Philadelphia’s Director of Sustainability, Mark Alan Hughes, answers our readers

This month’s column is my last as Director of Sustainability and my question comes from the editors of Grid

Q: What is the most important or surprising lesson you’ve learned during your time as Director of Sustainability?

A: Great question. The biggest attraction of this job for me was always the opportunity to learn, which is just another way of saying that I’m an academic at heart. (As an aside, let me digress to answer another question that may be on people’s minds: Why am I leaving? The answer is that I finished what I came to do and now I’m going back to where I belong. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability is established and Philadelphia’s sustainability is launched, and now I can go back to my native habitat: academia.)

I’ve learned many things during my 15 months in this job. And I’ll exercise the columnist’s prerogative to answer both your questions—most important and most surprising.

The most surprising lesson is how much work it takes to accept people’s offers to help. This lesson came from nowhere and it took me a long time to fully appreciate the consequences. I’ve had over 200 speaking engagements since I started and after almost every one of them, people, sometimes by the dozens, would come up and tell me they wanted to help and would do anything to join the Mayor’s efforts. They would often give me a business card or contact information. I also received hundreds of voicemails, emails and old-school letters making the same offer. Some of these were job hunters or vendors pitching for work. But the large majority were people offering to volunteer their time and expertise. In addition to individual offers, I have received scores of requests to partner with institutions in ways that would allow them to contribute valuable resources to the Mayor’s agenda. Universities, private companies, nonprofits and coalitions of industries and advocates have all made generous and repeated offers.

The surprise was how much work all this generosity demands. I could literally spend all day at my desk answering voicemail and email and following up on notes scribbled on business cards. Now, the obvious strategy is to prioritize. I could do that for some potential partners, like those individuals and institutions visible enough to be named to the Sustainability Advisory Board. But for the hundreds of other potential partners and resources, we had to build a capacity to acknowledge their offer and engage their potential. That took time, especially because I didn’t fully appreciate the need to build that capacity.

We’ve gotten much better in the last six months at using technology (the Web, Facebook, and all the rest) to deploy this social networking. But the most surprising lesson is that I should have done that during my first six months. And let me not miss this chance to apologize to everyone I didn’t respond to and involve as fully as I wish I had.

The most important lesson is that knowledge isn’t the missing ingredient for change. Too often we treat our challenges as puzzles to be solved, when really they are decisions to be made. Sure, science faces lots of open questions in the climate debate, the technology of clean energy and waste management, and so on. But we know more than enough to achieve significant progress. How significant? I’d go so far as to say that Philadelphia, or any city, can become the greenest in America by simply deciding to do what we already know how to do. That is what Greenworks Philadelphia really attempts: to set out our collective commitment to a set of decisions about issues as wide-ranging as energy, food, wastewater and equitable access to jobs. If we achieve our 15 targets by 2015, we will have earned the mantle of “greenest city in America.” And we can do it.

Let me offer my thanks to Grid for the opportunity to write this monthly column (and for the cartoon!). It’s been a pleasure and a great chance to speak to readers. You have done an amazing job with your own start-up and I’ll remain a committed reader!

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