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How drones are emerging as a valuable conservation tool

Published September 11, 2014
How drones are emerging as a valuable conservation tool

Learn more about how tech innovation is boosting sustainability at the VERGE Salon in New York City on Sept. 16 and at the premier VERGE event in San Francisco on Oct. 27-30.

This story originally appeared at Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted with permission.

Ecologist Lian Pin Koh is pioneering the use of drones in conservation efforts and biological research across the globe. His organization,, was founded two years ago and already has worked with hundreds of NGOs, researchers and government officials in more than a dozen countries to collect environmental data using low-cost drones.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Koh, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide, explains how drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — can help monitor protected areas, collect data in inaccessible regions and even deter poachers. Although his drone research was at first “not taken very seriously,” that’s changing, he said. Koh told e360 web editor Crystal Gammon that advances in aerial equipment and technology have made drones a key part of conservation strategies for marine reserves, rainforests and many other landscapes, mostly in the developing world.

“In just the last couple of months,” he said, “there has been tremendous interest from universities and other research institutes that finally see the value in this technology.”

Yale Environment 360: What led you to start your organization,

Lian Pin Koh: The initial motivation was really about necessity. [Ecologist] Serge Wich and I — we cofounded — have been working in southeast Asia for quite some time, and Serge has been studying orangutans in Sumatra for the last 20 years. One day we started talking about the challenges of studying orangutans in the rainforest of Sumatra, and because I had been flying remote-controlled airplanes as a hobby, I suggested to him that we try to fly these planes with cameras attached over the forest. I thought maybe we could get good photos of the forests, and potentially even snap a few pictures of orangutans or their nests. Normally when I tell people such ideas they would not take me very seriously, but Serge was very enthusiastic — mainly because he was facing real difficulty getting funding to continue his work.

We received a small grant and started building these very low-cost UAVs out of hobby-grade, remote-controlled airplanes fitted with an autopilot system. It was basically less than $1,000 to put this prototype together. We brought the prototype to Indonesia for its first field test, and we were very successful. We didn't know what we were doing — we thought it would crash at some point, but it never did.

e360: Why focus on developing regions?

We understand the problems these scientists working in developing countries are facing, having worked in those areas for a long time. So we knew that, first of all, this tool would be very useful for ecologists working in those areas, and second, we knew that these scientists wouldn't be able to afford commercially available UAV systems that cost tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. When we realized we could build them for just a few thousand dollars, we decided that we should put this information on a webpage and share it with our colleagues in these areas.

e360: Can you talk a bit about the benefits of using drones in conservation rather than going in on foot?

Koh: In conflict zones or areas commonly visited by poachers, such as Nepal or parts of India, poachers would be armed most of the time. If conservation researchers were working in these areas they would be in constant risk of coming into contact with these people, and you never know what would happen — their lives might be at risk. By having UAVs collect the data, the biologist would avoid many of these risks.

Another reason is simply that many of these places are not accessible or would be very expensive to get to because you would need to organize a huge group of people to bring in lots of equipment, food, and other logistical needs. The drones can allow biologists to survey the area just to find out whether it's worth investing the time and effort to organize an expedition. Of course, the drones wouldn't be able to acquire the same amount of detailed information you would get from walking the forest on foot, but you would at least get an overview of the landscape and, in some cases, could get very high-resolution images of the forest canopy.

e360: What types of groups have you collaborated with?

We work mostly with NGOs and academic groups. NGOs are most interested in using the drones for anti-poaching efforts, such as in Nepal through our collaboration with WWF International. They’ve invited us to Nepal several times now, and we’ve trained not just WWF staff but also some of the local government agencies on how to use these systems. It’s quite a long process because often we have to cater to their needs by developing customized UAVs for a particular region.

Groups fly the UAVs to explore national parks and their boundaries or watch out for poachers. They can also be used as a deterrent against poachers, which actually turns out to be even more effective than running around looking for poachers. The local media often advertises that UAVs will be in the air watching out for poachers, so poachers might think twice before coming into the forest. So far we haven’t had any conflicts or contact with poachers or people who were doing any illegal activities.

e360: What are some of the most interesting drone projects you’ve worked on?

Our first project was to find a cheaper way to monitor orangutan populations in Sumatra. Traditionally people have to walk the forest on foot and count the nests in the forest canopy, and from those counts they estimate the population of orangutans. There have been efforts to fly small manned aircraft and count the nests from above, but it’s very expensive to hire an aircraft. Many times pilots wouldn’t even want to fly because it’s quite risky — there’s no way to land the aircraft in case of any emergencies. So we have been flying our UAVs over the rainforest in Sumatra and have managed to get very high-resolution images of these nests. The resolutions can be as high as 1 to 2 centimeters per pixel, which allows us to not just count the nests, but also see what kinds of twigs they are using to build the nest, what kind of leaves, possibly even estimate how long the nests have been left in the tree — all sorts of information biologists had never had before.

We’ve been working with our colleagues from computer vision departments across different universities to try to develop an algorithm that can differentiate the orangutan nests from the other parts of each image. It’s quite a difficult task because there’s a lot of variation in how these orangutan nests look.

We are also working in central India, in the national park called the Panna Tiger Reserve. There are about 20 tigers that were relocated from another reserve to Panna, and each of these tigers has been radio collared so they can be followed 24 hours a days, 365 days a year. As you can imagine, it’s very expensive to track the tigers around the clock, to have research assistants constantly following the tigers day and night, so we’re trying to develop a way to radio track these tigers remotely using a UAV. The idea is to fly the UAV over the reserve to pick up signals coming from the radio collars and triangulate the locations of the tigers. That application would be very useful for many other wildlife tracking projects in other parts of the world.

e360: Earlier this summer, the U.S. banned drones in all its national parks. One concern the Park Service mentioned, among others, was that drones sometimes bother wildlife. Have you ever seen the drones you use disturb wildlife?

