Working together toward a more sustainable future

The second annual MIT Sustainability Summit emphasizes the importance of communication and collaboration

On Friday April 23, 2010 Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center was host to the second annual MIT Sustainability Summit. Entitled “Mind the Gap: Communicate and Collaborate for a Sustainable World,” the student-run conference explored the importance of effective, prolonged collaboration when tackling the enormous environmental and social challenges the world is faced with today. It is a perspective that has largely been missing from other sustainability conferences, said Managing Director Sayaka Honda Hill, and one that she sees as key to maximizing one’s impact.

“As much as we can talk about technology and innovation and all there is to do out there in terms of efficiency and improving operations, I really think that a more crucial part of working toward sustainability is communication,” said Hill. “It is really important because the issue of sustainability spans across industries; it spans across organizations and governments and it really requires a systems perspective. We need to engage all stockholders in the process.”

Featuring three keynote speakers as well as a variety of panel discussions and interactive breakout sessions, the summit included perspectives from a broad range of industries, sectors, and disciplines, and often provided concrete, practical skill sets and tools which attendees were encouraged to put to use in both their personal lives and their careers.

A systems perspective

MIT Sloan Professor Peter Senge, founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) and author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, began the day with a keynote address that highlighted the need for sustained cooperation and collaboration from a systems perspective.

Currently engaged in an ongoing project with Starbucks Coffee to help them end their use of disposable cups by 2015, he used this real life example to illustrate the importance of reaching out across disciplines and industries when working to solve complicated problems. Senge pointed out that even a task as apparently simple as changing over to recyclable cups requires meeting not only with retailers, but also with designers, manufacturers, food service providers, recyclers, and haulers, as well as those who are going to build the infrastructure that supports this change. He argued that sustained collaboration is the only way to approach an issue as massive as global sustainability.

“Collaborations is the human face of systems thinking,” said Senge. “It doesn’t matter if you build a brilliant model, or if a few analysts or a few CEOs see this whole larger systems picture, because nothing will happen without the power to take action across the main facets of that system.”

Arguing that the days of complete and utter antagonism toward corporations are a thing of the past, he encouraged attendees to work together with companies and governments to find solutions. He also encouraged people to be honest with themselves about the complexity of the issue, pointing out that while activists used to say “you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem,” perhaps now it is more important to work with the realization that both are true: “You are part of the solution and you are part of the problem.”

Hands-on learning

With topics spanning from agriculture to working conditions to the importance of local economies, the bulk of the afternoon was dedicated to a series of discussion panels and interactive breakout sessions. Designed not only to instruct, but also to engage and challenge, many of these sessions gave participants a chance to actually practice new skills-sets in real-time exercises and simulations. One, entitled Climate Interactive: Reaching International Agreement in Climate Change, allowed attendees to experience a simulated international climate negotiation. Individual Action: Challenges and Opportunities for Motivating Behavior Change, utilized a series of small-group activities to introduce participants to some of the primary motivators behind people’s actions.

It all comes back to the Mind the Gap theme says Content Director Ian Lavery. “We were a little fed up with some of the conferences we had been to, where you sit back for 50-60 minutes listening to people talk and then you get 10-25 minutes of Q&A at the end. We wanted to shake that up a little bit. We are really passionate about this idea of communication and collaboration as the means to an end, and we wanted to design sessions that really enhance people’s skills in these areas. We wanted to give them experiences that they could take into the real world and practice and hopefully get better outcomes for everyone.”

A call to action

Adding an international, big business perspective, Kook-Hyun Moon, president of New Paradigm Institute and former president and CEO of Yuhan-Kimberly, delivered the summit’s second keynote. Focusing on the importance of building consumer trust and respect, he encouraged companies of all sizes to promote constant innovation and learning as a means to bring about a sustainable future—themes that were later echoed in the closing keynote delivered by Anne Kelly, the director of Governance Programs at Ceres, a non-profit coalition of investors and public interest groups working toward sustainability.

Pointing to a paradigm shift in the way people are working toward change, Kelly argued that the “drop a dime on environmental crime” model of activism has been replaced with a much more effective focus on collaboration. Advocating for full spectrum disclosure from companies and greater stakeholder engagement, she urged the attendees to keep the dream of a sustainable future alive, calling on them to pursue careers and personal choices that will create positive change, and reminding them, with her final words, that “there is no planet B.”