The Sustainable Project Management Principle of Social and Ecological Equity

This is the 5th installment in our series on Sustainable Project Management Principles. As project managers, it’s crucial to consider the social and ecological equity principle when planning and executing projects in ecologically sensitive areas and centers of population. [In 2023, this essentially means on earth].

Social and ecological equity refers to the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens across different groups of people, taking into account social and demographic factors that influence vulnerability.

Let’s break it down a little with some examples.

Coastal flooding

Imagine you are a project manager for a construction project in a coastal area vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise due to climate change (see Miami, Florida). Social and ecological equity would require you to consider the demographics of the local population, such as age, income, education level, and access to resources like healthcare and transportation, to understand which groups are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

By understanding the demographic dynamics of the local population, you can design your project to minimize negative impacts on vulnerable groups and maximize benefits for those who need them most. This might involve designing buildings to be more resilient to flooding and storms or providing alternative transportation options for low-income residents who may not own cars.

Another example of social and ecological equity in action is a renewable energy project in a rural community. In this case, the project manager would need to consider the social and economic dynamics of the community, such as income levels, access to job opportunities, and potential impacts on local ecosystems.

By engaging with the local community and understanding their needs and concerns, the project manager can design the project to benefit all stakeholders while minimizing negative impacts. This might involve partnering with local businesses to create job opportunities or implementing sustainable land-use practices to protect local ecosystems.

What happens when we ignore social and ecological equity?

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When we ignore social and ecological equity in project management, it can have negative impacts on vulnerable groups and the environment. Here are some real-world examples of what can happen when social and ecological equity is not taken into account:

Environmental racism

[Yes, I said it.] When projects are planned and executed without considering the demographics and vulnerabilities of local populations, it can lead to environmental racism. For example, low-income communities and communities of color are often disproportionately impacted by pollution and other environmental hazards.

One example of environmental racism is the Flint water crisis. In this case, officials failed to consider the demographic dynamics of the predominantly Black and low-income community, resulting in contaminated drinking water that led to serious health issues for residents.

Habitat destruction

Projects that prioritize economic development over ecological preservation can result in habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. For example, deforestation for agriculture or mining can lead to loss of habitat for endangered species and disruption of ecosystems.

One example of habitat destruction is the Amazon rainforest, which is being rapidly cleared for agriculture and other development projects. This has led to loss of biodiversity and displacement of indigenous communities who rely on the rainforest for their livelihoods.

Climate change impacts

Projects that ignore the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations can lead to increased risks of natural disasters and other climate-related impacts. For example, building infrastructure in coastal areas without considering sea-level rise can lead to flooding and property damage.

One example of climate change impacts is Hurricane Katrina, which disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color in New Orleans due to inadequate evacuation procedures and infrastructure.

Overall, ignoring social and ecological equity in project management can have serious consequences for both people and the environment. By prioritizing equity and sustainability, project managers can help create projects that benefit all stakeholders while minimizing negative impacts.

Why we made this one of the principles for sustainable project management.

Social and ecological equity requires project managers to think beyond the immediate scope of their projects and consider the broader social and environmental dynamics at play. This means engaging with local communities, understanding demographic dynamics, and designing projects in a way that promotes fairness, sustainability, and resilience.

As GPM, we believe that incorporating social and ecological equity into project management is essential for creating long-term value and positive impact. By prioritizing equity and sustainability, project managers can create projects that not only meet their immediate objectives but also benefit local communities and protect the environment for future generations.

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Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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