Our only experience with that was during a trip to Borneo, when we flew one of our drones over a group of wild elephants in a rainforest. This group of elephants was being observed and tracked by a team of scientists on the ground, so the team was able to observe how they were reacting to the UAV. They told us that the wild elephants were clearly able to sense something flying in the air, even though our UAVs were flying about 150 meters (400 feet) above ground — pretty high up. Then the elephants became habituated to the noise and just carried on with their business. So I don’t think the UAVs would have a big impact on the animals’ behavior, but I do understand the concerns of the FAA in the U.S. and the national parks authority about too many UAVs flying around in the national parks.

e360: What’s the basic process involved in setting up a conservation drone?

It’s changing quite rapidly. We’ve lost count somewhere along the way, but we’ve produced over 100 UAVs by now. When we started, we basically had to build a UAV from scratch. Nowadays you can go out and buy a ready-made UAV, with an autopilot system already seated in and everything well configured. All you need to do is strap a camera onto the system, and then you have a conservation drone. Depending on what kind of application you’re interested in, you could just attach a [compact] video camera or photography camera. Some people may use a near-infrared camera to look at photosynthetic properties of the vegetation, and so on. It all depends on what kind of sensor system you need.

e360: What’s the typical cost?

A ready-to-fly UAV system is about $1,000 to $2,000. Then it depends what kind of camera system you want, but it can be as cheap as $500.

e360: How long and how far can your drones fly?

Koh: It’s constantly improving. The longest distance UAVs can fly now is about 100 kilometers, though that system is still being tested. People are always asking for a longer range, so that’s something we’re always working on.

e360: What are the next priorities for your group?

Koh: The next priority is to work more closely with academia — both Serge and I are full-time academics. When we started this project our work was not viewed as something mainstream; it was something that we did on the side, and we were frankly not taken very seriously. But in just the last couple of months there has been tremendous interest from universities and other research institutes that finally see the value in this technology. We are now trying to bring this technology into our mainstream career, and possibly introducing it as part of the teaching curriculum. Then we can really demonstrate this technology to our students, and hopefully it will just become part of the toolkit of every biologist in the future.

Top photo of mother orangutan showing affection to adult daughter by olga_gl via Shutterstock

How sustainability improves shareholder value

Published September 11, 2014
How sustainability improves shareholder value

One of the most important objectives — if not the most important — of a CEO always has been to enhance the shareholder value of the company. Today, CEOs are concerned with implementing a sustainability strategy as well.

But institutional investors often resist as sustainability (otherwise referred to ESG, or environmental accountability, social responsibility and corporate governance) initiatives may require an investment without an assurance of an associated return.

The big question, then, becomes how ESG will affect the stock price. It is obvious that investor perceptions and behavior directly affects this. Investor behavior is typically measured by an earnings multiple which is then multiplied by earnings per share or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) to calculate the valuation impact. It has been shown that earnings multiples respond to many drivers, including growth, leverage, business model risk and ESG performance. But because you really can’t tell which of these drivers impacts the stock price, you can’t tell the impact from ESG performance. Consequently, many companies just ignore these investor perceptions.

There needs to be a better way to incorporate the ESG performance into the shareholder value.

Starting with the basic cash flow valuation calculations, a company-specific discount rate can be determined. The discount rate, or cost of capital, can be defined as the rate that equates the current stock price with the present value of the stream of anticipated cash flows. A company known not to pursue ESG policies probably will have a lower stock, which leads to a higher discount rate. Conversely, a company that pursues attractive ESG policies and investments most likely will trade at a premium as the institutional demand increases. This then will be reflected in a lower discount rate.

What is needed is a methodology to relate a company’s cost of capital to its ESG performance. The cost of capital was obtained from a widely recognized investment research company that calculates company-specific implicit discount rates to measure the value of about 40,000 public companies worldwide. Research efforts have used this database — along with 120 sustainability policy and performance variables — for 2,800 firms reported by IW Financial. For each firm, IW Financial can provide a value for each of 120 ESG variables that can be either a numeric value or a binary value, such as “yes” or “no.” Applying statistical analysis of the combined data can provide a mechanism to determine the relationship between ESG performance ratings and the discount rate.

It has been determined that the ESG variables can have a different impact on the various industries. When assessing a specific company, the analysis is performed on 20 to 30 companies in the same industry.

The financial research company’s data can provide the discount rate for each company in that selected industry. By conducting a statistical analysis on each company for every one of the 120 ESG variables, one can determine which ESG variable actually has a positive or negative impact on the discount rate. And when examining the ESG variable, it is important to note both a correlation and a causation.

By conducting a complete analysis, it is possible to determine which variable, if any, actually has an impact on the company’s discount rate and therefore the shareholder value. Although this very important pricing dynamic is not captured by conventional financial analyses, its impact can be significant. 

When corporate management understands how ESG initiatives can affect company stock price, it allows them to make more effective investment decisions. Management may be confronted with a decision to make an investment in sustainability to improve a particular process. This may not result in an acceptable return based on conventional financial metrics such as ROI or internal rate of return (IRR). But the resulting increase in stock price presents a different, more accurate picture of the shareholder value if the move results in an improved perception of its efforts to act on sustainability.

