Archive for March, 2014

From Tinkering to Transformation: Wisdom From Julie Newman of MIT

Contributed by Ilsa Flanagan, JD

Julie Newman– featured guest in a recent Spheres of Influence Virtual Fireside Chat– has been launching and leading higher education sustainability offices for a long time, almost 20 years.  So when she started her new position as Director of Sustainability at MIT last year, she was of a mind to do things differently, to figure out how to create what she calls “the next generation sustainability office.” As a pioneer in this field, Newman stays engaged by being in a constant state of inquiry.  Are we using the most effective approach?  What impact are we really having? Newman is employing her own brain trust of MIT colleagues and friends in the field to pose and answer such questions.

Sustainability offices in higher education have taken off in the last several years, as evidenced by the burgeoning membership in AASHE and the proliferation of offices on college campuses.  They’ve been successful in addressing a wide range of environmental issues, tracking data, and leading engagement and awareness building activities.   These days on college campuses you’ll see community gardens, compost bins, solar arrays, ubiquitous recycling containers, and various directives telling you what you should (“throw your plastics here”) and shouldn’t (“don’t leave your office lights on”) do.

But Newman wants us to think beyond these incremental changes, to think about transformation and to consider what the “next gen” office should look like.

Newman has some ideas. For one, it’s not waiting to be called to the decision-making table. By “moving into the core of the institution,” Newman plans to position the sustainability office as a nexus of connectivity with the intellectual capital to create a network of faculty, students and staff. This network will consider the complex issues of sustainability as a system, not stand-alone concerns.  To get to next gen, Newman is reflecting on a number of questions:

Are we having the societal impact that we have set out to have?
Are we merely doing less bad, or are we transforming?  Are we being regenerative?
If we need new models, what kind do we need?
Do the incremental steps, the tinkering, eventually lead to transformation?
Is the narrative we created years ago still relevant?
What role does science play? Have we set goals that align ourselves with the science regionally and globally?

Newman knows that there are some sustainability offices already engaging in this level of inquiry.  In fact, it’s the very nature of sustainability staff that can create the space for these conversations to happen.  As Newman says, they tend to be “multilingual” in that they can connect with and relate to a diverse mix of people:  building managers, engineers, administration, faculty and students, and community leaders.  “This is a unique characteristic we bring to these positions [that allows us] to transform the way we make decisions, our ability to take risks, our ability to frame a new future.”

All these questions can keep Newman up at night.  Ultimately, she is concerned that sustainability offices remain more risk-averse than she’d anticipated when early in her career she helped launch sustainability efforts at the University of New Hampshire.

And it leads to more questions:

What do we have to do next to expedite the adaptation of new design and technologies?
How do we make our institutions more comfortable with risk, and possibly failure?

For now, Newman is happy to be exploring these questions.  But at MIT she is adamant that her office not be defined by incremental change.  She senses that this is making people uncomfortable, so she must be on the right path.

Listen to the MP3 of February 2014 Spheres of Influence Virtual Roundtable:

About the Author

Ilsa Flanagan, JD is an accomplished organizational strategist and visionary leader with over 15 years of experience designing and leading environmental and social programs across sectors.  As president of i flanagan consulting, she provides mission-driven leaders with the expertise and tools to create high performing, purpose-driven organizations that are addressing the critical issues of our time.

A pioneer in the field of sustainability, Ilsa uses a data-driven, relationship-centric approach to create institutional change and long-term value. Within the context of the organization’s culture and ethos, she makes connections among people and systems to successfully build and implement strong programs with meaningful results.

Most recently Ilsa was the University of Chicago’s founding executive director for its Office of Sustainability where she developed a transformative campus-wide program with a focus on faculty, student and community research and partnerships. Before joining the University, Ilsa was the founding director and senior vice president of Sustainable Development at LaSalle Bank/ABN AMRO. She led the company’s efforts to develop a North American Sustainable Development initiative aligned with its global program.  As the associate director at SUSTAIN, a nonprofit environmental communications group, she was an early advocate in the good food movement.  Ilsa also spent over a decade in Washington DC and was head of public policy for the United Way of America.

March 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment


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