Inclusion is Key to Sustainability

Josh Falconer-Roberts is a fellow of the Year Here social innovation master’s Programme. Inspired by SustainRCA's talk, We-Build: Powering Communities through Co-Creation earlier this year, and by the inclusive design principles pioneered by the Royal College of Art, he discusses why inclusion is a key dimension of sustainability.

The recent SustainRCA talk on ‘Powering Communities’ had me thinking about other ways we might unlock the potential within communities to support themselves. The idea I came up with builds on the philosophy of inclusive design and recent work I have been within the field of homelessness.

As a current Fellow of the Year Here Programme, I am serving a placement within a frontline homelessness service. Outside of my work in the frontline service, my time on the programme has introduced me to practice of inclusive design. Though the methodology of inclusive design is important in itself, it’s the broader philosophy of inclusion as a criterion for success that has most interested me.

I’ve been so captured by the philosophy of thinking inclusively that I have turned my attentions, at the hostel for young homeless individuals where I work, to promoting greater inclusion. Why? Because being homeless is a huge risk factor for social exclusion. The young people I work with are not all too different from me but, if I didn’t work with them, I would come into contact with very few people in their position. They have very little connection to the places I go, the social networks I operate in and the activities I engage in. As a consequence, they are closed off from the opportunities that I, and the rest of mainstream society have. Their futures are at risk because of this. By promoting greater inclusion of the homeless, or any other socially excluded group for that matter, I believe we can open up more opportunities to them and improve their prospects.

To promote inclusion of the homeless individuals I work with, I am now attempting to break down the unnecessary structures that segregate the homeless from the housed. My latest project centres around encouraging activities and classes, open to the public, to relocate to the hostel. In exchange for the use of the space, the activities are made free and accessible for hostel residents. Paying members of the public attend the classes as normal, residents only have to walk downstairs to their common room to join in for free. One group gains access to a service they would otherwise be excluded from while the other incurs no additional cost. This is a nice example of how considering inclusion when developing a project can provide benefits for a wider range of people. I believe inclusion is a great thing in itself but there is another reason the concept is so important.

Inclusion is fundamental to equality. Where social exclusion exists, barriers to social mobility are maintained and reductions in inequality are difficult to achieve. And inequality cannot be ignored. Inequality is a natural enemy of sustainability; reducing inequality is a necessary target for those aiming for a sustainable future. If the connection between inequality and sustainability is difficult to grasp, then take the case of inequality and environmental degradation. Five mechanisms by which inequality reduces environmental sustainability have been identified. For example, inequality is known to polarise political perspectives, this acts as a barrier to effective collective action aimed at environmental preservation. Inequality also increases the ecological irresponsibility of the rich and powerful as their wealth and status can be used as a shield; protecting them from the negative environmental impacts of their actions. Sustainability is a question of equality, and inclusion is a key part of the equation.

The ethos of inclusion is important for reducing inequality and social exclusion in the present. The more we apply inclusive principles to our services, policies and products, the more we will weaken the structures that maintain social inequality. As in my own work where the homeless are provided with opportunities to engage in activities they would normally be excluded from, and interact with those from who they would normally be segregated, actively setting out to include is a way of eroding the barriers to social mobility. It allows for the establishment of a fairer, more equitable and more sustainable future.