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Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

Google: Searching for a Circular Transition

November 7, 2017 | Kate Brandt is the lead for sustainability at Google. In this talk, Brandt discusses Google's role in advancing the principles of a circular economy and the innovative opportunities it brings.

Related Events: Google: Searching for a Circular Transition


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley. Wrigley Lecture Series, world renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.


Christopher Boone: So our speaker tonight used to work in the military, so I need to make sure that I'm on time, 18:00 hours precisely. Now I have 18:00, so let's begin. Good evening, everyone. My name is Chris Boone. I'm the Dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. And it's my great pleasure to welcome all of you here tonight for this very special event, our Wrigley Lecture Series. Just a little bit of background on the Wrigley Lecture Series. One of the reasons why we're able to bring in such phenomenal speakers as Kate Brandt, who you'll hear from in a moment, is because of the foresight and generosity of Julie Wrigley, who, to our great fortune, attended a meeting in Temozon, Mexico-- How many years ago now? 14 years, I believe. And I think it was.

And it was a collection of some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in sustainability who got together at this retreat to try to envision how a university could be an all in institution focused on sustainability. Not something that would be bolted to an existing unit or department, but how we could create an entire university, an innovative university, a fast-moving university, that would be dedicated to the notion that all of us, in one way or another, can be engaged in trying to think about how to build a better future, or in other words, how to build a sustainable future.

And as a result of that meeting, Julie became a great champion to the Global Institute of Sustainability, which now bears her name, as well as the School of Sustainability. And wonderfully, Julie visits us very frequently and she's here tonight. So it's my great pleasure to welcome Julie to the stage, who will introduce our speaker tonight. So please join me in welcoming our own Julie Ann Wrigley.


Julie Ann Wrigley: Thank you, Dean Boone. A little bit-- just a little aside, one is when they took me down to Temozon in the Yucatan, I had one instruction and that instruction was I couldn't say anything-- Kate's heard this-- for two and a half days. Almost an impossibility. But at the end of those two and a half days, I was lucky enough to know that I was in the right place at the right time to be engaged in something very special for our planet.

I want to welcome all of you to tonight's lecture. It's always a pleasure for me to come back to ASU and witness the incredible progress made by our students, our faculty, our staff, our graduates are leading the way creating sustainable cities, companies, organizations, and communities. The Wrigley Lecture Series, as you all know or many of you know, brings leaders from across the country and around the world to ASU to inspire our students. Tonight's speaker is one of the nation's most notable pioneers-- and she's also a really neat person-- pioneers in this field.

Kate Brandt leads sustainability across Google's worldwide operations, including data centers, real estate, supply chain, and product teams. She'll speak to us about capitalizing on opportunities to advance sustainability and a circular economy. We're particularly honored by Kate's role at the federal level, as she is also, or was, our nation's first chief sustainability officer, working with President Obama. She authored the nation's executive order on sustainability and orchestrated sustainability across federal government operations. She's not old enough to have done all of this.

She previously served as a senior advisor at the US Department of Energy, executing the president's climate action plan. She was the special advisor to the Secretary of Navy, Ray Mabus, who's already been a Wrigley lecturer, and a policy analyst at the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change. It is with gratitude and honor that I welcome Kate Brandt.


Kate Brandt: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Good evening. Thank you guys so much for having me. It is such an honor to be here. Julie Ann, it's been such a pleasure getting to spend so much of the day with you and to get to know some of the students and faculty of this world-class institution that I know you've been the inspiration and the benefactor of. And Dean Boone, thank you again. It's been so fun getting to know you over the last several years. And it's such a pleasure to finally be here on campus. I've been really wanting to get here for a while.

And I have to say, I have had such a great day. I've gotten to meet with folks from across the university and, I think, truly get a sense of what Dean Boone was talking about. How, not only do you guys have a world-class Sustainability Institute here on campus, but truly, how sustainability is baked into all that you do, how you think, how you educate. And the incredibly inclusive approach that you take. So, it is truly an honor to be here, so thank you for having me.

So, I wanted to talk to you tonight about a topic that I've become really passionate about, which is the circular economy. And the way I think about the circular economy is, really, there's a few statistics that I think paint the picture for me of why this is such a critical approach for us to be taking at this time. So, during the 20th century, global raw material use rose at twice the rate of population growth. And this year, in 2017, we hit Earth Overshoot Day on August 2nd. Is anyone in the audience-- just raise your hand-- familiar with Earth Overshoot Day? All right. Yes. Very well educated audience, as I would expect. So as you know, Earth Overshoot Day represents the day in the calendar year when, essentially, we have exhausted nature's natural resource budget. And so every day since August 2nd-- we're here in November-- we've been operating in an ecological deficit. We've been drawing down local resource stocks. We've been emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that can't be absorbed. And that's 2017.

