Brook Byers Professors Honored

On March 10th, 2014, The Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems hosted an event at the Historic Academy of Medicine to honor three Georgia Tech professors as the inaugural recipients of the title Brook Byers Professor.  Professors Bert Bras, Marilyn Brown, and Elsa Reichmanis were joined by three corporate sustainability leaders and moderator, Diana Rivenburgh as well as Professor John Crittenden in a broad ranging panel discussion.  The three corporate participants were John Gardner from Novelis, Bruce Karas from Coca-Cola, and Steve Leffin from UPS.

Made possible by a gift from Shawn and Brook Byers, a 1968 Georgia Tech alumnus in Electrical Engineering, the Brook Byers Professorships provide resources to enable and enhance cross-disciplinary, collaborative research and education in sustainability, energy, and water.  The three recipients were recommended by their peers, chosen by the Provost, and approved by the Board of Regents.  The Brook Byers Professorship is the highest title bestowed at Georgia Tech for those engaged in sustainability related research and education.

Michael Chang, Deputy Director of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems, said in his opening comments how remarkable it was for three people to be appointed to such a title at once.  He went on to express his hopes for how Bras, Brown and Reichmanis would realize the opportunities for collaboration and synergy that were possible with a cluster appointment such as this that might not be possible individually.

The discussion ranged from the sustainability issues that are foremost in the minds of those in the corporate world, to how higher education can prepare graduates to both succeed professionally and bring about a more sustainable world.

All those in attendance were treated to a copy of Diana Rivenburgh’s new book, The New Corporate Facts of Life: Rethink Your Business to Transform Today’s Challenges into Tomorrow’s Profits, courtesy of Novelis.

A video of the event is on our YouTube channel (1:20)

A summary of points made during the discussion follows:

Steve Leffin:  Compressed natural gas, propane, and liquefied natural gas are viable alternative fuels for package trucks that achieve a more sustainable balance than liquid petroleum fuels.  UPS has been and will continue to phase in these vehicles.

Bruce Karras:  Water is a fundamental issue for Coca Cola’s business.  It is not only in every product, but it is critical to every production process.  Closing loops for water is a major sustainability initiative for Coca Cola.  Another is how the millennial demographic group uses social media with regards to the sustainability attributes of Coca Cola products.

John Gardner:  Novelis is working towards becoming a supplier of 100% recycled content products.  This is possible because aluminum is infinitely recyclable with no degradation in quality.

Diana Rivenburgh:  What opportunities and challenges are on the horizon that require attention and investment in order to be addressed effectively?

Leffin:  UPS uses scenario planning to help prepare for the future.  One such scenario looked at what might happen if oil prices reached $200 a barrel.  Other factors that will have an impact are water scarcity, technological innovation, personal mobility, changing regulatory frameworks, expansion and upward mobility of those people at the base of the pyramid, ubiquitous use of mobile devices, and the rapid expansion of urban spaces such that people may not have an “address.”  The world is likely to be very different over the next two decades.  Capital investments will need to be made with great care to anticipate the coming changes.

Gardner:  Companies need to look beyond the boundaries of their business operations.  Life Cycle Assessment is a trend that enables companies to do this.  Novelis is working on using its products in the light-weighting of cars and trucks to increase fuel efficiency.  Currently about 33% of its feed stock comes from recycled materials. Novelis is moving towards sourcing 80% of its feed stock from recycled materials which would halve Novelis’ carbon footprint, meanwhile doubling their business.

Karas:  A supply chain-wide view of sustainability is beginning to emerge.  Life cycle assessment is a big part of that.  Designing with the proper end-of-use in mind is critical.  Currently, everything is designed for landfill.  Coca Cola has been working on the development of plant based PET resin for its containers as a way to move away from its reliance on petroleum based materials.

Brown: There are already lots of good sustainable technologies available, but what we lack is a good policy environment to allow them to flourish.  There are policies that in place or coming on-line soon that are helpful in bringing about sustainability such as: more stringent CAFE standards, upcoming Clean Air Act revisions may include regulations to limit water consumption in thermal electricity generation, and the trend towards real-time pricing of energy to encourage usage during off-peak times.

There are major sustainability issues for which there are no definitive policies in place such as: allowing the free export of LNG globally could double or triple the cost, the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline may buffer an increase in oil prices but at what environmental cost, the denial of the pipeline might slow the development of the resource but might have worse environmental consequences if the oil is transported by other modes such as rail, putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions will lead to better market viability for carbon efficient and renewable technologies.

Bras: Corporations are broadening their perspectives by partnering with companies in different, seemingly unrelated markets. Ford’s MyEnergi Lifestyle is a project that partners the auto maker with an appliance company and solar panel manufacturer to investigate what synergies might be possible amongst these product categories.  Companies are also beginning to think of their business models in terms of services to the consumer rather than product offerings.

Karas: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steve Johnson is a helpful resource for companies looking to broaden their perspective and engage in partnerships with other companies in adjacent market niches.

Elsa Reichmanis:  Research in sustainability for chemistry and biomolecular engineering tend to be on longer time horizons.  They are focused on some of the major challenges facing humanity such as water, energy and food supply.  Science and engineering can’t solve these problems without involvement from other disciplines including public policy and business.  Higher education is preparing graduates with these ideas in mind.

Crittenden: BBISS works primarily in the area of sustainable urban infrastructure systems.  Cities can be likened to the largest machines humanity has ever built. There has been a lot of attention on sustainable technologies and materials at the product scale, but not so at the urban scale.  Today’s decisions about urban infrastructure remain for a long time and the majority of environmental impacts occur throughout the day to day use.  Lots of infrastructure is going to be built in the coming decades, especially in rapidly urbanizing countries like China.  BBISS advocates a shift in thinking about infrastructure from the current paradigm of discrete systems or elements to one of “Infrastructure Ecology.”  This paradigm considers multiple infrastructure layers, systems and elements and their interactions and emergent properties as critical to maximizing the function of infrastructure as providing comfort and wealth in a durable and resilient way.

