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Policy + Technology = Impact: OTL chats with the Sustainability Accelerator about their two-pronged vision for a sustainable future

When the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability launched in September, the goal of its formation could be summed up in one word: impact. Aiming to put forward solutions for the global challenges of climate change, resource sustainability, and environmental justice, the School brought together existing departments and institutes along with brand new resources to accelerate collaboration on issues where humanity can’t afford to wait.

In addition to moves like hiring new faculty and creating new degree programs and institutes, a key initiative of the new School was the creation of the Sustainability Accelerator. It is intended to fuel the near-term impact of sustainability-focused research on campus by providing a new source of resources to faculty doing work in this space. The development of the Accelerator during the conception of the Sustainability School was led by Tom Jaramillo, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Debbie Sivas, Professor of Environmental Law and Director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. This work culminated in the Accelerator’s first round of funding under the leadership of Vice Provost and Dean of Research and Sustainability School transition dean Kam Moler earlier this year with financial backing from a generous anonymous gift to the University. The program continues to thrive today as part of the now-launched Sustainability School headed by Dean Arun Majumdar. Michael Wara, Interim Director for Policy Engagement at the Sustainability Accelerator and Director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Michael Mastrandrea, Interim Associate Director of Policy at the Sustainability Accelerator and Research Director at the Climate and Energy Policy Program, joined the Accelerator team earlier this year.

Dr. Wara and Dr. Mastrandrea spoke to OTL about the new initiative earlier this fall, emphasizing its focus on impact, equity, and environmental justice. They also explained the Accelerator’s unique two-pronged approach to tackling climate and sustainability challenges: technology acceleration and policy acceleration. “We need new technologies and new business creation to drive new approaches into the market, but it's also the case that a lot of sustainability problems arise because, basically, [it’s] free to dump your garbage,” explains Dr. Wara. “And so in order to create a business model for many kinds of new technologies, you need to create policies that require the use of more sustainable technologies.”  One example he cited where policy coordination can help scale innovation are public policies that regulate carbon emissions help engender widespread industry adoption of technologies to monitor or lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The Accelerator has already funded one round of awards, totaling thirty diverse projects that began this past May. These projects not only span the program’s two arenas of policy and technology, but they also span the globe, tackling sustainability challenges arising everywhere from right here in California to Africa and Southeast Asia. From a technology to survey groundwater to help build a more resilient freshwater future for California, to an effort to improve efficiency of brick kilns in Southeast Asia, projects in this first round of grants target discrete sustainability problems across the world and experiment with novel, potentially high-impact interventions.

While the reach of the Accelerator is global, experimentation with these novel solutions can in some cases be remarkably close to home.  Working with Stanford Land, Buildings, and Real Estate (LBRE) and Transportation, the Accelerator is dedicating some of its resources towards projects that use the campus itself as a laboratory to help scale sustainability technologies. This Living Lab concept presents both opportunities and challenges as technologies need to work within the constraints of a living, breathing operation that serves the students and staff of the university, providing a much more realistic stage for testing than the typical well-controlled laboratory setting. One project using this approach sets the goal of moving Stanford’s transportation to 24/7 clean electricity, working within the existing needs and requirements of campus transportation services. Despite the challenges, the Sustainability Accelerator is committed to supporting efforts that experiment with cutting-edge sustainability strategies right in Stanford’s backyard.

In addition to using the campus as a lab for sustainability innovation, Dr. Wara and Dr. Mastrandrea are also focused on how the Accelerator can make use of the wealth of other resources available at Stanford to maximize the impact of the projects their program supports. This includes working with and learning from other Stanford organizations that support technology commercialization and public policy research. On the policy side, they aim to work with Impact Labs as a key partner that brings experience in coordinating with the public, private, and social sectors to advance policy solutions. On the technology side, they are working with OTL to patent and commercialize the inventions funded by the Accelerator. In addition, they are collaborating with Nitin Parekh, Director of OTL’s new High Impact Technology (HIT) Fund & Program, to further accelerate and co-support their technology projects. Lastly, the Accelerator works with related climate and sustainability organizations within and outside of the Sustainability School, all focused on the goal of cementing Stanford’s role as a leading force in the global fight for humanity’s sustainable future. “There's just an emerging momentum to really position Stanford as a leader in new idea generation and new firm creation in the sustainability space in a way that Stanford has been in many other areas for decades,” says Dr. Wara. “And it's an all-of-university effort.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Sustainability Accelerator and how to participate, see additional resources here.