The Field's Wide Open
Miamian, The magazine of Miami University, 2010
By Denise Spranger
When you need directions, it makes sense to ask the one with a map. So perhaps it's no coincidence that Miami's first sustainability coordinator, David Prytherch, is acting chair and associate professor in the department of geography.
Since his appointment as sustainability coordinator in 2009, it's been Prytherch's job to locate anyone and everyone involved in sustainability – and help them find each other. Part compass, part surveyor, and part GPS, he opens new routes of communication on campus and beyond. We asked him for a quick tour of the territory.
Should we equate "sustainability" with the environment? Environmentalists no longer own the word "sustainability." It's evolved into something much broader. Environmentalism is still an essential part, but it's also about creating a sustainable economy. We need to grow more efficiently. It's about social justice, too, because expanding opportunities for all builds sustainable communities.
We used to see business, environment, and social concerns as separate issues, but students have blurred those distinctions. They're seeking connections and collaborating in new and creative ways. That's why there are as many sustainability efforts coming out of the Farmer School of Business as out of our environmental programs. It's happening all over campus – in engineering, IT, education, the social sciences – you name it.
What drives students' increasing interest? Most young people recognize that sustainability is the challenge of the 21st century. They also see that it's a huge opportunity for innovation and that jobs are exploding in those fields.
As the coordinator, I essentially help people with good ideas make good connections. Then I just get out of the way because they have an incredible momentum of their own.
In our current economy, are sustainable practices a luxury we can't afford? Actually, the economy motivates us. Waste is not an option. Energy is a prime example. Miami is in the business of educating students. That's our core mission. Paying utility bills is not. That's why it makes sense to invest in long-term energy efficiency, so that we can spend our money on what we do best. Making that transition won't be easy, and it won't be quick. But Miami is committed to confronting those issues and is developing a strategy to meet our goals.
On a deeper level, a university isn't just like any other organization. We have an obligation to be a leader in the world. We're not just forging young minds, but young citizens. We prepare them for careers, but we also need to inspire them to become responsible, engaged members of society.
Is Miami succeeding? Many of our alumni have become leaders in the fields of sustainability, and that says a lot. Along with our traditional strengths, we're also becoming known for innovation. Fresh thinking is one of Miami's greatest resources. We're 100 percent committed to a campus environment that supports it.
A Shining Example
Chris Clark '08 didn't set out to be a poster boy for sustainability. He was only trying to create the winning business plan for a senior capstone competition at Miami. But within five months, Clark installed his first solar EmPower Plant in Kenya, and his new company, Sunflower Solutions, had taken root.
That competition first exposed Clark to Africa's rampant lack of electricity. To design their business proposals, his entrepreneurship class partnered with engineering students. Inspired by a team trying to bring clean water to a rural village in Western Africa, he weighed the available options, and then came up with his own.
"I think it was one little sentence in my proposal that piqued the judges' interest," Clark says. "I wrote, 'To bring down the cost of our system, we would allow people to manually turn the solar panels to always face the sun.' "
No one had designed such a system before. When it was discovered that solar tracking systems would be up to 40 percent more efficient than their stationary counterparts, developers went straight to adding the photo sensors, microprocessors, and motors that promised convenience – at least in the developed world.
But the interdisciplinary business management major had done his homework. "An automated system with a lot of moving parts is the last thing you want to put in the middle of Africa," relates Clark. "No one has the training or equipment to fix them. Once they're broken, they're broken forever."
Instead, his solar arrays are easily adjusted by hand and require repositioning only three times a day with the aid of a simple, color-coded chart. Without the additional high-tech equipment, they are more affordable. And thanks to the ingenuity of his engineers, they are also 94 percent as efficient as automated systems. Venture capitalists remained skeptical.
"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten laughed out of a room," Clark says. "People told me I'd be wasting my time and that I couldn't do anything in Africa, South America, or Haiti – because there's no money there." But Clark didn't win an entrepreneurship competition without a solid plan to sustain his own business. His goal was to sell his product to the host of international aid organizations working throughout the world.
"We're tapping into the hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. that are targeted for lesser developed countries. We're selling to the churches around the corner that are sponsoring orphanages and paying thousands of dollars a month for generators."
With the help of a business incubator in his hometown of Cleveland, Clark launched Sunflower Solutions on a shoestring budget he raised mostly from family and friends. Several months later, he was awarded a $30,000 grant from the Cleveland Civic Innovation Lab.
Sunflower Solutions has now provided its low-cost systems to communities in Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, India, and Togo. Generating power for schools, clean water projects, and hospitals, these systems have also contributed to economic development. Along with ample praise from the press, the young company's international efforts have earned recognition from Ohio's governor.
In recent months, Clark has begun to explore the educational potential of his interactive systems. He reports that students at Cleveland's Lakeland Community College will be the first to use an EmPower Plant as a "study aid" for understanding solar energy.
Barely more than two years after graduating, Clark likes to think he's found his calling simply by following the sun. "It was all very happenstance – how I got involved in social entrepreneurship," says Clark, smiling. "And now I can't imagine doing anything else."