Leffin: Measurements of ecological impact are currently leveled at the business and product level.  It may make more sense to begin to measure at the economic sector or systems level.  It is possible that some sectors or systems may have bigger discrete footprints but will eliminate the necessity of smaller or more highly differentiated businesses that, in total, add up to much greater impact.  For example, expanding public transportation results in greater impacts for the public transportation sector, but has the potential to displace much greater impacts in the personal transportation sector.  So, under some proposals, the individual public transportation systems would be penalized for their increased local impacts even while they serve to reduce impact on a global scale.

Brown:  Measuring impacts at the national level doesn’t reveal things like the U.S. selling coal to Europe or the offshoring of energy intensive manufacturing processes. The greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. might go down, but some of that reduction is actually embodied in products that are manufactured in China but consumed in the U.S.  It is important that students understand these nuances.

Leffin:  The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) understand these nuances and are working to incorporate these issues into their work with the business community.

Reichmanis:  Higher education will also need to take a more holistic approach to educating students.  Most disciplines are still mostly stove-piped.  Moving to a multi-disciplinary education model will produce graduates today that will accelerate our progress toward sustainability in the private sector tomorrow.

Gardner: Corporations working with institutions like Georgia Tech are vital to keep the personnel pipeline filled with people who understand sustainability and can innovate.  Novelis built a global R+D center in Kennesaw yet it struggles to find the right people to hire.

Bras: On the other hand, most companies still hire graduates based on their depth of knowledge in their discipline rather than their breadth of multidisciplinary knowledge.  Georgia Tech mechanical engineering students are now given 15 credit hours of free electives so that they can broaden their perspectives.

Leffin:  One way the UPS encourages more holistic thinking among its employees is to get them involved in volunteer forestry projects.  It’s very important for students to seek out similar experiences where they get exposure to natural systems as a way shift their perspective towards thinking holistically.

Brown:   Public policy has an important role to play.  Policy makers need operate from the facts in the world and a deep understanding of science and technology.  The failure of ethanol policy in the U.S. is an excellent example of decision makers listening to influences other than the experts in the energy policy realm.

Karas:  Water efficiency is a critical factor for Coca-Cola.  Currently most of the thinking is how to use water more efficiently one time versus using that same water multiple times before treatment and discharge.  Students ought to understand better how newer, more efficient technologies integrate better with existing systems that are less efficient.  We can’t get there overnight.  There has to be a transition.

Reichmanis:  We have to balance a holistic approach to educating engineers with the in-depth material that engineers need to effectively practice their profession.  Life-cycle assessment can be a way to achieve this balance.  Another way is to understand that an engineering graduate will be required to continue learning after graduation day.  Teaching students to collaborate with other people from different disciplines to solve problems is a something that higher education can do better to fill this gap.

Brown:  Integrating the supply side with the demand side is becoming more important.  We often educate for the optimization of one or the other in isolation.

Crittenden: Transportation is access to function. Reductionism in engineering is not enough – it’s not enough to only look at how individual products can be made more efficiently or to be more efficient. There’s a limit to the amount of efficiency that can be achieved and there’s a limit to the number of efficient products that can exist sustainably.  We will need to take radical approaches to fulfilling the underlying needs that our products and systems fulfill.

Bras: User behavior can be just as important as efficiency technologies in achieving efficiency goals.  Proper training for efficient use is often cheaper than the technology.  If you make the most efficient product, it won’t perform as intended if it’s not used as intended.  A litmus test for whether a new efficiency technology will integrate well into a given setting is to ask the question, “Would my (wife, husband, grandmother, stubborn co-worker, etc.) use that?”

Leffin:  Transparency enabled by the internet is a major factor in the sustainability conversation.

Rivenburgh:  How do we teach the students of today to solve the problems of tomorrow given that the ones we know about are really difficult and that there will be many problems that we can’t know about today?

Brown:  Engaging everyone in discussions surrounding the problems.  Georgia Tech is leading the way in the diversity of students.

Crittenden: “We want to change the face of engineering through sustainability.  But, we also want to change the faces of engineers as well.”

Reichmanis:  The world is getting smaller.  Solutions that are acceptable to us may not be somewhere else in the world.

Bras:  Preparing students for problems that aren’t known yet has to combine the fundamentals of science and engineering with an understanding of the global context in which we must now make decisions.  Being immersed in a diverse setting is one way to achieve that.

Crittenden: There is strong relationship between population growth and childhood mortality.  Sustainable technologies in much of the developing world amounts to proper sanitation so that children don’t get sick and die.  This is a knowable and soluble problem that we can deal with now.

Rivenburgh:  Education of girls is also a big factor in population.

Karas:  We have to think carefully about the lens through which we view problems.  Solutions for the developed world are not necessarily viable in the developing world.

(Question from the audience)
Dennis Creech (Southface Energy Institute):  How do we bridge the gap between the skills, knowledge, and wisdom in the academic and business communities with the policies and decisions we see in our local, regional and state governments?

Brown:  Masters students at Georgia Tech in public policy have to fulfill and internship.  Most do so at the state and federal level.  There is probably a bit of reverse education happening from the student to the decision makers about the science and engineering involved in sustainability decisions.

Reichmanis:  Those who choose science and engineering as a career don’t tend to become involved in the political side of their professional expertise.  People currently in academia could become more involved in communicating with the public and with decision makers as well as teach their students to more effectively do the same.

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Brent Verrill, Communications Manager, BBISS