Top photo of man placing stack of coins in a row by Syda Productions via Shutterstock

Why the future of food tastes like a mealworm

Published September 11, 2014
Why the future of food tastes like a mealworm

A chili-lime mealworm was not my first pick for a snack, but it turned out to be quite delicious. Not to mention food for thought.

The worms (really insect larvae) were prepared by a San Francisco-based edible insect street food startup, Don Bugito. Crunchy, salty, spicy and with a hint of lime, the mealworm reminded me somewhat of a tortilla chip that might be an excellent topping to a taco or salad.

My worm-eating experience took place as part of an investigation into the future of food technology, a topic of GreenBiz Group’s upcoming VERGE San Francisco event. VERGE focuses on the technologies and systems that accelerate sustainability solutions in a climate-constrained world.

One of VERGE’s six tracks is dedicated to food and water systems. It explores the new production and delivery systems leading to innovative products and services that address supply-chain risk and resilience, from precision irrigation to alternative protein sources. Among the questions we’ll address are, what is the appropriate role of technology in food systems and how will it shape the way we eat?

Which brings me to the VERGE FoodTech SnackDown, a tasting of some alternative food sources being developed by entrepreneurs. Chili-lime mealworms, for example.

Feeding the world is a hot topic these days. By 2050, world population is expected to peak at 9.6 billion. Producing the recommended 2,000 calories per day for each person adds up to an enormous demand for food, along with the land, energy and water needed to produce it. If you need a visual of all those calories, picture nearly 13 billion Chipotle burritos with guacamole.

Producing all these calories imposes major costs to our wallets, the environment and animal welfare. Throw in climate change, which in addition to increasing floods and droughts is expected to shift the latitudes where food can be easily grown. It won't be easy to fill all those bellies.

However, it’s also a supersized business opportunity.

Planning for the SnackDown has led me to a succession of forward-thinking food entrepreneurs developing alternatives for eggs, meat, oil and other things. Some substitute meat with insects, a concept new to most Americans, though not to the rest of the world. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 1,000 insects are eaten around the world, in 80 percent of nations. They are most popular in the tropics, where they grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest.

It’s not just insects. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, everything from algae to common plants are fodder for our dinner tables. Here are some next-gen foods that could be headed for your palate:

In-Vitro meat: Mark Post, team lead of Cultured Beef, is the scientist behind the first in-vitro burger. Post believes that humans are designed to love meat, but that “cows are an obsolete technology,” considering it costs $65.57 to produce just 1 kilogram of beef and that livestock is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Post sees cultured meat, made by humanely harvesting living muscle tissue from a cow and multiplying the cells, as an alternative to eating animals. At a recent panel titled “Alternative Proteins, Alternative Futures” at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in San Francisco, Post mentioned he is working to perfect the taste and bring down the costs of Cultured Beef’s $320,000 burger — that’s roughly how much the company has spent on R&D — and is confident that an affordable product is achievable within the next seven years.

Insects: High in protein, inexpensive to raise, less susceptible to climate shifts and tasty if thoughtfully prepared, insects are becoming more appreciated as a food source. Insects are delicacies in countries such as Mexico and China, but in the past they have entered American diets only as a passing trend rather then a staple food source. Those at the forefront of changing that include John Heylin, founder of Chirp Farms, who thinks it’s possible to make insects palatable by partially integrating them into commonplace foods, such as bread — along with good marketing strategies, of course. Other insect companies to watch include Six FoodsBitty FoodsDon Bugito and Exo.

Plant-based alternativesHampton Creek, maker of a plant-based egg, recently announced plans to launch its eggless Just Mayo in Target stores across the U.S. Plant-based foods are a cheaper, climate-friendlier, vegetarian and non-allergenic animal product replacement. Solazyme’s AlgaVia Whole Algal Flour replaces egg and dairy products with alternatives made from algae, a resource that is inexpensive to grow at scale. Beyond Meat and Sweet Earth Natural Foods are two other producers of meat alternatives worth checking out.

Coffee Flour, protein-packed flour made from discarded coffee pulp, is also set for its commercial release in 2015.

Hungry for more? Several of these companies will participate in the FoodTech SnackDown at VERGE San Francisco in October. Come get a taste of the future of food.

Top image: Fried mealworms at a Thai food stand, by apple2499.

Chris Laszlo

Associate Professor
Case Western Reserve University
Chris Laszlo is on the faculty of Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. His new book is Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business (2014), Stanford University Press.

3 reasons the world is moving beyond shareholder value

Published September 10, 2014
3 reasons the world is moving beyond shareholder value

For the past 40 years, a one-dimensional belief has prevailed that the purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value.  This belief, developed through the skillful advocacy of economists such as Milton Friedman and Michael Jensen at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, ultimately became the intellectual justification for Wall Street’s mantra that short-term share price serve as a primary lens for making investment decisions.

The belief in shareholder value continues to dominate Wall Street’s thinking and that of the broader investment community, including financial analysts, portfolio managers and individual investors. Yet, cracks are beginning to appear in the shareholder value edifice and are leading to a renewed examination of the factors that should shape investor decisions. Three factors are driving this re-assessment.

First, there is a growing realization within corporate governance circles that shareholder value is only one of a number of performance measures, and its continued influence is not the result of any specific legal requirement related to a company’s mission.  Boards of directors are empowered to balance the conflicting interests of different kinds of shareholders. Boards that disproportionately focus on short-term shareholder value to the exclusion of the longer-term health of the company are failing to do their job. This is not a recent belief constructed by proponents of financial reform but, rather, is embodied in the charters of U.S. corporations that have been challenged — and upheld — in case law across many decades. So long as boards were free of conflicts of interest and made a reasonable effort to make informed decisions, courts have not second guessed their judgments on the best interests of the company.

