As the season's first snow fell, several dozen entrepreneurs, academics, innovators and students gathered at the General Assembly loft space in Manhattan's Flatiron District Oct.29 for the first annual Interdisciplinary Sustainability Student Summit.
"As a group we sit and discuss ways to be more sustainable," said Jeremy Blum '12, the chief executive director of Cornell University Sustainable Design, which hosted the summit. "That's great, but we have a very insular view of what we're doing, and we lose all of the viewpoints of all these other people who are not necessarily there."
The conference, Blum said, aimed at bridging this gulf by bringing students from various universities and high schools in the area and professionals together around a shared passion for sustainability.
"It's clear," said Miki Agrawal '01, founder and executive producer of Slice, an organic pizza restaurant in Manhattan, "that it's sustainable companies that are going to stand the test of time."
Kicking off the event, Ilana Judah, the director of sustainability at the award-winning architectural design and planning firm FXFOWLE, presented a keynote address discussing the importance of tackling challenges that are supportive of the environment.
"I would encourage everybody to not just look at how we can survive and be sustainable, but to really value and appreciate the resources we have, and to think of them on a more profound level," she said. Whether involved in design, engineering, architecture or business, Judah said, "we have to be advocates."
Following her presentation, panel discussions and breakout sessions focused on entrepreneurship, campus sustainability and hands-on learning in the classroom.
At a breakout session led by Dave Schneider, Ph.D. '07, the systems engineering distance learning coordinator at Cornell; a high school teacher; two Cornell students; two alumni; and two graduate students at the Columbia School of Business brainstormed ways to facilitate the construction of a rooftop greenhouse on a Brooklyn high school.
"Probably one of the most valuable exercises is to try to find someone who disagrees with you completely and try to get them to change their mind or try to get them to change your mind," said Caitlin Strandberg '10, associate director of business development at Bēhance, a network for creative professionals, during a panel of entrepreneurs discussing strategies for interdisciplinary collaboration. "Not enough people do that because it's a very uncomfortable thing to do, but you're almost spinning your wheels if you don't do that."
Having the opportunity to share these stories and experiences is important, said Tori Klug '14, the director of the Cornell Sustainability Hub, "because we sometimes insulate ourselves," she said. "We're so interested in what we're working on that we don't realize how it can be relevant to other projects, and how we can really work together to make something bigger and more important happen."
The event, said organizers, was successful for beginning conversations about sustainability across various sectors and industries.
"I think that discussion just doesn't happen if you're not united, in person, in one location," said Klug. "I'm looking forward to following up with everyone and making sure that we continue to exchange ideas and propel each other forward."
Claire Lambrecht '06 is a freelance writer in New York City.