Diagnosing the impact of sustainable solutions

A Thought Leader Series Piece

By Patricia Reiter

Patricia Reiter

Note: As the Director of the newly established Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, Patricia Reiter is responsible for overseeing the success and impact of eight programs that use evidence-based knowledge to deliver solutions to today's complex sustainability issues.

On occasion, Arizona State University (ASU) President Michael M. Crow draws similarities between the fields of medicine and sustainability. ASU Senior Sustainability Scientist and United Nations Champion of the Earth Sander van der Leeuw developed the idea further in a diagram (see below) that describes the domain of medicine as the health of the individual in relationship to their environment and the domain of sustainability as the health of societies interacting with their environment. This analogy between medicine and sustainability is useful in explaining the intent of the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability's Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives.

Due to the generosity of Rob and Melani Walton, the Global Institute of Sustainability received a five-year investment from the Walton Family Foundation for eight unique programs to help solve sustainability challenges across the globe. These challenges span environmental, economic, and social sectors that affect us all. The Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives are focused on delivering practical, holistic solutions in the same way a general practitioner in a teaching hospital works with real patients to not only heal individuals, but also to test, refine, document, and promote best practices. This in turn offers critical real-world learning opportunities for the next generation of practitioners. Like a teaching hospital, we are focused on improving the public good through direct engagement with the underserved, providing educational outreach, and promoting proven interventions.

Our work has both short- and long-term impact, as we begin to apply systems thinking to complex challenges facing individuals, businesses, and institutions. Our clients and partners often describe their issues as a set of simple symptoms, but when we probe for external and internal causes, we expand their understanding of risks, opportunities, and trade-offs.

Symptoms turn into solutions

For example, the Sustainability Solutions Extension Service is providing advice to the City of Phoenix on how to best achieve its goal of diverting 40 percent of waste from the City's landfills by 2020. The City's current rate is 13 percent. The Solutions Service's initial analysis indicated that City employees drive over 7 million miles a year picking up and delivering waste to landfills. This represents a great cost in fuel and high carbon emissions. By identifying potential savings and mapping opportunities, we are building an economic case for a regional resource recovery center that will further streamline waste and recycling efforts while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Both the Solutions Service and the Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges are working with the City of Phoenix to update the City's greenhouse gas emissions inventory—the first step leading to a vulnerability assessment and climate action plan. Like a routine doctor checkup, this inventory will allow policymakers and citizens to make informed decisions regarding everyday operations, long-term investments, and personal responsibility.

patti TLS graphic 3

To better integrate research and practice, the Walton Initiatives' eight programs are designed to leverage the time and talent of faculty specialists while adding to the body of knowledge of sustainability practices. The Solutions Service and the Global Sustainability Solutions Centers are organized to engage faculty in short, focused consultations. The Walton Initiatives team handles the majority of business development, administration, and management. Graduate students with special interests and expertise in project-related topics assist in the implementation and documentation of each engagement. This arrangement is intended to be mutually beneficial to all involved. Clients, public partners, and non-governmental organizations gain access to the broad scope of knowledge from our scientists and scholars; the graduate students gain practical experience to better understand the application of their curriculum; and faculty can continue or expand their line of inquiry, refine their problem sets, or publish results of various activities.

Synergy impacts results

Just like doctors from different medical fields trying to decode a disease, the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives team is a collaborative service and research platform comprised of eight complementary programs that are more than the sum of their parts. For instance, a Walton Fellow, ASU School of Sustainability faculty and students, Walton Initiatives team members, and Walton Family Foundation evaluators organized an Evaluating Impact Workshop to map out sustainability indicators to long-term outcomes for each of the eight programs. The group expanded on the question: "How can we provide evidence that our efforts are leading the transition to a more sustainable future?" We expect several publications to result from this work with the Walton Initiatives.

Another example of collaboration and synergy among faculty and practitioners is the Next-Generation Sustainability Projects that provide seed funding to scientists and scholars working on solutions to "wicked problems"—problems that are complex and resistant to easy solutions. In the first year, we have awarded funds to create a co-Lab that will address issues of sustainable development through collaboration between a developed and an under developed community. This project crosses international borders, disciplines, and institutions.

In addition to direct work on sustainability projects, the Walton Initiatives’ outreach aims to educate future leaders at various levels much like a teaching hospital in underserved communities. We offer study abroad opportunities to ASU School of Sustainability majors and minors through the Global Sustainability Studies Program to provide cross-cultural experiences that expand the global context of their studies. We are creating an Executive Master's for Sustainability Leadership degree for mid-career professionals who may have migrated into sustainability roles from other fields and are in positions to lead their businesses or institutions forward, but may lack the leadership skills to build a business case for change. We are also reaching K-12 students and the broader public through our Sustainability Solutions Festival efforts. Beyond an annual week-long celebration of sustainability solutions, the festival supports key partners through sponsorships that build awareness of the breadth of issues included under the umbrella of sustainability as well as the urgency of finding viable solutions.

Future investing

The analogy of the teaching hospital is useful in another way. Income for the Walton Initiatives depends on a mix of sources. We must identify and tap into additional resources now to continue our work in the future. We have begun and will continue to generate revenue for several of the initiatives. However, by year six, we will no doubt need to develop a mix of earned revenue, philanthropy, and grants to meet our mandate from the Walton Family Foundation to become financially self-sustaining by 2017. In effect, we are building a social enterprise within a university setting. In the meantime, true to the methods of most sophisticated impact investors, we also expect to report progress against specific metrics and ambitious long-term outcomes.

We have a stellar team leading this effort and we are confident that we are advancing the mission of the Global Institute of Sustainability's next phase, GIOS 3.0, which is to provide evidence of our leadership and accelerate the impact of our solutions.

About the author: Before leading the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives team, Patricia Reiter was the Development Director of ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability. Throughout her career she has applied business methods to maximze impact of both for-profit and cause-driven enterprises. Her work led her to ASU, where she first joined the ASU Foundation as chief of staff to the ASU Foundation President. Currently, Reiter's interests lie in impact investing, social enterprise models, and performance measurement such as GIOS 3.0.