Sustainability and Innovation

For the 5th year in a row, ASU was ranked as #1 in Innovation by US News & World Report. ASU has created a culture and environment that allows the innovative School of Sustainability to flourish. I offer my thanks and gratitude to all the students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends, and partners who have made the ASU School of Sustainability such an exciting and fulfilling endeavor in higher education.

Welcome to new and returning students

It is my pleasure to welcome new and returning students to the School of Sustainability. We continue to increase the number of students (up 17% from last year) and number of faculty in the school to meet the growing the demand for sustainability education at ASU. It is my great honor to be the dean of the world’s leading program in sustainability. Ultimately, though, the success of the school depends on the success of our students. I encourage all of you to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities, beyond your courses, available in the School of Sustainability and at ASU.


Sustainability as Opportunity: Spring 2019 Convocation Address

I am happy and grateful that sustainability is finally widely regarded as an opportunity rather than a burden or obligation. When the School of Sustainability began nearly 13 years ago, the majority of people I met thought sustainability was a long list of what not to do–don’t use up resources, don’t pollute rivers and streams or the air, don’t fly in airplanes, don’t eat meat, don’t, don’t, don’t. In other cases, people saw sustainability as a begrudging obligation to behave in certain ways dictated or regulated by others. In the business world, sustainability was often found in offices of corporate social responsibility, motivated to adopt sustainability as proper behavior, which sometimes devolved into nothing more than ‘greenwashing.’  

For sustainability to succeed, we need to find ways to motivate, excite, and inspire people to build a future where we don’t just survive, but thrive. This begs the question: what motivates? Sometimes the answer is bad things, such as fear, hate, sadness, greed or attaining power only for power’s sake. These can certainly drive people’s decisions and actions, but they also have a tendency to corrupt, destroy, gnaw at the core of our being, ultimately undermining the ability of people and communities to thrive, or even survive.   

People can also be motivated by love, compassion, seeking happiness and joy. Our commencement speaker David Brooks reminded us that Happiness usually involves a victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another.” Joy comes from selfless acts of love and kindness that fill the hearts and minds of those who give.   

We can also be motivated by doing what’s right–the satisfaction from living life with integrity, a deep sense of fairness, treating others with respect and dignity. David Brooks wrote several years ago that we should lead our lives thinking not about what we want on our resume (usually a long list of professional accomplishments), but what we want our friends and loved ones to say about us in a eulogy or obituary.

These are all profound and important virtues that should help us navigate our lives so they have meaning and fulfillment. But we also need to earn a living, pay the bills, provide for our families. Your decisions will also hinge on the motivation of profit, which is not just about money, but by getting more out of something than what you put in–positive, not diminishing, returns on efforts and investment.

At the heart of sustainability as opportunity is the notion that working towards a more sustainable future should be smart, just, fair, innovative, and joyous, but that it can also be profitable. Take the Sustainable Development Goals, for example. These 17 ambitious goals are truly transformative in scope – eradicating poverty, achieving gender equity, eliminating hunger, ensuring clean water and sanitation for everyone.

The United Nations also estimates that achieving the SDGs is a $12 trillion dollar opportunity–not measured as a cost but as an addition to the global economy. Imagine what is possible if all girls in the world are educated to the level same as boys. That would unleash huge amounts of human potential that would open up new economic opportunities while systematically addressing the goals of the SDGs.

These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. School of Sustainability alumni are already ‘doing well to do good.’

Ryan Delaney (class of 2011), started his own biochar company in Haiti, taking what was otherwise waste from sugar cane farms and turning it into charcoal briquettes, reducing stress on Haiti’s forests, providing jobs, creating income opportunities for women and children as resellers, and all for less or equal to the price of regular charcoal with similar or better performance. He became so successful that he recently sold the company to a rum manufacturer in Haiti.

Natalie Fleming (class of 2012) worked for several start-up companies focused on sustainable food systems, including Just. Inc., which sells plant-based foods all around the world. She is now Head of Operations at a sustainable venture company called Susa that matches resources to innovative, sustainable companies.

