From Neat Ideas to Game Plans

Cross posted from: It’s Getting Hot in Here.

How do we take our calls for clean energy, climate justice, and a sustainable economy from being seen as neat ideas to being seen as the game plan?

Getting the institutions we are working with to see a green economy as their game plan is key to the big picture changes we are working for. When we demonstrate a solution as a route to success on existing goals, rather than just a cool side-project, we open up whole new reserves of commitment, ingenuity, and resources to make it possible. It also becomes much more important: conceding to obstacles is no longer acceptable.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Macalester College’s sustainability plan and the how that it provides to make big ambitious goals both meaningful and realistic. In this post, I’ll explore the importance of moving from neat ideas to game plans in creating the commitment to that process in the context of Macalester’s journey. I recognize that this is just one tiny microcosm of the bigger picture, but I hope that it will serve as an example about how we move much larger institutions towards viewing the green economy as a game plan for success, and thus working with us as collaborators. They might even go outside the traditional sustainability boxes to think about broad institutional strategy.

So let’s get started:

Moving from Neat Ideas to Game Plans starts with Neat Ideas, ideally from unlikely suspects – like students – identifying new opportunities that perform unexpectedly well. These neat ideas gets people’s attention, and lets them know that something serious is going on. If they are innovative enough, those neat ideas empower their creators to harness them as a game plan at a small scale, engage others in its promise, and start to build momentum that, over time, changes the game.

At Macalester, the road to change started through neat ideas from unexpected places, and grew from there:

In 2004, then-Macalester student Richard Graves engaged the Task Force on Facilities to make the new athletics facility – a $40 million project – into a green building. The approach Richard described — slowly engaging everyone “until everyone was talking about it as if it was their idea” — transformed a project that at first seemed implausible into the default. By 2006, the building layout had been redesigned for efficiency and plans had been prepared for recycling over 90% of the building. The new building is now in place and 50% larger but with less energy use than the previous building. The parts of the deconstructed old building now form a horse stable in rural Minnesota. The action was so efficient, it was quiet. Success just meant getting people who were used to thinking the same old way about buildings to get excited about something new. Now it’s the game plan: the next construction project after the Athletics Facility was Macalester’s Institute for Global Citizenship, which is certified LEED Platinum. All future construction projects at Macalester will now meet the equivalent of LEED Gold. The initial neat idea demonstrated that green building is smart, cost-effective (especially long-term) and just made sense for Macalester.

In 2005, Macalester signed up for an innovative waste contract that would lead to a Zero Waste campus. A friend of mine stayed with his work-study job in the Recycling department (which itself, incidentally, started as a new idea that was slowly institutionalized in the 1970s) through all four years of college, eventually becoming the student worker manager. After his graduation last May, he is now running Macalester’s program to continue the journey towards Zero Waste as staff. Yup: neat ideas + commitment + working towards long-term success can = job. Over the past three years, Zero Waste efforts resulted in dramatically increased recycling, new zero-waste programming, and sending the food waste from our cafeteria to the local hog farm where we buy pork. Now it is policy with a plan. By 2020, Macalester will be waste-free. Again, this contract is roughly cost neutral and over time will probably cut Macalester’s costs. It’s smart strategy for Macalester, and it has become the game plan.

In 2005, when I came to Macalester, I started a campus carbon inventory. It was really rough – just electrical and heating, with only fragmentary data. But having a college first-year claim it was possible and then charge off and do it was strategic and game-changing. It gave student leaders the capacity to track and understand the factors influencing Macalester’s climate decisions, and thus take action right away. The action and momentum this helped build led to the commitment and time for a more formal inventory, rather than depending on it as a precursor to action (which could have led to years of delay). It also demonstrated that key parts of what was seen as a long, onerous, and highly technical process could be achieved rapidly and simply by someone without much expertise, only commitment (it lowered the barriers to getting things done). Finally, it demonstrated that our solutions were serious, sophisticated, and fast, establishing a precedent for effectiveness in the campus community. I kept the rough inventory going until 2008, when the Environmental Studies Senior Seminar conducted a sophisticated and holistic assessment using the Clean Air-Cool Planet calculator. Now, Macalester’s formal carbon inventory is updated annually using the protocols established in the process by student work-study workers. It has become the game plan.

