Lisa GraumlichWe recognize that the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century can appear daunting: the problems are complex, the stakes are high, and time is short. From my vantage point as Dean, the good news is that our faculty, staff, and students tackle grand challenges with an innovation mindset: a set of values and practices that link knowledge and action. Larry Keeley, author of Ten Types of Innovation, captures it best: “Innovating requires identifying the problems that matter and moving through them systematically to deliver elegant solutions.” Pause—read that sentence again because it’s rich with meaning. Here is how I parse Keeley’s directive into three innovation imperatives for the College of the Environment.

First, focus on problems that matter: target the wicked problems and leave the low-hanging fruit for others.

Frankly, we are good at identifying gnarly yet tractable problems, as evidenced by our strong portfolio of federal research funding in an era of decreased investment. However, as we seek to maximize the impact of our work outside academia, we need to further hone in on problems from the point of view of society. This means engaging partners in identifying their problems.

Building on decades of work to understand and forecast the dynamics of sea surface temperatures, the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans responded to a need to plan for climate variability in the sustainable management of fisheries. They brought together a long list of partners and potential users to define what information would be most useful to them. Today, the result—JSCOPE—provides short-term forecasts of ocean conditions that directly inform a range of fisheries assessment and management plans. What’s more, JSCOPE forecasts are iteratively tailored for continuous improvement to the data provided to end-users.

Second, get the scope right: grand challenges require comprehensive solutions.

When we focus on problems that matter to society, we soon discover that innovative solutions require more than science. Our environmental challenges are systemic, reflections of complex nature-society interactions. The innovation imperative here is not to simply create a new product or policy analysis. Systemic innovation links discovery, knowledge integration, capacity building, and ongoing engagement, most often with diverse partners.

Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB), housed in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, is discovering new ways to grow and convert hybrid poplar trees into bio-based chemicals and biofuels. At $40M in external funding, it’s one of the College’s largest projects so I will bet you are imagining a combination of very big greenhouses, lots of white-coated engineers working with complicated production lines and an array of industry partners. In truth, there are greenhouses and lots of pyrolysis lines but AHB is also economists, social scientists, and educators. It’s all about getting the scope right: that is, to establish a sustainable biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest. One non-trivial question is whether rural landowners will embrace growing hybrid poplar? And, do we have the people and infrastructure to build out this industry in rural Washington? Getting these questions answered is as important as getting the chemical reactions right.

Finally, cultivate elegance: overly complex solutions will sit on the shelf.

The first two imperatives may sound like I’m suggesting that we engage a cast of thousands to go forth and heal the planet. On the contrary, it’s absolutely imperative that we find ways to make it easier to do the hard things.

Ocean acidification resulting from increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has emerged as a worldwide threat to marine life. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are already witnessing the economic impacts of ocean acidification for communities that that depend on shellfish production. We have plenty of evidence that overly complex solutions to limit global CO2 emissions simply don’t work. An elegant solution path is outlined in Ryan Kelly’s recent paper, “Ten ways states can combat ocean acidification (and why they should),” published in the Harvard Environmental Law Review. Kelly, an assistant professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, argues that state government agencies can take action now with legal and policy tools that currently exist. As Ryan points out, states have ample legal authority to address many of the causes of ocean acidification; what remains is to implement that authority to safeguard our iconic coastal resources.

The College of the Environment demonstrates—and celebrates—the innovation mindset in the broadest sense. We are not just about turning ideas into products or policy recommendations. We work to overcome the barriers and develop the capacity to achieve real-world implementation of elegant solutions.


Lisa Graumlich
Dean, College of the Environment
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor