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Data is a Cultural Artifact

Reflections on the EPIC conference by John Rooks, ESG Senior Research & Culture Advisor

I was lucky enough to be part of a panel at this year’s EPIC conference. EPIC brings people together who are unified by an ethnographic approach to innovation that is anchored in deep understandings of culture and human behavior. My panel, A Critical Moment for Global Change: Doing Ethnography and Sustainability,was selected to explore how an ethnographic approach to research can support sustainability efforts. For my part, I was talking about corporate (as opposed to academic) ethnographic opportunities in sustainability. From this corporate perspective, ethnographic research, and applying a cultural lens in general, are emerging strategies to advance sustainability.

Think of how an archeologist or anthropologist look at a shard of pottery found layers down in the earth. They use these found artifacts, tools, pots, utensils, and funeral urns to better understand food preferences, cooking technology advancement dates, family unit roles and relationships, health indicators, mortality rates, art appreciation, and even gods. A fractured piece of pottery is a clue, an indicator of culture in the eyes of the anthropologist. To an LCA practitioner, data is a cultural artifact. It’s a clue to better understand a company’s relationship with science-based sustainability and humankind.

A company’s appreciation for and handling of data can tell us a tremendous amount about their culture. This relationship is a predictor of success in reaching their sustainability goals. Deeper than that, which of the 5 values of data they prioritize can tell us even more. Traditionally data is understood by 5 Vs: Velocity, Volume, Value, Variety and Veracity. Does a company value the speed at which they can collect and analyze data over accuracy? Volume over Variety? Is it handled with care, scrubbed for anomalies? Are their data models reviewed by third parties for Veracity? Do they share their impact data with competitors to consume, or is it locked in a vault and tagged as “proprietary” as we often find in our research on open-sourcing sustainability?

Unlike the investigator of past civilizations who is a mere interpreter of past cultures, modern-day LCA hunter-gatherers and sustainability practitioners have a unique opportunity to influence culture using their relationship with data to improve the company bottom line, reputation, longevity and market share, not merely understand it. Culturally aligned organizations are more friction free, all stakeholders rowing at the same time and in the same direction. We influence these corporate ecosystems of employees, consumers, competitors, and supply chains through broad engagement strategies. We can work with these ecosystems (of humans) to help them revere data. This is an exciting moment for sustainability because data is contagious. Once we prove the value of some data, a company with this new culture grows a hunger for more. The next frontier of data may be more human than material.

Much of this is simply good old-fashion Stakeholder Engagement. But approaching it with an ethnographic strategy can facilitate this engagement with a cultural lens that provide newer and deeper and more actionable insights for your organization. Traditional Stakeholder Engagement projects may start with a survey for example. While surveys have a place and time, they are blunt instruments at best and often misplaced inside of engagement strategies - at the front. Let’s look at the end of life of consumer electronics as an example.

A survey of consumers about the recycling of their electronics (don’t call it e-waste, that’s not how they look at their beloved devices at the end of life) may have uncovered the What and How, but not the Why. We may learn that consumers rarely recycle electronics (in 2019 only roughly 17% of consumer electronic devices were recycled) due to lack of understanding of how to manage the devices (education) and the lack of options to recycle the devices (convenience). I spent a year working with Google trying to understand the Why. My research partner circular economy expert Carrie Snyder and I discovered what is now called the Hibernation Barrier Stack. This is specifically related to devices in home, no longer in use, and hibernating in kitchen drawers, closets and basement boxes. We identified at least 7 barriers (now up to 8) to recycling. Each barrier must be solved for in a specific order and requires its own intervention and messaging. It’s messy, like life. Awareness is number 1, Convenience is number 8 with at least 5 barriers between the two that create the condition of low uptake of recycling and even dampen the effectiveness of take-back programs. It’s not enough to make it free and easy. Companies spending money to solve only Barrier A and F are wasting their money. Or, like fictional archeologist Indiana Jones explains as the Nazis are searching for the Lost Ark of the Covenant: “They’re digging in the wrong place”. This discovery was only possible due an appreciative inquiry quasi-ethnographic approach – long interviews with a skilled facilitator about consumer’s relationships with their devices, and a deconstruction of the stories containing data discovered during the interviews.

Source: Google: Electronic Hibernation: Understanding Barriers to Consumer Participation in Electronic Recycling

(Research was sponsored by Google’s Hardware Sustainability Team, and through their generosity and support of sharing this information we are able to make it freely available. For full access to videos transcripts and interview demographic and application data, please email [email protected].)

To close, in support all of this, there is a flock of new sustainability assessment and reporting initiatives that encourage a deeper human engagement with data. Double-Materiality Assessments for example are a ripe opportunity to take a cultural approach to understanding your impacts. This methodology considers not just the financial and environmental materiality but also the social materiality of your impact (positive and negative). Similarly, Social Return on Investment (S-ROI) utilizes community engagement and collaboration as an additional tool to address the needs and aspirations of specific cultures within your corporate influence – intended or not, seen or not. These new deeper measurement rubrics necessitate understanding and engagement activities on a first cultural, and then human level.

Data, after all, is a cultural artifact.

John Rooks is a Senior Research and Culture Advisor for EarthShift Global and has two decades of experience applying a cultural lens to solve problems which result in climate change. If your organization is curious about shifting cultures to value data throughout your ecosystem, please email info@earthshiftglobal.com to schedule a conversation.