Driving Sustainable Innovations with the Duke Design Climate Program

4/1/24 DukEngineer Magazine

An inside look into the joint elective program offered by the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Pratt School of Engineering

a small globe sitting between two small seedlings
Driving Sustainable Innovations with the Duke Design Climate Program

As major corporations around the globe pledge to achieve reduced emission targets, their plans primarily include deploying strategies for emissions reduction and implementing effective policy governance. While these efforts are effective in the short run if they are adhered to, long-term sustainability goals also necessitate continuous improvement and the development of cutting-edge technologies to drive long-term sustainability goals. Duke’s new Design Climate Program, a series of project-based classes structured around climate-friendly design, is leading that change.

For years, the engineering world has embraced ‘design thinking’ as a powerful methodology for problem-solving and innovation. The approach is actively promoted on campus, particularly in broad undergraduate design courses like EGR 101: Engineering Design and Communication. Design thinking uses a human-centric approach, with ideation focused on the specific problem at hand, followed by iterative prototyping and solution development. Recognizing the value of applying these principles to address pressing challenges, the Design Climate team—Executive Director Judy Ledlee, Program Manager Kathleen Horvath, and Alexis Carpenter, an instructor— has collaboratively crafted a year-long elective course program. All three have strong technical backgrounds in the space; Ledlee co-founded a startup for hydraulic fracturing water recycling, while Carpenter serves as the chief innovation officer at AxNano, a cleantech venture studio that develops innovative solutions to restore clean water. Horvath earned her PhD in electrical and computer engineering from Duke, with a certification in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E).

The program is split into two project-centric courses, Design Climate I: Discover and Design Climate II: Develop. The structure is dedicated to guiding students in the application of high-level design thinking and sustainability fundamentals to some of the most critical issues of our time: climate change and sustainability. The program’s emphasis lies in helping students to formulate design solutions that not only demonstrate business potential, but also have lower, or even positive, environmental impacts.

The pilot program launched in the fall of 2023 and embraced a multidisciplinary cohort of undergraduate and graduate students from Duke and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Engaging actively with four industry partners that acted as co-designers, the students not only received mentorship and guidance but also collaborated with key stakeholders who were embedded in the course, providing a unique and dynamic learning environment. One of the big ideas that Horvath focuses on when crafting solutions is the “triple bottom line,” composed of people, the planet, and profit. “Some companies prioritize substantial profits at the expense of the environment, while others focus on environmental concerns but struggle to stay afloat,” noted Horvath. “Design Climate emphasizes the importance of achieving a balance between these three elements without compromising any one for another.”

Some companies prioritize substantial profits at the expense of the environment, while others focus on environmental concerns but struggle to stay afloat. Design Climate emphasizes the importance of achieving a balance between these three elements without compromising any one for another.

Kat Horvath Program Manager, Design Climate

The course promotes solutions where environmental justice concerns, product life cycle assessments, and carbon footprint metrics are core design considerations, ensuring that the ventures, products, or solutions do not neglect the consequences they have for our planet. The Design Climate program is dedicated to instilling this understanding in its participants, equipping students with the knowledge and skills to navigate the intersection of profitability, environmental impact, and societal well-being.

This semester, Design Climate II introduced three projects on topics ranging from developing carbon offsets and decommissioning solar plants to increasing the adoption of sustainable packing materials. Matthew Arsenault, the assistant director of Duke’s Office of Sustainability, worked with the students as a co-designer to increase development of carbon-trapping habitats, a technology that is expected to generate $3.2 million annually and preserve ecosystems for 1.5 million people. Will Clark, the supply chain and logistics coordinator at Cypress Creek Renewables, co-designed a project to increase the circularity of solar plants with online brokerage sites, which is expected to reduce waste tonnage by 83%. The course also saw Kerry Green, the packaging design manager at Pratt Industries, working to increase the adoption of sustainable packaging tech with an online marketplace that connects creators, suppliers, and buyers in the sustainable packaging industries. Each of these projects exhibits a profit, planet, and people value associated to it, and the students worked on scalable solutions that can be reasonably adopted in organizations. Design Climate I addresses open-ended climate challenges, exploring solutions with a focus on assessing their scalability and impact. Students are tasked with justifying and quantifying the potential impact of these solutions on the identified problems. Building upon these foundational efforts, Design Climate II has been strategically crafted as a platform for prototyping and testing these proposed solutions. The course aims to rigorously test the assumptions generated during Design Climate I, advancing the practical application of innovative ideas in the field. “The challenges posed by climate change are inherently open-ended due to the complex nature of the problem,” explained Carpenter. The course is designed to instruct students in embracing this inherent ambiguity, empowering them to craft creative solutions that can adapt to future challenges and align with evolving goals. Post prototyping and testing, the students are also responsible for crafting a go-to-market strategy and rough business model for the solution, ensuring its viability and potential for real-world implementation and impact.

a small globe sitting between two small seedlings

The program also offers a Design Climate 2024 Summer Innovator Internship with priority sign-up for students who have taken Design Climate I and II. The internship will be a further extension of the course, building on the core principles and working with partner companies to craft compelling solutions. Bill Gates once said, “By acting now and working together, we can develop the solutions to avoid a climate disaster and make sure everyone has access to clean, affordable, and reliable energy.” The Duke Design Climate Program stands as a beacon of innovation and collaboration in addressing the urgent challenges of climate change and sustainability. With a commitment to fostering creativity and resilience in the face of complex challenges, the Design Climate Program not only educates but empowers a new generation of leaders poised to drive positive change in the world.

Mridula Mahesh is a recent graduate of Pratt’s Master of Engineering Management program who is interested in the crossroads of business, technology, and sustainability.

2024 DukEngineer Magazine