| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


Q&A: Mark Alan Hughes, Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster

We might still be waiting on that Super Bowl, but Philadelphians have one huge victory to celebrate. Competing against groups from across the country, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster (GPIC) for Energy Efficient Buildings won $129 million last August from the Energy Regional Innovation Cluster (E-RIC) Initiative. The award included $122 million from the Department of Energy to support an Energy Innovation Hub at the Navy Yard, tasked with developing energy-efficient building technologies, designs and systems.

This prize is not only a boon for the Navy Yard, it's also a tremendous feather in the city's cap, and promises to have a huge regional impact in the coming years, attracting investment, green businesses and top-flight R&D to this unique incubator.

But the mission of GPIC goes beyond technology -- it's not enough to have a great idea, people have to use it. The consortium will also analyze and encourage emerging markets, sustainable practices and simple, effective behavioral changes.

Mark Alan Hughes is heading up GPIC's Policy, Markets and Behavior team. A professor at Penn and original founder of the mayor's Office of Sustainability, he has an extensive background in public policy, planning, design and getting people to do things despite themselves (see: teaching undergraduates). He talked to Flying Kite about the genesis of GPIC, the information gap and making thermostats a bit more fun.

Flying Kite (FK): How did you get involved with this project?
Mark Alan Hughes (MAH): It's actually a fairly serendipitous and casual story. There was a national call for consortia of universities, corporations and public agencies to come together in regions around the country to respond to this funding opportunity. The RFP [Request For Proposals] generated lots of responses. Penn State stepped up to try and build a consortia in the mid-Atlantic area. They invited people from around the region to an initial meeting at the Navy Yard. A lot of people were busy at Penn on that particular day, and I was free. So, I went down, and one thing led to another. We spent the next three or four months working on a proposal. It was a bear of a process. In the end, we had a team of 23 member organizations -- about a dozen universities, five or six global corporations and a large variety of regional public agencies.

FK: Once you guys won, how did your role change?
MAH: The RFP -- which is kind of a historical document now -- is the best one I've ever seen in 25 years of this work. It was extremely thoughtful, and provided very clear guidance. The funders recognized the importance of policy, individual and collective behavior, as well as market structure to this effort. It was not just about technology. So, it was obvious, even at the proposal-writing phase, that we needed to represent our own commitment to those areas. After we won, I became task leader.

But the real idea is about integration. We're divided into research teams, but we're really trying to collaborate across those teams, across disciplines and across sectors -- as well as integrate what's going on inside the hub with what's going on outside in the larger region. The whole point of the thing is to try to get engineers, architects, policy developers and behavioral scientists to all work together.

FK: Once you figure out all these brilliant ways to save energy, how do you get people to actually use them?
MAH: It depends. Some people who come to this work from the technology side have an instinctive view that if you can just get people to behave right -- or if you could just get government to subsidize right -- then technology will shine. This isn't really a technology problem. We can achieve much, if not almost all, of our energy efficiency goals for buildings with existing technologies. It's more a behavioral problem.

Sometimes it's about information. There's a lot of jargon and confusion, and there's a lot of asymmetry with information. There are things that some people know and others don't. That makes it difficult for people to make decisions.

One of the classic examples is a feedback mechanism. There are lots of emerging examples of smart thermostats that report back to you how much electricity you use. Most modern televisions, cable boxes and other plug-in devices continue to draw power even when the consumer thinks of them as "off" -- the "phantom load," or "vampire load." That's an example of something that people just don't have enough information about. And when they do have information, that can lead to some simple behavioral changes.

There are other things that make it difficult for people to do things that we want them to do. Let's go back to the programmable thermostats. People buy them, and they don't use them. The problem is less about information and more about engagement with the technology. Here, one of the most instructive areas of research is games. The problem with the thermostat is not that it's too complicated, the problem with the thermostat is that it's no fun. We know that games have very particular kinds of qualities. Nobody reads the manual to a game. The interface teaches you how to play, as you play. So, one of the things that we're coming to understand about our technologies -- whether it's in the house or for an operator of a huge office building -- is that these interfaces have got to teach you how to play, and they've got to keep you in the game.

FK: How is this model -- the innovation cluster model, the collaboration model -- different from how things usually happen?
MAH: I think there are two important funding theories. One, you can call "the collaboration model." And it's really hard, because you have to respond to the DOE's concerns on the project, but you also have to respond to the concerns of other federal agencies that are more interested in the job training aspects or the manufacturing/industry aspects or economic development. They were asking us to collaborate, and they were also requiring themselves to collaborate.

It can be complex, but it's also how you get some of that creative conversation. On one hand, a building is so simple, so familiar, and on the other hand, it's so complex, and involves many different disciplines. There are lawyers writing leases, operators running machinery and architects designing cool facades. And then there are users, owners and renters. It forces these kinds of collaborations.

The other funding theory is way less familiar, even though the idea has been around for a long time. That's regional funding. It's important to note how cool -- and unusual -- that aspect of this is. The real bet that the feds and the DOE are making here is that buildings are specific. Regions have climates, they have building stocks (that were built at certain times), they have local rules about building codes, and they have local unions, builders and design firms. So, there's no such thing as a national solution to squeezing more energy efficiency out of buildings.

FK: Do you want to talk for a minute about the Navy Yard as both a bargaining chip and an incubator for ideas?
MAH: There are so many advantages. First, it's a big portfolio of buildings. There are two to three hundred buildings at the Navy Yard across a huge parcel of land about the size of Center City itself. It's like a small city. Also, the land and all the infrastructure is owned by the city. We have unified ownership, yet it's filled with a wide variety of private clients. And it has its own independent microgrid.

It's perfect. The goal of this whole task is taking existing commercial buildings and retrofitting them. Seventy-five percent of the buildings that are going to exist 30 years from now already exist. If we don't get our hands on how to make existing buildings more efficient, we're not going to be able to meet our goals.

FK: This really is such an exciting project for the city.
MAH: It really is. I think that's the other real angle here. The city rolled out Greenworks. They rolled out related things like GreenPlan and EnergyWorks. So, the city, starting with the mayor's real commitment to environmental sustainability as a policy strategy, is starting to benefit from this virtuous cycle.

LEE STABERT is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.


Mark Alan Hughes, GPIC's head of Policy, Markets and Behavior

Hughes with Christine Knapp, GPIC's manager of public and client relations

Potential Energy and Sustainable Strategies Program rendering

Another rendering of a building at the Navy Yard, courtesy of Re Vision Architecture


All Photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts