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Collaborations energize global alliance meeting

The Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS), a consortium of three technical research universities in Asia, Europe and the United States, marked its third annual meeting last week with unprecedented collaboration across nations, cultures, academic disciplines, industries and governments.

"The Alliance has made great progress," said Dr. Jacob Nuesch, president of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and chairman of the annual meeting, held this year at MIT. "What strikes me most is that there is a multicultural aspect-there is no hesitation anymore to interact between the various cultures. This is a new approach which demonstrates that universities of today have new tasks, namely, to help society shape its future."

MIT President Charles M. Vest commented, "Sound science and technology must underlie rational policy, and we will not solve these daunting problems until we bring the full force of industry to the table. Indeed, they are not only at the table; in many dimensions, they are beginning to lead."

The meeting of more than 200 academic experts and invited guests from the public sector saw these developments:

  • Announcement of the completion of the draft of an internationally written textbook in a new field, Environmentally Conscious Design and Demanufacturing. The AGS authors, who started work on the project just a year ago, examined technological responses to environmental problems from North American, European and Japanese perspectives. Book chapters address design and manufacturing tools in different cultural and corporate contexts, public policies for the promotion of environmentally conscious design and manufacturing, and comparative visions for sustainability and education.
  • ������������������Testimony from the chairman of DuPont on how the firm cut its emissions by 60 percent in four years.
  • A major three-continent collaboration to explore clean and efficient utilization of coal in China and other developing nations.
  • The establishment and first meeting of the AGS International Advisory Board headed by Swiss industrialist Stephan T. Schmidheiny. Members include the chief executives of Asea Brown Boveri Ltd., DuPont, V. Kann-Rasmussen Industri of Denmark and 3M; the former CEO of Toshiba; and three former government officials from Japan and Brazil.
  • The signing of a memorandum of understanding among the three organizing universities-the University of Tokyo, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and MIT.
  • The honoring of 24 MIT graduate students as members of the Society of Graduate Fellows for Sustainability, an organization designed to foster opportunities for multidisciplinary cooperation and team-building among top graduate students in environmental studies.

"It was just a sensational meeting," said Professor David H. Marks of civil and environmental engineering, MIT coordinator of the AGS. "There was focus on real problems, commitment to take steps to integrate research in climate, energy, natural resources, cleaner technology and mobility in future cities." Professor Marks is also director of MIT's Program in Environmental Engineering Education and Research.

Dr. Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, president of the University of Tokyo, said his university is "learning how to discuss beyond the roles of political scientists and environmental scientists, how to collaborate between the different academic fields."

"People were really energized," said Dr. Joanne M. Kauffman, associate AGS coordinator at MIT. "There was an extraordinary feeling of progress. Research groups focusing on different global sustainability issues got together for the first time and shared knowledge on how to build a larger research agenda at the interface of complex issues like energy, mobility and megacities of the future."

On Friday, a panel of industry leaders shared their experiences in bringing about fundamental change to address environmental issues in the past. Mr. Schmidheiny, chairman of Uno-tec of Switzerland, founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and chairman of the AGS International Advisory Board, commented, "These companies are profitable, not in spite of but because of their innovation in meeting environmental challenges."


Such policies would seem to be common sense, but he said he has discovered that "common sense is the least common of all senses." He added that journalists used to say about him, "He's just a maverick green billionaire with too much money and too much time to think about a wonderful ideal world for his children and maybe some other children."

Mr. Schmidheiny recalled when he ran an asbestos cement plant in Brazil years ago and became convinced the business was bad for human health. Later, he tried to sell asbestos cement plants in Europe. German environmental restrictions on asbestos were severe, while the French, six miles away, were allowing asbestos into new houses. That was a case where governments need to set "a level playing field" of regulations, he said.

Sustainable development is an issue for everyone, for all sectors of the economy, he said, noting that small business provides 90 percent of jobs.

Professor Jose Goldemberg of the University of Sao Paulo, former secretary of the environment in Brazil, said his government service taught him that environmental targets were necessary but dangerous. "It's only when one sets targets that the system reorganizes itself to fulfill the targets. That can happen inside the company, inside a country, or on a global scale."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 29, 1997.

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