Students helping to make island communities carbon neutral

Using design thinking to solve energy issues on Martha's Vineyard and beyond.

Turner Jackson MITEI

Small island communities across the globe are facing some of the earliest and most severe impacts of climate change. Many have started to turn away from traditional energy sources to reduce their own carbon footprints and inspire broader conversations on the urgent need for all communities to help mitigate climate change by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Recently, the Massachusetts island community of Martha’s Vineyard engaged with MIT students to discuss pathways toward a net-zero carbon future. Getting to net-zero carbon emissions entails transitioning to low- or no-carbon energy generation, employing energy efficiency measures, offsetting CO2 emissions by purchasing carbon credits, and other measures.

Prompted by the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee, Martha’s Vineyard is looking to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030. Even with its relatively small carbon footprint, the Vineyard could serve as a model for other island communities.

To meet this challenge, Martha’s Vineyard is collaborating with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) to develop a multifaceted action plan. As a first step, MITEI hosted a “net-zero carbon design thinking workshop” during MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January. The week-long program offered participants a chance to creatively explore clean energy options through a process known as the “design thinking” model. The workshop was co-hosted with Shell, a founding member of MITEI.

MIT senior Allison Shepard and representatives from the German manufacturing company Viessmann brainstorm potential energy solutions for Martha’s Vineyard using the design thinking model. Credit: Maud Bocquillod

Design thinking is a uniquely collaborative process where groups are constantly engaged in out-of-the-box thought exercises and activities such as fast-paced brainstorming and rapid prototyping sessions. While still relatively new, the concept has proven itself time and time again as an effective problem-solving tool. For senior Allison Shepard, the design thinking process has changed how she thinks about everything. She says, “Design thinking really brings creativity and hands-on, quick thinking to the forefront and makes things happen.”

During the workshop, graduate and undergraduate students from MIT, Harvard, and Tufts worked in three cross-institutional groups that each tackled a separate energy-related issue on Martha’s Vineyard. One group addressed transportation, another focused on agriculture, and the third looked at the issue of the economic stability of year-round Martha’s Vineyard residents. With the help of design thinking experts from Viessmann, a German manufacturer of heating, industrial, and refrigeration systems, the students experienced a continuous state of creative flow that produced innovative results.

Technology and Policy Program master’s students Annette Brocks (left) and Nelson Lee (right) engage in a rapid prototyping exercise with Tufts master’s student Alexis Washburn (center) and other participants of the design thinking workshop. Credit: Maud Bocquillod

At the beginning of the week, students were introduced to the conditions on Martha’s Vineyard and to the basics of design thinking. As the workshop progressed, the group explored more complex topics that presented new opportunities and challenges. Through countless brainstorming sessions involving hundreds of sticky notes, LEGO prototypes, and numerous cups of coffee, each team devised a unique remedy for carbon reduction on the island. At the end of the week, each group presented their solutions to Martha’s Vineyard residents and stakeholders.

Antje Danielson, MITEI’s director of education, led the effort, assisted by Aisling O’Grady, a MITEI project coordinator. They engaged a series of experts, Martha’s Vineyard stakeholders, and industry leaders to help teach and work with the students. The workshop was also connected to National Science Foundation-funded research that Danielson performs on model-based reasoning, which is closely related to design thinking.

Rob Hannemann ScD ’75 was the main point of contact on the island and initially proposed the idea of a collaboration between MITEI and Martha’s Vineyard. “My goal in working with the Institute was to tap MITEI’s expertise,” he says. He believes that this collaboration is mutually beneficial as it not only helps Martha’s Vineyard work toward its goal of net-zero carbon, but also provides MIT with “a conceptual test bed” where researchers can study the effects of clean energy technologies on a micro scale.

In the workshop, Danielson introduced students to the process of design thinking to see how group dynamics were affected in collaborative environments. “Every grad student starts off wanting to change the world,” she says. “But how do they get from, ‘I want to change the world’ to ‘this is a project that I can do in a year for my master’s degree’?” She believes that the distinctly cooperative nature of the design thinking model and other methods can play key roles in helping students gain a more comprehensive understanding of their respective fields and develop actionable plans.

Danielson is excited to see where the ideas generated in the workshop may go. “Many communities in the US have now set timelines for going to net-zero carbon—not an easy task,” she says. “The collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard allows us to train our students in this area. By working on a real example, they can practice using new tools and apply their skills in a safe but meaningful way.

This workshop was supported by the National Science Foundation and Shell.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

Climate and environmentElectric powerEnergy efficiencyPolicy and economicsRenewable energy EducationIndependent Activities Period

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