And if we look forward-- you know, for example, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2030, we're going to have 3 billion new middle class consumers. This is significant. And so, you know, for me, I don't share these statistics to be gloomy. I think that what they really present to us is a challenge that I think we are equipped to meet. Which is that we need a new 21st century model. And I think the circular economy really provides us an example of what that can look like. So when I think about the circular economy, I really think about three fundamental tenets. I think about designing with the intent of designing out waste and pollution. I think about creating assets that are designed to live at their longest and most useful state for as long as possible. And that we can endlessly cycle materials back into the system, making it as restorative and regenerative as possible.

And at Google, we believe that global businesses can lead the way in driving this transition. And we think that this is critical. And because of that, in 2015, we set a pretty ambitious goal for ourselves as a company. We said that we want to embed circular economy principles into our infrastructure, our operations, and our culture. And you know, I have to say, since we set this goal, it's been really tremendous to see how much there's been an uptick in interest in this topic of the circular economy here in the US. And I know, from my meetings today and previously, that you guys hear at ASU have really been on the cutting edge of circular economy.

But I have to say, in my last job, I was the CSO at the White House. And no one ever came to talk to me about circular economy. And I think just in the last couple of years, since we've been really focused on this at Google, I've seen this topic emerging as an approach. And I think that's really for a couple of reasons. I think, first, because in the context of the Paris climate accords, of the sustainable development goals, I really think that there is a recognition that the model that we've had since the Industrial Revolution is not really going to bring us prosperity in the 21st century. And I also think it does present new economic opportunity, new business opportunity, for double or triple bottom line models, where we're unlocking new assets, new resources in a really creative way.

And in fact, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is a great NGO in the space, that some of you may know. They did a great study back in 2015, where they looked at what was the circular economy potential just in Europe. And they predicted that that was 1.8 trillion euros by 2030. So imagine what that could look like in the US. But I have to say, I also do think that we are at a pretty critical moment in this project of accelerating the circular economy, because we need this not to just become a new buzzword or a new way of thinking about recycling, which is, of course, important, which is one part of the conversation. But rather, we really need to be accelerating a fundamental shift. And I am so excited to see all the work that ASU is doing to propel that shift. And we're trying to do our part at Google, as well. So when we think about circular economy at Google, we're really trying to approach this in two ways. First is, we're looking at it through our own operations. And then, we're also thinking about what is the role of Google technology in making this shift. So I'm going to start by sharing a little bit with you about how we're thinking about this in our operations, the progress we're making, and some of the opportunities and challenges that we see. So we're really looking at four major themes. At utilizing renewable energy, at designing waste out of our systems, at thinking in systems, and at thinking in cascades.

So first on renewable energy, we have been, at Google, operating as a carbon neutral company since 2010. So we had our-- sorry, since 2007. So we had our 10 year anniversary of being a carbon neutral company this year, which is something we're really proud of. And in 2010, we started, as a part of that initiative, buying renewable energy at scale. And now, in 2017, we're poised to reach our moonshot goal that we set for ourselves several years ago, which is to run on a 100% renewable energy. And so for us, what that means, is that every year, we're buying the same amount of renewable energy as we're consuming. And so this means we have 20 different energy projects, wind and solar, around the world, totaling about 2.6 gigawatts. So that's about the equivalent of the power that San Francisco uses in a year. Or the equivalent of taking about 1.2 million cars off the road.

And we've also been really focused on thinking about waste. So we operate a global data center fleet and we have been really focused on waste diversion in that fleet. We've gotten to about 86% diversion, which is good. And one of our data centers has reached the big goal that we set for ourselves last year, which is zero waste to landfill. And I understand here in Phoenix, you guys have a similar goal. And we know this is ambitious. We've made some good progress. But one of the reasons we set this goal is that we think this is a really important step on our circular economy journey. Because it's really when you get down to about last 10% to 20% of diversion where it gets interesting, where you can look for new community partnerships, or how you can design waste out of your system altogether. And we've also been really focused on waste in our real estate operations. We operate offices around the world in 150 cities. And so again, we've been looking at diversion. We're at about 84% in the Bay Area at our headquarters. And getting there in the rest of the world. But we also want to think about, what's the role of technology in this? How do we use technology to reduce waste from the get go? And so one thing that we've been experimenting with is, how do we reduce food waste? As you know, food waste is a huge issue. About 40% of food gets wasted here in the US. And we operate cafes all over the world. We're really lucky. We get three meals a day, if we want them, at work.

So we have an incredible test bed to think about, how do we fight technology to reduce food waste? So we've partnered with this great company up in Portland, Oregon called LeanPath. And they have a system we've brought into our kitchens. It's a scale with a camera. And it gives us information about what food is expiring. What food are we just not utilizing as well as we could be? And then, we're able to make adjustments. And just through deploying this tool in 2016, we avoided 1.5 million pounds of food waste. So really significant.