Second, the nature of business risks is changing.  Many of these risks are long-term in their evolution but increasingly short-term in their manifestation. They include:

  • The increasingly disruptive effects of climate change that is destroying both public and private infrastructure from greater storm frequencies, and expanding stranded assets in agriculture (resulting from water scarcities) and housing (from sea level rise and storm surges.
  • The vulnerability of global supply chains from natural disasters or material scarcities that result from national monopolies or political disruption.
  • Greater volatility in commodity prices  (During the 20th century, for example, there was a 0.5 percent decline in such prices; since 2000, commodity prices have increased more than 100 percent.)
  • The changing definition of what is “material” to business operations and has to be reported to auditors and regulatory agencies. As businesses have become more global, the scope of materiality in enterprise risk management has expanded, comprising such issues as quality control from lower tier suppliers, water scarcities, biodiversity, human rights concerns and dysfunctional nation states.

Third, there is a growing contingent of shareholders and investors committed to using environmental, social and governance criteria when making investment decisions. Their influence is demonstrated by the increasing percentage of shareholder resolutions that are sustainability-related as well as the expansion of capital available for renewable energy portfolios.

While largely a niche area for today’s investors, proponents of more sustainable investing have developed important relationships with private equity firms, multi-lateral financial institutions and other thought leaders to contribute an important voice to the re-examination of the shareholder value debate.

Some proponents of sustainable investing have advocated the replacement of shareholder value with “stakeholder value.”  While philosophically interesting, the stakeholder value perspective lacks sufficient definition. Further, there is no concurrence on the dashboard of financial metrics to guide risk management or investor decisions. Moreover, it ignores the fact that existing shareholders themselves are robustly diverse and encompass many, if not most, of the interests expressed by stakeholder value proponents.

A positive outcome of the shareholder-stakeholder value debate has been the search for new accounting tools and valuation methodologies. A growing number of global companies are re-assessing the riskiness of their assets.  Chief Financial Officers in companies as diverse as ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Unilever, UPS and Walt Disney have instituted internal carbon taxes to change current business performance or they’ve implemented capital investment guidelines on the future cost of carbon to price anticipated risks for their future capital investments.

The debate over shareholder value will continue to gain traction. In a changing and more volatile global economy, the Friedman-Jensen-Wall Street argument that “maximizing shareholder value” is the sine qua non for investors is intrinsically simplistic and foolish.  Corporations exist for multiple purposes, and evaluating their performance through a singular performance metric is antithetical to the principles embodied in their corporate charters.

The argument in support of shareholder value is not going away, nor should it. However, in a world driven by changing demographics, disruptive technologies, climatic variability, unstable financial and political systems and market volatility, it needs to be integrated with other performance incentives and measures that encourage directors, management and investors to keep their eye on the fundamentals — namely, liquidity, innovation and productivity, and opportunities and costs of the future.

Top image by zen via Flickr


Retail Horizons: Is onshoring the most sustainable option?

By Alisha Bhagat
Published September 10, 2014
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Tags: Retail, Shipping & Logistics
Retail Horizons: Is onshoring the most sustainable option?

This article is the fourth in a 12-part series about the future of U.S. retail for the Forum for the Future-led 2014 Retail Horizons project in partnership with Retail Industry Leaders Association. For more about the project and the toolkit available in October, read the first post, which also contains a table of contents for the series.

There has been a lot of talk about onshoring and reshoring lately. General Electric and Caterpillar are just two of several U.S. companies who recently announced moving production facilities back to the States.

According to a White House fact sheet, there have been 646,000 new manufacturing jobs in the U.S. since 2010 — the sector's highest growth since the 1990s — and many are with returning U.S. companies. In a 2013 survey by Boston Consulting Group, 54 percent of U.S.-based manufacturers actively were considering bringing production back home from China. While this may be great for the economy, the long-term sustainability impact is unclear.

It is first worth considering why onshoring is so appealing to companies. Many attribute the recent wave of onshoring to the weakening of the U.S. dollar after the 2008 financial crisis; after all, cheap wages abroad originally led U.S. companies into moving production overseas. But low-cost labor is not quite as low-cost as it used to be: According to BCG, the pay and benefits for the average Chinese factory worker rose by 19 percent a year between 2005 and 2010.

Consumers prefer "Made in the USA" products, as well. In another BCG study, more than 80 percent of U.S. consumers said they would pay a premium for American-made products, not least because it boosts jobs and injects capital into the community.

Competitive wages and consumer preferences are only two components of a complex value chain, however. In looking at whether a domestically produced product is more sustainable, it is important to consider all parts, from built infrastructure to human capital and distribution networks. This will, of course, vary by product and country.

Maritime shipping, for example, is a much more carbon-efficient way of transporting goods than road and air transport in many instances. So what you find is that it actually may be more fuel-efficient to buy an appliance made in Shenzhen and shipped to Los Angeles rather than one built in New York and driven over.

Centralized production also can be tied to comparative advantage. For example, many advocates of locally produced food use food miles to demonstrate that local food is more sustainable. While local production does decrease transport distance, there may be sustainability losses in other areas. The Guardian compared apples and lamb grown in New Zealand versus the U.K. New Zealand has to ship its products farther, but it also has a climate, soil and power source that allow for low-carbon production.