Sean McGraw (class of 2011), after taking classes on sustainable energy and doing a capstone project with GlobalResolve in Ghana, built an energy auditing and home improvement company called FOR energy. It is one of the fastest growing companies in the United States, with offices in Arizona and Nevada and a planned opening in the Midwest.

These are just a few examples of where students have taken the ingenuity of sustainability thinking and applied it to build profitable ventures. And we are only scratching the surface of possibilities.  

So, to the graduates here today, I look forward to seeing the sustainability opportunities you design, create, and implement. And if you do that while abiding by the convictions and principles of sustainability, I am confident you will do so in ways that will also bring you joy in the service of others, the planet we depend on, and the well-being and care of future generations. Congratulations Class of 2019!    

Thank you for making Sun Devil Giving Day a Success

A heartfelt THANK YOU to all the staff, faculty, students, parents, and friends of the School of Sustainability for making this year’s Sun Devil Giving Day a resounding success! We blew past our goal and raised $6,200 from 62 gifts. Kristen Wolfe and Kelly Crow teamed up with the ASU Foundation to highlight the School of Sustainability with interactive events outside Wrigley Hall. President Crow stopped by to vote for Sustainability at the ‘what matters to you’ wall. All in all, it was a positive, upbeat day that showcased the generosity of people who believe in the mission and goals of SOS.

The Conversation

Why some counties are powerhouses for innovation

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Santa Clara County produced more patents than any other U.S. county in recent history.

Christopher Boone, Arizona State University

By the time the application window closed, Amazon had received 238 proposals from cities and regions throughout North America looking to become the second headquarters of the behemoth tech company.

Amazon invited proposals especially from places that looked a lot like its native Seattle: metro areas with more than a million people; a stable and business-friendly environment; communities that could “think big and creatively” about real estate options; and a location that would attract and retain technical talent.

In the race to attract high-tech companies, what can cities and regions do to become centers of innovation? At the moment, some places are clearly in the lead.

By my analysis of data from the U.S. Patent Office, Santa Clara County, California, is sprinting ahead of the country. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 140,000 patents were granted in Santa Clara County. That’s triple the number for second-ranked San Diego County.

Four other counties in California – Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda and Orange – make the top 10. Washington’s King County, Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, Michigan’s Oakland County and Arizona’s Maricopa County round out the list.

These counties are in large metropolitan areas that are known as technology and innovation centers, including San Francisco, San Diego, Boston and Seattle. The other metro areas in the top 10, not the usual tech-hub suspects, are Greater Los Angeles, Detroit and Phoenix.

Higher education

Besides large concentrated populations, these metro areas share two other ingredients that support innovation. All of them have one or more leading research universities and a large proportion of college-educated people.

Santa Clara County is home to Stanford University, an institution that has become synonymous with the high-tech and innovation economy of Silicon Valley.

Stanford’s rise as a world-class research university coincided with a rapid increase in federal and military spending during the Cold War. The university’s suburban location gave it an advantage, too, by providing land for expansion and for burgeoning high-tech companies. Stanford’s leadership aggressively courted research opportunities aligned with the priorities of the military-industrial complex, including electronics, computing and aerospace.

As a leader in patents, Santa Clara County benefits from a well-educated population, with more than half a million adults over 25 years of age holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, the 10th-highest figure in the country.

Nationally, there is a strong relationship between the number of college-educated adults and the number of patents filed in those counties. I found that, for every increase of 1,000 college-educated people, one can expect 33 more patents to be granted in those counties.

For counties that contain one or more of the country’s “131 Doctoral Universities with Very High Research Activity,” as ranked by Indiana University’s Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the average number of patents filed was 6,686, compared to only 371 for counties lacking one of these research institutes.

Cost of living

Another common trait about most of these centers of innovation is the jaw-dropping cost of housing.

The median sale price for houses in San Jose in Santa Clara County exceeded US$1 million for every month in 2018. Between 2000 and 2017, house prices more than doubled in the California and Washington state counties with the highest number of patents.

Competition for higher-wage talent pushes up housing and other costs in these innovation centers. Although housing prices increased in greater Boston, Phoenix and Detroit, they remained relative bargains compared to the West Coast.

The threat of rising housing costs and gentrification was one of many reasons why residents protested the planned building of Amazon’s second headquarters in the New York City borough of Queens. The company has now decided to pull out.

