25 April 2008

MIT as Microcosm ~ Energy is Not Enough...

As ardent readers of Maximizing Progress know -- from having read either my Imagining MIT piece, or my personal MIT 2020 story -- I'm one of those at the Institute who are interested in having our campus be a predictive microcosm of what the world might become in the future -- i.e. green, clean, efficient, effective, beautiful, amazing. But getting there soon -- or even launching an initiative to raise the money -- means educating and inspiring people and rallying folks around big ideas and common goals. Towards that end, I wrote a small missive to our organizing team pleading with them to embrace a bigger vision. Right now everything is very energy-centric, with some folks pushing to be under the umbrella of the MIT Energy Initiative. I argued that "Energy is not enough..."
With all due respect to Energy Initiative folks and our Walk The Talk leadership, I think Energy alone is NOT enough for even our initial efforts.

This is not merely a quibble over selecting our top short-term tactics, but a matter of core strategies and overarching vision.

I deeply believe the Institute needs a much broader -- and more inspiring -- action agenda. We ought to aspire towards Regeneration & Vitality in the large. This means embracing economic renewal, environmental sustainability, worthy aesthetics, and transformative innovations in physical infrastructure, operational excellence, institutional leadership, and beyond.

If we at MIT can't get our own house in order by 2015-2020 (or sooner), what moral standing do we have for advising others, and what hope do we have for our planet more generally?

Indeed, the MIT of 2020 should be a microcosm of what we want our civilization to become. Using our campus-as-testbed would allow us to see the future first. Plus using our campus as exploratory learning-lab both lives up to our Mens et Manus motto and educates and inspires new generations of innovators. We urgently need to ramp-up our efforts to do this not merely in Energy, but across many different dimensions, including at least:
  • Aesthetics -- The MIT campus could use an intense aesthetic upgrade, with greenways, widewalks, bike lanes, underground parking, greenroofs, indoor foliage, informal cafe-style seating, proper maintenance, essential repairs, and more. The best of these initiatives would offer two-for-one. For instance, attractive roofgarden cafes would also boost our LEED qualities. It is inexcusable that MIT today owns and just land-banks ugly surface parking lots in the heart of Kendall Square, along Amherst Street, and along the premier pedestrian and urban thoroughfare of Mass Ave.
  • Environmental -- In addition to pure aesthetics, many of the tangible aspects of campus energy are predominantly environmental in nature, for instance, localized air temperature control, fresh-air access, insulated entry-doors and windows, wide-spread recycling, waste minimization initiatives, emissions remediation, garbage handling, transportation solutions, and more.
  • Information Technology -- Lots of new energy ideas would benefit from MIT having a campus-wide Project Athena Version 2.0, this time a distributed mobile-wireless network enabling sensors and distributed information mining, and most important, the feeding forward of essential info to users via mobile phones and other highly distributed end-points. We could mine social patterns of energy-use and transport behavior and fast-iterate accordingly.
  • Economic -- Our near-neighborhood is too much of an economic monoculture of bland office parks and corporate labs. Those are certainly essential, but alone insufficient. We need to extend the mixed-use aspects of University Park to pervade greater-Kendall Square, the Mass Ave axis from MIT-through-Central, and the edges of the Institute along Main, Vassar, Portland, and Albany. This means ground-floor retail, a mix of residences and offices, and orchestrating a few investments in conference facilities, entrepreneurial incubators, and university coop residences. (Plus the aesthetic improvements noted earlier).
  • Organizational -- Many of the underlying challenges here are actually driven by the Institute's loosely-coupled organizational form. This structure works wonders in allowing for distributed innovation and fast-action at small-scales, but can impede bold cross-connections and big moves. If our institutional leadership neither gets this nor understands how to both weave together an integrative vision and inspire people to rally around it, then we will continue to remain stuck where we are -- more muddling. In this regard, MIT is yet again a microcosm of the nation and world at-large.
We need to BE how we want the world to BECOME. Aspiring to anything less means becoming irrelevant.

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