Sustainability in Practice

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Course Date: 15 September 2014 to 10 November 2014 (8 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

Sustainability is a practice operating across a variety of scales and skills. We will explore the ways that decision makers use systems analysis and design thinking to confront the career-defining challenges facing the next generation of leaders. Networks of practice from across North America and around the globe will provide case material and guest lectures.

Estimated Workload: 2-5 hours/week

Course Instructors

Leslie Billhymer

Leslie Billhymer is a Senior Research Associate at the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub and a lecturer in architectural design and sustainability at PennDesign. Leslie spends most of her time thinking about buildings and energy, and is further generally interested in the sustainable and innovative transformation of the way people use the places they live and work, energy, food, water, space, and countless other resources.  

At the EEB Hub, she has led research and project management in two areas: stakeholder engagement and integrated design in the AEC industry. Nominated to join the Hub's Operating Committee in July of 2012, she's an active member of this body which  leads the governance, management, and strategy for the Hub.   

Prior to the EEB Hub, Leslie worked for Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research, Archi-tectonics, and HWKN. During that time, she was a contributing designer for numerous building projects and two exhibits, Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research’s  “Our Cities Ourselves” exhibit sponsored by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and a Venice Biennale submission of 2010. Leslie also worked for four years in grassroots organizing and policy development for several political organizations including MoveOn Political Action Committee and the San Francisco Green Party. 

Leslie received her M.Arch. degree from the University of Pennsylvania and she holds a BA in American History and Economics from Northwestern University. She is a recipient of a Graham Foundation Grant for her work with VIA Dirt. Her work has been published in VIA: Occupation, Journal of Architectural Education, and WORK 08/09.  

Mark Hughes

MARK ALAN HUGHES is a Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He is a Faculty Fellow of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, a Senior Fellow of the Wharton School’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Penn’s Fox Leadership Program. He has taught at Penn since 1999 and before that taught at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He was Chief Policy Adviser to Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the founding Director of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, where he led the creation of the City's seven-year Greenworks Plan. He has been a weekly opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and for Next American City, and was a senior fellow at Brookings and the Urban Institute. Hughes holds a BA from Swarthmore and a PhD from Penn.

Course Description

Sustainability is defining a generation of students and young professionals and their influence is transforming things like cities, companies, and laws around the world. Sustainability is often explained as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In practice, this means understanding connections, including connections across time. These connections create systems that are greater than the simple sums of their parts, with consequences that are often unexpected by people paying attention to only one part of a system. This course provides an introduction to the ideas and practices that people are using to understand and change these connections in pursuing more sustainable processes, communities, environments, and organizations. 

Systems theory appears in many guises and most disciplines claim some share of the systems approach to connections and consequences. In ways that we will explore in the course, design thinking is a method for putting systems theory into practice. Designers and their way of thinking provide a significant contribution to sustainability in practice, from improving energy performance in buildings to identifying the value ecosystems services provide to human settlements. This course has several strategic partners providing us with content and with platforms for discussion. These networks will provide the course with an extensive and diverse portfolio of problems, solutions, illustrations, and challenges with which to explore the ideas presented above. We will use these very different venues as platforms for discussion and will organize student conversations and assignments using the network partners.     


Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructors.

For more information on Penn’s Open Learning initiative, please go to:


Week 1: CONNECTIONS  What is sustainability? Links between sustainability and earlier ideas. Who does it, why, and how? Examples of how sustainability is used as by governments and enterprises. What is a system? Illustrations of parts, linkages, feedbacks, and leverage points. What is design thinking?   

Week 2: ACCOUNTING What is an efficient allocation of resources? What are the consequences of mis-allocating resources? Examples of externalities, commons problems, and cognitive bias. Discussion of lifecycle costs, behavioral influence, and aligning incentives.

Week 3: RESILIENCE What is the relationship between mitigation of and adaptation to challenges to sustainability? What makes a system more and less resilient? How are people making cities and companies and landscapes more resilient in the face of challenges such as sea-level rise or energy scarcity or food security?  

Week 4: EMERGENCE Resource efficiency and system integrity seek to balance flows over time. What is emergence? How does design thinking generate productive emergence and what strategies exist for anticipating and responding to emergent threats?

Week 5: JURISDICTION Who decides when resources have been accounted for, if a system is resilient enough, or whether an emerging trend is a threat or opportunity? At what scale and over what questions will such decisions be made?

Week 6: PERFORMANCE Even once sustainable outcomes are legitimized into goals and decided on through commitments, how are these outcomes achieved? How would we know? Discussion of competitions and incentives, measurement and management, and new methods of regulating performance and compliance.

Week 7: DISRUPTION How are existing roles and professions being disrupted by the demands of sustainability? Discussion of big data, simplifying system complexity, and the adaptation of legacy assets to new purposes.

Week 8: CONNECTIONS Summary of discussions and of emerging questions. Evaluate the claim that sustainability in practice is about using design thinking to understand and manipulate systems.


The class will consist of lecture videos, which are between 8 and 12 minutes in length. These contain 1-2 integrated quiz questions per video. There will also be homework assignments that are not part of video lectures, short written assignments, and a final exam.

Suggested Reading

Although the lectures are designed to be self-contained, two or three readings for each lecture will be cited for students who wish to explore further the topics.  

Course Workload

2-5 hours/week

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