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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: How a university can lead on sustainability

Tim Nixon

17 Jan 2019

“The world is cleaner, healthier, safer and economically strong when innovative thinking, capable leadership, and transformative storytelling are abundant and available to all.”

In this interview with the Jessica Hellmann, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, we hear first-hand how the Institute is driving increasing awareness on the critical role sustainability plays in the development of a resilient and healthy economy.  At the center of the upper Midwest of the United States, the Institute is one of the anchors of the region’s ongoing economic and environmental success.  It is a model for cities, provinces and nations world-wide.  Timothy Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Tim: Please describe the mission and vision of the Institute?

Jessica: The mission of the Institute on the Environment is to lead the way to a future in which people and planet prosper together. We envision a world where the knowledge needed to build a future where people and planet prosper together is abundant, the leaders needed to create that future are created and connected to one another, and stories that make sustainability solutions come alive are widely shared to drive sustainability at scale. The world is cleaner, healthier, safer and economically strong when innovative thinking, capable leadership, and transformative storytelling are abundant and available to all.

The “special sauce” of the Institute is its community of affiliates and students, the people for whom the Institute was created to serve and the agents of change we seek to bring about in the world. IonE started in 2007 as a place where multiple disciplines could come together, across a massive university, around environmental themes. Since then, the institute has become more mission-driven, and now is a place striving to create a positive future by drawing upon the interdisciplinary capabilities of a university. This is what universities can and should be: not only places were independent thought and creativity come alive but where smart and engaged scholars strive to implement positive change.

Tim: How big is it, and is it growing?

Jessica: There are 182 formal affiliates of the Institute, in four affiliation categories: Fellows (senior scholars from inside and outside the university), Associates (junior scholars building interdisciplinary and engaged careers), Educators (working to advance sustainability across the curriculum) and Visiting scholars (sabbatical and other shorter-term visitors). Over the last three years, the number of affiliates has grown more than 3x.

In addition, several hundred students each year pursue the Sustainability Studies minor (housed at IonE), take courses originating or taught by IonE staff (e.g., GCC 3005/5005, ‘Global Venture Design’), participate in sustainability leadership programming or compete for our social entrepreneurship prize, the Acara Challenge.

The budget and number of funders and partners has grown steadily over the last 10 years. Funding from the university supports about half of the institute’s activities (total expenditures:~$8M/year; university funding: ~$4M/year). Central funding is appropriate given the institute’s duty to serve the university student and faculty community. A substantial portion of external funding that is stimulated directly or indirectly by the institute flows to other parts of the university, often to the departments or colleges where our affiliates have their primary appointment.

Tim: What is driving its growth?

Jessica: Several factors are driving growth in size of the IonE community: 1) the desire of academics to be part of a community of like-minded people who are striving to affect positive social change (not just ivory tower inquiry); 2) student desire to augment course work with experiences and leadership development that helps them in a competitive job market and helps them be change-makers before and after graduation, and 3) a desire to be associated with an organization that does a good job of telling science-based sustainability stories, as a way to hold its community together and inspire sustainability action in others. This desires are alive and well in Minnesota, but they are national phenomena as well.

Tim: How does it engage with the levers of change in society?

Jessica: In our current strategic plan, IonE emphasizes work on “Impact Goals”. These are specific outcomes that we seek to bring about in society, e.g., a carbon-neutral Minnesota. We can’t achieve these outcomes alone, but they do require the three key ingredients we provide: knowledge to fill essential gaps, knowledgeable and activated leaders and informative story-telling. It’s IonE’s job to make sure that these ingredients are supplied in an accessible and interdisciplinary way with the partners who share our goals.

We tackle three Impact Goals at a time, each for 3-5 years. Our current goals, released this fall and now under further refinement (see “sub-goals” below), are: 1) achieving carbon-neutrality, 2) securing safe drinking water and 3) producing alternative scenarios of sustainable land use. The goals are designed for testing and implementation in Minnesota (our natural geography and stakeholders), but we work to scale them because each is relevant around the world. Not all of the work at IonE is tied to an Impact Goal, but much of it is and the Goals give us a way to model, replicate and measure the type of work that we do.

Tim: How do you know if it is being successful?

