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  • John Robinson 10:57 am on February 13, 2011 Permalink  

    Insurmountable Opportunities 

    On Feb 4, we held an event to celebrate the new strategic partnership between UBC and Modern Green Development, one of China’s largest property developers (http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/2011/02/04/ubc-and-china%E2%80%99s-modern-green-development-partner-to-advance-green-building-research/). The purpose of the partnership is to advance green building research and development at UBC, and contribute to Modern Green’s goals of advancing green development in China. To date, Modern Green has invested more than $100 million CAD in supporting green building research and development, and developed more than 10 million square feet of green buildings in China, with annual sales of more than $500 million (www.chinamg.com.cn/english/chmoma.jsp). As part of this partnership, Modern Green will make an initial contribution of $3.5 million to support our Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS; http://www.sustain.ubc.ca/hubs/cirs/).
    With the partnership, UBC and Modern Green will conduct applied research in sustainability policies and processes. Together we will help test and deploy advanced sustainable building technologies in order to provide market-based solutions to global sustainability challenges. Collaborations will take place at CIRS and Modern Green sites worldwide, including its first North American development – a mixed-use green residential development planned in Wesbrook Village on UBC’s south campus that will include a sustainability research and development demonstration centre. Construction is planned to begin this summer.
    To me, the significance of this partnership is not just that it opens the door for us to engage with partners in one of the fastest growing building markets in the world, but that it is tangible evidence of a natural synergy between the sustainability agenda and the building industry. Modern Green’s success shows that green buildings are popular, not just in principle, but in the Chinese marketplace. Their leadership and vision are compelling, and I think there are concepts, applications and lessons that we can bring to the table from our CIRS experience, and from other projects on campus, that will create exciting opportunities for synergy. In general, we are faced with insurmountable opportunities in the sustainability field, but by careful choice of strategic partners, we can collectively begin to make a tangible difference.

  • John Robinson 12:27 pm on February 6, 2011 Permalink  

    What is sustainability at UBC? 

    Sustainability is a multi-faceted concept. On our website, we say that it is a term that defines us and how we interact with the world. But what does that mean? What is sustainability at UBC? In order to be able to answer that question coherently, we have started a project to define key messages that we can employ to convey UBC’s specific type of focus, achievements and vision for sustainability.

    A key premise of our activities at the USI is that there exists a vibrant sustainability community at UBC, and a big part of our job is to reflect, support and foster the wide array of research, teaching and operational activities already going on. So we want to reach out to students, faculty, staff, campus residents, and the sustainability research community more generally, and ask you what you think sustainability means at UBC.

    The survey can be found at http://tinyurl.com/4unwhux, or on our website at http://www.sustain.ubc.ca, and will take about 15 minutes to complete. (You might win an iPad.)

    The results of this survey, together with a number of other methods of soliciting views with different audiences, will help us to refine our messaging about sustainability at UBC. It will also give us a better sense of your thoughts on this topic, and what we need to do to better fulfill the goals of USI.

  • John Robinson 10:00 pm on December 8, 2010 Permalink  

    A transformative university? 

    It bodes well when the leadership of the university is singing your favourite song.

    Two weeks ago, the President of UBC shared the Executive’s priorities for the upcoming year (http://president.ubc.ca/letters/). One of the three “potentially transformative goals” is for UBC to accelerate its efforts as a living laboratory for sustainability. Specifically, this year the UBC leadership commits to:
    • Sharing all that UBC learns in researching, testing and implementing initiatives in social, economic and environmental sustainability
    • Further improving the effectiveness of the University’s sustainability efforts by promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and sharing resources.

    These commitments show the priority UBC gives to its sustainability goals and provide a highly supportive institutional environment for the UBC Sustainability Initiative.

    So how can others get this kind of support from their institutions’ leadership? To get insight into another institution, I’d recommend spending some time with an excellent article written by Leith Sharp, who founded and directed Harvard University’s Green Campus Initiative from 2000-2009 (http://sspp.proquest.com/archives/vol5iss1/editorial.sharp-print.html). Sharp’s article provides a rich depiction of the manifold institutional challenges involved in making operational sustainability an integral part of all university activities.

    At UBC we aspire not only to exceptional operational sustainability but also to forging a significant and deep connection between operational and academic sustainability.

    In a 2009 editorial in Building Research and Information (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/rbri), Michael Kelly, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Department of Communities and Local Government, said: “The Higher and Further Education (HE/FE) sector has an important capacity to act as an exemplar to the rest of society on how best to meet the challenge of climate change, in terms of both adaptation and mitigation, on its own estates.” (Building Research & Information, 37:2,196-200). Expanding from climate change to sustainability, this is exactly the thinking that underlines our ‘campus as a living laboratory’ theme.

    We have the high level institutional commitment and support to create transformative change at UBC. Now it is up to us to make it happen.

  • John Robinson 6:12 pm on November 23, 2010 Permalink  

    North America’s greenest building? 

    Will CIRS be North America’s greenest building? The question makes me cringe a little, for two reasons. First, “green” is too narrow a word, in my view, to describe the CIRS building. And second, whatever is the right word, it’s a moving target. Every week a new green building is announced and the performance standards keep improving.

