Our knowledge factories have failed
Sustainability: For a long time, sustainability has been a foreign word in the United States. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (ASU) since 2002, wants to change that. Expressly for this reason, he created the Global Institute of Sustainability. Crow told VDI news that he felt responsible to become the architect of a new kind of university, one that that works to develop positives outcomes from science and technology.
VDI news: What is the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS)?
The Global Institute was founded to give students comprehensive knowledge in all disciplines – the humanities, social, economic, natural, and engineering sciences.
Why is this necessary?
Our knowledge factories have failed. We have produced so much knowledge and, at the same time, produced so many negatives. We train people who thoughtlessly tinker about in the world. These people have, in principle, used the same technology that has been around for 150 years, technology to drill holes in the ground in order to heat water with the black gold that produces steam to power a turbine that is used to produce electricity. This must change. I feel responsible to become the architect of a new kind of university, one that works to develop positive outcomes again from science and technology.
How do you understand the concept of “sustainability”?
To me, sustainability is at the interface between the natural and the human-built world. It allows us to build our own world – without excessively changing the natural world. But universities are currently incapable of grasping this interface in its complexity.
How will you change that?
We need to rethink what we do. We have not done a good job within the universities. For example, we have not spent enough time researching human behavior. Why do people act the way they do to create these negatives? We do this out of ignorance. But why are we so ignorant? Sustainability does not mean that we need to reinvent everything. We can use old techniques in new ways. We can also learn from ancient cultures, their relationship to the land on which they live, and then transfer that knowledge to the present day.
Isn’t climate change the biggest challenge?
No. I believe that climate change is not the disease. It is a symptom just like the extinction of fish stocks in the Atlantic. The root of the problem is that we do not know what sustainable behavior is. This is a much more fundamental question.
Is the U.S. a good place for such a sustainable knowledge initiative?
Yes! The United States is an enormously diverse place – and in many cases already on the right path. Cities and states, representing 60% of the population, have already imposed obligations that exceed the targets of the Kyoto Protocol. Arizona, for example, wants to cover a quarter of its electricity needs with renewable energies by 2020. Do not underestimate the United States.
But why then does the U.S. refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol?
We see the Kyoto Protocol as an aggregate decision of nation states. We don’t do this in the U.S. often. We make decisions locally in cities, in regions. Our national government is only one of many powers in the U.S.
You’ve now had a three-day visit in Germany. What has impressed you most?
Many things have impressed me – for example, the Emscher park. This is a great example of how land use and quality of life has been newly rethought. In the U.S. there are also many old industrial towns. Detroit is one example, but it lacks a plan. In the U.S. they say: “Tear down the building, throw everything in the trash,” and whoever comes along and buys the land builds something new. In the U.S. the market develops the solutions. I believe we cannot continue in such a way anymore.
How do you want to change this mentality?
Competition and growth are more important to us than anything else. Growth, yes, but we need to know why! We need to improve quality of life. We haven’t thought this way until now. But in the U.S., more and more people are heading in this direction. We at ASU want to play our part.
So there is hope – for the U.S. and the world?
Yes, fortunately we are a species that can decide its own fate. We can, therefore, get what it is we wish for.
Is ASU a role model?
I think so. Sustainability has become a guiding principle of our university. For example, we brought the ASU LightWorks initiative to life in order to promote solar energy. Photons from the sun will soon provide all of our electricity. One of our projects should help Phoenix to become the city with the lowest CO2 footprint. The Global Institute of Sustainability has also distinguished 150 ASU faculty as sustainability scientists who will guide research as well as cooperate with partners worldwide.
And the School of Sustainability?
The focus of our School of Sustainability is to prepare students to find sustainable solutions to our challenges. They may work as an engineer, doctor, lawyer, or in the business world. Their sustainability training gives them a different perspective on the world.