So, systems. Now as you probably know, at the heart of the internet are data centers. We think of these as our engines of the internet. And data centers are the reason that we can get our Gmail whenever we want it, or you can watch your favorite cat video on YouTube, or whatever else you like to watch. But what you may not know is how we are deploying servers inside of our data centers is actually a really incredible example of the potential of circular economy when deployed at scale.

So let me tell you what I mean by that. We have been first thinking about, how do we keep our servers going as long as possible? And how do we use parts from old servers to keep those servers in their useful life as long as possible? Then when we need to, we pull them out of our data centers. We send them to a remanufacturing facility that we operate. We [INAUDIBLE] them and we remanufacture them. Then eventually, if they've kind of ended their useful life to us, we wipe everything clean and we sell hard disks and other components on secondary markets. And then finally, whatever's left, we recycle. So through these practices, not only are we avoiding a huge amount of material, but we're also saving hundreds of millions of dollars per year. And so we published this in a case study, because we really wanted to highlight, this is a great example of, at a global scale, the ability to really reduce resource use and have a significant economic value to it.

And another area that we've been doing, I think, some really exciting work is around machine learning. And machine learning's role in driving even deeper efficiency. So, you know, this global fleet of data centers, as I mentioned, we've been building these for over 10 years now. And they have really been designed with efficiency in mind. They're about 50% more efficient than the industry average. But one of the things I love about Google is there is always someone with a solution. So we have a really fabulous young data center engineer, a guy named Jim Gao. And Jim took a machine learning class on the side. He's really interested in machine learning. You know, is there new applications in the work he does? And he said, I want to write a machine learning algorithm to see if we can optimize, even further, the cooling system in our data centers. That's where a lot of the energy use goes.

And so Jim got permission to run this experiment. And what he found was really staggering. Once he had trained this algorithm to learn the cooling system, to learn how to optimize across it, there was a 40% increase in efficiency of that system. And 15% overall reduction in energy use of that data center. And this isn't some old industrial facility. This is a high tech Google facility. And we still saw that kind of result. And so, you know, what that says is, of course, it's a huge opportunity for us. We can deploy this technology across our fleet. But also, I think it really points to the power that machine learning can hold for driving really deep efficiency. So we're starting to see partnerships emerge around ship engine efficiency. How can machine learning improve that? How can we reduce food waste with machine learning? How can we make industrial throughput more efficient? How can we improve the efficiency of grids? So I think, really powerful.

So, cascades.

So when I say cascades in the context of the circular economy, what I'm really thinking about is-- one of the core principles is that we're able to close loops. That we're able to endlessly cycle materials back into the system. Well, something really critical about that is that we know what's in those materials and that they're safe for human health. So we have been thinking about this issue in our real estate portfolio for a long time, going all the way back to 2011. We said, all right, we want to try to get all the toxic stuff out of our built environment. And unfortunately, there is still a lot of nasty stuff in our paint and in our carpets, formaldehyde, PVC. So we said, all right, we're going to start asking our suppliers, what's in your stuff? We thought this would take about six months. We'd have it all solved. Not exactly. This turns out to be a very complex challenge. And so we started working with a great partner, an NGO called the Healthy Building Network, and we built this tool called Portico. So what Portico does is it gives building project teams the ability to amass a database of information about products in our built environment. And if the information isn't there, they can ask a supplier through the tool, hey, what's in your stuff? And then teams can use that information to make informed decisions about their projects. So we've been using this on our real estate projects around the world, but we wanted to have more reach. So last year, we brought in several new partners, Harvard and a couple of development firms, Perkins+Will and Durst, to actually try to make this tool accessible to everyone. So we're working on that now.

And the other tool that we've built with the Healthy Building Network and several other partners is called Quartz. And this is a database that has information about 100 commonly used building products. And it's intended to try to close this gap about information about material health. And another cool example of a project we've been working on is looking at, how do we solve a few challenges through a systems approach, through this circular economy thinking. So one challenge we're interested in solving is concrete has gravel, water, other components, but it can often include fly ash or slag, which is the residue from coal fired power plants. And we have some concerns about bringing that into our built environment. The science is still out, but we'd like to move in a different direction. And at the same time, as you probably know, cement is very carbon intensive to manufacture. And then we were faced with another problem, recycling of glass. There's a lot of glass that's going into municipal recycling systems that's not actually getting recycled, because it isn't cost effective.

So we thought, could we solve these challenges at once? Could we turn that glass into a composite that we can put into the concrete, into a post [INAUDIBLE]? And so we're now experimenting with this. It has a lower carbon footprint, it doesn't have fly ash or slag slagging it, and it's a new source for glass to have a second life. So we've been piloting this on campus, in Mountain View, and we're excited about its potential.