For onshoring to be the most sustainable option in the U.S., the country must have social and environmental gains that improved significantly on existing systems. Domestic and global political, economic and social factors are all relevant to sustainability. A whole host of future exogenous factors — including conflict, boycotts and labor strikes, changes in international taxes and tariffs, government subsidies, a rise in the minimum wage in countries such as China or resource scarcity — could make onshoring more appealing to U.S. companies.

In a set of scenarios that Forum for the Future recently developed for the 2014 Retail Horizons project, we explored the impact of the cost of energy on several possible futures for American retail. Rising energy costs could lead to an increase in the cost of international shipping, but this in turn could be mitigated by technological advances such as more efficient cargo ships.

In short, it is difficult to predict whether onshoring will become widespread in the future, and whether the shift will mean greater sustainability gains. Still, there are a number of reasons why onshoring businesses can be great: They provide jobs for local people, are better connected to consumers and offer product diversity. But they aren't necessarily more sustainable.

Top image of "welcome back" notes by marekuliasz via Shutterstock.

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Here are the top 10 'VERGE' jobs of the future

By Ellen Weinreb
Published September 10, 2014
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Tags: Cities, Green Jobs
Here are the top 10 'VERGE' jobs of the future

Two GreenBiz VERGE events are rapidly approaching, with a VERGE Salon kicking off in New York City on Sept. 16. The premier VERGE event comes to San Francisco Oct. 27-30.

In anticipation of this event series that's all about the convergence of sustainability and technology, we've created a list of possible "VERGE" job titles of the future. Some are already roles with an ever-increasing relevance and demand today, while others have major potential to become reality soon.

What is a VERGE job?

These jobs model the convergence of technology and sustainability for the built environment. We've identified rapid uptake in what we'd like to call the VERGE sector. Now, who will deliver the goods? Who will embrace, adopt and apply the innovation? Who will sell these new products to municipalities, real estate companies and construction firms?

The 10 jobs listed below are in two distinct arenas: companies and cities. Cities are in the center of this important nexus for VERGE. They either can purchase the technology or they can adopt policy standards to require, say, only renewable sources of power, zero waste or a robust disaster plan related to extreme weather.

In creating this list, I enlisted the brainstorming assistance of GreenBiz's Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor, and Elaine Hsieh, VERGE program director and senior analyst.

1. City chief sustainability officer: In 2013, the Weinreb Group placed Gil Friend as chief sustainability officer for Palo Alto. During that search and thereafter, I have noticed the growth of sustainability leaders in cities. Los Angeles, San Antonio and Phoenix recently appointed city CSOs. I anticipate the CSO and similar roles will continue to gain prominence as city governments increase their focus on sustainability.

2. Collective impact officer: What are organizations doing to coordinate their efforts and collectively move the needle forward for their city? The CIO is a knowledge management specialist, as well as a master at community level stakeholder relationship building.

3. Shared value officer: At the core of all VERGE companies is a recognition of the "tremendous opportunities for innovation and growth in tackling social" and environmental problems within the built environment. The SVO coordinates efforts to make sure all arms of a city or company recognize this opportunity to advance sustainability practices that add value to the city and its residents. FSG's website describes this opportunity to pool resources and espouse synergies.

4. Chief resilience officer: Los Angeles and San Francisco lead a fresh trend in city CROs. With changes in populations, weather patterns, coastal geography and other factors important to cities, a CRO will provide leadership in preparing, managing and rebuilding the city if damage occurs.

5. Smart city planner: With its emphasis on integration, VERGE embraces the elements of smart city planning. The Smart City Planner will collaborate with many departments, be it to minimize waste, increasing efficiency of resource use or enhancing integration of various city elements.

6. Bike share program coordinator: With the popularity of systems such as Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., and Citibike in New York City, residents and tourists alike can pay a fee to pedal the city streets while reducing their carbon footprint. The Program Coordinator would manage economic, political, practical and any other aspects of the bike share program.

[Learn more about resilient cities and sustainable mobility at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

7. Unmanned aerial (drone) and road-based vehicle operator: With more drones in the sky and driverless cars on the road, we might not need as many drivers, but we do need someone to operate the unmanned vehicles. The individual coordinating these systems for a city would need strong skills in operations, math and programming.

8. Telematics software architect: The Architect will develop integrated use of mobile communications, vehicle monitoring systems and location technology — similar to the evolving concept of a connected car.

9. Big data analyst: This role includes collection and analysis of big data generated by a city's immense technological systems. Based on the analyst's metrics and recommendations, the city can improve sustainability practices using data-driven models. Analytics engineers and data visualization experts would be strong candidates for this position. They are analytical (can parse data) and have the experience to understand how to interpret data within context to make it useful.

10. Zero-waste manager: This role will go beyond coordinating recycling and waste management programs for the city. It likely will include integrating technology into management and collection of waste, as well as disseminating information city-wide on zero-waste approaches.

As you can see, many of these job roles necessitate integration and collaboration with varying city departments, as well as incorporation of technology to enhance the city's sustainability practice.

What are your thoughts about our list? We'd love to hear your own predictions for VERGE jobs of the future.

Top image of Chicago by Ollyy via Flickr.

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This deep dive into 10 years of LEED unearths surprises

By Lane Wesley Burt
Published September 10, 2014
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Tags: Buildings, Energy, More... Buildings, Energy, Energy & HVAC, Energy Efficiency
This deep dive into 10 years of LEED unearths surprises

The U.S. Green Building Council and Ember Strategies recently released the results of a deep dive study into the design energy efficiency of a decade of LEED buildings (PDF). Ten years of LEED data shows the evolution of the best in the architecture, engineering and construction industry — and a few industry quirks — as they strive for more efficient building designs.