Jessica: Associated with each of the Impact Goals are a series of sub-goals. We focus on these sub-goals and form teams of activity around them. Sub-goals are necessary steps toward the goal where knowledge, leadership and science-based story-telling are needed.  A subgoal in the carbon-neutral goal, for example, is an analysis of distributed storage on the grid: how much, where, how connected and how incentivized. (Without distributed storage, we cannot get to 100% renewable penetration.) When we make progress on the sub-goals, we know we are being successful and we are working toward important, tangible outcomes.

Other metrics of success that we include in our dashboard measure key processes, things such as the connectedness of our affiliates to one another and implementers outside of the university, successful movement of student projects from the classroom to young ventures, and republication of our media content on sustainability solutions in major outlets with broad consumption.

Tim: Is success becoming easier or more difficult?

Jessica: In some ways, success is difficult today because of negative trends in federal funding on the environment and rollbacks we see from the federal government in basic environmental protections. Managing morale in the face of negative environmental news is a challenge for an organization like IonE. At the same time, these forces make our work incredibly important and rewarding.

In other ways, we are seeing great success, particularly at the regional and local and at the global scale. There is great receptivity to savvy sustainability scholars among our partners organizations, from NGOs to government to corporations, and each month brings new examples of scholarship translated into decision-making or changing thinking or practices in the real world. The marketplace for sustainability ideas is alive and thriving, and our own backyard has an abundance of organizations tackling global, national and local issues that relevant around the world (e.g., with the Twin Cities having a particularly large number of Fortune 500 companies per capita).

This provides us an abundance of partners and problems to work on. There also is great demand among students and professionals for sustainability knowledge and new ways of thinking and doing that reflect sustainability, and we meet that need in leadership programming. Finally, some of the decline in federal funding has been made up by the generosity of private and corporate philanthropy. This type of philanthropy suits an organization like ours, because we share the practical orientation of many private funders.

Tim: What could catalyze a significant acceleration of progress for the Institute?

Jessica: Investment by organizations that share our commitment to sustainability–like the recent gift we received from Ecolab–make growth in our organization possible. We have grown and matured with funds from the central university and project-oriented funding from external granting agencies. These are crucial to our future success, but growth for new programs will need to come from philanthropic organizations that have big ambition.

Another thing that weighs heavily on IonE and organizations like it is time–and the shortness of it. Progress on sustainability must rapidly accelerate within the next decade if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental damages that undermine humanity. We know a lot of what needs to be done, but much of how to do it remains to be discovered and implemented by capable people. That means our “successes” needed to be multiplied many times over. Funding is needed to do that, but we also need a larger market for sustainable practices. Market growth will come from good public policy that sets reliable and consistent signals about where society and the economy can and should go. With those market signals in place; we are ready to serve. In the meantime, we are doing our part to show why sustainability is important and help those that are moving toward sustainability.

Tim: What should the Institute look like in 10 years?

Jessica: In 10 years, we will have at least six of our Impact Goals behind us, and we’ll be able to point to specific ways that teams of university researchers and students moved the needle on critical sustainability issues, in Minnesota for the world. This success will attract new members, new projects and new funding. 2019 is the first full year that our Impact Goal strategy will be implemented.

In 10 years, the institute also will be the “right size,” in that all UMN scholars seeking an interdisciplinary environment to work on practical problems–in small ways or large–will find a home in the institute, and we’ll be able to direct our programming and services directly to those engaged individuals. Today we have a half-dozen affiliates from outside the university (e.g., the lead economist of the Nature Conservancy and the CEO of a smart energy production company). These are sustainability thought-leaders in the broader community, and I’d like to grow this community to be a larger fraction of IonE membership. Close connections through formal affiliation are invaluable for translating scholarship to action.

In 10 years I also hope that every university–and every community supported by a university–can have an institute like IonE. We work hard to share our lessons and show the value of interdisciplinary and engaged scholarship to other leading academics. The number of environment and sustainability institutes across the US and the world has increased over the last decade, but many of those are not consistently supported by their universities in a sustainable way, like IonE is. Reliable funding that isn’t focused on short-term projects, is a critical ingredient for a cross-cutting organization like IonE to be innovative, experimental and, ultimately, successful. We will need many more of these organizations in the future, and we’re doing our part to show the way.

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