    What we can say is that when it opens, and if it performs according to its design, CIRS will be the most sustainable building that we know of anywhere. That really means four things.

    1. CIRS is designed to be a regenerative building.

    CIRS goes beyond what I think of as the old environmental agenda (doing less bad). For example, CIRS will be net positive on energy, carbon emissions, water quality and structural carbon. Adding a 60,000 square foot building to the campus will reduce campus energy use, reduce campus carbon emissions, improve the quality of the water flowing through our site and sequester more carbon in the building structure than all the carbon emitted in building and eventually decommissioning CIRS.

    2. We want to treat the people working in CIRS not as occupants but as inhabitants.

    Occupants are passive recipients of buildings systems; inhabitants have a sense of place in and engagement with the building. We will ask inhabitants to sign a sustainability charter, committing them to working towards the sustainability goals of the building, in return for very high air quality, individual control over ventilation and real-time feedback on building performance at the workstation level, day lighting throughout the building, and ability to vote on the control strategies of the building.

    3. All the human and technological systems in CIRS will be studied throughout the life of the building with a view to continuous improvement.

    The technological systems are designed as plug-and-play systems that can be replaced as technology improves. On the human side, we will measure the health, productivity and happiness of everyone in the building, with a goal of improvement over time.

    4. We will build CIRS at a construction cost comparable to other buildings of the same type that are not as sustainable.

    We estimate we’ll be within 8 per cent of the construction cost of a LEED Gold building of the same type. LEED Gold is the minimum performance standard for new public sector building in British Columbia. And we plan to work with our private and public sector partners to develop commercialization strategies for the design, operational and technological aspects of the building.

    Putting it all together, we think of sustainable buildings as having three characteristics: they must be indeed be green, which means outstanding environmental performance. They must be humane, improving human quality of life. And they must be smart, which to us means cost-effective and adaptive. We are very interested in what others think of this approach.

  • John Robinson 1:48 pm on November 13, 2010 Permalink  

    CIRS and Water 

    The goals of the CIRS building are based on what we call the new sustainability agenda. The old agenda, on this view, is about being less bad by reducing negative impacts (emissions, waste, habitat loss, human health, job loss, etc.). The new sustainability agenda is about creating good by being regenerative (sometimes called net positive). Thus, by adding CIRS to the UBC campus, we will reduce UBC’s overall energy use and carbon emissions, sequester more carbon in the structure of CIRS than is emitted during its construction and eventual decommissioning, and improve the quality of the water flowing through the CIRS site.

    To accomplish this net positive water quality goal, we will first run the whole CIRS building on rainwater, harvested on the roof of the building. Then we will treat the water before consuming it (since rainwater is not potable), and treat it several more times as it makes it way down the chain from potable water to grey water to black water and eventually is discharged from the building, at a higher quality than the original rainwater. To accomplish all this requires a significant amount of water treatment processes on site, and one question this raises is what the right scale is for different kinds of water treatment (See http://watercanada.net/2010/going-solo/ for a fuller description of the CIRS system and the issues of decentralized water systems). Is full treatment at the building scale the best answer, or should we think instead of distributed treatment plants at the scale of groups of buildings or neighbourhoods? This will be a big question for us as we begin to treat the whole UBC campus as single integrated system. How best should we deal with water use, sourcing, distribution, and treatment in buildings and on the campus?

  • John Robinson 7:20 am on September 24, 2010 Permalink  

    Accelerating Social as well as Biophysical Sustainability 

    Lester Brown has recently argued that an energy transition to more sustainable forms of energy is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even two years ago (http://www.earth-policy.org/index.php?/book_bytes/2010/pb4ch05_ss1). The work I was involved in during the 1970s and early 1980s confirmed, to my mind at least, that such an energy transition was actually not a problem from a technical and economic point of view. Delaying multiple decades makes it much harder, but I think Brown is right to point to the run-away nature of much technological change. To some important degree, such changes are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, once a certain level of change has occurred. At the same time, I don’t think a purely technological fix will be sufficient to get us where we want to go. It may work, as Brown suggests, on the environmental side (though even there it will depend on a whole host of associated behavioural changes). But if we don’t address issues of social sustainability: justice, poverty, equity, livelihood, etc. then the effect may simply be to shift the locus of unsustainability breakdowns from the environmental realm to the social one. I worry at our seemingly unquenchable tendency to focus on the supply side in the energy issue and the technology side of sustainability more generally, neglecting the demand-side and behavioural issues. What are the ways we can find the balance?

  • John Robinson 9:05 am on July 25, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: computer games, information, slogans, sustainability   

    What kind of information do we need? 

    My colleague John Hiles once said that people are alienated from the large systems around them (e.g. science, technology, politics, economics), not because of lack of information (the Sunday New York Times, as just one example, provides more information weekly on all these systems than most of us can absorb), but because they lack the mental models to make sense of that information, which is therefore mostly just noise to them.

