Pathway to Sustainability Leadership by MIT

Incubation, Transformation, and Mobilization

Section 3: Pathway to Sustainability Leadership by MIT

Model of Sustainability | Transformed Organization | Generator of Sustainability Research | Educational Innovator | Thoughtful Partner, Disseminator, and Mobilizer

The members of the Campus Sustainability Task Force outlined five elements that make up the Pathway to Sustainability Leadership by MIT. These elements seek to deepen and build upon an already activated foundation of climate and sustainability leadership in a manner that matches the complexity and magnitude of the challenge at hand. We seek a process that will empower members of the MIT community to confront our unknown future and to take action in the face of that uncertainty.

Our vision is to educate the next generation of students to confront and solve complex global challenges; to engage our staff as lifelong learners who grapple with the complexity of sustainability in their daily work; to spawn new sustainability research among faculty and researchers; to transform our organization into an engine of sustainability practices; and to act as a thoughtful partner in our communities, collect and disseminate good ideas, and mobilize actors to implement sustainability solutions.

This pathway articulates a vision and phased approach of commitments that will guide MIT’s leadership from the present through 2025. This report is intended to be a living document that requires ongoing engagement from the MIT community and sustained guidance from committed leadership. The Office of Sustainability, the Environmental Solutions Initiative, and the MIT Energy Initiative pledge to work collectively with other campus partners to ensure that MIT fulfills the commitments outlined in this report. However, success requires the participation of all members of the MIT community. We recommend an annual call to action to review and set goals, apply new knowledge, catalyze research, seek course correction, and collaborate with partners on campus and beyond.

The pathway for MIT to attain leadership in sustainability through incubation, transformation, and mobilization is outlined below. Each element of the pathway includes a goal and a series of commitments.

Model of Sustainability

MIT must exemplify the incorporation of sustainability principles and practices into campus infrastructure, operations, student life, and daily decision making.

Our commitment to sustainability is girded by scientific research that shows that efforts to meet the needs of an ever-increasing global population are undermining the natural environment’s essential life-support systems. As an Institute, we have great capacity to tackle this challenge and to find and test solutions. The campus and community will be a test bed used to understand and solve complex challenges faced by an organization that exists within a municipality, a city, a state, a region, and a nation.

A commitment to becoming a sustainable campus calls for transformation of the physical and operational environment of the MIT campus. This commitment must permeate the Institute, becoming a core value that contributes to the state of the campus. In turn, MIT must then become a model for other organizations around the world to emulate.

This calls for leaders and decision makers at all levels throughout MIT to transparently examine how best to balance MIT’s growth with its environmental and human health impacts. Such a process requires quantitative and qualitative data to guide decision making and measure progress over time. The accumulated data will inform decisions about what practices to put into place to support and enable the organizational transformation.

Through data-driven practice, MIT will use its campus to understand and solve complex environmental challenges, and will provide a model of environmental sustainability.


  1. Leveraging the scientific expertise of MIT faculty, staff, and students, develop a methodology for sustainability goal setting and set short- and medium-term goals for the campus.
  2. Adopt a long-term perspective on life-cycle costs in all units at MIT that acknowledges the long-term presence of the Institute in Cambridge and our impact on the economy and intellectual landscape of the greater Boston region.
  3. Ensure that MIT sustainability commitments support the evolving nature of a university campus and inform the Institute’s overall campus planning process.
  4. Create model sustainable-living communities for students so they can innovate and experience cutting-edge sustainable living choices within a connected urban environment.
  5. Establish full accountability and transparent reporting from leadership across the Institute via an annual campus sustainability report developed by the Office of Sustainability.

Transformed Organization

MIT must transform itself into a resilient and environmentally sustainable organization, demonstrating and modeling the process for such transformation.

Organizational transformation calls for a deep understanding of the problems at hand, of the way the organization functions, and of the vision that guides and motivates its members. Transformation calls for a fundamental change in thinking and in practice, data-driven decision making, and institution-wide environmental practices. We believe there is a fundamental alignment between a sustainable Institute and the fulfillment of our mission. Achieving this will require examining the Institute’s decision-making frameworks and wrestling with the inherent trade-offs among money, time, health, and the environment. It will require inducing meaningful behavioral change and promoting effective solutions to pressing climate and global environmental challenges in order to support the world’s ability to live and operate in a viable way.

We seek to catalyze and implement innovative sustainability research to inform how to achieve sustainable systems and organizations.


  1. Embed sustainability into all aspects of the MIT experience, ranging from dorms, living groups, classrooms, labs, offices, and other facilities to our integration with the broader community.
  2. Establish appropriate governance and management systems on an as-needed basis to ensure short- and long-term sustainability transformation on campus.
  3. Develop systems at all levels—from basic campus maintenance to research and educational impacts—to monitor performance against sustainability goals, identify gaps, and take corrective action.
  4. Build the capacity of decision makers at all levels and of all MIT stakeholders to take responsibility for sustainability in order to ensure the success of the Institute’s mission and goals.
  5. Develop mechanisms by which every member of MIT can contribute to the success of these commitments.

Generator of Sustainability Research

MIT must become a generator of new ideas and meaningful sustainability research, building on its history and capacity for contributing solutions to vital global needs and priorities.

