Lenox project

We have been privileged to work with a town that is strongly committed to sustainable city planning and looking toward long-term environmental development. Our team was able to make a trip to Lenox in October, which provided a wholesome experience of the Town’s true pledge clean air, water, infrastructure, and recreation.

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THE CLIENT

Our client, Lenox, Massachusetts, is a small town of roughly 5,000 people on the western border of MA. The team consists of Fernando Ortiz, Nidhi Singh, Tyler Taba, Marielena Rios, Niko Martecchini, and Emily Lee. Everybody comes from a diverse set of disciplines, such as ship engineering, wastewater management in India, non-profit business administration, and more, which helped bring a well rounded assortment of ideas to the table. Most of the students are new to the consulting world, so having Celine Solsken Ruben-Salama as the faculty advisor was invaluable given her expertise in consulting and CSR reporting. We have been working directly with Lenox’s Town Planner, Gwen Miller, and the Water Department Superintendent, Bob Horn. SUMA Net Impact delivered a project to Lenox last semester, drafting an EMS report with some ideas for the town’s Master Plan. This semester, the scope was narrowed to focus on sustainable water management, specifically water supply, targets, purification, and wastewater treatment. This time around, the project scope included:

  • Creating a monitoring and implementing plan for the targets related to water for the short, medium and long term.
  • Assessing options for processing bio-solids, potentially retrofitting existing infrastructure and making relevant recommendations.
  • Researching alternatives for water purification within the town as well as supply from neighboring towns during drought season.
  • Calculating the GHG footprint using the calculator tool delivered by the previous team.

THE CHALLENGES

Data, data, and … more data. The biggest challenge for our team was compiling enough data to make rational and realistic recommendations for the client. Some areas more than others required significant figures in order to make proper proposals. For example, in the water targets portion of our project, the town was interested in learning how they can meet the needs of the town’s water consumption levels while reducing their water usage rates. It is noteworthy that Lenox see’s a major increase in tourist population during the summer and winter months. Their population doubles from about 5,000 to 9,800-10,000 when tourists visit. This increase obviously stresses water usage for hotels, outdoor recreation, and general water practices. A major dataset that we were hoping to receive included the usage rates from hotels since hotels and B&B’s see a large increase in their reservations during this time. While some of the recommendations included more efficient shower-heads, limits on water usage during certain hours, etc., we believe we could have made more specific suggestions if we had some stronger data on the actual numbers (in gallons) of the town’s relevant industries.

        Another challenge related to data came from either not receiving any data or receiving data too late in the process. This was the principal concern for the GHG footprint portion of our project. Unfortunately, we were never granted access to the town’s GHG portal. This made the footprint nearly impossible to develop. Instead, we focused on expanding the previous semester’s GHG tool, hoping to make it as user friendly as possible so the town would be able to input their numbers and run valuable analyses with the data they already have.

Budgetary constraints and unknowns were the final challenge we confronted. This pertains specifically to the water supply and purification segment of our project. Different water treatment plants have varying costs, and the town is unsure how much money they can budget for a new system. After some conference calls with the Water Superintendent, we opted to run a qualitative, rather than a quantitative, CBA. The town has received some grant funding for water systems, but they were not able to give us a threshold number to meet. In some ways this made the research easier, but we are not confident about how feasible or likely our recommendations are to take action.

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THE SURPRISES

Likely because of their previous experience with SUMA Net Impact, we received a high level of trust and communication with the client. In many cases, they were open to hearing our ideas with little input or command. The client believed in our work and gave us more autonomy than our group expected, which helped to deliver creative and innovative solutions to their requests.

        As aforementioned, the town was also surprisingly committed to sustainable development. They mentioned several times that they are looking to meet Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) standards not only for 2018-2019, but also for 10-20 years down the road. Many of us grew up in areas where town planners are not necessarily looking to promote a sustainable lifestyle as much as an economic return, so we were fortunate to have such a forward thinking client.

