Living Future 20: Sustaining Hope Within Crisis

July 6, 2020

The Living Future Conference, normally held in person, came together online this year in May.  The theme of “Sustaining Hope Within Crisis,” originally intended to reflect climate emergency, became more relevant in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) asked themselves, “what does good look like?” for gathering the global community online.  They determined it was a time to be together as much as possible, through whatever means available, to share ideas, stories, and hopes, but also fears, obstacles, and concerns. 

SLS was pleased to be able to extend sponsorship to a group of students, faculty, and partners to attend the ILFI 2020 conference this year.  Below are their reflections on their individual experiences.

The International Living Future Institute coordinates the Living Building Challenge, of which Georgia Tech's Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design is a part.  The goal of the Kendeda project is to transform the built environment in the Southeast by advancing innovation, and by showcasing synergies among environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic development.

I participated in the ILFI Conference because I wanted to make good use of the break between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of my Serve-Learn-Sustain internship at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.  The COVID-19 pandemic was in fact a blessing in disguise, because I would not have been able to travel to Seattle for the conference.  Now that it has moved online, I was able to attend most sessions from the comforts of my home, while possibly having access to recordings for future reference.  As an Environmental Engineering student, I was eager to learn more about the cutting edge of green building best practices, to be inspired by sustainability leaders from across the world, and to particularly understand how Georgia Tech's Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design is discussed among professionals.

I attended multiple seminars ranging from Zero Carbon Buildings, Biophilic Design, Net Positive Water, and Ecosystem Design.  All of the sessions were grounded under the theme "Sustaining Hope within Crisis."  I was exposed to many of the behind-the-scenes consideration and work that attributed to the success of Living Buildings.  I learned about nitty-gritty details such as how the Kendeda Building's position in the Eastern Continental Divide informed the building's orientation, policy best practices like the legal hoops to jump through in order for a building to completely disconnect from a city sewer system, and the central message that we are creating a living space that goes beyond serving ourselves.  I am surprised by the geographical and functional diversity of Living Buildings, and I envision a Living Future (no pun intended) where they become not just a physical location but a space where sustainability, beauty, and justice intersect.

By attending the conference, I have been more armed with knowledge and connections that would help me navigate this growing industry and figure out how this will become my lifelong passion.  After the conference, I envision that I will apply for internships in the field.  I am reaching out to firms and individuals who have been recognized during the conference as a first step.  In addition, I plan to take relevant technical electives in my major to complement what I have learned.

-- Alex (Ching Lam) Ip (B.S. Environmental Engineering)

The conference started with a powerful keynote speaker presentation, which included people from all over the country introducing the purpose and goals of the conference.  My favorite aspect of this part of the conference was the symphony interludes between the speakers, as well as the meditation session to help the attendees mentally focus for the rest of the conference.  Although it was online, the audience was engaged and supportive in the comments, and there was an intense sense of community as speakers mentioned each other by name and responded to their colleagues in the comments.

My favorite session was called "High Density Hope."  There were four speakers - Susan King, James Ortega, Rosa Ortiza, and Molly Freed - who discussed innovations in high density housing to solve affordable housing issues in cities.  I liked this session the most because it was the perfect combination of technical and social solutions with inspirational messages.  This conference also gave the history of "high rise living," which came as a result of urban renewal starting after World War II.  The talk also discussed the role of Transit Oriented Development in the construction of high rise buildings, which was highly interesting to me since I've been studying transportation engineering and city planning in my classes at Georgia Tech.  Furthermore, the session included a "formula" for equitable development from a certified planner, Rosa Ortiz, in Chicago.  James Ortega, an architect, discussed how to address the environmental impacts of high rise buildings from the environmentally sustainable side of development.  Molly Freed discussed the policy implementation needed to encourage affordable housing in urban areas.  The combination of these four speakers created a well-rounded solution for the issue of unaffordable housing in cities, and this creative approach was mirrored in many of the other sessions that I enjoyed.  

I thank SLS so much for the opportunity to attend this online conference.  I enjoyed every moment of it, and I continue to reap benefits of this conference as more and more sessions are released to the conference attendees every week.  I have also enjoyed seeing the speakers elaborate on the effect of COVID-19 on the issues that the speakers been studying and attempting to address for years.  I'm so glad for this opportunity to hear inspirational speakers on resilience because it has given me hope for the future of development after the pandemic.

-- Adair Garrett (B.S. Civil Engineering)

The International Future Living Institute (IFLI)  was an exceptional experience that provided visionary insights to how buildings design and construction can meet our expectations for creating Sustainable, Just, Equitable and Resilient Communities. The expertise and panels were full of amazing information that provided glimpses into what our world could look and feel like when equity and justice are at the center of our work.

-- Garry Harris, Center for Sustainable Communities (SLS Partner and PAC Member)

The theme of this year’s International Living Future Institute Un-Conference “Sustaining Hope through Crisis” was made even more immediate than originally intended due to all of the changes society is experiencing due to COVID-19. An overall message of the need for sustained climate action through net-zero systems was clear, and the spread of COVID through our unprepared world provided a scarily similar metaphor for how existential threats like ecosystem destruction, the pillaging of natural resources, and unfettered climate change can go ignored until it is too late.

I was first introduced to the International Living Future Institute through the Kendeda Building, which is on Georgia Tech’s campus. Its mission to not just be a “less bad” building but to improve its surroundings was inspiring. The more I learned the more impressed I was, and I soon became involved with its operations as a tour guide, and student researcher in the Living Building Science VIP. It’s net-zero water system was especially fascinating to me because I study Civil Engineering and my career goal is to be an expert in water quality, sustainable cities, and practices that farmers, cities, and rural communities can implement to increase water quality and sustainability for everyone.

