Former SRP leader brings utility, sustainability expertise to ASU's Global Futures Laboratory
Kelly Barr to facilitate closer relationships between the lab and Arizona's businesses, municipalities and community members
Through an impactful career at Salt River Project (SRP) developing and implementing new sustainability programs, Kelly Barr is uniquely positioned to understand Arizona’s relationship with water and energy services. Her vision for sustainable utility outcomes in the state empowered her to make meaningful changes at SRP with support from some of the state’s most prominent changemakers. After 30 years with the utility company, Barr said she was ready to retire — until she wasn’t.
A few months into retirement, she was drawn to a set of challenges that allowed for novel opportunities for solutions and collaborations spanning an entire university and beyond. Barr now joins the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, where she will serve as the associate vice president and chief alliance officer. She said the role is the perfect beginning of what she calls her “third act,” a period of her life dedicated to marrying her core values with the unique skill set she has developed throughout the years.
“When I learned about this position, I felt called to do it,” Barr said. “I care deeply about climate change, and we are really at a place where we need to act. If there is anything I’ve learned through my work, it’s that I thrive in that action space.”
As the associate vice president and chief alliance officer, Barr said she will serve as a connector between Arizona’s businesses, municipalities and the overall community to the resources and solutions offered at the Global Futures Laboratory.
Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Going back to your earlier career, what was it like advocating for sustainability practices at a time when it wasn’t always as widely prioritized?
Answer: It could be a bit of a struggle because it was a new area, and because we were creating a department and a program from scratch. I had a lot of people asking why we needed to do this and why it was important. I think my trademark style is one of collaboration, bringing people together so that I can get a variety of perspectives so we can arrive at a place where we're all comfortable moving forward. At SRP, the sustainability program grew in phases as a result of those shared perspectives.
One thing I was able to do was stress that sustainability isn’t “just a green thing.” There's clearly an environmental component, but there's also an economic component and a social component. And so at a utility where folks are very focused on reliability and affordability, I made sure that people understood that sustainability wasn't designed to cost more. In fact, if it's done right, it should save you money.
Q: Your new role connects people with a variety of expertise and objectives to the research and problem-solving happening at ASU. Why is it so important to engage with the community in this way, especially as it relates to the future of our climate and planetary systems?
A: I think it’s essential. ASU is a community asset because it has so much to offer, not just in the sciences but also in how it brings people together. When we’re talking about potential outcomes in Arizona and beyond, it's important to me to make sure that you get all kinds of perspectives around a single table. You arrive at the best solution that way — when you have as many perspectives as possible. And I really believe that people will support that which they helped create.
Things can get a bit polarizing when you’re talking about things like water and energy and how to use those resources, but from the people I’ve spoken with, I’ve learned that more people agree on more than you’d think. When you have strong collaboration, you can focus actionable efforts towards those 80% of issues that resonate with everyone. But relationship-building is the only way you know what that 80% looks like and start acting on it. Given our climate challenges, we have to go beyond just talk.
Q: You’re joining the Global Futures Laboratory at a particularly busy time, with developments in clean energy and new efforts through the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative, to name some examples. How do you see these developments factoring into your work?
A: I did come to ASU at an exciting time, and I did that intentionally. There is a wealth of knowledge and important work happening at ASU, but — I say as someone who used to work outside of the university — it can be difficult to know where to start if you’re an outside entity looking to get involved. That is where I see myself coming in. There are a lot of folks who are dealing with really big challenges in their companies and in their cities, and they need help. By making ASU and the Global Futures Laboratory more easily accessible to businesses, municipalities and communities, you’re able to truly connect the solutions we’re developing here to the people.
Q: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your career that you plan to bring to this position?
A: One of the things I learned and have become known for is my willingness to take a mantle and just keep pushing. That was crucial when I was establishing new sustainability programs in a time when people weren’t really doing that, and it's especially crucial now as we navigate a decisive decade for human outcomes on our planet. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not take “no” for an answer. I’ve led teams that described me as a force of nature, and I think that’s because I’ve learned where to be relentless. With that in mind, the other thing I’ve learned is that a step forward is a step forward — even if that step is a baby step. Baby steps are OK; in fact, they’re a very important and human part of the changemaking process. The trick is turning those baby steps into a sprint, and I think that’s something we are capable of doing here.
Q: What do you want people to know about you as you enter this role?
A: We have an open door here at the Global Futures Laboratory. I was brought in to do this work so we could be responsive to community needs, and I’m thrilled to be able to make those connections. I’m here to learn from our businesses, communities and municipalities just as much as I’m here to provide support, and I believe in the impact we can make together.