“Sustainability” is critical for long-term success—especially within educational institutions, the foundation for bright futures. Most colleges and universities currently have a sustainability plan, and many have integrated sustainability into their curriculum or organized student groups. Unfortunately, many of those schools still make the “5 epic mistakes of sustainability” that can prevent even the best of ideas from being implemented. Let’s take a look at where sustainability goes sideways…

 #1—Tugging at the heart instead of the wallet. When companies sell products and services to consumers, they focus on a number of competitive strengths. Perhaps it is social acceptance, low cost or high quality that will drive consumers to purchase a new iPod, car or service. Why is it, then, we choose altruism rather than economic benefit when trying to get student, faculty or facility management buy-in for sustainability programs? Studies prove that broad, heartwarming statements are much less effective in moving consumers to action.

Tip: Relevance and costs outweigh “feel good” stories to change behavior, so try to answer the “WIIFM” or “What’s in it for me?” question rather than focus on altruism. A great example is Texas A&M’s Aggie Green Fund (http://greenfund.tamu.edu/) that provides grants for sustainability programs that make economic sense. As they expand their campus, Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions, will be incorporating sustainable efficiencies into new the housing they are building at the school—adding to long-term economic benefits of reduced energy costs.


#2—Death by committee. Often, sustainable ideas form in a small group—a committee, student government, or classroom. A surefire way to kill the idea before it start is to make it the sole responsibility of team members. The members get overwhelmed with many objectives and often the burden is too much to carry in addition to schoolwork and other responsibilities. The committee approach works well for direct-line management in companies, but with a large student body and an ancillary program like sustainability, it becomes an ineffective method of implementation.

Assume the Student Government Association (SGA) wants to decrease electricity use in residence halls.

  • The committee approach would charge SGA members with responsibility to communicate the goal, post energy tips, and influence fellow students. The impact of the committee’s efforts would be only as large as the “reach” of SGA members.
  • A more sustainable approach would take the broad SGA goal of “reducing energy in residence halls” and translate it to one simple change that could be implemented through an existing process. For example, the SGA could work with student housing employees that assign and monitor housing. Upon registering for housing each semester, students could sign a simple pledge to “unplug and power off computers every night”. By adding relevance to the request of “reduce energy” (giving a specific task everyone can understand) and signing a pledge (studies show the act of signing a commitment increases likelihood of follow-through), SGA will greatly increase the chances of savings success.
Tip: Leverage the opportunity of existing processes (such as enrolling for student housing) to incorporate bite-sized, relevant changes without adding lots of time and effort. This process accelerates adoption and reduces confusion. Appoint an individual “champion” who is empowered to lead local initiatives (like one per floor or building).

#3—Live and die by green buildings. Buildings and homes are just the beginning of sustainable living. Up to 20% of a building or home’s performance depends on the behavior of the resident within it. By leveraging behavior change techniques from books like The Tipping Point or Made to Stick, we can improve overall community outcomes of resource conservation, preventative maintenance and resident satisfaction.

Tip: Investigate various methods of using consumption data from residence halls and buildings to create community incentives for reduced energy. Through relevance, social modeling and public commitment, your college or university will go beyond the building to engage residents—meaning reduced expenses and increased sustainability. Make the data public and track improvements. Check out Twenty50’s program in the UK: http://www.amberenergy.net/downloads/twenty-50.pdf.


#4—Listening to the feedback we want to hear. Educational institutions sometimes focus their resources on publicizing positive stories and quashing negative feedback from students or community members. Complaints are acknowledged and handled quickly to keep students satisfied, but rarely are those complaints considered the centerpiece for growth opportunities and improvements.

Progressive universities have proven that where there is debate, there is opportunity for improved learning. Social design is a powerful technique that creates new product and service offerings to “fill the gaps” identified by consumer complaints. (Companies like Zappos and Wear the Rack have created huge gains by listening to what was wrong with the industry.) Faculties, social groups, sports teams, libraries and even security centers have witnessed the social media explosion and created active Twitter accounts. Universities are acknowledging the fact that, according to recent research, 75% of students in Europe admit to using Twitter “all the time” (theGuardian.com).

Tip: Consider an open Twitter account students can send any type of feedback (good, bad or ugly). #UCLChem160x is a hashtag that was set up for a chemistry course at University College London (UCL) to share course information and challenges. Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at UCL says: “There’s a real need to make sure that students remain engaged. Finding innovative ways to get students interested and connected is a crucial part of what I think teaching is becoming.”


#5—Drive forward using the rear view mirror. Many colleges and universities still measure today’s success based solely on successes from the past. By focusing only on historic success or failures, institutions miss the megatrends and technologies that can improve current and future performance. Active research and innovation are more important than ever before—the information revolution has made data readily available to those willing to search for it. Unfortunately, when we spend time looking to the past to plan the future, we often miss what is right “up the road.” Within the next decade, technologies will reduce overhead through on-line programs, microgeneration of energy, and automated systems integration.

Tip: Check out mega-trends, like the increased use of mobile phones for conducting business and financial transactions. Re-design traditional processes like registration, ticket sales, or student assignments to leverage a greater use of mobile devices in education. Texts to residents’ mobile phones were used in 3900 homes managed by Balfour Beatty Communities to reduce energy 16% in 2013: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130812006176/en/Balfour-Beatty-Communities%E2%80%99-Residential-Energy-Savings-Program#.UxolMU2YZMs