Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance man, believed ideas pertinent to one realm do not exist in isolation but inform and relate to other ideas in other realms.
His credo could be the watchword for Rochester Institute of Technology students in the Golisano Institute for Sustainability’s doctoral, master of science and master of architecture programs.
Though new as an academic discipline, sustainability in a way harks back to the Renaissance, a time when scholars distinguished less between arts and sciences we now cordon off as largely separate disciplines, said Paul Stiebitz, associate academic director and a co-founder of GIS.
Just as da Vinci delved equally into art, mechanical engineering, architecture, anatomy and physics, so does the modern-day sustainability institute seek to pull together disciplines that had slipped into isolating specialization, Stiebitz said.
Advanced degree candidates at GIS can choose an area of concentration from among five programs-sustainable products and production systems, sustainable energy, sustainable mobility, eco-IT and built systems sustainability. But each program’s curriculum is multidisciplinary and related to the others, Stiebitz said.
Such overlap is a necessary feature of any sustainability program, said Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, based in Denver. Sustainability means using resources in a way that does not deplete them.
With Earth’s population of 7 billion consuming larger and larger gulps of the planet’s raw materials, achievement of sustainability entails reimagining much, if not all, of how we do things now, Rowland said. Changing isolated parts of the systems that keep our civilization running will not do enough.
GIS director Nabil Nasr, Stiebitz and Dennis Andrejko, chairman of the GIS architecture program, concur.
Andrejko encourages architecture students to look at natural systems for inspiration and to incorporate elements such as geothermal heating and wind and solar power in structures they design.
"Most people don’t realize that buildings are responsible for 50 percent of the carbon we put into the atmosphere. Everybody thinks it’s transportation that’s responsible, but buildings do more," he said.
He asks GIS architecture students to work incrementally toward a goal of designing carbon-neutral buildings within the next 20 years. The institute’s building with expanses of glass that supplement artificial lighting and figure prominently in the structure’s heating and cooling systems serves as a teaching tool.
Andrejko, Nasr and Stiebitz see the engineers, industrial designers and architects GIS is turning out as the vanguard of a movement that could remake how we produce and move goods, how we travel, how we house ourselves and how we arrange our workplaces.
There are 300 to 400 graduate sustainability programs offered by U.S. and Canadian schools, Rowland said. As many as 100 more are coming online annually in what Rowland described as a steady stream of additions to the infant academic discipline. RIT’s concentration on sustainable products and production systems is rare, however.
"I just used RIT’s program as an example in a talk I gave last week," he said. "It’s one of maybe three or four like it in the U.S. and Canada."
The program out of necessity must pull together far-flung but related elements that make up the industrial economy’s manufacturing and supply chains, Stiebitz said. For that reason, he believes, the program ultimately will have an outsize effect.
But while GIS and its kindred sustainability programs seek to profoundly change much of the way the industrialized world operates, the changes sustainability demands do not need to be a complete break with the past, Stiebitz added.
"Ninety-nine percent of our academic programs grew out of existing programs," he said. "But it’s a new way of looking at them."
Andrejko said he sees the twist designers of sustainable systems should seek to give to current design methods as a return to more traditional ways of seeing things.
"It’s like what the Native Americans say," he said, repeating an Iroquois maxim exhorting planners to consider what effect their actions could have on descendants seven generations hence.
Nasr conceived of the sustainability institute some seven years ago. Excited by the concept, Stiebitz decided to come out of retirement to help realize Nasr’s vision.
"We talked to industry people, engineers and educators," Stiebitz says. "We asked what skills would be needed and then began to think about how to deliver a program."
Initially bolstered by a Henry Luce Foundation grant, the sustainability institute became a reality in 2007 when Thomas Golisano, the billionaire chairman and founder of Paychex Inc., gave RIT $10 million to endow the institute that bears his name. Ground was broken for building in April 2011.
Still in its infancy, the RIT sustainability program has graduated one Ph.D. and one M.S. candidate. Four candidates in each of the graduate programs are in the pipeline. Stiebitz expects the number to increase.
While it is not clear how much of an effect a growing cadre of engineers, industrial designers, architects and others schooled in the precepts of sustainability will have on industry, Rowland thinks change might come sooner than some expect.
Rather than taking bottom-rung jobs in established industries where they would have to ascend in a hierarchy before they would have much say in how things are done, a high percentage of sustainability program graduates are striking out as consultants or founding startups.
"They tend to be entrepreneurial, and they’re impatient," Rowland said. "They want to start having an effect right away."
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