Libraries and the Future of Sustainable Communities
by Garry Golden, NYLA 2016 Keynote Speaker
Exploring implications for the future of sustainability helps stretch our thinking around the role libraries might play in addressing community issues likely to unfold in the next decade and beyond. Library Journal’s Rebecca Miller highlighted NYLA’s efforts to expand library thinking on a ‘triple bottom line’ sense of sustainability often captured in the phrase people, planet and profits (economics).
During our November gathering keynote we will ask the NYLA community to tap into the power of foresight and think like a Futurist so we can better anticipate and lead sustainable changes in our libraries and communities. Using triple bottom line thinking we will explore our ability to improve outcomes in social equity, local ecosystems and local economic activity.
Sustainability and the Future of People
Meeting our sustainability goals may ultimately be shaped by demographic transitions that can help elevate policies and public sentiment at the local, state and national level. The next twenty years will bring significant changes in the demographic makeup of New York communities experiencing increases in aging populations, the family formation stage of Millennials - and an increase in the diversity of our people. (You can explore the population pyramid of NY State at Cornel University Applied Demographics site).
Libraries can start to explore implications for triple bottom line sustainability goals in the context of coming changes in state demographics. How might aging Baby Boomers look at sustainability issues as part of their legacy to future generations vs feel challenged in meeting goals? What sustainability values might Millennial parents impart on their children that could influence policies in the public and private sectors? How might a changing electorate address social equity issues across the state? How might social norms and policies that shape sustainability efforts vary across populations in rural and small towns versus people living within metro regions?
Libraries might help accelerate our ability to meet sustainability goals by exploring the connections between demographics against shifting public sentiment and policies for sustainability. What big demographic questions might be most important to sustainability efforts in your library and local community?
Sustainability and the Future of Planet
Healthy and sustainability ecosystems can be addressed from a range of issues from transportation, urban planning, farming and food. Yet most sustainability advocates believe that our ability to reshape the energy sector is our biggest lever of future change.
Changes in the energy sector happen slowly and are always driven by a combination of policy and new human behavior. Fortunately, the state of New York has emerged on the national stage with its innovative REV (Reforming the Energy Vision) program that hopes to empower utilities, energy entrepreneurs and local communities to transition into a cleaner and more distributed energy world. REV is in the early stages of development but has put New York on par with California as an innovator state in energy policy.
Libraries might play an active role in working with REV stakeholders to communicate information and resources to local businesses and residents on how to purchase clean energy resources, start a small business focused on energy services – or support their local utility in shifting toward more sustainable energy systems.
Sustainability and Future Economic Vitality
The secret to economic vitality in the 21st century might be striking a balance between strong local economic activities and a healthy integration into the global economy. NYLA’s Rebekkah Smith Aldrich (Coordinator, Library Sustainability at Mid-Hudson Library System) recently wrote about the importance of rethinking local and the opportunity for libraries to focus on localization efforts within their community’s sustainability efforts.
In the future, sustainable local economies will likely rely on growth from traditional businesses that provide employment and benefits – as well as alternative marketplace models driven by the peer-to-peer sharing economy (e.g. AirBnB). Fortunately, libraries already play an active role in both economic development approaches. Libraries help community members conduct job searchers, prepare resumes and understand skills required for success. We are also on the leading edge of enabling new industries through Makerspaces that help build a pipeline of talent.
In November when we tap our inner Futurist we will explore more radical ideas to help capture the benefits of local economic activities. The sharing economy remains in its early days and must address legitimate debate on what is truly a ‘sharing’ model between people versus ‘corporate coordination’ (e.g. Uber).
Beyond these debates there are fascinating efforts to take peer-to-peer activities to the next level using a new type of database called the blockchain. In the most basic terms the blockchain is an open, shared ledger of asset transactions. The blockchain uses common protocols and security through computational power to ensure trust that an asset belongs to Person A and was passed to Person B. The blockchain helps secure trust between strangers without the need for a third-party broker.
The first asset on a blockchain ledger was the digital crypto currency Bitcoin in 2008. In recent years the blockchain has received significant attention (both good and bad!) as advocates argue that it might be as transformational to society as the Internet itself.
Today, thousands of people around the world are exploring putting other assets onto blockchains to allow individuals to transact directly without the need for a third-party. Blockchain projects might transform copyrighted media, healthcare records, learning records, supply chains, housing deeds, vehicles titles, government aide, et al. The blockchain might help local economies unleash the value of public and private assets.
There is a scenario where local community members use their blockchain based assets to buy, sell, loan and trade to other community members without the need of third-party brokers. We can imagine Uber without Uber, AirBnB without AirBnB, equipment rental without hardware store, or eBay without eBay.
You could even imagine the blockchain allowing peer to peer library style lending of books and media collections! We might see public library collections expand in new way as we tap local materials owned by community residents.
The vision is a world where local economies can grow as trust-based transactions between people and institutions can occur without the need to pay a third party to verify ownership of an asset.
It seems complicated – but we’ll bring the idea to life at our November gathering!
Imagining 50 Event Headlines
Futurists tend to focus on trends which we can define as ‘more or less’ change that moves in a particular direction. (e.g. Increasing aging populations; increasing CO2 in the oceans)
We encourage you to start now and imagine what news headlines we might wake up to in 2026 that might define a new world of sustainability efforts.
What headlines might we see in 2026?
You can send fictional headlines to the future to (Kelsey Dorado at Marketing@nyla.org).
We will grow the list during the November conference following the keynote address.