As we have now seen for decades, science is essential to our understanding of the world and our climate, but science alone cannot lead to positive action and changes. MIT has made significant contributions to fundamental research in climate change that have directly improved our ability to forecast likely futures and plan for humane and reasoned responses and actions. Today more than ever, though, research in the sciences must be accompanied by research in other fields because the world is experiencing social, economic, and cultural disruptions on an unprecedented scale. All five schools at MIT are involved in answering the most pressing questions and offering solutions for a sustainable future. Research from MIT scientists, engineers, urban planners and architects, political and social scientists, economists, artists, and more comprise the kaleidoscope of knowledge creation, invention, policy formulation, and design that will mobilize local and global action. The combination of interdisciplinary engagement coupled with explicit means of mobilizing the MIT community will maximize our contribution to positive change. MIT’s rich intellectual landscape supports the priorities of a sustainable campus; now we must support and mobilize our communities to expand the reach of this knowledge. MIT’s focus is consistent with what it has always done: bring its knowledge and expertise to bear on the world’s great challenges.

We seek to generate opportunities to expand and apply MIT research regarding environment and sustainability.


  1. Embed within the planning, development, and maintenance of MIT the information tools necessary to enable the campus to serve as a test bed for research, novel solutions, innovation, implementation, and transformation toward sustainable practices at every level and within every unit of the Institute.
  2. Provide ongoing, expanded opportunities for MIT faculty, staff, and students to implement the research and technology emerging from our labs and classrooms; expand the reach of those opportunities by partnering with the cities of Cambridge and Boston, and beyond.
  3. Establish an open access database of research and implementation opportunities that enlists the efforts and resources of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, the MIT Energy Initiative, the MIT Innovation Initiative, and other Institute-wide organizations and associated research groups, labs, and entities, and connect it with the venture and angel investing community that orbits MIT generally and, specifically, with the newly opened MIT Engine.
  4. Develop metrics and monitor progress to measure the success of applying research results to creating a sustainable campus.

Educational Innovator

MIT must be an innovator of educational experiences for its diverse communities of learners, both on and off campus.

The urgent need for solutions addressing the consequences of climate change calls for immediate action. While additional research is needed to establish a better understanding of the range and nature of these consequences, more than enough is known to compel society to act now to stem the tide of emerging problems that threaten economies, institutions, and entire societies across the globe. Actions of all kinds will be needed to mitigate carbon emissions, provide strategies and technologies for removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and even help people adapt to climate change.

Lost in the discussion of solutions is the pivotal role of education—probably the most effective measure toward achieving long-lasting, transformative, and paradigm-shifting change. For example, while fundamental research in applied math and computer science led to the information revolution, it was advanced education that created the legions of engineers and scientists who created the boundless digital world that is increasingly intertwined with our physical world. While the convergence of genetics and microbiology sparked a revolution in life sciences and health care, advanced education created an intellectual explosion that created new companies and led to lifesaving breakthroughs for various cancers and new approaches to reduce the spread of and treat many communicable diseases. Research creates knowledge, but education confers that knowledge to the world.

Both today’s environmental and climate change challenges and those that will arise have been hundreds of years in the making and, by all accounts, will require many decades if not hundreds of years to solve. A 22-year-old MIT Class of 2017 graduate has a life expectancy of more than 82 years. The working life of that student may be as long as 40 years or more, extending into the latter half of the 21st century, when some of the most dire consequences of climate change will have become manifest. We know from alumni what a powerful influence their time at MIT has had on their personal and professional trajectories. Research and technological breakthroughs provide the substance for change in the world, but it is the people working in industry, government, and civil society who act as catalysts, bringing that change to bear. Providing a rich, rigorous, and empowering education to students interested in contributing to a sustainable future is our most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.

We seek to generate opportunities to expand and mobilize the MIT educational enterprise in environment and sustainability with the aim of creating a sustainable campus and world.


  1. Develop a portfolio of diverse curricular and extracurricular experiences to serve all MIT undergraduate and graduate students; ensure that all MIT students have access to comprehensive sustainability education.
  2. Establish a central information portal for all student sustainability learning opportunities, including undergraduate and graduate subjects, learning modules associated with the campus as a living laboratory, student-supported and peer-to-peer learning projects, and outreach opportunities for teaching and learning.
  3. Create a sustainability career “ecosystem” involving campus organizations, networks of MIT alumni, and friends of MIT who are committed to guiding the next generation. The ecosystem will provide professional development tools and student advising through a roadmap of the local, regional, national, and international career pathways for students from all majors and disciplines.
  4. Build mechanisms for linking MIT’s educational efforts, both in the classroom and through edX and MITx, with innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.
  5. Provide ongoing, expanded opportunities for MIT students to explore and engage in innovation and entrepreneurship activities that can lead to the creation of successful startups.

Thoughtful Partner, Disseminator, and Mobilizer

MIT must be a thoughtful partner within its local and global communities, a disseminator of great ideas, and a mobilizer of actors to implement sustainability solutions.

MIT is poised to work in step with its contemporaries to facilitate expanded thinking and collective progress. The Institute must engage multi-stakeholder and higher education networks at the local, state, regional, national, and international scales to enable idea sharing, leapfrogging, and the advancement of cutting-edge concepts and technologies.

Therefore, MIT must strive to bring diverse perspectives to bear upon the challenge of finding comprehensive solutions to the complex problems of sustainability.


  1. Create multiple venues for on-campus dialogues that inform and challenge a vision of sustainability at MIT.
  2. Deepen partnerships with the cities of Cambridge and Boston to create and implement more impactful solutions.
  3. Seek opportunities to convene stakeholders, from the local to the global scale, with diverse perspectives to develop solutions, and mobilize the appropriate actors to implement them.