»Caution, Sustainability!«

On sustainability, the power of language, the unpredictable and intuition.

»Caution, Sustainability.«

It was a professor at New York's Columbia University: he gets an offer from a rival university. »Should I accept it or stay here?« A colleague takes him aside and says, »What's your problem? Why don't you do what you always write in your books? Calculate your expected benefits according to moral algebra!« Exhausted, the professor replies, »John, this is serious now!«
(From practice in the book »Gut Decisions« by Gerd Gigerenzer: German psychologist; Director Emeritus, Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Director: Harding Center for Risk Competence, University of Potsdam).

What sounds like a prime example from the academic ivory tower, in which »the professor has once again failed with his intellectual flights of fancy on the ground of facts,« has more to do with sustainable practice than we realize. Because both intellectual flights of fancy and the ground of facts have a sometimes momentous distance to the center of sustainability: the gut—and its decisions.

But let's start with the head, as always. He likes to work with data that can be calculated without gaps. Data that he collects on the ground of supposed facts, with which he calculates and from which he derives formulas. These calculations tell him what to do next. We know this as causality: the line of thought from cause to effect: »If this before is so-and-so, then that after it is so-and-so.« While the head runs and calculates this line from left to right. This is how our head decides rationally. The concept of ratio is based in calculatio: to cast up factual digits.

And then it comes—sustainability. As the prefix «SUS-« suggests, sustainability is decided by data and effects that are not yet fully visible and calculable today: UNDER the facts. Sustainability starts at the back, on the right-hand side of the line. It works with formulas that still have gaps today. This is in the nature of things. Because we don't know today what the effects of tomorrow's climate change will be, we don't know today what the effects of tomorrow's inventions & findings will be. In short: We do not yet know today our knowledge of tomorrow. Otherwise it would no longer be the knowledge of tomorrow. Otherwise our knowledge of today would be over. There would be no more new knowledge—nothing more to learn.

Sustainable Awareness

Admitting this piece of unpredictability today, we must face the consequences in our sustainability decisions. Because most sustainable decisions for tomorrow result from our knowledge of today. In other words, from knowledge that cannot yet be completely proven. Of course, we already have data today. Good data for much of what we do and, above all, what we should not do. But we also have gaps. And we don't yet know where. To fill these gaps, we need more than our heads and the conscious intelligence of linear, causal »if-then logic«: if this way today, then that way tomorrow. »In fact«, if we already knew everything about tomorrow, the term sustainability would not even exist. There would only be facts and clearly calculable knowledge, according to which we would have to act purposefully. But:

»He who plans the future must venture predictions, but he cannot possibly predict future knowledge. And so he must build his plan on present knowledge. Only the nearest and the farthest future we can predict with some certainty: the very nearest future will probably be similar to the present. And the farthest future we also know: we know that in the distant future we will all be gone together with our beautiful planet. But that does not help us. (...) What lies in between is what actually interests us. And that cannot be predicted.« (Karl Popper)

Sustainability therefore requires not only knowledge, but above all courage!—Courage not only to act sustainably. But the courage to make decisions into gaps of knowledge. How can we act today in a way that will be sustainable tomorrow? We don't know exactly. We only have hunches, tendencies. Because, and we should not forget this: Nothing is sustainable (today already)! No action, no architecture is sustainable. What will be sustainable is what will prove to be sustainable in the context of our knowledge and facts of tomorrow. Any sustainability of today is based on assumptions and prognosis: on knowledge gaps.

This brings sustainability out of the ivory tower and ties in with the prime example of the professor from the beginning of this essay. For here, too, we are dealing with the interplay of calculable and incalculable data, of conscious and unconscious intelligence, of head and gut decisions: of knowledge and intuition.

The difficulty with sustainable decisions

Now, decisions with gaps in knowledge—that is, intuitive decisions—have little place in our modern success economy, which must be able to calculate everything. After all, if something goes wrong following a decision based on both knowledge and intuition, the need to explain is great. And so our pressure to succeed avoids any trace of unpredictability as far as possible. One consequence: People prefer to take the second-best, but predictable path. Either this way—because it is completely calculable—or too risky.

Gerd Gigerenzer, for example, asked numerous top managers how many of their last ten decisions were intuitive, i.e., with knowledge gaps, not fully calculable. On average, it was three. But they would never admit that. If something goes wrong with an intuitive decision, instead of being able to justify anything, they are fired. Solution: After intuitive decisions, specialists are hired, consultants. They reformulate the original intuition in language as if there had never been any gaps in knowledge. As if everything were already predictable.