Buildings are certified at varying levels in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard — from basic Certified to Silver, Gold, and Platinum — based on the number of points they earn across the categories of green building, such as energy, water, indoor environment, location and materials. Having a LEED certification is one way commercial real estate owners prove their building is one of the best in the world as they work to attract tenants. This study looked at the New Construction rating system for building design and construction and specifically certain energy efficiency related credits.

Before digging in to the data, it is important to understand that a LEED rating system is born, grows and eventually dies and is replaced by a new rating system. This is unlike a building code or standard. The LEED rating system is tweaked in each version to raise the bar for achievement, of course, but also to try to fix credits that just aren't working. If no one achieves a credit, there is no environmental benefit to having it. USGBC uses feedback from the market to improve the rating system over time.

The study was released at the ACEEE's 2014 Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, the biennial gathering of building efficiency nerds in Pacific Grove, Calif. 

Progress: More certifications and more green buildings, but not lower achievement

One might expect that as the number of LEED certified buildings has grown, relative efficiency achievement would decrease, but that does not appear to be the case. The chart below is fairly characteristic of LEED rating system growth, by certification level (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum). The average design efficiency stays remarkably consistent at around 27 percent better than would have been required in the absence of LEED. Over the years, the industry produced more green buildings at all levels, not just at the minimum specification.

Progress: Within certification levels, consistent levels of design efficiency are achieved over the life of the rating system

One might expect that design teams become good at creating LEED Gold buildings, for example, and then eschew energy efficiency points in favor of cheaper or easier options as a rating system ages. This does not appear to happen.

The charts at left show design efficiency of certification levels over the life of a rating system, and achievement is remarkably consistent. The market does not deliver less efficient LEED buildings as the years progress. On the other hand, the market also does not deliver more efficient LEED buildings with time.

Progress: LEED building designs have become more efficient over time (but we don't know exactly by how much)

The success of a building design in terms of energy efficiency is generally assessed by how much more efficient the design is than what was required by the most stringent energy code at that time. This difference determines how many LEED points are awarded for energy efficiency.

Building energy codes get updated about every three years, and then become the baseline for the associated versions of LEED (a relationship that will expand to other categories thanks to the ASHRAE ICC, USGBC agreement). This moving baseline makes it difficult to track industry improvement over time, but it's not impossible.

[Hear more about LEED from Scot Horst and Chris Pyke at VERGE Salon NYC 2014, Sept. 16.]

If we look at the percent by which LEED buildings in different rating systems beat the code, we see consistency within rating system versions and within certification levels. According to the Department of Energy, each new energy code baseline is a big jump in efficiency over the old. Because the code is different for each building, it's impossible to say exactly how much better this group of buildings is than code, but we at least know that 29 percent better than the 2007 baseline is much better than 27 percent better than the 2004 baseline, and so on.

We know that average design efficiency of LEED v2009 buildings (about 29 percent better than the 2007 code) is much better than average design efficiency of LEED v2.2 (about 27 percent better than 2004 code), which is better than the average design efficiency of LEED v2.1 (about 37 percent better than 1999 code, for the buildings that earned the credit).

LEED asks those designers to do better than they were otherwise required to do, and these improvements are the results.

For now, YMMV (your mileage may vary) with LEED buildings, but there is reason for optimism in v4

A Prius with four flat tires does not get very good gas mileage, and neither does a poorly operated LEED building. Unfortunately, the data shows that fewer LEED buildings in LEED v2.1 and LEED v2.2 than desired achieved the credits that help buildings realize their design potential.

Buildings that have a measurement and verification plan will earn the M&V LEED credit and should be more likely to identify and fix problems with their facilities. In v2.1 and v2.2, only about 20 percent of projects earned the credit, but in v2009, that rate doubled. What happened? USGBC increased the point value of the credit, and the market responded. It would seem there is a lesson to be learned there.

Another crucial credit to help buildings to reach their potential is enhanced commissioning, or having a third party check all the building systems in operation. While all LEED buildings get basic commissioning (it is mandatory), there is a voluntary enhanced commissioning credit for those that go above and beyond.

Nearly all buildings would benefit from enhanced commissioning, but unfortunately only about half of LEED buildings in all the rating systems have done it. Learning from LEED v2009, USGBC has decided to triple the point value of a significantly reworked credit in LEED v4. In this case, bribery (with LEED points) may be the best policy.

Conclusion: There is much more to learn from LEED data

The LEED credit achievement data is a treasure trove of insight into how we design and build our buildings and what motivates building professionals to do better. USGBC is working to make more of this information available through the Green Building Information Gateway, where it is mingled with ENERGY STAR certifications, Living Building Challenge certifications and building energy benchmarks from cities that enable it. In the data, there are answers to countless questions about the evolution of the green building industry over time. Questions about renewable energy, use of sustainable materials, location efficiency, water efficiency and so forth are just the start.

Top image of LEED-Certified Editora Abril building in São Paulo, Brazil by Paulisson Miura via Flickr. The original version of this article appeared at Ember Strategies.



The human age: The world shaped by us

By Diane Ackerman
Published September 10, 2014
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Tags: Consumer Trends, Living Principles
The human age: The world shaped by us

On a blue-sky day at the Toronto zoo, flocks of children squired by teachers and parents mingle excitedly between exhibits. Some kids pull out cell phones and send texts or snap pictures with the easy camaraderie of wired life.

