I recently had occasion to convene the inaugural “RU Sustainable” symposium at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, along with colleagues serving on the Rutgers University Sustainability Committee. For a keynote speaker, we secured Leith Sharp, director of Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership at the Harvard Center for Health and Global Environment. She gave a really interesting talk about organizational constraints and the necessity of organizational innovation for reaching a more sustainable existence (or rescuing human kind from extinction). Along the way, she explicated the benefits of traditional organizations in scaling up sustainability solutions, while making clear their limitations to innovate (or even recognize innovation in the first place). Leith advocates for an “adaptive operating system." In her opinion, universities are fairly traditional in their decision-making and have strongly hierarchical organizations. They also contain elements of an adaptive operating system, which may be resourced and permitted to thrive — but this is not always the case. While it may seem counter-intuitive to classify universities as organizationally conservative, I have had personal experiences that lead me to conclude that Leith is right. Indeed, the organizational structures of universities have not changed much since medieval times.
Leith further shared some words drawn from a survey of 180 sustainability change leaders in higher education on analogies that describe their world:
Being Tonto with the Lone Ranger at a bank-robbers’ convention
Trying to interest people who like junk food in a healthy diet
Learning Spanish, but finding myself in China
Being a competitor on American Idol
Being Stephen Bradbury winning gold at the Winter Olympics
Pinning jelly to the wall
And, finally she shared this gem (which resonated with me in part because my mother, in fact, did make trifle when I was a child):
Really wanting to make a trifle (desert),
and being told that making a trifle is a priority,
no-one will provide money for the trifle bowl,
the recipe keeps being changed and no-one tells me,
and I know some people think they don't like jelly,
and my arm has been tied behind my back,
and I've been blindfolded
Sometimes acting as a champion of sustainable design and practice, including basic awareness of environment-behavior linkages, feels to me a bit similar to the trifle experience. There is so much to do, not enough time or financial resources, but doing it remains of utmost importance particularly given the current set of environmental, social and economic challenges to our quality of life as we know it or want it to be. Even in cases where it may seem that stakeholders “get it," the extra effort or cost required can easily jettison an intention to create a more sustainable environment, one that is intentionally more human or humane. Good intent can simply fall victim to an overly structured risk-averse bureaucracy and associated embedded values that fail to prioritize a robust understanding of human experience on this planet.
It occurs to me that EDRA potentially plays the role of the adaptive operating system, not only in sustainability matters narrowly construed, but in regard to E-B research, design and practice more generally.
Where do we scale up the good works of EDRA? The conference!
How can we further disseminate our good works? Through the EDRA Knowledge Networks and EDRA publications!
EDRA is precisely the right organization to adaptively and creatively interact with our universities and host communities in their approaches to the design, construction and operation of the built environment. I am aware of several recent surveys about green building, health and wellness and other aspects of campus life – e.g., as conducted by the Big 10 & Friends Sustainability Committee of the AAU and as submitted for points to the AASHE Stars benchmark program. How many of you are familiar with the AASHE STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) in which more than 700 universities and colleges worldwide have registered to participate? How many of you participate in helping your university or a university in your jurisdiction to achieve points relevant to our EDRA mission, taking the opportunity to educate and inform? More than ever, STARS and similar programs are oriented not only to making a difference on university and college campuses but also in spreading the wealth to neighboring communities. I urge you to think about how you personally and EDRA organizationally can become more involved in this major AAU initiative. Are any of you likely to attend the next AASHE meeting in Vancouver? If so, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
To our collective and sustainable future!
as presented by Leith Sharpe, March 31, 2016, Rutgers University.