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Crow, faculty present ideas at American Innovation for Sustainability forum

ASU President Michael M. Crow
May 01, 2012

Research universities – and notably their students – were singled out by administrators from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Environmental Protection Agency during an American Innovation for Sustainability forum that took place recently in the nation’s capital. Among the speakers at the forum were faculty members from Arizona State University, including ASU President Michael M. Crow.

“Students can increase the ability of research universities to organize research, coursework and experiential learning around the great challenges of the 21st century,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy for the White House OSTP.

“This is important because universities conduct $55 billion in research every year," Kalil said. "They have strong ties to government, industry and philanthropists. They have expertise that spans science, engineering, social and behavioral sciences, the humanities, business, policy and law. So if more of this intellectual horsepower can be focused on important problems at home and abroad, I think this would be a good thing.”

Sitting in the audience were hundreds of students from American colleges and universities who were participating in the EPA’s annual People, Prosperity and the Planet – P3 – competition at the National Sustainable Design Expo. The only student team from Arizona in the competition was from the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU’s Polytechnic campus. The team is investigating how nutrient wastes from wastewater treatment plants can be used to create an inexpensive algae culture media for biofuel production.

“The environmental challenges today are more subtle, more complex than they used to be,” said Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “To solve these problems, to ensure that we can meet the needs of today’s generation while preserving the ability of future generations to meet their needs, we must have innovation that occurs within a sustainable context.”

Since its launch eight years ago, more than 2,000 university and college students have been involved in the P3 program, Kadeli said. “New businesses have been started, new jobs have been created and innovative research ideas from these students have been supported by this unique learning experience that combines research and hands-on work to solve those complex environmental problems,” he said.

“But this program is just one piece to solve the puzzle of sustainable design. In January, President Obama said during the State of the Union address that the first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation,” Kadeli said. “Solving real problems will take government, industry and academia, working together to ensure a sustainable future.”

The goal of the American Innovation for Sustainability forum was “to facilitate a dialogue, share ideas, foster public and private relationships, to encourage the next generation to continue working on environmental innovations,” he said.

ASU’s President Crow noted that “much of our design world that we have constructed is, in fact, not sustainable.

“There is no dominant culture presently operating in the United State, no industrialized culture in the world, no industrialized nation on the planet that holds sustainability to be a core value,” Crow said. “And, there’s no science yet related to sustainability that holds sustainability as a value for the purpose of science.”

Crow suggested “that we are at a moment in time where we have the capability, the intellectual wherewithal, the enlightenment capability to create sustainability as a core value and sustainability as a value-driven science.”

Secondly, Crow spoke of a change in mindset to move “to innovate from and with nature as our guide, as opposed to innovating to exploit nature as our tool.

“Just that difference (in mindset) could produce tremendous differences in the kinds of scientific, technological and economic outcomes that we can produce,” he said. “We’ve got to turn to the next generation, those who understand that this concept is absolutely essential, this innovation for sustainability.”

Also speaking at the forum was Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Paul Anastas, director of Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering.

In presenting the concept of “design thinking,” Brown explained how to use design to create a movement that creates a social change.

“You have to create movements that people want to get involved in,” Brown said. It is viable to create value “but use less stuff to do it” by designing for behavioral change.

Anastas, who worked at the EPA for the past two years before returning to Yale, is widely known as the father of green chemistry. He remarked that “innovation without sustainability is undesirable and sustainability without innovation is impossible. Design is key.”

The concept of sustainable value creation through research, innovation and entrepreneurship was the topic of a panel discussion at the forum, which was moderated by Dan O’Neill, a lecturer and program chair at ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation. The dean of that college, Mitzi Montoya, was on the panel, along with Anthony Michaels, managing director of Proteus Environmental Technologies and chief scientist at Pegasus Capital Advisors. Michaels also is a member of the board of directors of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, a research unit in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

The Honorable Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, and Andrew Winston, author of “Green to Gold” and “Green Recovery” and CEO of Winston Eco-Strategies, rounded out the panel.

The forum was presented by the EPA, ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability and American Public Media's Public Insight Network. In welcoming guests, Rob Melnick, executive dean at ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability, noted that the evening's event was about innovation and sustainability.

"Both separately and together, these are core concepts at the university, genuine core values that permeate our teaching, leaning and discovery culture," Melnick said.