Friday, January 15, 2010

Winter Forum Participants: In It to Win It (Day 2)

Day 1 of the inaugural Winter Forum witnessed an impressive range of activities, from lectures to thoughtful deliberation and passionate debate. Day 2 would promise no less.

At a meeting before winter break, law school professor Bill Brown introduced a special component of the Winter Forum: a startup business competition. He charged students with the task of creating a ‘green’ business that would maximize capital while maintaining a negative carbon footprint. Students were given $1 million to get the theoretical business off the ground.

Most work for the competition occurred over break, especially during the last few days.
Teams struggled to develop product / service design, marketing and financing strategies and detailed expense reports. Hundreds of details had to be tinkered with and agreed upon.

The results of this effort were presented Tuesday afternoon, after a morning spent discussing the merits and disadvantages of commercializing wind power in the United States. A panel of four venture capitalists would judge the teams’ proposals.

To get things started, competition organizer Bill Brown described the opportunities offered by green businesses. “We have a problem, and policy is likely to fall short. Innovation is essential, when all else fails and even before you try all else,” Brown said.

He noted how humans have faced seemingly insurmountable problems in the past -- pestilence, oppression and starvation, to name a few -- but applied science and technology made them manageable. He encouraged students to see innovation as the way forward.

“As a university, it’s our obligation to help you think of opportunity as more than just a job,” Brown said.

Photo credit: Hua FanTeam 1 began the presentations with their model for optimizing farmer’s markets. Other ideas ranged from an ecotourism travel site to building retrofitting, home energy metering, and green product certification. Team 4 proposed the winning idea: recycled cellulosic insulation to be installed in homes in Malaysia, an emerging market with fast-increasing emissions. The team received a $2,000 check from President Brodhead at a reception following the competition.

Some students might shrink from returning to school early and working hard when they could be relaxing. But Winter Forum participants saw an opportunity to give a little and gain a lot. For their time and their attention, students learned the ins and outs of an issue, flexed their communication skills and interacted with dedicated faculty.

I did not know what to expect from the Winter Forum. I put in the work over break, did research and emailed teammates I hadn’t even met in person, hoping that it would be good for something. As a result of the process, I built my group dynamics skills and developed relationships with wonderful teammates and faculty sponsors. For its first year, I believe the Forum was very successful at fulfilling its objectives, and no doubt will continue to grow in coming years.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

First-Ever Winter Forum is Cause for Debate (Day 1)

Last October the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans’ opinions about global warming, and found that 57% believed that solid evidence of global warming existed. Only 36% thought that global warming was due to human activity.

These percentages mark a sharp decrease from the Pew Center’s earlier poll in April 2008. At that time, 71% of Americans believed there was solid evidence of global warming, and 47% thought it was human-caused.

"Why has public opinion about the validity of global warming fallen so sharply?" a student asked during a panel discussion in Duke's inaugural Winter Forum, Sunday through Tuesday. The panel included former DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, Winston-Salem mayor Allen Joines and Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School. The discussion was moderated by Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The panelists said scientists have been unable to effectively communicate the scientific evidence to the public while journalists and policymakers have dominated the conversation. News of one study fudged to support the existence of global warming further increased doubt. Throughout the panel, the speakers addressed possible solutions from their various academic, business and political perspectives.

The event kicked off the first-ever Winter Forum, an annual 2.5-day symposium to examine a global challenge from interdisciplinary perspectives. This year’s Forum focused on the development of a green economy. Students returned early from winter break to participate in the event.

I attended this year’s Winter Forum, and was very impressed with both the quality of instruction and the commitment of participating faculty. Lectures were short but informative, and always followed by discussion of some kind. The activities encouraged students to get engaged and share their ideas, fostering an incredibly creative intellectual environment.

During the morning of the first full day, a series of lecturers briefly discussed “the greatest hits of why we aren’t where we want to be,” as Tim Profeta put it.
  • Duke law professor Jonathan Wiener discussed the risks, tradeoffs and externalities of a green economy.
  • Environmental policy professor Erika Weinthal spoke about policy failure and the problem of collective action: “No one wants to play the cost of the solution and then have everyone else free-ride off the benefits."
  • Fuqua professor Bob Clemen explained how banks aren’t lending to startups, and how inconsistent subsidies and incentives make investors wary to invest in green businesses. Another problem is that “executives want to show profit in three months, but green projects rarely do.”
  • Divinity school professor Norman Wirzba described how “we live lives now that kings and queens of the past could not have imagined. We have it all, but we want more. And we’re doing the planet in.”
  • According to Nicholas School / law professor Jim Salzman, the problem is not simple, and thus neither are the solutions.
The second part of the day followed a more international theme. Brian Murray, director for economic analysis at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, gave a brief primer about climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, which he attended. He did not disclose the outcome of the conference, but rather left it to the members of Duke’s International Relations Association (DIRA) to lead students through an elaborate roleplay. Teams were assigned countries (United States, India, Russia, China) or voting blocs (European Union, OPEC, Forested Bloc, Less-Developed Countries) and formulated their group's priorities during a discussion period.

The teams reconvened for three rounds of debate. Treaties were made, and broken. Low-lying nations pleaded for deep emissions cuts and funds to help them cope with rising sea levels and disappearing farmland. Nations with oil-dependent economies (Russia and the OPEC members) offered to cut emissions some, but not much. Countries squabbled over aid money, technology transfer and intellectual property rights. At the end of the day, haphazard progress had been made, but no comprehensive agreement was reached.

Afterwards, Murray explained how the issues that emerged during the mock conference were the same that plagued real-life policymakers at Copenhagen. However, he expressed hope that a binding international agreement could be reached at the COP16 in Mexico City next year.

Watch for a second post about Winter Forum Day 2 coming soon...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Putting His Name on the Map

Duke mathematician and physicist Arlie Petters was recently recognized by his hometown of Dangriga, Belize with a street named in his honor.

When he's not applying new math to astronomical questions about gravity, space and time, Petters devotes significant time and resources to improving educational opportunties for children in Belize. "I am truly thankful to the Duke leadership for setting the tone of 'Duke in service to society' in the US and around the globe," Petters said via email. "When we do selfless acts to empower others, the unexpected can happen."

In 2008, Queen Elizabeth of England named Petters to Membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (of which Belize is still a part) for his research and teaching.

No word on whether that honor brought a tear to his eyes, but this most excellent one did.