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THE RESULTS

In the end, our group will be delivering two designs for an upgraded water purification system. We are endorsing a microfiltration and an ultrafiltration plant for the next system. After researching several alternatives, including MF, UF, dissolved oxygen, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet purification, and chloramination, we concluded that the most realistic option for the town would be micro and ultrafiltration. After reviewing some of their water quality tests, we concluded the town already has clean raw water coming in, so UV, DO, and RO were a bit of an overkill in terms of their water cleaning capabilities and overall costs. The micro system is less expensive and purifies slightly less than ultrafiltration, which would be more practical for a large town with poor drinking water characteristics. Arguably, the most exciting recommendation we have is for biosolids from the wastewater section of our project. Our recommendation is to create a manmade wetland ecosystem to not only reduce the cost of transporting biosolids via trucks, but also to create an outdoor recreational residence for the members of the community and tourists to enjoy.

 

Sustainable Westchester

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THE CLIENT

Sustainable Westchester is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to promote and develop sustainable frameworks for the County of Westchester, which includes more than 40 municipalities. The organization is set up as a membership system and includes impacts and solution development for each member municipality.

One of Sustainable Westchester’s current initiatives is a study on the improvement of the current food waste processing, primarily handled by incinerators at the moment. The client provided us with seven options to analyze for this study, along with some aspirational examples of solutions. The study was not meant to recommend one specific solution as a winner but rather to conduct a preliminary analysis on the main components of each, reflect on how they might be applied to Westchester and to provide a final overview of which solution or combination thereof could be taken into further consideration for a potential application in one or more of the target municipalities. The seven solutions analyzed were:

  1. Co-digestion in wastewater treatment plant
  2. Large-scale anaerobic digestion
  3. Community-scale anaerobic digestion
  4. Household anaerobic digestion
  5. Large-scale composting
  6. Community-scale composting
  7. Household backyard composting

Our kickoff meeting with the client established the type of analysis to be conducted, options for the deliverable, and any considerations to be made in our analysis. Furthermore, we were provided some contacts for scenarios, while others relied principally on bibliographical research.

THE PROCESS

The process was mainly divided in four steps:

  1. Introductory meetings with the client to lay out work plan and identify what other information or support the client can provide
  2. Research and Information collection:
    1. Interview with experts and stakeholders
    2. Bibliographical / internet research to find comparable solutions in similarly sized areas. This also helped assess the viability of one solution compared to another for Westchester specifically
    3. Interviews with neighbors (one of the team members, Andrew, is a resident and had direct contact with members of the community to gather information)
    4. Interviews with leaders in waste management solutions (e.g. a meeting to collect information from Quasar)
    5. Visiting the Yonkers Wastewater treatment plant
  3. Developing the assessment criteria for each of the seven solutions, in order to:
    1. Ensure that we can efficiently compare them when presenting to the client
    2. Compare different solutions in a similar method, within the context of Westchester county. For example, we conducted a social impact assessment for each city’s potential solution
  4. Assembling research, conclusions and developing the final matrix with supporting information in the report

THE CHALLENGES

Perhaps the most prominent challenge in this project, both at the planning stage and the execution was the comparison of scenarios of radically different sizes. As we were given seven possible solutions for a problem, we attempted to compare our solutions and analyses with metrics such as financial investment, waste inputs and land required among others. This proved to be challenging due to the lack of specific “boundaries” set forth by the client. For example, when assessing whether a large-scale water treatment plant was better than a large-scale composting facility, we were not able to conduct a full analysis as we did not have a decision making position in terms of allocating capital for each investment.

THE SURPRISES

Surprises that we encountered throughout, which turned into important learning experiences, were:

  • Along with its increased technical requirements, how expensive anaerobic digestion is compared to aerobic
  • Assessing several different solutions for a set of municipalities in the same county that have different socioeconomic status and needs, and therefore varying viability for any given solution

THE RESULT

The deliverable for this project is a matrix which presents each of the 7 solutions, along with a series of primary categories of assessment. In each category of assessment is an indicator (High, Medium, Low) which reflects the research conducted for the solution in question in the context of its applicability to Westchester County.

By developing this matrix, we are able to quickly and efficiently present which of the solutions are a potential topic for further discussion, and which are unadvisable even at a preliminary level of analysis. We believe that this output is a useful and concise summary of our analysis and by including it in a longer report we are able to provide more detail as to the logic and data supporting the results indicated in the table.

