Focus on Sustainability: Walton GIOS Grant

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Rob Melnick, executive dean of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, outlines how GIOS will use a $27 million investment from the Rob and Melani Walton Fund of the Walton Family Foundation to address sustainability challenges.

TED SIMONS: The Rob and Melani Walton fund of the Walton Family Foundation recently donated $27.5 million to ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability. The money is for targeting for developing and deploying solutions to sustainability challenges. Here to explain what that means and where the money will be going is Rob Melnick, executive Dean of ASU's Global institute of Sustainability. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us. $27.5 million! That's a lot of money. Talk about these donors. How come they're spending this kind of money--investing, for this--at this kind of--for this kind of venture?

ROB MELNICK: Sure. Rob and Melani Walton are investors in a number of different philanthropic causes, if you will, and education causes. And Rob Walton is the eldest son of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, and Melani is his wife. They've both been very involved, among other things, conservation issues as well as humanitarian issues around the world, and sustainability is an umbrella-term for both. They have known about the global institute at ASU for about four years now. They've been actively involved, and they really studied what we are doing.

TZ: What are you doing? Define sustainability for us. Because it seems somewhat amorphous to some people.

ROB MELNICK: I thought you would never ask, Ted. Sustainability is often difficult to define, but I'm going to give you three very brief, quick of mu favorite definitions, of which there are many of course: The most famous one is probably the Bruntland Commission in 1987. The U.N. commission really thought about sustainability in its earliest sort of incarnations as a term. And it's really about--the Bruntland Commission is longer than this, but it fundamentally is about using resources wisely today so that future generations will have resources to use, and that their quality of life will be preserved. One of the other definitions I particularly like and is very clever has been coined, among others I think, probably by Sir Crispin Tickell, who happens to be a member of our board who is a former British ambassador, and he defines sustainability as, "Treating the earth as if we intend to stay." But my favorite is Peter Senge. He says, "Living well together." Meaning sharing this planet, sharing resources and ensuring that this, if you will, the cliché, "The rising tide lifts all boats." We think about sustainability for the well-being of all people economically, socially and environmentally.

TED SIMONS: Okay, so with that kind of wrapped in that particular package, it sounds as though there's strategies over the next five years or so, especially concerning this kind of money, and one of them involves delivering solutions to the front lines--sustainability solutions to the front lines. What does that mean?

ROB MELNICK: Well, I think that's the principle reason why Rob and Melani decided to make this investment with guidance from the foundation itself, the family foundation. They realized that at the end of the day sustainability is about the challenges we face as a nation, as a city, as a state, as a community as individuals to ensure prosperous future--that we have a trajectory to the future. In order to do that, we need solutions to those problems be they air quality problems, water distribution and quality problems, social transformation problems, energy problems, which are very well known, to be in the sustainable space. So they made a deliberate choice here. These are very sophisticated investors. They gave us a very significant gift which we are very proud of, but we are particularly pleased they gave it to us because they really thought through what a higher education organization could do. So what does this really mean? Well, what it means for us is the ability to ensure that we have A: the best and the brightest people here at ASU in Arizona, thinking through the solutions to the world sustainability problems as well as Arizona's problems. It also means exporting, if you will, our students and our faculty around the planet to not only help solve problems on the front line, be they in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, wherever they may be, but also learning what solutions those localities, those cultures have developed that might be imported back to the U.S. So there's a variety of programs that we can fund as a result of this investment that we otherwise couldn't get going.

TED SIMONS: And again, it sounds as though we are talking seed money for some pretty high-impact ideas. Correct?

ROB MELNICK: Yes, indeed. There's two points that I think you make that are very important. The impact is most important. The investment that they've made here enables us to accelerate the impact that the education and the discoveries we make at ASU about sustainability can have out there in the real world. Why study sustainability if we are not going to apply the solutions to those problems to increase the likelihood of a prosperous future? Number one. Number 2: seed money is very important because even though $27.5 million is an awful lot of money, it is indeed meant to be--pardon the pun-- a sustained self-sustaining fund and that is that over time we expect that to attract additional philanthropic grants, scientific grants and even some pay-for services.

TED SIMONS I know as well there was an idea of building an international sustainability network, and obviously as you mentioned, we are talking a local, national, global context here in terms of the sustainability idea. The high impact sustainability ideas.

ROB MELNICK: That's why they call it the Global Institute for Sustainability in the sense that this gift enables us to put the G in GIOS as we call it because we don't pretend either at ASU or in this country to have a lock on all the solutions to sustainability; no one does. But around the globe, people are discovering, whether they're scholars or practitioners or business people or government folks or even neighborhood and community activists, solutions to problems that challenge their future. Sustainability solutions. By creating a network, a knowledge network, if you will, we are able to have a two-way street for these solutions.

TED SIMONS: Is there a metric in which you can measure whether or not some of these solutions already applied are gaining traction? Because you are not--we are not in the future. We will never know what the future is going to bring. How do we know some of these ideas are working?

ROB MELNICK: Well, there is a lot of the metrics here, and they range from whether or not, if you will, precisely in the space--energy space whether or not we are, for example, using more renewable power. That's a simple measure of whether or not we are on a more of a trajectory to sustainability than in the past. The more difficult metric, but the one that may be most important, is-- are people living better? Are future generations living well? Are they on a trajectory that's sustainable? And that's really the ultimate metric, as difficult as it is to measure.

TED SIMONS: And so I know creating a fellowship program could be involved with this particular investment as well.

ROB MELNICK: Absolutely. We intend to bring the best and the brightest academic scholars and practitioners as fellows to ASU, to Arizona, and also to export some of our best fellows, if you will, scholars, post graduates as well as graduate students to other countries.

TED SIMONS: It sounds like the bottom line is basically applying knowledge to action. It seems like that's basically what you are talking about here. The goal of the institute. Am I right about that?

ROB MELNICK: You are absolutely right. Sustainability, the centerpiece, the core of sustainability is transferring knowledge in a way in which it has a positive impact on future outcomes.

TED SIMONS: So if someone watching this right now who is still a little fuzzy about what sustainability means, can't quite grab a hold of it or put their arms around it, what do you tell them? How is it going to impact them tomorrow? Next week? Next year?

ROB MELNICK: Well, I think it's pretty simple. It's whether or not they think, and they, in fact, live a better life in the future than they do now. Whether or not we are in--on a trajectory to succeed rather than a trajectory to fail economically, socially or environmentally.

TED SIMONS: And the $27.5 million grant from the Walton family is that--does that come in one piece? Is it kind of coming over time? How does that work? Is it basically on demand?

ROB MELNICK: No, this is a five-year program, a $5.5 million a year. It's budgeted very specifically. We have outcome measures which we are held accountable for. This is simply not an investment that it's "here it is, and we will see you in five years." This is an investment that has both outcomes and impacts that are quite precise. We have to live up to those.

TED SIMONS: It sounds very encouraging, and you must be excited at the institute. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROB MELNICK: This is very exciting. Thanks, Ted.

TED SIMONS: Thank you.

Rob Melnick:Executive Dean, ASU Global Institute of Sustainability;

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