Facing rising rents in San Francisco, many residents are leaving for surrounding suburbs or farther afield. Gentrification in high-tech cities coincides with homelessness and growing inequalities, hitting minority communities hardest.

Sparking innovation

Rising living costs in these tech centers can create innovation opportunities for communities inland where living costs are lower. There are more than 4,600 degree-granting institutions located across the U.S. in communities large and small.

In my view, one way to unleash innovation would be to tap into the rich diversity of students, faculty and communities at two- and four-year colleges beyond the typical top 100 research institutes.

For example, universities might invest in inquiry-based programs, where learning is guided by questions, research and discovery rather than simply receiving knowledge. Or, they could focus on lifelong learning and entrepreneurship training.

In this way, it may be possible for smaller colleges and universities and the communities they serve to provide alternative pathways to innovation. If this happens, the technology giants of the future may be fighting to locate in the middle of the U.S., rather than the coasts.

Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Transitions: Fall 2018 Convocation Address

Sean McElroy, graduating with a degree in sustainability, stands during graduation to be recognized by University Provost Mark Searle for his exemplary scholarly performance at ASU.
Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

The graduates sitting in front of me know that we are living in exciting and challenging times. Even though understanding the present, let alone the future, is exceedingly difficult, in SOS we share the belief that the world is on the cusp of significant change. And we need to drive that change so that it is equitable, enduring, secure, and sustainable.

History shows that positive transformation is possible. When the Millennium Development Goals challenged the global community to cut in half the number of people living in extreme poverty and suffering from hunger by 2015, many thought the goals were too ambitious and impossible to achieve—that disappointment would lead to disillusionment. Instead, the world met or exceeded those goals, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty from 50 percent to 14 percent and the number of undernourished people from 24 to 13 percent.

Success from the Millennium Development Goals inspired people to aim even higher in creating the Sustainable Development Goals. Most of you probably know all 17 by heart. Maybe you have them on your mortarboards or as an app on your phone.

Any one of them I hope will inspire you to think about how to accelerate the transition to a desirable, sustainable future—one that celebrates clean and affordable energy (#7), sustainable cities and communities for an urbanizing planet (#11), protection and restoration of earth’s ecosystems (#15), inclusive and sustainable growth (#8), availability and sustainable management of water for all (#6).

My challenge to members of this graduating class is that you will together speed up the transition to a sustainable world, one that allows people and planet to thrive, not just survive.

I also recognize that each of you today is going through a personal transition, from student to graduate. Transitions can be incredibly exciting and joyful, but also laden with uncertainty, trepidation, and even fear. It is perfectly normal to feel both. But I ask you to draw on your inner optimist and change-agent selves, and embrace transition as an extraordinary, thrilling, and fulfilling set of opportunities. I know this focus on opportunity for positive change, rather than doom and gloom, is what inspired many of you to come to SOS in the first place. Don’t lose that fire and spirit.

Finally, remember that as you start your next chapter, you will not be alone. You are now and forever will be part of the SOS family. More than anything, we want to help you succeed. Visit us often and keep in touch.

Lean on each other. Take care of one another. Successful transitions to a better future will take teamwork, a shared vision, perseverance, and the passion each of you has inside to change the world for the better. Congratulations Class of 2018!

My short piece in The Conversation

The US has become a nation of suburbs

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Suburbanites now outnumber urban and rural dwellers.
Ursula Page/

Christopher Boone, Arizona State University

Since 1970, more Americans have lived in the suburbs than central cities. In 2010, suburbanites outnumbered city and rural dwellers combined for the first time. We Americans live in a suburban nation.

Despite several concerted efforts by city governments to lure residents, suburbanization continues largely unabated. Census figures from earlier this year show that suburbs of warm climate “Sun Belt” cities in the South and West continue to grow, while cities in the cold climate “Snow Belt” of the Midwest and Northeast decline.

Smaller metropolitan areas with fewer than 500,000 people have also grown, related to an improving economy and job creation in smaller urban centers. This ongoing shift towards the suburbs has significant environmental repercussions.

