33 people from all corners of the US were invited to the 5th annual Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy (SISE) in August at the University of Illinois in Chicago. I was fortunate enough to be part of this group that came together to engage in a sustainability and energy incubator and lecture series that addressed the smart grid, digital manufacturing and sustainability in Chicago. Each of the 5 groups had to devise a business plan that was innovative, profitable and solved an environmental and social sustainability issue in Chicago and beyond.
Contrary to initial suspicion about it being a dull series of classroom lectures, each session was engaging and eye opening. It was also very enriching to simply interact with current professionals – venture capitalists, policymakers, engineers, architects, economists, farmers, non-profits and many more.
It was through these interactions that I better understood why academic theory always seems to collide with real world practice.
For someone fresh out of grad school, this perspective was very practical because it showed me what current professionals actually value and how these sentiments affect their decisions. In general, sustainability activists stress the people, the planet and profit but almost everyone else in the corporate world is only thinking about the latter. Hence, the starting points of these conversations tend to be about the money.
The SISE program emphasized technology: BIG Data, Digital Manufacturing and the Internet of Things were concepts mentioned so frequently that it made Smart Cities of the Future seem synonymous with digitization and connectivity of everything. We visited UI Labs, Argonne National Laboratory and other facilities in which they are researching and developing a wide array of technologies that, essentially, are attempting to automate and simplify processes in the urban environment. I.e. Designing cities so that they take care of themselves.
The spirit of entrepreneurship and interdisciplinary collaboration was also prevalent throughout the entire SISE program. For instance, my group consisted of a Vietnamese architect, Indian engineer, African American financial analyst, American biologist and a Colombian sustainability specialist. I was very impressed by the diversity of educational & cultural backgrounds of the people in my group and the SISE participants as a whole.
The multitude of different viewpoints provided for a stimulating conversation throughout the 2 weeks. The tremendous amount of different perspectives opened my mind to new questions and solutions that I had not previously considered.
The nature of the SISE program, with its entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary disposition, required me to think and act outside of my comfort zone. Although it was initially overwhelming, SISE was a refreshingly challenging process that has motivated me to continue fighting the good fight to reverse anthropogenic harm and leave a better world for people in this generation and the next.
It is only together that we can successfully address the world’s biggest and most complex problems. If the green scene is your thing, I highly recommend getting involved in SISE, where divergent disciplines, cultures and mindsets come together to solve the most pressing issues of our times.