MIT's Collective Imagination: Fueling the Next Generation of Campus Sustainability

MIT's Collective Imagination: Fueling the Next Generation of Campus Sustainability

MIT’s success as a living lab for campus sustainability depends upon our willingness to imagine.
Julie Newman
Julie Newman makes opening remarks at Sustainability Connect 2016. Photo by: Ken Richardson

Every day, we are confronted with the complexity of global sustainability. We are faced with the enormity and immediacy of issues such as climate change. This month, we opened our papers and journals to headlines reading, “2016 was the hottest year on record (Scientific American)" and "The Earth hit a temperature record for the third year in a row, confirming that we are undergoing big changes (The New York Times)."  We often ask ourselves the question: how can we disrupt and in turn, transform, the practices leading to these complex issues?

When the MIT Office of Sustainability was launched in 2013, we posed a similar question: how can MIT be a game changing force for sustainability in the 21st century? Why are MIT and its community so uniquely suited to solving such complex issues? Our office worked to launch what we have called a “next generation approach to campus sustainability,” an approach through which students, staff, and faculty from across MIT could engage with the campus, the city and the world and seek scalar connections. 

Over the past three years, the MIT community has demonstrated both why and how solving sustainability issues begins at the campus level. First, MIT has both the capabilities and the tools to tackle these challenges. Second, MIT shapes and empowers the individuals they employ and educate, who in turn go on to help shape and empower the U.S. and the globe. Finally, the MIT community has demonstrated the courage and imagination to disrupt the ways in which we view and practice sustainability.

Ultimately, MIT’s success as a living lab for campus sustainability depends upon our willingness to imagine.  Imagination is a powerful, uniquely human dimension we each bring to the table, and is at the heart of the MIT community.  Imagination leads to innovation, to new ways of learning, of doing, of observing, of relating, and of understanding. Our ability to harness this insatiable imagination provides the fuel for MIT’s commitment to sustainability. Fortunately, this kind of fuel is renewable. Our success today and in the future, depends upon our ability to tap into this source of fuel, and to sustain and protect our ability and willingness to imagine in the face of risk, uncertainty, and resistance from the status quo. 

As an institution of learning we are overtly poised to grapple with the questions driving our mindsets on sustainability. Our unique community of thinkers allows us to re-examine what informs our daily decisions, how we define and achieve real, measurable impact, and how we calculate risk. Our campus environment allows us to come together to discuss accountability, our values, today and in the future, and how the learning experience for our students will be transformed by engaging with MIT as a test bed for sustainability. As we test our own solutions, we also determine if this new learning experience can help other campuses and organizations think and operate sustainably.

Each day, our office navigates the dialogue as to how or why a new idea or aspiration will not work at the applied level.  These moments of pause and at times, compromise, are also those in which the most learning and growing occur. For a campus committed to sustainability leadership we have the opportunity and responsibility to understand and, when feasible, transform what happens in this nexus between, our aspirations for sustainability, and the point of decision-making and implementation.  We must keep in mind that we are seeking to transform a highly productive and successful, hundred-and-fifty-year-old organization. 

With that said, MIT is, and has always been, an organization unafraid of taking a leadership role and holding itself accountable to fulfill its responsibilities. When an institutional commitment is made, we respond.  Today, there are a number of examples in which MIT has recently demonstrated how intersecting imagination, technology, and willingness to take calculated risks can change the game of campus sustainability. I have seen MIT make an ambitious commitment to deepening our understanding of climate science and researching climate change solutions as called for by our Plan for Climate Action.  On our campus alone we have reduced emissions by 7% in two years below our 2014 baseline. I have seen MIT support large-scale renewable energy through a Power Purchase Agreement, forming a unique alliance of local Boston partners to enable the construction of a roughly 650-acre, 60-megawatt solar farm in North Carolina, neutralizing 17% of our campus carbon emissions. I have seen MIT reimagine campus mobility through AccessMIT, which provides all staff and faculty free access to public transportation and multiple subsidy options for private transit and commuter rail parking in an effort to reduce our parking demand by 10% over two years.

Each year at SustainabilityConnect, a forum hosted by our office, I have seen this community come together to share ideas, build new inter departmental partnerships, develop working solutions, and inspire each other to keep imagining.

While I have seen our community take important steps over the past three years, there is still much work to be done to bring sustainability to campuses, cities, and the rest of the world. My hope is that MIT will continue to serve as a test-bed for campus sustainability and for other campuses to begin or continue their own efforts in solving this global issue.   

Global sustainability begins at the campus level. In our country alone there are 20.5 million students enrolled this year in higher education, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Each of these students will go on to become a decision maker in their professional career and voting citizens within their own community. This is our chance to engage the next generation of decision makers and civic participants differently.

We have the chance to educate, engage and challenge the next generation of students to use their tools and capabilities to solve complex problems. To achieve our sustainability goals, we need to shift our mindsets and those of others. This will require courage and the willingness to disrupt. This will require us to question our norms. This will require us to use our imaginations. Each day, let’s see our communities as microcosms for global sustainability and harness our collective imaginations to set ambitious goals. Then, we can commit ourselves to putting in the work to transform what is imagined into reality.