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EarthLab 2020: From vision to impact

Ben Packard, Harriet Bullitt Endowed Executive Director, EarthLab

Some say you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. For EarthLab, that means looking back to 2008, when the University of Washington Board of Regents voted unanimously to establish the College of the Environment, and within it, a central institute that would address large-scale environmental challenges. This organization would be radical in that it would represent the entire university, cross disciplinary boundaries and work in partnership with non-academic communities to create a future where people and planet thrive.

When I joined the institute now known as EarthLab at the end of 2017, I was humbled by the opportunity to turn this groundbreaking vision into action. I’m proud to share that in this past year, with help from partners from across and outside of the university, we hit our stride: We hired our core team, added a new member organization (with more on the way, stay tuned), and we initiated the second round of Innovation Grants to support new partnerships that are led by and with those most impacted by environmental challenges. 

We’ve also launched new events to inspire and engage UW faculty, students, staff and community partners. Our monthly lunch and learn series, Collaborating Across Difference, celebrates transdisciplinary work and provides a space to learn more about the skills needed to work together across diverse fields and communities. Our planned quarterly lecture series, EarthLab Salon 2020, is now accepting proposals to answer the question: What does it mean to center equity and justice in environmental work? 

Our progress couldn’t come at a better time. While the voices of marginalized communities, including Indigenous groups, have for years pointed to the warning signs, new scientific reports such as the IPCC Special Report have finally awoken many to the climate crisis and the devastating cost of inaction.  

While grief and despair are valid responses, I believe there’s cause for hope, too. Many now understand that the days of conceptualizing our response to climate change are gone and that NOW is the time to act and address these critical problems. A recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly makes an unequivocal statement that ESG (environmental, social and governance) concerns are inextricably linked to business performance. People around the world, from student-led activist groups to the Business Roundtable of CEOs, are proclaiming their desire to act on these issues and commit to saving this one planet we call home.

Our new team heads optimistically into 2020 with a rock-star Advisory Council and an outstanding Faculty Steering Committee in place. With first-order start-up issues resolved, one of our priorities this year is to update our strategic plan. We are challenging ourselves and inviting others to help us think bigger and more broadly about how and what we do, whose voices we are listening to, how we focus our activity and how we measure success going forward. 

Looking back at the bold vision that the Board of Regents saw for EarthLab back in 2008 inspires us to build on our initial progress and accelerate our efforts to realize the potential for impact. There is a great deal of work ahead but we are growing our community and we are up for the challenge. Thank you for engaging in the belief that multiple disciplines at the UW working with a variety of sectors have a unique and critical role to play in solving the greatest challenges of our lifetime. We couldn’t do this without you.

Onward,

Ben Packard
Harriet Bullitt Endowed Executive Director
EarthLab