THE TAKEAWAY

Through this project, our team learned the complexity of developing truly sustainable and viable solutions for urban areas. We gained experiences comparing seemingly incomparable scenarios and solutions with little to no parameters, which enabled us to improve our positions as independent thinkers and promoters of a sustainable mindset throughout our work and lives. Working in a team with diverse academic and professional backgrounds., we were empowered to draw from past experiences and bring new perspectives and ideas to the task at hand. We are pleased to know we have contributed the first step of a meaningful and socially important transition for how an entire county can handle waste management and ultimately benefit its citizens.

Seachange

Measuring, tracking, and communicating the impact of SeaChange Capital Partner’s New York Mergers, Acquisitions, and Collaboration fund.   

SeaChange

SUMA Net Impact’s Meeting at SeaChange Capital Partners with Jess Cavagnero (picture center).

SeaChange Capital Partners is a nonprofit merchant bank that works to enable transactions that increase the impact of nonprofits. SeaChange’s New York Merger, Acquisition and Collaboration (NYMAC) Fund, offers grants to encourage and support mergers, acquisitions, joint-ventures, and others types of formal, long-term collaborations between nonprofits predominantly serving New York City. To date, NYMAC has provided grants for more than 30 transactions in sectors including education, healthcare, community housing & development, children & youth, arts & culture, anti-poverty & social welfare, civil rights & social justice. The NYMAC Fund is led by SeaChange Partner Jess Cavagnero.

A team of five Columbia Sustainability Management students, Abbigael Foster, Lucas Piazza, Riyana Razalee, Niki Shah, Saiba Sharmeen, and Wei-Ling (Winnie) Sun, worked with Net Impact to provide pro bono services to SeaChange to help them understand the impact that NYMAC has. The team had an array of professional backgrounds including environmental consulting, brand strategy, marketing, sustainable finance, corporate sustainability, and transaction advisory. Faculty Advisor, Professor Satyajit Bose provided guidance to the team throughout the project.

The Deliverables

 The objective of the project was initially to analyze the social and financial impact of NYMAC’s grants and subsequently to develop key metrics to track in addition to developing a case study on the grantee organizations involved one of NYMAC’s transactions. Data pertaining to historical NYMAC transactions including grant letters, grantee interim progress reports, and grantee final reports was collected from SeaChange and analyzed. Unfortunately, after completing this initial data analysis, it was determined that due to the fact that the data was inconsistent, incomplete, and unquantifiable, that it was not possible to draw robust conclusions regarding NYMAC’s impact. After taking into account the time remaining to complete the project, the available data, and SeaChange’s needs and expectations, a new course of action was determined and agreed upon by all parties: the team would develop a robust set of key metrics to track in future transactions and organize them in the form of a tool, in addition to develop a case study template to allow SeaChange to easily promote the impacts of future transactions.

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The Process and Results

 To determine what metrics to include in the tool, the team reviewed various frameworks including the Global Reporting Initiative, IRIS by the Global Compact Investing Network, MSCI, and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. A master list of metrics was compiled and evaluated to ensure that all metrics were: relevant to SeaChange and relevant to all potential grantee organizations, regardless of industry; quantifiable; meaningful; consistent; practical; actionable; and durable. A final list of metrics was developed across four categories: program performance, governance, financial sustainability, and social sustainability. This information was organized into an excel tool in which SeaChange can enter information before and after a transaction to subsequently asses change in the specified metrics and quantify its impact. An accompanying case study template was drafted which includes sections to provide context on the transaction, in addition to presenting the quantifiable metrics and analysis information drawn from the tool.

The Challenges and Learnings

The key challenge faced when preparing the deliverables was identifying and appropriately classifying the most important metrics for SeaChange. The team quickly learned that there was a plethora of metrics that could be been tracked to measure performance across many different categories ranging from governance to social impact. The team found that brainstorming sessions, although sometimes challenging, were the best way to determine the approach and the metrics that were ultimately selected. After the selected metrics were finalized, the team acknowledged how challenging it is to standardize impact measurement across disparate organizations. Despite these challenges, the team came to fully understand the importance of establishing clear KPIs and tracking data consistently. Additionally, as many team members had not previously worked in the non-profit space and this project offered them a humbling glimpse into the sector. From funding to leadership, the challenges nonprofits face are great, but it is inspiring that they nevertheless persevere in the name of advancing their missions.

