Member Spotlight: Robert Boyer

Robert Boyer

Robert Boyer is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte. He earned his PhD in Regional Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013. A seasoned performer of improvisational comedy, Boyer has just begun exploring the usefulness of improvisational theater as a metaphor for how plans work as signals in complex urban regions. He is a co-principle investigator with the NSF-funded Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) and teaches courses in urban planning and urban sustainability.

The urban development patterns that characterize the twenty-first century have contributed to climate change and the destruction of irreplaceable ecological landscapes are upheld by mutually reinforcing social and technological structures—infrastructure, regulations, technologies, industrial practices, and narratives about the ‘good life’–that will not change easily or independently of one another.

Dr. Boyer’s research is therefore focused on communities where conviviality is practiced intentionally—where people have decided to re-learn to live together and cooperatively own the amenities that we have grown accustomed to owning as individuals. Specifically, he has spent a lot of time in ‘ecovillage’ communities where there is an ideological commitment to environmentally low-impact living. These places are not perfect, but their members willingly experiment with lifestyles that violate the mutually reinforcing structures that make social sustainability so challenging. Yes, they have embraced alternative energy technologies, but they’ve matched new physical technology with alternative social technology. In his research, Robert Boyer is interested in why certain practices translate to the mainstream and the role that urban planning professionals play in making alternative practices a reality to mainstream individuals and communities. You can read all about this in his  article published in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research!

Dr. Boyer sees two major angles to social sustainability: (1) social causes of global environmental problems and (2) social solutions to global environmental problems. These two aspects are one and the same, of course, but he believes it’s easier conceptually to separate them. Social causes of global environmental problems refer to the social conventions (myths, narratives, institutions, patriarchy) that justify about 1/3 of the world leading opulent consumerist lifestyles while the majority of humans on earth struggle to survive. Social solutions are conscious attempts to identify and overcome these social conventions so that we can peacefully share finite resources on earth. Dr. Boyer believes that the biggest challenges to addressing social aspects of sustainability are greed, privilege, and power.

Another big challenge is disciplinary and sectorial boundaries that relegate social sustainability research to different journals and different professional settings. As it stands, Dr. Boyer finds that he has relatively little incentive to collaborate with an engineer or engage a professional urban planner beyond his individual research needs. He is hopeful that INSS is working to break down these barriers.

Dr. Boyer is addressing these challenges through his teaching and research, by exploring ways that communities are re-learning to live together, and sharing his findings with students and colleagues. Dr. Boyer is also beginning exploratory research on how improvisational comedy can be used to break down social barriers and result in better urban planning (his blog post on this topic can be found here). Improv has been a hobby of Dr. Boyer’s for years and he is just beginning to see how his hobby and academic undertakings intersect.

To increase the visibility of social sustainability, Dr. Boyer believes that deliberate communication and collaboration across academic disciplines, public and private sector practitioners, and geographic boundaries are necessary. When it comes to defining the term “social sustainability,” Dr. Boyer doesn’t exactly believe that a “metric” definition exists. Instead, he likes to think of social sustainability pragmatically, as both the social causes of global environmental problems and their social solutions.