Since cities and suburbs are home for 8 of every 10 Americans, views of the country are often distorted. Most travel occurs within or between cities. Although rural areas have more than three times the miles of roadways as urban areas, more than two-thirds of the 3 trillion miles that vehicles travel each year in the U.S. are in urban and suburban areas.

Jobs, too, are overwhelmingly centered around cities. Less than 2 percent of the American labor force is employed in agriculture.

Many of my students are surprised that the land area occupied by cities is only 3 percent of the nation’s territory. However, they are correct in that cities have an outsized impact on the economy. In 2016, metropolitan areas contributed US$16.8 trillion dollars to the nation’s gross domestic product, more than 90 percent of the country’s economy.

With this economic activity comes a high use of natural resources and concentrated pollution production. Although density can be more efficient when it comes to energy use, the sheer number of urban dwellers means that cities, despite a small physical footprint, have a big energy and pollution footprint.

Rising suburbanization undermines some of the energy efficiency gained by high density living in urban cores. Manhattan has lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions than the suburbs of New York, thanks to factors like apartment living, high costs of car ownership and extensive public transit. Of course, not everyone can afford to live in Manhattan even if they want to. Low-density suburbs are an affordable alternative.

Even so, suburban life can look less desirable. As the U.S. population ages, elderly people may end up “stranded in the suburbs,” far from adequate public transit and unable or unwilling to drive. At my urban university, a mixed use retirement facility was sold out before ground was broken. In the U.S., there are more than 100 university-based retirement communities and the number is growing.

The trend toward suburban life could soon come to an end. Millennials – the generation born between 1981 and 1997 – appear to prefer urban life. They are happier in cities, especially large metropolitan areas, than older generations. The millennial population is growing fastest in metro areas in the Sun Belt and western states, and slowest in the Snow Belt. Topping the list of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas for millennials are Colorado Springs, San Antonio, Denver and Orlando.

Will millennials follow older generations to the suburbs as they marry, have children, recover from the shocks of the Great Recession and find affordable housing? The jury is still out.

Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that people will start to move out of cities and suburbs and back into rural areas. Even though increased connectivity and the internet of things will make remote work more possible than before, businesses will continue to concentrate in urban cores, because they profit from being close to one another. (Futurists once thought the telephone would make crowded cities unnecessary.)

I believe that it’s likely the U.S. will remain a nation of suburbs for some time to come. That will pose a continuing environmental challenge. But it will also bring a new set of opportunities for millennials, who are predicted to overtake baby boomers by next year as the largest generation in the country. How will that generation remake the suburbs to suit their needs and desires without exacerbating current environmental challenges? The answer has profound implications for the nature of cities and urban life in the U.S.The Conversation

Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ASU School of Sustainability home to international students

As I noted in an earlier post, students in the School of Sustainability are coming from far and wide to study with us. This year, we have students from 24 countries in our undergraduate and graduate programs. The diverse origins of our students reflects the strong international reputation of ASU’s School of Sustainability. Having students from all corners of the globe is also an extraordinary gift.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, a large and impactful part of my education was learning alongside students from other parts of the world.  I was fortunate to be in a graduate program where more than half of the students were from countries other than Canada. I have not forgotten how valuable that experience was.  I am committed to making sure that our own students benefit from global experiences, whether learning with students from other parts of the world or learning in other parts of the world.

This year, Dr. Rob Melnick has taken on the responsibility of coordinating and enhancing all of our international efforts. The purpose is to make sure that students recognize the range of global experiences available to them–lots of exciting things to come!


ASU School of Sustainability is a national program

The School of Sustainability (SOS) continues to grow in size, reputation, and reach. Data from this year’s class show that students come from 42 states and the District of Columbia. I am proud that SOS serves the nation by providing an excellent education for students from all parts of the country (and many parts of the world: see next post).

This year we have more than 500 undergraduate majors and 200 graduate students studying with us in SOS. When we add the sustainability minor, sustainability concentrations in business, engineering, public policy, and interdisciplinary studies, along with the certificates in sustainability food systems and energy systems, I anticipate the total number of students in sustainability programs will exceed 2,500 by the end of the year. What all of this exemplifies is ASU’s institutional commitment to sustainability, inclusivity, and impacts that reach far and wide.