Pact

PACT

Have you ever wondered how life would be without electricity? Living without electricity is unfathomable for those living in developed countries, especially us as Columbia students.  However, approximately 16% of the global population have limited or no access to electricity. The striking similarity among this 16% is geographic location: over two-thirds of those below the energy-poverty line live in rural areas and the current situation in Myanmar is no different. More than 2/3 of the country’s population lack access to the national electricity grid and rural access is even more limited. To help address this issue, Net Impact took on Pact Innovation as a client. Pact anticipates these rural areas will still lack access despite national efforts to expand the grid. Further, microgrids are posed as an alternative solution for rural areas that cannot access the national grid.

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Economic development becomes increasingly difficult without access to electricity; meanwhile the economic viability of an alternative electricity supply is low without proper demand. Team Myanmar’s mission was to address and stimulate the demand for electricity by supporting micro entrepreneurship in rural Myanmar, with the end goal of increasing GDP growth in selected areas. The team of five came up with comprehensive solutions to stimulate business demand for electricity. Team Myanmar consisted of five members from a diverse array of backgrounds, bringing a breadth of expertise to the project. Crysta, Frances and Pol worked diligently to develop a business template and industry specific business plans as two of the team’s deliverable’s. Their combined expertise in communications, corporate strategy, accounting and international development provided a solid foundation for the task. Team lead, Chanty, and Britt used their expertise in finance, project management and research to develop a guaranteeing financial system for the micro-entrepreneurs and local microfinance institutions. With the guidance of faculty advisor, Phil LaRocco, Team Myanmar developed four tools for Pact in a timely, coherent manner.

Team Myanmar’s journey began on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Columbia University’s Science & Engineering Library where they met to narrow the scope of the project and discuss the first call with their point contact in Myanmar. The purpose of the first call was to attain first hand insight on the current situation in Myanmar. To complete their comprehensive understanding of Myanmar, the team performed extensive research on Myanmar’s geography, demographics, economy, business landscape, electrification status and its social and political stability. After narrowing the scope of this project, Team Myanmar subdivided into two groups: the business template/plan team and the financial system team.

BUSINESS TEAM

In order to build the template model, Crysta used two credible examples of business templates in developing economies – REED Toolkit: A Handbook for Energy Entrepreneurs recommended by Professor LaRocca, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Improve Your Business/Planning for Your Business Toolkit. The ILO toolkit was developed as part of a management-training program for small businesses, especially in poor populations and developing economies. It is very simple and straightforward – often using images and simple “quizzes” to teach management concepts, which inspired her to create an equally simple and straightforward template that entrepreneurs could use at the onset of their process to create their business and in conjunction with the other tools developed by the team (business models, money flow chart, and guaranteeing system). The flow-chart design is to allow users to work their way through all of the tools through a series of easy-to-answer questions. Pol and Frances used several resources to establish a specific business plan for both irrigation pump and oil expeller businesses. In addition to the ILO or REED catalogues, they used information from IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), cases studies from the Hystra report on scaling energy projects in developing countries as well as some of the results from the Multifunction Platform in West Africa developed by the UNDP. Access to data from the focus areas was a huge barrier for the business team, yet they countered this by developing a model that is applicable in different types of settings.

FINANCIAL TEAM

Pact asked Team Myanmar to research and recommend a guaranteeing system based on financial institutions’ credit assessment. Myanmar’s microfinance system is still in its nascent stages and faces internal and external challenges. The Microfinance Law passed in 2011 has imposed numerous restrictions making it extremely difficult for local and foreign owned MFIs in Myanmar to secure funding from larger institutions. Moreover, the microfinance institutions lack collateral and adequate operational capacity, impeding the success and growth of these institutions. Individuals and communities in need of a proper financial system are also affected. On an individual level, access to financing is extremely difficult, even for those with viable business models. Eighty percent of Myanmar’s population has little or no access to credit.

