Last Tuesday, SMPA’s Planet Forward co-hosted “GW Moving the Planet Forward," an innovation summit that sought to address issues surrounding sustainability by bringing together decision leaders in the areas of government, industry, and academia.
Summit host Frank Sesno, the creator of Planet Forward and Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, explained that the summit was organized not only to address "a crisis of the planet," but to embrace a great opportunity for the university to become "a catalyst for innovation, for solutions, how can we share, foster, communicate the ideas needed to move the planet forward."
Panelists throughout the day weighed in on topics from the creation of green jobs to the use of renewable energy. Among the number of prominent panelists featured were former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Vice President of GE ecomagination Mark Vachon.
In the first panel, "There's An App for That - Can I.T. Save the Planet?" moderator Megan Hughes of Bloomberg TV led a discussion between Chopra, Mayo Shattuck, Executive Chairman of Exelon Corporation, and Alex Laskey, the co-founder and president of Opower, a new engagement platform for utilities companies that sends customers information about their energy spending habits through text message, e-mail, snail mail, and even Facebook. Laskey compared a part of Opower's services to that of a credit card company feature that is undoubtedly useful to its customers: activity alerts. Opower also uses behavioral analytics and data to inform customers of unusual usage, enabling them to use that awareness to save money on their utility statements and in turn help them to conserve energy. Chopra asserted that information technology will be the key to an energy efficient future, explaining that the intersection of liberated data and financial innovation will be a "big boon to sustainability."
In the next panel, "Where Are the Jobs?" Doug Guthrie, Dean of the GW School of Business, moderated a discussion between Deborah Wince-Smith, President of the Council on Competitiveness, and Debra Rowe, President of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. Rowe explained that every job could be considered a "green job" because all jobs and industries impact the “bigger picture” of sustainability. However, in order to create more opportunities and jobs involving sustainability and innovation, Rowe asserted that higher education must be reorganized. All agreed that the discussion of sustainability is not enough; giving students the information and materials to understand sustainability and solutions and educating them as well as the public, policy makers, and employers is essential.
“Shining Cities: Sustainability Starts at Home” featured Mayors Vincent Gray of Washington, DC, Mark Mallory of Cincinnati, OH, and Tommy Battle of Huntsville, AL. Each mayor highlighted policies their cities have enacted to become more sustainable. Mayor Gray spoke about the 5 cent bag tax, which resulted in 50% fewer bags found in the Anacostia River since the initiative began two years ago. The mayors also discussed street cars, walkable communities, and the need to integrate sustainability lessons into school curricula. GW President Steven Knapp, who also made an appearance on the panel, agreed with the need for schools to facilitate education about these topics in order for the next generation to “practice what we teach.”
In this vein, the summit also challenged the nine Washington, DC, universities to reduce the "college footprint" to make DC the greenest college town in America. These universities have committed to reducing energy usage in their buildings by 69,000 MMBtus annually, which is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to power 720 American households for a year. The city government has accepted the responsibility of holding the universities accountable to their pledges.
The New York Times’ Andy Revkin moderated the last panel discussion of the day, “Renewables: Boom or Bust?” The panelists discussed natural gas and renewable power sources, including water, wind, and solar energy. Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Ret.), President of the American Council on Renewable Energy, called natural gas “a blessing,” as it is cleaner to produce than coal and has a “firming capability” for when wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining as brightly. The panel came to the conclusion that, ultimately, there must be a synergy between natural gas and renewables in order to diversify our energy portfolio.
The summit ended with an eye towards those who will comprise the future of the sustainability movement: students. Several GW undergraduates were recognized for their creation of innovative sustainability projects. These initiatives included a waste diversion plan for the National Mall that would require the use of recycling and compost bins in order to secure an event permit and a plan for the protection of bee habitats. The final group of students, Chris Deschenes, Jon Torrey and Matthew Wilkins presented their "Panda Cycles" project, which creates sustainable and affordable bamboo bicycles to reduce carbon emissions and provide transportation to people in developing countries. The students also plan to donate one bamboo bicycle for every Panda Cycle sold. Knapp commented that the passion of these students can be contagious and serve as a mechanism to inspire future innovation.
“The students of this generation are pushing us to look beyond the present to the future,” Knapp said.
Ana Buling (JMC '13) contributed to this article.