The Meeting of the Minds

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Hixon Center director

Last week I attended the Meeting of the Minds annual summit in Sacramento, CA. I joined more than 400 leaders from clean technology companies, municipal governments and agencies, non-profit organizations, and other sectors, who are all driven by one mission: speeding up the transition to sustainable systems and doing so in a societally just and economically practical way.

This year’s summit was focused on innovations for smart and sustainable cities and offered a smorgasbord of ideas, solutions, and partnerships for solving key urban issues such as water policy, mobility, EVs, electric bikeshare, urban redevelopment, housing, inclusion and equity, food systems, health, homelessness, climate resiliency, IoT (Internet of Things), and innovative governance.

Aside from learning about some of the latest developments in these areas, I enjoyed the format of the conference, which placed a premium on time for person-to-person interaction and deeper conversations. For example, while the main morning panel sessions generally took a rather quick birds-eye view perspective on an issue (say a 30 minute conversation on improving climate resilience of key infrastructure assets such as airports), they were followed by lunches during which people could directly engage with the speakers and fellow interested attendees at designated tables.

In addition, the summit offered a close look at innovative solutions through more than 15 practical workshops and field tours. I selected one that showcased the efforts underway toward carbon and energy neutrality at UC Davis. We toured the Honda Smart Home, got a first-hand introduction to sustainable wine-making at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, learned about the opportunities and challenges of zero-net-energy dormitories at the UC Davis West Village, and got to test innovative and sustainable lighting solutions at the California Lighting Technology Center.

While UC Davis, with its 11.4 square miles campus and more than 35,000 students, is a few notches bigger than Harvey Mudd College, it is in some ways not all that different either. Indeed, what stuck with me most is that UC Davis, like Mudd, thrives on challenges and tackles them through collaboration. This was evident in small things such as the tour guides representing not only the academic side of the university, but also the facilities department and a college-wide energy efficiency research center. What’s more, all the people we spoke with during our 5-hour tour emphasized how solutions were found not just through hard, technical work, but with the help of internal and external partnerships, active outreach to and inclusion of stakeholders, and the mutual sharing of expertise, financial support, and sometimes political capital.

An example of the kind of outreach that is not found among all facilities departments is the Thermoostat project (UC Davis is a top-ranking university in agricultural sciences). The facilities department at UC Davis, which manages 1,200 buildings, doesn’t first and foremost pursue energy savings. Instead, it focuses on people’s wellbeing. Room temperatures are a big factor for human comfort indoors.

The department, in collaboration with students, conceived an app that enables students, faculty and staff to report on how they felt in a given room (i.e., cold, chilly, perfect, warm, or hot). Within a couple of months they received more than 6,000 reports. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the influx of reports and shutting down the app or ignoring it, facilities decided to use the data to manage its building with a greater focus on human comfort as opposed to thermostat readings, and providing feedback to the occupants.

The impact was exceedingly positive. People used to complain when they came into the office on a cool morning to find cool air streaming out of the HVAC air vents, thinking that facilities was running the air conditioning unnecessarily. What facilities was really doing was ventilating the building with the cool morning air to reduce cooling needs later in the day. With the Thermoostat app, facilities can not only better manage building temperature comfort levels, but they can also communicate back to the occupants what they are doing, thereby enabling efficient two-way communication and mutual learning. Moreover, the quickly growing database on temperature and comfort levels also resulted in energy savings.

Harvey Mudd College, in my opinion, has the same collaborative spirit of learning by doing. While we don’t operate on the same scale as UC Davis, we are mindful of our community’s wellbeing and are working every day to make the campus a more sustainable and joyful place for learning. With that in mind, there are excellent opportunities for innovation here at Harvey Mudd akin to what I saw at UC Davis and at the Meeting of the Minds annual summit.