Chanty and Britt tackled this by researching the current state of Myanmar’s microfinance system on an industry and individual level. They additionally researched best lending practices among international microfinance institutions as ranked by Forbes and the Mekong Business Initiative, which is a joint advisory facility of the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Australia. This research was used to compile a “borrower criteria checklist” and an “MFI guaranteeing system.” Amidst confusion around what constitutes as a “guaranteeing system,” the financial team developed two tools: one that can be used by a borrower and a tool useful for MFIs. The former deliverable is in the form of a yes/no survey, listing numerous individual and group lending standards that must be met in order to secure a loan. The latter deliverable will ensure MFIs can obtain funding from larger institutions, ultimately trickling down to individuals within society.

TEAM CHALLENGES

Team Myanmar experienced significant challenges throughout the project. Lack of access to hard data was a major challenge to the project’s progress and contact with the client was limited. Understanding what constitutes as a “guaranteeing system” and an “energy-based enterprise” was difficult given lack of clarity from the client. Nevertheless, the team’s goal was achieved by developing tools that are easy to use and able to facilitate training and education for a population of low literacy.

Interview with Prof LaRocco

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Professor LaRocco, my first question is, one of the best parts about being at Columbia and in SUMA, is that our professors are also practitioners. So would you tell us what you practice and what elements you bring to the classroom from there?

From 1990 until now, I’ve focused exclusively on developing countries and energy access and other energy issues in developing countries. I founded a nonprofit investment company that invested in over 150 small and medium sized enterprises, and have probably looked at 1000 or 2000 business plans, investment proposals and both of my classes, one here in SIPA and one in SUMA program are focused on that practical experience.

As a sustainability practitioner, what would you say your biggest frustration is, and how do you overcome that frustration?

The biggest frustration for me is our inability to distinguish solvable problems from much more difficult problems and conflating things that we can fix, like bringing clean cooking to rural settings with things that we really cannot fix fully, such as climate change. I think it’s really important, especially for students, not just practitioners, to distinguish what they can fix and what they can approach in a methodical fashion versus the things that are probably outside their reach and grasp.

For the things we can’t fix, is there like a suggestion you might have, whether that’s a way to communicate to your client or your stakeholder that it can’t be fixed, or maybe to whom you might delegate to escalate the problem?

Well, when I say it can’t be fixed that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress in making things better. So very specifically, what I try to encourage clients and students to do is if you’re working on a fixable problem for example, energy access again or clean cooking in rural areas, as you’re doing so, attach to your effort impacts and other qualities that could then improve such things as climate or gender equality. And, I don’t mean that you simply have a project that has these things as impacts, I mean, much more proactively attach, or as I call it, bolt on to what you’re doing incremental steps, incremental resources, incremental improvements that will start to chip away at the more intractable problems.

What or who inspires you to act on sustainability?

Well the what is fairly clear. We put ourselves in a terrible fix, and we as humans seem to have an infinite capacity to attack immediate problems or respond to emergencies and crises. And we seem to have an equally infinite capacity to ignore long-term, insidious change. We hope and rely on something that we don’t know about happening tomorrow that’s going to somehow make things better, and probably no more evidence thing that exists in our constant reliance on technology innovation to solve our problems with concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.

And what made you want to participate in Net Impact?

I actually met Net Impact many years ago on the campus of University of Michigan. I was doing some work at the William Davidson Institute out there, and that was the first time I encountered the group. It was quite fascinating to see that students could mobilize themselves a whole lot better than faculty administrators and governing officials could organize themselves to address specific issues, so I became a fan.

Did you advise when you encounter Net Impact at Michigan?

No, it was just getting to know each other and looking at the projects they were doing. At that point in time, I was very engaged in just a rural electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa and there were a number of overlaps, so it was kind of great fun to work together. But this will be a new adventure for me here at Columbia.

So if you were speaking to a student on Columbia’s campus who was considering joining our club, what would you tell them?

