MIT Sustainability Summit: Sustainability-Oriented Innovation

The Conscious Connection team returned to MIT in Cambridge on April 15, 2016, for the 8th Annual MIT Sustainability Summit themed: “Sustainability-Oriented Innovation” (SOI). The goal of the summit is to accelerate Sustainability-Oriented Innovation – creating value for customers while working toward an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible future. The resounding message of the summit was clear; at a time when environmental sustainability and social equity appear to be in tension with economic prosperity, it is essential for our innovators to be bold.

The objectives of the Summit were to engage the audience around three key themes:

  1. Corporate Innovation: ways in which corporates are acting and reacting through internal and external SOI.
  2. SOI Financing & Policy: how public and private investing is looking into alternative modes of financing, assessing, and using policy as a driver of SOI.
  3. Pipelines for Innovation: analyzing the biggest challenges and best practices within each of these stages, and exploring how to foster the conditions necessary to scale SOI.

The conference kicked off with a tripod keynote which featured three leaders in sustainability and innovation at MIT: John E. Fernández, Director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, Jason Jay, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Sustainability Initiative MIT and Vladimir Bulović Associate dean for innovation: Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of emerging technology; Macvicar Faculty fellow, MIT.

Challenges universities face in accelerating innovation

Universities are creating the means and spaces necessary for students to innovate and create products and services that will tackle issues in different ways than we currently know, but they face several challenges.

Most notably, the work done in university labs is limited by the market. The economics of the free market determines whether ideas are good or bad based on their added value. The quality and use of innovative products and services focused on sustainability don’t always match the economic needs of the market so the university is faced with a challenge to transform this relationship.

The speakers stressed that universities need to do more than just foster innovation. To increase their contribution to sustainability, they need to scale their innovations and push to raise awareness. Universities are raising our future leaders and it is critical that they are trained to be the change-makers our world needs.

Role of universities in catalyzing environmental solutions

At MIT they focus on offering a varied set of courses that address the many aspects necessary for sustainability. The university offers students a variety of conferences and sessions that bring together the views and expectations of various stakeholders for a rounded perspective. This offers the students and global community the chance to debate, share their understanding of sustainability, and collaborate on sustainable innovations for complex problems.

Universities have always been a hotspot for entrepreneurship because of the resources they offer. Now it’s critical for universities to integrate sustainability so that our future entrepreneurs can use their talents to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The keynote speakers reminded us that it’s important that sustainability itself has evolved over time and we are no longer just talking about the environment. We are also talking about industry, civil society, and politics. As explained by the MIT Director of Sustainability, the three main principles of sustainability include:

  1. Dematerialization: reducing materials used and transportation efforts.
  2. Decarbonization: reducing the amount of carbon emissions.
  3. Decentralization: expanding to connecting networks and avoiding a centralized system.

Wrapping up their introduction to the summit, the keynotes touched on the challenges faced by stakeholders that we all need to be aware of. As was fitting for a summit, collaboration was a key theme throughout. Corporations, investors, and citizens all play a role in SOI and in order to obtain positive results, we need to have access to the same data and actively work together instead of competing separately.

We are all connectors and players in building a more powerful and sustainable society.

Edits conducted by Elisa Gomez & David Evans

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