By Jacob Mills, 2020 Transitions Lab Intern

One of my primary objectives as the 2020 Transitions Lab intern is to explore methods of connecting the academic programs of the Transitions Lab to the operational practices of the university. My plan for this spring is to focus largely on the 2020 Sustainability Scholars’ projects that have a clear connection to some aspect of the IU campus. These projects explore compelling areas of research, from how to better communicate sustainable behavior regarding IU’s waste stream, to the potential for use of naturally produced dyes, some of which can be sourced from Hilltop Gardens. I plan to work with the Sustainability Scholars, whose projects are campus-based, by helping them generate a vision for their project in practical application. This vision and the findings of the research can be mobilized toward greater operational sustainability at IU through fostering a relationship between Sustainability Scholars and IUOS working groups. These working groups bring together faculty and students with operations staff in various domains of sustainability, and are thus a natural pre-established point to continue to build these relationships.

Creating a campus community where academic findings and work in sustainability can reinforce sustainability in the practices that maintain an institution of higher learning, I feel, has a vast potential for making IU a one-of-a-kind research institution that avoids the common trap of an insular academic research community. Through a strong academic-operational relationship, systems of knowledge sharing can produce a campus-community driven evolution of IU. An Indiana University where this goal is realized in practice could produce more sustainable ecological, social and economic realities for the physical campus, its surrounding environment, the laborers that manage the university infrastructure, and the students/faculty that operate within the campus spaces.
I often enjoy daydreaming about what the potential for a radically successful partnership between operations and academics would look like and how that would manifest in practice. My future vision of such a partnership is inspired by systems thinking, a vital component of sustainability (read more here). Operationalized knowledge at IU-Bloomington could radically change the practice and aesthetic of the university. Consider a university in which the infrastructure is built in a way that is not only of low environmental impact, but also educational in communicating how this infrastructure delivers its services. A design where the processes of food, energy, and water delivery are visible to the students, rather than hidden by visual embellishments.

I often think of this design method as being similar to a cross-section drawing. Academic knowledge informs the creation and operation of a complex system (i.e. the Millennium Falcon). Then, the aesthetic design of this system is done so that it is visually transparent (without compromising functionality), highlighting the means by which the system functions, and allowing those who interact with the space to learn simply by looking at their surrounding environment.
I often think of this design method as being similar to a cross-section drawing. Academic knowledge informs the creation and operation of a complex system (i.e. the Millennium Falcon). Then, the aesthetic design of this system is done so that it is visually transparent (without compromising functionality), highlighting the means by which the system functions, and allowing those who interact with the space to learn simply by looking at their surrounding environment.

Through this transparency, perhaps the university can become effective in creating positive feedback loops between high-level research programs, operations staff and the built environment, and eager-to-learn students, all while producing outcomes for a more sustainable world. This vision is obviously something of great scale and a very hyperbolized expansion on a goal, but I see it as a way to truly embody the educational mission of a large university, while doing away with an antiquated “hands-off” university aesthetic in which members of the university community are not critically engaged in their surrounding (built and natural) environment. The meaningful application of academic work to operational practice holds real potential for a shift to a more sustainably operating and expansively educational kind of university.

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