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Stanford Woods Institute: Innovation Hub to Solve International Environmental Challenges

April 19, 2012
Stanford Woods Institute

Few issues have broader global implications than environmental sustainability. While many of us are interested in environmental issues that have a direct impact on us, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment (Stanford Woods Institute) focuses on the interconnectedness of environmental challenges throughout the world. The Stanford Woods Institute has been leading programs and seminars to solve environmental challenges at domestic and international levels for 8 years. Its approach is highly interdisciplinary and innovative. The Office of International Affairs met with Barton (Buzz) Thompson, Co-Director of the Stanford Woods Institute, to learn more about its international collaborations and key factors for its success.

Q. How was the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment created?

BT: The Stanford Woods Institute was created in 2004. It was created in response to two different demands. For over a decade, faculty members on campus had been discussing how to promote interdisciplinary collaborations to solve environmental challenges. Along with this grassroots interest, Stanford’s leadership was also interested in promoting such interdisciplinary collaborations. In response, we launched the Stanford Woods Institute to provide a hub for highly interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented research, including international projects. Our faculty members represent all of the schools, and we consider ourselves an institute of the entire university.

Q. Among so many environment challenges and issues, how does the Stanford Woods Institute prioritize what to do and select where to focus?

BT: There are two components that enable us to determine what to do: what we hear from the decision-makers about the key problems and what Stanford can provide to solve the problem. As the Stanford Woods Institute is highly focused on problem solving, a good fit between a key problem and relevant expertise in the Stanford community is the most important factor in deciding what to do. We also follow the ‘80-20 rule.’ We try not to exclude any really interesting ideas even if they are not focusing on our primary areas. When we find a good idea that can possibly provide great solutions for important environmental problems, they still get funding from us.

"We are focused on problem solving, and scholars at Stanford are well known for the creative ways they approach problems."

Q. Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) is a great place to talk about that 20% given the various issues they cover. Why do you think EVP has been one of the most popular and rapidly grown program at the Stanford Woods Institute?

BT: We treat EVP funding like venture capital. We have awarded over $6M to 44 interdisciplinary teams who have provided solutions for domestic and global environmental issues in highly innovative ways. As I mentioned, it’s open to all seven schools, and the projects cover the globe. About 85% of the projects continue after the EVP award has ended because they are successful and designed to be self-sustaining.

Q. You mentioned that the EVP program has provided solutions for international environmental issues as well as domsetic issues. Are there any special international projects you remember?

BT: A number of EVP projects have covered global issues. In fact, some of my favorite projects fall into this category. There was a project in Benin called ‘Assessing Solar-Powered Irrigation in Africa.’ In Benin, you have women’s agricultural cooperatives. During the dry season, irrigation by hand is very limiting. In 2007, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), an American NGO, launched a project in Benin to electrify all 44 villages in the commune with solar power. The purpose of this project is to use solar power to pump the ground water and distribute the water to the crops. SELF worked with a team of Stanford researchers funded by an EVP grant for two years to measure the impact of the project. We examined the impact of the project on the economics of agricultural cooperatives and local culture. The project has turned out to be very successful, increasing yield tremendously in the region. The project has been around for 5 years, and it is still up and running in the area.

Q. It's impressive to learn that Stanford scholars have collaborated to solve global issues in the field such as the Benin project. On the other hand, how has the Stanford Woods Institute been invovled in policy-making since it is another critical factor in solving environmental issues? Do you perhaps plan to provide opportunities for teaching about international policy-making in the future?

BT: The Stanford Woods Institute, in partnership with the Bing Stanford in Washington Program, just ran our very first boot camp for 24 PhD students and postdoctoral scholars in Washington DC two weeks ago. The boot camp provides the participants with genuine knowledge about national policy development, partnership building and public service. Our first effort was wildly successful, and we will be continuing the boot camps in the future. Starting next year, we hope that we will also incorporate a significant number of institutions involved in international decision-making, including international NGOs, into that program.

Q. What is so special about the project at the Stanford Woods Institute that attracts fudning from such a wide variety of supporters?

BT: It’s a combination of two facts: we are focused on problem solving, and scholars at Stanford are well known for the creative ways they approach problems. Let me give you an example of a project that proved very appealing to one of our donors. The Osa peninsula and Golfito area in Costa Rica is a fascinating region with rich natural resources. Other institutions have invested millions of dollars in the region to conserve the nature, but you cannot preserve the area by focusing just on conservation. Rather than that, we are working with the region to address all of the issues that go into truly sustainable development, including education, infrastructure, health care, and economic development, as well as terrestrial and marine conservation.

The project, named INOGO (Initiative on the Osa and Golfito), is led by Professor Durham from Anthropology and Professor Dirzo from Biology and involves a range of other faculty members with different expertise. They are currently assessing the region from diverse perspectives. They also will be holding a series of workshops to discuss the issues with key leaders in the region. Instead of just providing our solutions to the community, we are asking the local leaders, “Here’s the information. What do you want to do with your area? How do you want it to be in 10 or 20 years?”  We are also actively involving experts from the region.  We have been very careful from the outset to ensure that the region feels that this is their initiative, not the Woods Institute’s project

Each project at the Stanford Woods Institute is designed to help accomplish a clear goal with a distinctive approach and executed by the most knowledgeable experts in that area. This is very important to our donors as well as the Institute.

* please click to learn more about the Osa & Golfito intitiatve: Osa & Golfito initiative