Sustainability and Solidarity

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about sustainability of late. To a significant extent, this thinking has been encouraged by my recent attempts to ensure that a non-profit scholarly network to which I’m deeply committed might be able to thrive. And those attempts have in turn been encouraged by the funders and other organizations that have supported that network’s development to this point; they too would like to see the network thrive, but they cannot support it indefinitely. We need, they reasonably suggest, a plan for demonstrating that the network will, at some point in the future, support itself.

Sustainability, in this line of thinking, is thus tied up in revenue models, in business plans, in cost recovery. Sustainability is for a non-profit entity forever financialized and, as a result, forever precarious. One small miscalculation can make the difference between survival and collapse.

And of course sustainability extends to realms other than the economic: there’s environmental sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that more resources aren’t consumed — or more waste produced — than can be developed or managed in the near term. There’s technical sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that projects conform to commonly accepted standards that will enable those projects’ future stability and growth.

All of these forms of sustainability are important, to varying degrees, to providing for the future of a non-profit network. But there’s another form that gets a good bit less attention, and that I increasingly think precedes economic or environmental or technical sustainability: social sustainability. The social aspect points not just to the determination of a group of people to support the network, but to the determination of those people to support their groupness; not just to their commitment to the thing they’re doing together, but to their commitment to the notion of “together” in the first place. Ensuring that these commitments are sustained is, I increasingly think, a necessary precondition of the other kinds of sustainability that we’re hoping to work toward.

My particular interests in this question derive from some challenges that have repeatedly surfaced in digital scholarly communication and digital humanities as tools and platforms age. There’s often lots of support available for building and, increasingly, implementing free and open-source tools, but there aren’t funding programs designed to ensure that they can be maintained. And as a result, the tools and platforms often accrue technical debt that becomes increasingly difficult to manage, rapidly making the projects appear unsustainable.

Brett Bobley recently tweeted a question about ways of sustaining such projects:

There are numerous discussions and threads resulting from that question that are worth reading, but one that caught my attention in particular stems from this reply by Hugh Cayless:

There is absolutely an institutional responsibility involved in sustaining these projects, but, as I argue in Generous Thinking, individual institutions cannot manage such responsibilities on their own. Cross-institutional collaborations are required in order to keep open-source software projects sustainable, and those collaborations demand that the staff participating in them be supported in dedicating some portion of their time to the collective good, rather than strictly to local requirements.

Sustainability in open-source development thus increasingly seems to me to have solidarity as a prerequisite, a recognition that the interests of the group require commitment from its members to that group, at times over and above their own individual interests. What I’m interested in thinking about is how we foster that commitment: how, in fact, we understand that commitment itself as a crucial form of social sustainability.

40 thoughts on “Sustainability and Solidarity

  1. Thanks for this. Part of the discussions on sustainability are related to the complexity of systems. More complex systems require more maintenance. For simpler systems, I don’t see why a single institute would by necessity be unable to sustain it?

  2. Thank you so much for publishing this! I’ve been in the middle of writing a similar post about my concerns around sustainability in community-based organizations in the cultural heritage sector, so this piece was very timely! I have some theories about the environment we are living in and how it influences long term sustainability that I’d love to chat with you about. From my observations, in the early days of community based projects, people get excited about being a part of a new community – about blazing a trail or doing something community based that vendors aren’t doing or aren’t doing as well, but that excitement fades. New projects surface that take our attention and we turn in their direction and away from the projects we were previously involved in. We don’t give the organizations time to mature and work through the startup growing pains. Also, as a community we often shoot ourselves in the foot by starting up additional competing organizations or developing competing community based services. Without commitment that lasts through the lull of years 4-7 (mileage here may vary), there can’t be sustainability. All this to say, I’d love to chat with you more about this topic and thanks again for writing this piece.

  3. Thanks for this, Kathleen (and other folks here and on Twitter that have chimed in). It is timely, for me, because I’ve been trying to think of ways my organization (NEH) can help address this issue more directly. Yes, we have a new grant program at the NEH aimed at this issue — and I’m pleased we finally do. But that’s just one facet (and one grant program) and there is much more to this issue.

    I’ve recently had some good chats with some smart folks at other funding organizations and I’m hoping we can start to take some coordinated actions on this topic (stay tuned!).

    I think your comments above are quite thought provoking. It relates to something we were talking about in that Twitter thread, namely that there are different categories of infrastructure and we may wish to consider them separately. Sometimes, I find analogies with physical infrastructure help me to think through these issues (even if the analogy isn’t always perfect). But when I think of physical infrastructure, there are certain categories (e.g. an interstate highway) that are so broadly useful and important, that I think they need a special level of attention and funding because they touch so many people. By contrast, a new streetlamp or stop sign might be locally important and best maintained by a local organization.

    I think the same holds for scholarly infrastructure. There are online scholarly projects that impact thousands of people across many disciplines and institutions (e.g. Perseus, HathiTrust, Voyages, or Humanities Commons). I think the entire community (not just users but universities, libraries, funders) need to think about ways to support such infrastructure in a comprehensive way. Such large-scale projects are different from a typical one-off grant funded project in terms of their audience and impact and we need to invest in them as such. At the the same time, we also need to ensure there are best practices for sustaining important local infrastructure too, though recognizing that there is no one-size meets all solution.

    There are a lot of smart ideas out there on this topic (and much already written) and I hope we can, as a community, come up with some actionable next steps.

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