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Societal Impact Matrix: A Paradigm for Sustainable Society


The Societal Impact Matrix presents a holistic view of human settlement that considers both ecology and society as equally important, interrelated things. It argues that sustainability has been difficult to achieve in modern societies, where a task-oriented mentality, an effect of overspecialization, makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to grasp life on this planet in a complete way.

Originally developed for the 1996 Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul, Turkey, it urges policymakers to take responsibility for the broad implications of their particular decisions and actions.

The Matrix project was presented in the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Forum at the conference under the auspices of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) at a session held in conjunction with the international group ArcPeace.

Originally presented on a 30"x30" poster, the Matrix is not legible at this scale.
The formative concepts and the paradigm are explained below.

Project Statement

Farmers in some parts of the world traditionally subdivide their land into smaller plots with each generation until, one day, little or no workable farm remains. In urbanizing and industrial societies, the fields that are subdivided are occupational rather than arable, and each generation seems to produce legions of specialists who know more and more about less and less.

Even if we admire some of the marvels that technocratic and industrial societies have produced, we must also look at the barrenness of our cities, progressive breakdown of social orders, global inequities and mounting threats, nuclear and environmental, to our sustainability on this planet and wonder whether our humanness itself is not going the way of the traditional farm.

We are not, however, about to return to an imagined pre-industrial idyll. Instead, we must find a way to recapture a holistic view of life that will help us to make intelligent and sustainable choices in a complex world.

The Societal Impact Matrix offers a road map for understanding sustainable society in holistic terms. Using the concept of an input/output matrix, it shows how the repercussions of addressing one need will, in varying degrees, ultimately touch nearly every aspect of life, and it recognizes sustainability as a complex problem with environmental, economic, social, political, cultural and technical dimensions. Intended for use by government policymakers, private sector businesses and consultancies, educators, community groups and concerned individuals, this matrix provides a blueprint for comprehensive decision making and a checklist for demonstrating how a particular policy, action or project will affect the greater society.

Each cell in the matrix is an intersection between a policy input and a societal need. A cell links a column heading with a row title.

The Societal Impact Matrix shown here is the first of many layers that can be generated from the paradigm suggested by the row and column headings. People in different countries, for example, can modify the Societal Impact layer illustrated here in order to describe how these matters are viewed in their societies, and a cell, row or column can be expanded to provide detailed analytical or graphic descriptions of particular projects or issues.

It is hoped that others in the global community will apply this paradigm to their own societies and share the results with us. If we are to remain in a sustainable relationship with our Earth, then we must act now to put the "human" back in human settlement.

Initial Concept Diagram: The determinants of human habitat

This diagram preceded the derivation of the matrix. It was by considering which factors determine the basic pattems of human settlement and social organization and, in turn, what would make that settlement sustainable that the 'bottom line' notion of legacy was introduced.

The Paradigm

The premise of the Societal Impact Matrix is that specific 'policy decisions' are made to address particular problems, but, in so doing, they impact on a broad range of societal needs, often inadvertently.

Using the concept of an input/output matrix, policy inputs are arrayed along the horizontal axis, while the societal needs they address are listed vertically. Policy and corresponding need occupy the same position relative to the 'origin' - that is, the upper left corner. 'Land use policy' addresses the societal need for land, for example, 'water resources policy' the need for water,'agricultural policy' the need for food, and so on. The most fundamental needs are those closest to the origin.

The paradigm set up by the matrix allows those who make policy and those who evaluate it to 'track' the implications of a specific decision by moving up or down a policy column, that is, above and below the white box.

The COLUMNS describe how "policy" inputs, whether by formal government, business or individual citizens, can have far reaching impacts on a variety of societal needs, many of which are seldom directly considered when such decisions are made.

The ROWS describe how a particular societal need can be impacted by the results of policy decisions taken to address other problems.

The INTERSECTION of a row with its corresponding column represents the direct impact of a "policy" on the particular societal need it was intended to address.

The BOTTOM ROW describes "Legacy" as the ultimate aim of any policy input. The nature of a society's legacies will determine its sustainability - that is, what will be inherited by future generations.

Future Development

What has been presented thus far is but the first of a series of layers that can turn the Societal Impact Matrix into a useful tool for making design and planning decisions. Equally, the paradigm might be employed in a public review process to demand accountability from policymakers on how their proposals meet societal needs in a sustainable way.

The layering concept illustrated below was developed for a project prospectus to show the United Nations Center for Human Settlements how they might utilize the matrix concept to ascertain needs, set goals, establish criteria, and monitor implementation of the "Global Plan of Action" that emerged from the Habitat II Conference.

The author is currently seeking funding to develop an interactive computer version of the matrix that could eventually be placed on the Worldwide Web and/or on CD-ROM, and he is also developing a workshop format that would use the Matrix to educate policymakers about sustainability.

Copyright 1997 Bruce A. Silverberg - reprinted by permission of the author. New York architect and freelance writer Bruce Silverberg is concerned with making societies environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at a global and local level. In addition to design and planning, he offers workshops on sustainable decision-making. Email; on the web at


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