Clustered noisily along a large domed habitat that’s been designed to look like a multistoried Indonesian forest complete with tree nests and meandering stream, they watch two orangutan moms and young weaving fluently through a maze of thick, flat vines, which in reality are fire hoses. Orangutans are the swivel-hipped aerialists of the ape world, with ankle-length arms built for sky-walking, opposable thumbs and big toes, swervy knees, and bowed ankles. As a result they can twist into almost any angle or pose. In amazement I watch a young female swing smoothly from vine to vine, then grab two with wide-spread hands and feet, flatten her hips, rotate her wrists, and hang still as an orange kite snagged in the treetops.

Even with knuckle-walking far behind us, we sometimes feel the urge to brachiate in that way, hand over hand on a playground’s “monkey bars.” Yet we’re stiff-jointed and feeble by comparison. We may share 97 percent of our genes with orangutans, but they remain the ginger-haired tree-dancers and we the chatterbox ground-dwellers. In the wild, orangutans spend most of their lives aloft, maneuvering with pendulous grace, as they pursue mainly solitary lives, except during childrearing. Moms raise one kid every six to eight years, doting on their young and teaching them the ways of the forest, where edible fruits abound but must be safely judged—and some aren’t easy to peel or crack open because the rinds are either tough or spiked like medieval weaponry.

One of the orang moms swoops down to the ground as if on an invisible slide, picks up a stick, and fishes around inside a tree trunk until she snares edibles that she coaxes up and eats. The once-raucous students grow quietly transfixed as they peer at her skillful tool-using, especially the way she downs the morsels like eating peas off a knife.

Beyond the glade, well away from the crowds, I find a long-haired seven-year-old boy staring intently at an iPad and tapping the screen with one finger, which unlooses the pocket-sized roar of a lion followed by the buzzy honk of a flamingo. He glances at me with big brown almond-shaped eyes under a shag of thin auburn hair.

If my mane of black hair, frizzed wide in the heat, amuses him, he doesn’t laugh. After holding my gaze for the sheerest moment, he turns back to his way-more-interesting iPad, gripping it with both hands, then with hands and naked feet. Surprisingly clean feet, I must say, and the largest hands I’ve ever seen on a seven-year-old. My whole hand would fit into his palm.

But that’s not unusual for a Sumatran orangutan, and Budi, whose name means “Wise One” in Indonesian, is growing quickly and starting to show signs of puberty: the peach-fuzz beginnings of a mustache and beard, and the billow of what will one day be a majestic double chin that puffs and vibrates when, as a two-hundred-pound adult, he gulp-warble-croons his operatic “long call.” There’s no sign yet of the giant cheek pads between the eyes and ears that will frame his face, acting as a megaphone to shoot his long calls half a mile through dense canopies.

His companion, Matt Berridge, is a tall, slender, forty-something, dark-haired man, holding the iPad near the bars so that Budi can play with it but not drag it off and deconstruct it. The zoo’s main orangutan keeper, Matt is the father of two young sons, both iPad devotees. Ape boys will be ape boys, after all.

The Apps for Apes program is sponsored by Orangutan Outreach, an international effort to help wild orangutans, whose bands are dwindling, and improve the lives of those in captivity around the world, by providing mental enrichment and more stimulating habitats. Nourishing the mind is a high priority because these great apes are about as smart as human three- to four-year-olds, and just as inquisitive. Clever tool-users, they wield sticks for many purposes, from batting down fruit to fishing for ants and termites. They fashion leaf gloves to protect their hands while eating thorny fruit or climbing over prickly vines. Day-dwellers, they fold a fresh mattress of leaves in the canopy before sunset each day. They lift leaf parasols overhead to shelter from extreme sun and fold leaf hats and roofs to keep off the rain. For drinking water, in a pinch, they chew and wad up leaves to make a sponge, then dip it into rain-filled plants. Before crossing a stream, they’ll measure the water depth with a branch. They build dynamic mental maps of all the food trees in their leaf-cloud canopies.

And like their human counterparts, orangs enjoy playing with iPads. But they’re not addicted to them. They’re just not as enthralled by technology as we are.

“Like, I have a seven-year-old son,” Matt tells me. “He’s on it all the time. Not Budi.”

This kid likes the luminous screen, but he wouldn’t sit for cramped hours just staring at it.

“How are we so enamored of this thing that’s so unnatural and takes you away from everything?” Matt asks. “In one way, you’d like to have your own kids occupied at times, but when you see that the orangs are never going to get obsessed with it, knowing their huge intelligence, it gets me thinking: How smart are we to spend all this time staring at this thing? Like, even myself, you know, I don’t test my memory anymore. I go . . . dee deedle dee dee.” He demo-types on the screen. “I’ve become almost totally dependent on these machines. So am I weakening my brain?”

“Strawberry,” a woman’s voice says as Budi taps the strawberry on the screen. “Strawberry,” she repeats when he finds a match. Matt rewards him with tidbits of fresh strawberries, apples, and pears. The lush tropical rainforests of Sumatra offer a cornucopia of hundreds of exotic fruits, the orangutan’s favorite fare.

Another app—of pooling water—fascinates Budi. It looks like water, ripples like water, and when he touches it, it plashes and burbles. But it doesn’t feel wet. And when he lifts his fingers to his nose, he doesn’t smell water. From his sensory perspective, it’s strange. Not as strange, though, as interacting with humans and other orangutans via Skype.

