Sustainability in Project Management A case study at University of Applied Sciences Utrecht


By Debby Goedknegt

Master of Project Management

University of Applied Sciences Utrecht


Editor’s note: This paper won the 2nd prize Student Paper Award – master level at the happy projects ’12 conference in Vienna in May 2012; republished here with approval of the author and happy projects conference organizers, PROJECT MANAGEMENT GROUP at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and ROLAND GAREIS CONSULTING.  Learn about the happy projects events at http://www.happyprojects.at/ 


When the project sponsor is responsible for the definition of the content of the project and the project manager for delivering this content, who then is responsible for incorporating sustainability in the process? Which project governance role has which responsibility to incorporate sustainability aspects in the project management process? This paper shows a project manager can influence the way sustainability is implemented in the project and the project management process. This perception is based on the notion that the project manager is intrinsically motivated to work on a sustainable project and achieve sustainable results.

  1. 1.    Introduction

“In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations” (UN, 1987). This implies, as Nelmara Arbex has said that “We need to change the way we view things in order to change the way we do things”.  One of the key concepts of sustainability is that sustainability is about balancing or harmonizing social, environmental and economic interests and it takes notice of both the short and the long term aspects. This is also known as the “Triple Bottom Line” (Elkington 1999): People (social), Planet (environmental) and Profit (economical). Change towards sustainability ask for change on all three pillars of this triple bottom line. However, the question remains if it is necessary in all cases to give each of the three pillars an equal amount of attention or would that lead to non-realisable situations. Project managers also have to ask themselves what the scope of sustainability is within their projects? Is the scope limited to the deliverables of the project or does it concern more and does it also relate to the organization within which the project takes place? And are project managers able to integrate sustainability within the project’s objectives and deliverables and in the project process? Silvius et al. (2010) say that the impact of sustainability is not really recognized yet. The way projects are managed, measured and reported does not reflect the different aspects of sustainability that can be derived from the concepts of sustainable development.

But then, what is sustainability? Sustainability is not a simple issue to grasp. Essentially it is not a methodology but a thinking dimension (Jaafari 2007). Alzami (2010) describes sustainability as each of us doing our part to build the kind of world – economically, environmentally and socially – that we want to live in, and one that we want our children and grandchildren to inherit. It means becoming aware of all interconnections – visible and invisible – in which our day-to-day choices affect the intricate balance of social, economic and ecological systems.

Thus, sustainability has to do with the use of resources that will not be exhausted over a reasonable period and that a system or process must not generate pollution. Furthermore, a definition of a project. OGC (2002) gives two definitions of a project:

  1. A management environment that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to a specific Business Case
  2. A temporary organization that is needed to produce a unique and predefined outcome or result at a pre-specified time using predetermined resources

Here it is therefore assumed that a project is a temporary organization created for the purpose of delivering a unique and predefined outcome at a pre-specified time and within in pre-determined resources.


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About the Author





Debby Goedknegt is lecturer and project manager at the Institute for the Built Environment of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht (HU). Sustainability is the main theme in her work (in both education and practice).  She is, for instance, the manager of the bachelor minor period called “People-Planet-Profit” in which students participate and execute practice based research on for instance the improvement of the waste management system in municipalities in South Africa. Within the scope of the professionalization of HU staff, she decided to get her master’s degree in project management (Master of Project Management – MPM). The theme of this master was and still is sustainability. Hence the choice for this master and the research on sustainability in project management. Both the research for this paper and the research for her master’s thesis were executed on sustainability in project management and in particular on the influence of different project management roles to adhere to sustainability principles in both the project’s process and its result.  Ms. Goedknegt can be contacted at [email protected]