Pathway to Sustainability Leadership by MIT

Incubation, Transformation, and Mobilization


The world faces a profound challenge: the current organization of human societies and economies is environmentally unsustainable (Hoekstra and Wiedmann 2014; Steffen et al. 2015). The planet simply cannot support the current population growth rate and ensuing natural-resource demands and environmental degradation that result from ever-increasing impacts of human activity.

Sustainability, as framed by the need to promote health and wellbeing for a growing world population while reducing our global footprint to within Earth’s capacity to sustain us, is a defining challenge for the world’s citizens in the 21st century, and for MIT.

Leadership in sustainability through teaching and research is a natural extension of MIT’s mission:

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

We believe that an Institute commitment to sustainability fulfills this mission in a variety of ways:

  • It spurs innovation in technologies and systems—from lab to marketplace.
  • It upholds the campus as a model for sustainability.
  • It empowers the next generation of students to explore and solve the complex problems of their time through immersive learning experiences.

With this report, we underscore the magnitude of the sustainability challenge and call for MIT to take a leadership role going forward, redoubling the Institute’s current efforts. As a group, we debated and discussed both our collective vision for a sustainable campus and the complexity of addressing an issue that touches all aspects of our campus life. Quite simply, we believe that MIT cannot continue to fulfill its mission if it operates unsustainably in the short or long term. We believe there is intrinsic synergy between a sustainable Institute and the fulfillment of MIT’s educational and research mission. Achieving this mission requires that we embed sustainability in everything we do: research, education, operations, and the lessons we teach through example.

Given the interacting and evolving nature of sustainability challenges, along with the technological, organizational, and political strategies needed to address them, we view this report as an initial step in what must be an ongoing and continuously developing effort. Below, we outline five elements of a pathway by which MIT can formalize and build upon current efforts to address the challenges posed by sustainability and become a leader in this crucial arena. The Pathway to Sustainability Leadership calls upon MIT to become:

  • An exemplar that incorporates sustainability considerations into campus infrastructure, operations, student life, and daily decisions
  • A model of organizational transformation for sustainability leadership
  • A generator of meaningful new sustainability ideas and research, building on our history and current capacity for contributing solutions toward vital global needs and priorities
  • An innovator of deep educational experiences for the diverse communities on campus and beyond
  • A thoughtful partner to the local and global communities in which we operate, a clearinghouse of good ideas, and a mobilizer of actors who can implement sustainability solutions

In the end, we propose that MIT leverage its vision and act boldly to advance the Pathway to Sustainability Leadership and become an organizational standard-bearer for a sustainable future.

Looking Back to Look Forward

In 2016, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of MIT’s move from Boston to Cambridge. Decisions made a century ago profoundly shaped our campus environment today. Chief among them was the decision to link diverse departments within one massive building, thus allowing for decades of communication and interaction among scientists, engineers, architects, and others in our community. Similarly, decisions we make today will influence our future quality of life and that of our successors.

A primary element in the Pathway to Sustainability Leadership is the idea of using the campus as a model for and center of organizational transformation and as an incubator of sustainability ideas and research. The scale and complexity of the sustainability challenge calls for short-, medium-, and long-term planning. This report lays out a vision of sustainability that considers a 100-year context—one that embraces MIT’s history and looks ahead. In the short term, we call for the immediate development of a methodology to set sustainability goals and commitments for 2020 and 2025, consistent with and building upon the Paris Agreement (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the Cambridge Net Zero framework, and the MIT Plan for Climate Action. We recommend assessing the progress of the pathway’s five elements and recalibrating them, if needed, at five-year intervals beginning in 2020.

In developing this pathway, task force members recognized within the community a number of significant opportunities for MIT to become a leader in the field. These include:

  • The potential for linking MIT’s research and teaching to campus operations and residential life in order to connect science with practice and to serve as a model for sustainability practice
  • MIT’s exceptional ability to prepare and motivate our graduates to address the ever-changing set of complex sustainability challenges they will confront
  • The capacity for incorporating MIT’s existing environmental and sustainability commitments into the pathway to sustainability leadership
  • MIT’s ability to constructively engage and influence, where feasible, important external stakeholders, ranging from government to the commercial and philanthropic communities

These opportunities in research, education, operations, living, and organizational transformation position MIT to serve as a powerful leader for sustainability.

The task force recognizes the many ongoing activities related to sustainability around the Institute and seeks to align with, connect, and expand upon them in the process of implementing this pathway. This report is intended as a living document, building on and integrating two recent relevant documents: 1) The MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change, in which the Institute embraces a leadership position on the issue via commitments in research, teaching, and campus operations; and 2) The MIT Sustainability Working Groups recommendations and commitments that reset MIT’s operational approach to sustainable design and construction, lab design and management, stormwater and ecological land management, and materials management.

What Lies Ahead

Section 1 sets forth the challenge of sustainability and the ways in which MIT is positioned to generate solutions and models for sustainability through its research, teaching, and operations. Section 2 frames our approach, describing the individual, campus, city, and global scales at which MIT will strive for sustainability. Section 3 lays out five elements for MIT to pursue in striving for leadership in sustainability. The conclusion highlights the benefits that MIT’s sustainability leadership could provide for our campus, our city, and beyond.