The first time Budi saw Richard Zimmerman, the director of Orangutan Outreach, calling to him in a halo of light, he touched the screen, as if thinking, He’s talking to me. Then, puzzled, he reached over and touched Matt’s face. On the screen, a talking human, who knew him by name , was looking right at him and smiling, calling to him in a friendly voice. Why was Richard’s face flat and Matt’s face three-dimensional? He’d watched television lots of times, his favorite being nature films with orangutans. Matt sometimes showed him YouTube videos of adult male orangutans issuing their grown-up long calls, which always drew a fascinated stare. Yet the screen had never spoken to him. Hobnobbing with humans, rubbing shoulders with other orangs, meeting amiable strangers, playing with iPads, all had become staples of daily life. But this was an altogether different kind of socializing, and, although he didn’t realize it, a step leading him deeper into the Human Age.

Parents today worry about the toll of screen time on their children’s brains; the American Medical Association recommends none at all before the age of two. Yet a tech-enthused parent can even buy a child’s “iPotty for iPad,” a potty-training seat with built-in iPad holder, and find potty-training apps and interactive books at the iPad app store. Matt isn’t concerned about Budi’s iPad play, because unlike his own boys, Budi is a casual iPad user, and no one has studied the effect of screen time on the brains of orangutans. Would it make their senses and our own more alike? Anyway, because Budi is growing up surrounded by zoo life, human technology and culture will influence his brain in myriad ways, just as it does the brains of children. For good or bad, we use our rich imaginations to transfigure the world for ourselves and other creatures, banishing some critters we regard as “pests,” while inviting others to share the curiosities we’ve invented (medicine, complex tools, food, special lingo, digital toys), urging them to blur the line with us between natural and unnatural.

Imagine, if you like, Budi holding an iPad whose apps and games are chapters in this book. By touching the screen, he opens one, then another, merely listening to the story as human voices stream past, or watching colorful faces and vistas intently. In some he even catches a glimpse of himself, iPad in hand, as either an ape kid at play or a vital ambassador for his dwindling species. Both roles are his real-life destiny.

Lifting one hairy orange finger over the screen, Budi hesitates a moment, then touches the first chapter. When he does, a snowstorm opens up, with college students dashing between buildings, books clutched inside their parkas . . .

Excerpted from "The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us" by Diane Ackerman. Copyright © 2014 by Diane Ackerman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Top image: a young orangutan plays with an iPad at Miami's Jungle Island Zoological Park by Minyanville.



Can't HR and sustainability just get along?

By John Davies
Published September 09, 2014
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Tags: Business Operations, Employee Education & Training, More... Business Operations, Employee Education & Training, Green Team
Can't HR and sustainability just get along?

Today, we’re releasing the third edition of our employee engagement survey (download here), which GreenBiz began in 2008 in partnership with the National Environmental Education Foundation.

Back in 2008, we identified the growing trend of environmental and sustainability education in both large and small companies. In our most recent results, 73 percent of respondents indicated that their company is educating employees across the organization about its corporate sustainability goals.

But education alone is now mostly table stakes, much like producing an annual sustainability report; it’s just something you do. Leading organizations are moving beyond general education to more formalized programs to harness sustainability as a foundation for innovation and new products and markets. To achieve these goals requires partnering with other departments, perhaps most significantly HR.

The HR/sustainability disconnect

As we note in the report, the challenges begin with language. For the HR department, the term “employee engagement” means something different than for most sustainability professionals. When sustainability professionals talk about employee engagement, they are often referring to employee volunteering, or perhaps more appropriately, participation.

When the human resources department uses the term, they’re talking about it as part of an employee’s overall relationship to the company. Do employees trust the people they work for? Do they have pride in what they do? Do they enjoy the people they work with? These are the factors cited in numerous studies demonstrating that an engaged employee performs at a higher level. HR’s metrics are not volunteer hours or training video click-throughs. They are looking to benchmark employee behavior and attitudes with other companies through such efforts as Fortune magazine’s annual ranking of “Best Companies to Work For.”

Opening doors in HR

Leading sustainability professionals understand that to enroll HR as a productive partner, it’s important to meet them on their terms.

As Gretchen Digby, director of Global Sustainability Programs at Ingersoll Rand, observed, “Measuring employee actions for sustainability and correlating those actions with overall employee engagement data was the most powerful way to engage HR. Once we could demonstrate the connection, the relationship between HR and sustainability deepened and created a new way of thinking and understanding of how the sustainability platform supports engagement.”

Digby went on to emphasize, “Employees want to do what they love, and inviting that into the workplace increases engagement. We have been able to do this and prove the value in terms of engagement scores by enhancing our volunteer Green Teams program as well as increasing opportunities for all employees to get involved in sustainability-related activities.”

For Nicola Peill-Moelter, director of environmental sustainability at Akamai Technologies, partnering with HR began with the company’s recruitment efforts. In the highly competitive technology industry, new college graduates place a lot of emphasis on a company’s sustainability efforts.

According to Akamai’s Catherine Parker, senior manager for Talent Acquisition, “The social media generation wants to work for companies that do more than focus on profit. This cohort is attracted to companies that are making a difference in the world on multiple levels. Our sustainability story makes Akamai more attractive in this market.”

As we found, there are many ways for sustainability professionals to partner with HR, as well as to measure success. For some firms, it’s as much about employee retention as it is about recruitment. For others, especially those who view their sustainability programs as more advanced, it’s about partnering with HR to develop job-specific information and training.

The directive is clear. Instead of begging to get a sustainability-related question included on HR’s annual employee survey, sustainability professionals need to find ways to help the HR group meet its goals. By doing so, you’re also helping HR to understand the importance of sustainability for the company.

Venn diagram by GreenBiz Group


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