    Perhaps the most common response to this problem is what might be called ‘sloganeering’. If I can develop a slogan that purports to cover a complex subject-area then I don’t need to know any more about it. If I believe, for example, that “all politicians are corrupt”, or “climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by left-wing scientists” then I don’t need to know or think any more about politics or climate change. The slogan is itself a complete answer.

    The antidote to sloganeering is not the provision of more information per se, but the provision of tools and approaches that show the practical choices confronting us and their potential consequences.

    Providing more information on climate science, for example, is likely to be much less important than providing information to particular communities on the consequences over time of specific mitigation and adaptation measures. After all, belief in the seriousness of climate change is only one factor in the desirability or acceptability of such measures.

    This judgement was the original basis for our attempts to develop a computer game-like modeling systems on urban sustainability, to allow anyone to see the consequences and trade-offs associated with different choices about the future of their city and in that way make up their own mind about what future they want.

    People do not need to become experts on the scientific, economic, political, etc. dimensions of the sustainability challenges we face. Instead they need to be provided tools that will help them make sense of the bewildering amount of information that already exists.

  • John Robinson 12:03 pm on July 18, 2010 Permalink  

    Where are we trying to go? 

    What is a sustainable world? According to some, it is a world in which we learn to live within our means, and temper our appetites and our behaviour to that end. It is a world characterized by reduced material consumption, a changed ethic regarding what matters in life, and a very different attitude towards nature and human community. According to others it is a world in which we unleash our entrepreneurial and competitive drive towards excellence in the direction of greater eco-efficiency and green technology. It is a world in which technological change and innovation usher in a new era of environmentally and socially benign growth.

    Can these visions coincide? What is striking to me is that proponents of each strongly believes that the other side lives in a fool’s paradise, promoting solutions that will not solve our problems but in the end actually make things worse. To think we can grow ourselves out of the problem is a dangerous delusion, says one side. To imagine that we can turn back the clock on technology and progress is self-defeating, says the other.

    Yet, in the short-term, proponents of both of these views exist in uneasy alliance with each other. Both sides recognize the importance of sustainability, and the need to change the path we are on. And there is much in common in the immediate agendas of both sides. Improved energy efficiency and renewable energy, clean tech industry, and carbon pricing are all examples of the kinds of goals and policies shared by both sides.

    So will the two arguments start to diverge significantly? Do we have to choose between them? Or will hybrid possibilities emerge that make these differences not so much incorrect as irrelevant? However it plays out, I think we are in for interesting times in the sustainability field.

  • John Robinson 11:34 am on July 4, 2010 Permalink  

    Sustainability and enthusiasm 

    On Jun 23, more than 2000 people paid $10 to attend the 12th Pecha Kucha Night Vancouver: Walk the Talk Green Your City at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Pecha Kucha Night involves multiple speakers presenting very short talks that consist of 20 slides shown for 20 seconds each. This high attendance figure is surely evidence of the strong interest that Vancouverites have in sustainability issues. What was striking for me attending that evening was the degree of passion exhibited by my twelve fellow speakers, and the corresponding enthusiasm in the audience. It was very heartening to see sustainability issues presented in terms of opportunity, creativity, innovation and fun.

    This experience made me reflect on the degree to which sustainability is often presented in the mainstream media in very different terms: as a painful and expensive moral duty, or as the unrealistic and ideologically charged dreams of a small group of committed environmentalists.

    The difference between these two approaches is stark. We need to find more powerful ways of recognizing and fostering the creative energy and enthusiasm of those actually implementing sustainable solutions in our communities. My fellow Pecha Kucha speakers, and the other examples illustrated during that evening, made it clear that there is a lot of raw material for such an approach.

  • John Robinson 7:28 pm on June 20, 2010 Permalink  

    Resistance to sustainability? 

    A close colleague of mine has frequently said to me that he can’t understand why people in general are so resistant to change, given that the evidence of the unsustainability of our current patterns of behaviour is so strong. The evidence is there, he says, but people just ignore it, and continue heedlessly on in their unsustainable patterns of behaviour.

    I think my friend is misconstruing the nature of the problem, and therefore the best way to address it. I don’t think that people are resistant to change in general. We have probably never lived in an era of such rapid and systemic change as today. But people do resist being told by others that they must change. They prefer to make up their own minds.

    I also think that, from the perspective of people who do not spend their working life looking at the evidence, the picture is not quite as clear as my friend thinks. Most people live in a cloud of data smog, deafened by the cacophony of voices that make claims and counter-claims about nearly everything in life, not just sustainability issues. Their capacity to separate the wheat from the chaff is extremely limited, because there is too much chaff out there, because some of the issues are quite complex, and because they do not have, or want to spend, the time doing so.

    It may also be that many people agree that change is needed but don’t see how they can change in ways that will actually make a difference. We tend to be stronger on the critique than on the solutions in the sustainability field.

    Finally, we know that people are resistant to taking action if they feel others are not also acting. No one wants to feel they are the patsy for change.

    These factors suggest that the problem is not so much a kind of generalized resistance to change as a lack of visible and tangible solutions that are both likely to make a difference and also be widely adopted. We need to focus more on the positive than the negative, more on the solutions than the problems, and more on compelling reasons why people should adopt the solutions we promote.

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