02 February 2008

MIT 2020 ~ Imagining Institute as LEED Campus

I came to MIT as a freshman from sunny suburban California in the mid-1980s. At the Institute I discovered Project Athena, a campus-wide computing network which gave me and thousands of fellow students access to high-end workstations, online email, instant messages, networked files, served applications, and more, all functionality we today would call the Internet & Web.

In other words, we saw the future first.

Project Athena made MIT a predictive microcosm, a living lab, a place where my classmates and I experienced everyday artifacts ten years before the rest of humanity. But only in the narrow domain of information and computing, alas. Because, by contrast, the physical environment of the Institute was (and remains) an aesthetic embarrassment and environmental anachronism, an ugly concrete jungle, electrically inefficient and thermally porous, ill-maintained and locally-optimized, kluged together, and worse. Even small details tell all -- despite over a century of closed-loop temperature feedback control systems, my dormroom heater was open-loop and had two settings: On & Off. Although our motto is Mens et Manus, we at MIT have not practiced what we preach about energy and innovation.

Things are improving, however, so I'm increasingly optimistic. The new MIT Sloan expansion project is supposed to be the first really integrated design effort and promises to become a top-tier LEED Building. Plus there's growing interest in Greening MIT, in Walking the Talk on campus, and in addressing global climate and energy challenges more generally.

But beyond good intentions, new technical inventions, and LEED Buildings, what we really need are complex, scalable solutions of enormous magnitudes. We need LEED Cities, and even LEED Countries, and ultimately we need to become a LEED Civilization on a vital planet Earth.

That's all rather much for us to tackle alone or at once, but we can commit to things closer to home: let us make MIT a pioneering LEED Campus by 2020, a microcosm of urbanized humanity to-come, and a beacon of inspiration for how we might craft a vital, prosperous, sustainable future. This would mean inter-connecting things which are usually seen as separate silos: renewing our physical plant, transforming operating practices, empowering students and leveraging extracurricular activities, orchestrating inspiring educational initiatives, and building institutions to shape and deliver the deep research agendae embodying the principles & practices we seek more widely.

In the upcoming dozen years, let us band together, rally resources, and act coherently to pursue a five-fold path:

(1) Research -- Recognizing that truly integrative solutions are needed, including especially innovations in the applied social sciences, let us commit to raising $100-200 Million to create an Institute for Systems Strategy & Innovation (ISSI) at MIT to pursue a global research agenda embracing energy & environment, cities & society, and the dynamics of individual & organizational change. To properly study complex systems, such an ISSI would enable both thinking-and-doing: both collecting systems data through a globally distributed Innovation Observatory Network (ION) and practicing solutions for-real on actual systems, including our own MIT urban campus as Living Lab.

(2) Education -- To educate and inspire new generations of MIT students to both imagine and enact constructive change, let's create Institute-wide elective class offerings in Systems Strategy & Innovation and other emergent domains. Let's scale-up financial support for systems-oriented degree-programs and also minors in energy, environment, and more.

(3) Extracurriculars -- Since so many solutions have emerged from interested grassroots student initiative, let's leverage this by financing a $5-15 Million per annum exploratory research fund and seed grant mechanism to float tangible exploratory projects, perhaps largely managed by and for students.

(4) Infrastructure -- Let's envision an future campus with a truly integrative design and plan, where we cut across infrastructural and aesthetic and social silos, and instead weave together a really great, livable, economic, and vibrant environment. This means crafting a master-plan which will emerge over time to spotlight key needs, including building new capacity, for instance, expanding the MIT Co-Gen facility, as well as systematically retrofitting one to three buildings per year, and crafting the institutional ability to scale and replicate doing these things.

(5) Operations -- We can and must aim for greatness in execution at the Institute, setting and delivering on bold overall operating goals: for instance, let's systematically reduce emissions and waste; cutting 1-3% out of each annual energy budget, on a per-capita basis; deploy metering & feedback sub-systems to enable individual incentives & behavior modification; shoot for a carbon-neutral MIT Sloan by 2015 and a carbon-neutral campus-wide by 2020, and more.

Bold, but not impossible.

The MIT of 2020 should be a microcosm of what we want our planet to become.

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