In management, many decisions are therefore made defensively. A defensive decision is made when one is afraid of the professional consequences of an intuitive decision. Instead, a secondary, but linear-logical and completely predictable if-then decision is made. »Better safe than sorry.« Even though the intuitive decision would probably have been better.

What tends to be suppressed here is the courage to our unconscious intelligence, to intuition. The courage to forecast and risk one's own path, which expands our now consciously calculable knowledge; the courage to innovate and the backbone to stand by one's incomplete decisions fed by experience; the courage not to be able to justify oneself if necessary—neither with data nor with language. In short, our black-and-white claim to success based on the certainty of completely predictable data lacks the courage for the blue: for decisions even into the uncertain but possible blue. A blue that begins where the predictable ends. To the right of our head line, which no longer marks the end of the effect, but its beginning. Because sustainability must not only be understood as the effect of tomorrow. It must also become the cause of the effect of the day after tomorrow.

caution, sustainability!

Well, for a knowledge culture like ours, this is the bitter pill: deciding & acting without complete knowledge. Not only are incomplete motives for action hardly accepted. In our success-oriented economic culture, they are not even tolerated. This is already evident in small things. Already in words like sustainability or its decisive factor emergence. Words that guide us in the sustainability discourse by pretending knowledge of tomorrow by their mere existence. Although even these words can close our knowledge gaps of today only linguistically: not empirically.

And yet, because we know the word, we believe we understand it and know what to do. Thus Werner Heisenberg writes that if we use a word often enough, we more or less believe we know exactly what it means in practice.—Even more. Words have the power to pretend that they stand for practice. As if with them there were no longer anything unpredictable, no more gaps. According to the motto of constructivist linguistic criticism: »There it’s written, now we know.«—Main representatives of this suggestion: catchwords.

»Thus catchwords always have the more effect the less they are understood; and parties disintegrate as soon as they try to make their catchword clear.«
Heymann Steinthal: Grammar, Logic and Psychology

So if we are really serious about sustainability, then the following applies to any discourse on sustainability, to texts and project descriptions—but above all—to the design and planning process that shapes and justifies itself in our minds with and through language: »Watch out, sustainability«.

Instead of relying as usual on our linear, predictable, automated language that suggests practical knowledge through word knowledge, the unpredictable part of sustainability requires an altered consciousness. Here, the advice of Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Hofstadter helps: »If things are complicated enough, you'll be forced to change the level at which you describe them.«

This caution with language and buzzwords is especially true in architecture. That's because language is extremely close to architecture. A closeness that inspired Noam Chomsky to write his book, The Architecture of Language. A formal similarity of construction that makes language so attractive to architects, because of its formal artistry and precision. At the latest when the result is presented and justified in language.—»Caution. Sustainability«.

Consequence for the sustainable process

Escaping this temptation of formal language must be part of architectural practice. There needs to be an awareness of the part language plays in our processes and outcomes. An awareness that needs to be reactivated again and again to break through our unconscious language automation. An awareness that knowing the right word and the right text about sustainability does not make us sustainable. That formal knowledge of predictable words cannot fill gaps in (still) unpredictable structures.—One can only act sustainably. Words can no more do that than a trumpet could bring down the walls of Jericho. Hardly anyone has described more aptly what this insight means for sustainability than the mathematician Hans Hahn: »In the world of meaning we find many horses—but there is but one term 'horse'; a horse of the world of meaning is born, is first young, then it grows old, then it dies—but the term 'horse' is not born, does not grow old, does not die; the individual horses of the world of senses move, change, come into being, pass away—but the term 'horse' ... is not subject to becoming and passing away.«


Sustainability begins with the courage to make your own decisions and stand by them. With the courage to get involved in what is not yet fully predictable: Intuition from experience. Especially when it comes to sustainability! Because intuition and innovation are two sides of the same coin. Both aim at something that cannot yet be in our heads.—Sustainability thus requires something that contradicts the mode of operation of language and text: active decisions that can hardly or not at all be formulated with gaps in knowledge.

In short: Only by consciously combining the predictable and the unpredictable, with a critical relationship to language and its generalized formalisms and buzzwords do specific decisions about sustainable structures become ethical actions and sustainability become a verb.