions, and waste, while increasing occupant well-being and health (Brown et al., 2010). Yet, based on experiences of the Centre for Interactive Research in Sustainability (Fedoruk et al., 2015) and other buildings like it, there are multiple gaps between design and performance, despite the use of cutting-edge technologies and sustainable design. While there are many reasons for these performance gaps, one reason is believed to be the (in-)actions of building citizens, and more specifically building managers and organizational employees (Fedoruk et al., 2015; Coleman and Robinson, 2018). Our addition to the leadership team offered expertise related to fostering human actions that could support the performance goals of the building and realize its promise as an adaptation to the global climate crisis. We knew this required an approach that went beyond a one-off behavior change program, and instead focused on the development of building wide self-sustaining cultures1 of sustainability.

A scan of the literature for systemic approaches to creating and maintaining organizational- and building-level cultures of sustainability (COS) in a multi-tenant HPB, provided insufficient resources for the development of practical guidelines. This led to our decision to create a theory of change of how to co-create such cultures, building on existing work of HPBs and (organizational) change toward sustainability (e.g., Pelletier and Aitken, 2014). A theory of change “is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context” (Center for Theory of Change, n.d.). A theory of change is not meant to be the same as a scientific theory with testable hypotheses as is common in psychology, but rather a theory-informed framework providing guidance to a practical approach of creating meaningful change for a specific issue. For this purpose, we engaged in “theory-knitting” (Kalmar and Sternberg, 1988) by integrating a variety of existing theories into one comprehensive applied theory of change (Riemer and Bickman, 2011). In this approach, “one integrates the best aspects of a set of given theories with one’s own ideas regarding the domain under investigation” (Kalmar and Sternberg, 1988, p.153), in our case fostering COS. While this is a useful approach for dealing with complex applied phenomena and to overcoming the limiting reductionism inherent in many psychological theories, it is not without its challenges. For example, it is crucial to ensure that the integrated theories do not rest upon incompatible basic assumptions and paradigms. It is important to note that the presented theory of change framework was primarily developed based on theoretical applications and existing literature at the time we created it, and therefore represents our expectation of what would happen once implemented.2 With agreement from the building citizens and leadership team, a living lab concept was incorporated into the building design and operation and served as a mechanism for both the implementation and evaluation of our approach. Thus establishing an onsite laboratory for experimentation in sustainable transformations and practical solutions for real-world problems (Heiskanen et al., 2018; Laakso, 2019). In a forthcoming paper, we will be sharing our experience and the challenges of operationalizing and implementing this theory of change. In this paper, we will first discuss the relevance of cultures of sustainability for achieving the goals of high-performance office buildings (and sustainability more broadly). This will provide the context that informed our approach. We will then offer our theory of change as a system-oriented framework informed by bottom-up engagement processes and discuss its potential challenges and their potential solutions, followed by a general conclusion.

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