Sometimes, the game plan isn’t necessarily or immediately a specific technique; it’s the creation of a mentality or method that wasn’t there before. In 2006, I supported a team led by two other first years to secure, fund, and install Macalester’s two green roofs. It started out with a trip to one of the region’s few green roofs (at the time), some research, and unrelenting commitment. Then came lots of partnerships – with companies interested in testing out new methods, structural engineers, and prairie ecologists – and the decision to seek a $10,000 grant from the EPA for a test project (hint: if you want a smooth introduction to grant writing, DO NOT start with the federal government). Nevertheless, in April of 2006, students built our first small green roof, secured the grant (one of two liberal arts colleges out of around 50 awardees got it that year) in July, built the second green roof in September, and started researching its impacts on water run-off, energy usage, and urban heat island effect. Beyond the native landscaping work it helped inspire, the green roofs created a can-do attitude towards sustainability at Macalester. Why did this work so well, so quickly, and with so little background knowledge? It’s because the leaders involved thought carefully about how to make their neat idea pragmatic. They found the social (green roofs are green and fun), academic (unique research opportunities), and financial (less heating and cooling needed and longer roof life) benefits, as well as the environmental ones, that would motivate action, and then lined up the necessary pieces. That’s a neat idea: if there’s an insurmountable challenge, just find the partners, figure out the potential benefits that could motivate action, and dive in. At least among the student community, the approach of dreaming vast and figuring out how to make it happen together has become the game plan.

Of course, the really big reaches are still hard for people to get their heads around. Investing sustainably it’s strategic given the rise and fall of markets – instead of just because its moral – is a big reach for many. While one campus administrator once told me that “if small, residential liberal arts colleges don’t rethink energy, they won’t be around in 30 years,” not everyone is ready to see sustainability as such an expansive college strategy. For example, while more and more people are recognizing the need for entirely non-carbon heat sources, switching to natural gas has been the more often-discussed approach. A strategic, game-plan way of thinking would see natural gas as 1. only minimally less carbon/pollution intensive, 2. just as reliant on extraction from unstable geopolitical areas, environmental justice abuses, and price shocks as oil, and 3. more costly and more likely to see rapidly rising prices since everyone else in western markets is talking about how they’re going to switch to natural gas because it’s cleaner, driving up the prices. That game plan approach would then conclude – we should save up our money and spend it on the really big shift to an entirely non-carbon source as soon as possible. Investing in a natural gas future is a smart direction to be steering Macalester (or anywhere else) in an unstable economy and a peak energy world, especially when everyone else makes the same choice too.

My point is not that all is well and all challenges have been overcome. Instead, it is that this approach gives us a method for progress that invites participation and is difficult to stop. The challenges of the previous paragraph can be overcome by the same approach of turning neat, unexpected ideas into game plans – because these challenges simply represent failures to use a sustainable world-view to make strategic choices about the direction of an institution in the world. All we have to do is demonstrate that current thinking is not strategic, and identify new neat ideas that become new game plans. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s a winning one.

Macalester gets the theory, even if some applications are not yet there. Our Vice President for Finance and Administration likes to say that “we’ll know when we’ve succeeded on sustainability when no one talks about it anymore.” Not because no one cares, but because it’s just the normal way of doing business. That kind of thinking sees sustainability as a game plan, not just a neat idea. And so, it continues to expand, continues to achieve real, meaningful goals, and sparks new neat ideas that facilitate new expressions and extensions of the game plan. Put simply, it works.

This entry was posted in Local Programs by timothydenherderthomas. Bookmark the permalink.

About timothydenherderthomas

Timothy is the General Manager of Cooperative Energy Futures and a member of the Community Power Steering Committee. He's all about people power, and being the changes we actually want to see. Timothy has been heavily involved in community development and using climate solutions as incredible opportunities for local economic activity, collective empowerment, and self-determination. He does lots of network building with buddies in the youth movement as well as labor, faith, agricultural, small business, and neighborhood groups.

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