When I saw that there was an opportunity to attend the conference of the organization who created the Living Building Challenge through Serve Learn Sustain, I immediately jumped on it. I wanted to attend because it is a rare opportunity to learn from, ask questions of and interact with the world’s leading experts in net-zero systems from the comfort of your own home. I hope that in a future year, I will be able to attend the conference in person.

Jason McLennan’s Thursday keynote speech touched on climate depression, existential crisis, and the downward trend we are seeing in environmentalism due to the current political climate. However, it ended hopeful with an outline of goals for the 2020’s, the decade of “perfect vision.” McLennan gave a sincere, honest, and inspiring environmental speech which makes me even more passionate about my goal to help make the communities that I’m a part of net-zero.

Conference sessions like Friday’s “Ecosystem Design: Regeneration and Resiliency for Communities, Campuses, and Cities” sparked new ideas in areas I am currently researching. As a part of the Living Building Science VIP at Georgia Tech, I study the greywater system of the Kendeda Building. One of the presenters, Justin Stenkamp (from PAE), talked about how valuable greywater systems can be but spoke about how challenging the implementation of them can be. He even mentioned the Kendeda Building. One of the key things I took away from this session was how important it is to have proper maintenance procedures for these systems. Without it, people would rather “clean the blackwater tanks than the greywater system” as he said.

I am very thankful for the opportunity to attend the online IFLI conference. The sessions have inspired me to think more, dream more and do more.  A sustainable future cannot be achieved without first being imagined. Possibly the most important thing I took away from the conference is all of the different visions that people have, and how they can all work together to create a better future.

-- Donald Gee (B.S. Civil Engineering)

The Living Future Conference was such an inspiration during a time when we all needed it. It was a great reminder how important this work is as our world faces more and more shocks. It was a great opportunity to connect and hear from people all over the world on things we are all so passionate about. The sessions were super interactive even on a virtual platform, with polls, Q+A, and live comments from the audience. I furthered my knowledge in areas I work in day-to-day like building operations and energy efficiency, learned some new things in subjects that I haven’t touched on in career thus far like sustainable materials and embodied carbon, and was just inspired by all the work the presenters were doing in the both the private and public sector.

One session in particular was extremely relevant to the work I do at the City of Atlanta. I joined in on the session “Executive Order for Good: Implementing Washington State’s Zero Energy and Carbon Program” where I learned how peers in the public sector were planning, training, and changing culture to meet ambitious goals. It was so inspiring and important to hear that the public sector can and needs to lead the way in this space. Thank you SLS for giving me the opportunity to engage and continue my learning journey in this important work!

-- Kate Taber (City of Atlanta, Office of Resilience)

Attending the ILFI conference left me revitalized and encouraged, knowing that there are so many opportunities and avenues to improve the built environment and mitigate our impact on Mother Earth. The first session offered longer workshops with more detailed information. Among them, the one where I learned the most was the Biophilic Design workshop. The Savanna hypothesis, Attention Restoration Theory, and Stress Reduction Theory were all new concepts I learned at the workshop. The second day was packed with shorter, seminar styled presentations. It is at the very last session of the day that I found my favorite session of the conference: a David Trubridge talk. There wasn’t much of new concepts brought to the table, but just hearing him share his story, his projects, and his along-nature vs against-nature approach struck a chord with me, and his ideals deeply resonated with mine. 

-- Mathias Zacarias (B.S. Civil Engineering)

It was an amazing conference! ILFI takes everything to the next level, including virtual conferences. In this unusual time, the acknowledgment of land and first people set the perfect tone for wholistic, regenerative projects. The speakers felt like family, and the uplifting messages stoked my fire for a bright future. If your work feels stale or meaningless, ILFI has the tools for inspiration.

-- Alyson Laura (M.S. Sustainable Energy and Environmental Management)

I really enjoyed the conference. My very first impression was a big WOW!!! What really gripped my attention was how open and vulnerable the key / opening speaker was. I have not seen that level of candor and raw heartfelt emotion at events like this. I suppose I am too used to the dry, stiff upper lip tone of academic conferencing, even when talking about deeply troubling issues... and so ILFI was a breath of fresh air, really!!!

I also very much appreciated how the industry (as opposed to the academia) is in fact changing a lot faster than what my impressions of the reality were. This will be a bit tough to explain... Even though many academics are charged with "envisioning the future", many of our predictive (and otherwise) models are based on "what has been done in the past" or on "past data", and I believe we get too used to this sort of thinking and it becomes our blind spot. Yet, it is like walking, and in case of R1 institutions -- sprinting, forward while looking backward.

I have had some appreciation of how non-academic institutions are not necessary burdened by the past, but not as much as what I saw during ILFI. For ILFI participants, the value of diversity wasn't an abstract notion anymore and was routinely measured and operationalized. Same can be said with how the living building challenges were operationalized and made mainstream, while many in academia are still viewing these notions as remote futurism... I find it really counter-intuitive... How is it possible that the institutions of higher education and world-class research continue to maintain their own operations on outdated archaic notions?

In short, it was inspiring! I have given myself a promise to routinely seek out those who look forward at least as much as they check with the "previous literature" and take action!

-- Aselia Urmanbetova (Associate Academic Professional, School of Economics)