Find a problem you can work on and make a significant change in that. At the same time, don’t exceed your reach or grasp in terms of what you can accomplish. Solving smaller problems can be a better learning experience and more satisfying experience than trying to solve global warming.

The reason why we employ very experienced professors like yourself is because we want the students to be guided on what might be their first foray into consulting. So I’m curious what advice you might want to pass on to someone for whom this is their first project and their first experience consulting.

Previously noted, that you want to do something that you can actually affect change. The second thing is that always if you’re going into a project, and I don’t care whether it’s a consulting projects, or Net Impact, or it’s a capstone project or your first for-profit consulting job, make sure that you satisfy three different needs, not just one. Obviously, number one is you want to satisfy the needs of the client that is engaged, and in that way help them advance whatever it is they’re doing. But secondly, you want to satisfy yourself that you’re learning something or using a tool or a skill that you haven’t had a chance to use before. And third, and this generally gets forgotten, try to pick assignments and clients and adventures that add to the status quo or state of the art, so that if you could satisfy client, satisfy yourself and push the space just a tiny, tiny bit further, you’re going to have a much more satisfactory experience than just one of those three things.

I’m curious about a change you might have recently made to your everyday life, based on an environmental or a social issue that’s important to you.

I’m making a much larger point of my individual behaviors on a day in and day out basis. Let’s use electricity as an example. Monitoring your own consumption of electric usage is something that’s not easy to do, but it’s also not difficult to do, so I’ve begun to kind of look at how I use electricity. I know where it comes from, I know the gross quantities, but what I don’t know on a day to day basis is the individual applications of how much goes to my refrigerator and how much goes to my computer. I’m fond of teaching something I learned years ago, which is called ‘the plateau of indifference,’ that as we grow richer, we spend less and less of our time and attention on how we consume things. We have more and more money, they become a smaller percentage of our income and we become indifferent to whether our electric bill is $90 or $100. Conversely, the poor pay a great amount of attention to that because things like energy are a substantial portion of their income. So I have finally most recently taken a look at all of my micro-expenditures… The other thing I’ve done is that I am focusing on all the pieces that make up this sustainability puzzle and my view is not a happy one. My view is a dark one at this point in time. So I’m keeping tabs, if you will, on each one of the indicators that tell us whether we’re making progress or incurring setbacks.

Tell me about social or sustainability related or environmental victory that you would like to see in your lifetime.

There is no need for us to have energy poverty in the world… Energy poverty is a problem that can be solved, should be solved, and the resources exist to eliminate it, even in my lifetime. There is absolutely no reason that two billion people in the world should be living in nineteenth century energy conditions. They already spent the monies, the time, they have the budget for modern energy. Problem is we’ve not focused enough on bringing those improved energy resources to the households that are more difficult to aid.

Finally, since you’ve traveled all over, do you have a favorite place on earth?

Impossible to say. I had I’ve had the chance to work in varying environments in forty to fifty different countries and there’s so many of them that you would consider to be a favorite. But I think the thing that distinguishes this particular field, energy access, in a great way is the type of people you encounter. They may have worked in two countries, you may work in twenty countries, but you’re going to find a certain common interest and set of approaches. As to what country is the best, that depends whether you’re a foodie, whether you like landscape, or otherwise. It’s a great place out there, so I wouldn’t recommend one over another: I’d recommend all of them!

As a follow up to that, I think many of us at Columbia are wondering what we can do right here in New York. So I’m curious what you would tell a student who’s looking for how they can affect change right here near our campus.

Well, our behavior is the number one thing. It’s fascinating to think that people still might think it’s okay to leave the light on. Well, it’s not, that’s not how it works. Particularly here at Columbia University, you should not follow the urban myth that, you know, it doesn’t use any electricity. Yes, it does. Urban issues particularly in rich, metropolitan areas like New York City are different from issues in Zambia or Zimbabwe or Uganda but the basic management of the resources in front of you is not a different issue. The one thing I really recommend– obviously by my accent, I am a born and bred New Yorker– is pay attention to folks that you might otherwise think are invisible and make sure they’re not invisible.

– Interviewed by Lizzie Siboni on Wednesday October 17, 2018