MIT Promotes Sustainability, Socially Responsible Leaders

Last week, through the recommendation from a colleague, I was fortunate enough to attend the 1st annual, student-organized MIT Sustainability Summit.  The event, titled Discovering New Dimensions for Growth, was a day long conference held at the Cambridge, MA institute and featured panel discussions and networking for those in the field of sustainability.  Bringing together students, engineers, business leaders, academics, environmental activists, and public servants to discuss how we can most effectively support each other as we face the opportunities and challenges of transitioning to a sustainable world, the conference proved to be an impressive display.

The first panel, How Do We Progress Towards Sustainability in a Recession dove into the difficulties private industry and governments face in a time of economic struggle and how sustainability often takes a back seat.  Led by senior lecturer at MIT Sarah Slaughter, panelists Michael Wise at A.T. Kearney, Mindy Lubber of Ceres and Wayne Balta of IBM discussed their experiences with priorities in economic downturns and ways to motivate companies to keep sustainability at the top of their list.   Particularly interesting was Mr. Balta’s take on greenwashing and how companies like IBM not only promote their efforts (see the Smarter Planet campaign) but make good on their promises.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the day was the luncheon keynote, given by Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics on historic preservation.  PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development-consulting firm specializes in services to public and non-profit sector clients who are dealing with downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization and the reuse of historic structures.

Rypkema contendedthat historical preservation of buildings should be at the heart of all sustainable development – and his argument was a compelling one.  Revitalizing and reusing old buildings that are salvagable can save time, money and most importantly, vital natural resources that new construction frequently consumes at exorbitant rates.  He states that investment in historic preservation would create jobs, not just in the short term, but long term as well and jobs that specifically support the local economy. 

Counter-cyclical strategies should create jobs and generate personal income. Heritage conservation is a labor intensive activity with 60 to 70 percent of the total expenditure on labor rather than materials. This has a significantly greater initial impact on a local economy than does new construction, but also much larger secondary impacts. Once installed, materials don’t spend any more money. But the carpenter, plumber, and electrician each spend their paycheck locally on a haircut, groceries, and paying local taxes.

I was personally fascinated by this entire concept and found myself occasionally outraged at the examples Mr. Rypkema gave of the unwillingness of governments and corporations to consider preservation as a means to develop sustainably.  And, while on the subject, even the highest of rating systems in green building doesn’t take into account the amount of energy and resources and pollution goes into knocking down an old building and completely rebuilding a new one.  That’s right, LEED doesn’t deduct any points, nor give any points for preserving pieces of or a whole building in the process of development. 

To read much of Mr. Rypkema’s talk, visit the PlaceEconomics blog – it’s a fascinating read. 

All in all, MIT should be commended for their efforts on bringing together professionals and academia to tackle issues of sustainability in the business world.  If the most brilliant minds are dedicating resources to this subject, we may have a chance at succeeding afterall.

Posted by: Ashley / follow me on Twitter

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