So I mentioned that we've been thinking about circular economy in our operations, but also, what's the role of technology? And we've gotten really interested in this topic of cities as a really important place to think about this transition to a circular economy. Today, about 54% of people live in urban areas, live in cities. And cities account for about 50% of global waste and 60% to 80% of carbon emissions. So, a really important place for us to work on accelerating the circular economy.

So when I think about a circular city, I kind of think about four major tenants. First, we have the built environment. And not built environment would be incredibly flexible and modular. It would include healthy materials. And it would be designed for disassembly and reuse. So when you were done with the building, you could disassemble it and reuse those component parts. And I think you would also have an energy system that's resilient, efficient, and clean. It would have a transportation system that reduces congestion and air pollution. And it would have a food system where we're designing out waste. And we're bringing food and nutrients back into the bio cycle.

So, we think that there are already some Google technologies that are going to help us make this transition. So I'm just going to give you a couple examples of those. So the first is Project Sunroof. This is one of my favorites. So Project Sunroof was the brainchild of my colleague, Carl Elkin. He's at our Google office out in Cambridge. And Carl and his wife wanted to get solar panels up on their roof, but they felt like it was kind of hard to figure out. Would it actually work on their roof? Who were the solar developers in their area? And so Carl said, I think we could probably take the 3D imagery that we have in Google Earth and build a really easy tool to answer these questions for people. So a couple of years later, Project Sunroof was born. And so, what you can do-- I'm curious, has anybody in the room used Project Sunroof? All right, a couple of you guys. All right, well, you should check it out. It's available in all 50 states and Germany.

And what you can do is, you can type in your address and then based on 3D earth imagery, we can make a calculation, see if the orientation, shading, for a roof is good for solar. Then, how much money could you save? Who are the solar developers in your area? And then, we've built on top of this tool something called a data explorer. And the data explorer enables whole communities to estimate their solar potential, so that this can be a tool for policymakers. And then more recently, through machine learning, we've also brought in information about who's already put solar panels on their roof. So through an algorithm, we've already identified about 700,000 rooftops with solar. And we're working on finding the rest of them.

So another great project is Project Air View. So what you see up here, you may have seen these out on the road. These are our street view cars. So these are the cars that drive all around the world, they make Google Maps possible. But on a few of them, we have been attaching air quality sensors. So we started this work with the Environmental Defense Fund several years ago. And we started with methane sensors. And we drove around in several cities and we were able to detect methane leaks. And this is really important, because, of course, in small quantities, methane is a very high global warming potential greenhouse gas. And in higher quantities, it's dangerous. So utilities like New Jersey's PSE&G were able to use this information to prioritize their pipeline upgrades.

But then, we met this great sensor company out in the Bay Area, called Aclima. And they said, not only can we sense methane, but NOx, SOx, particulate matter, CO2. And so we said, great, let's try that. And so in 2015, we started attaching those air quality sensors to street view cars in a few different cities around California. And actually, just today, we released a big chunk of data about what we've learned. And it's incredibly powerful-- you can check this out on our blog-- to see these air quality maps. You can see at a street by street level how air quality is changing. And we think that this can be an incredibly powerful tool for community groups, for policymakers, to improve the environmental quality of their communities. And we also think it can really make it more real for people that air quality issues are here in our communities today. And we think this can be really empowering.

So another interesting example is Waze. Probably many of you have used Waze. You may have even used it to get here today. So of course, as you know, Waze is a mobility app. We all can contribute data to it to help ourselves get around as efficiently and effectively as possible. But also, Waze runs a really neat program called the Connected Citizens Program. So they have partnered with over 400 cities and emergency authorities around the world to share data to help cities do better planning and better traffic management. And a neat example of this is that in advance of the Olympic Games that were being hosted in Brazil a couple of years ago, Waze partnered to help prepare for one of the biggest traffic events in the world. And it was very successful.

And then, of course, when we think about efficiency, there are great tools out there like Nest. You may have a Nest in your home, on your wall. So you may know how this one works. But Nest it is a learning thermostat. So that's the machine learning again. And Nest figures out, how do you optimize across heating and cooling in a home. And Nest has already shown some really tremendous results. So Nests have been out there since about 2011. And since that time, we've saved about 13 billion kilowatt hours of energy. That's about the same as what it would take to power 20 million refrigerators for a year, so not bad.

So in closing, you know, I just wanted to say, I think that we see these really interesting trends emerging, the digital revolution, circular economy, and the movement to cities. And of course, you know, I cited the stat about 54% of people living in cities today. By 2050, That's going to be 75%. And I am really inspired and encouraged by the circular economy model as an approach that we can use to really address challenges and drive sustainable development. And again, I really believe that global businesses can lead the way on this. And we're excited to be playing a part and I'm thrilled to see the role that ASU is playing as well. So thanks so much for having me.


Christopher Boone: Thank you very much, Kate, for that very inspiring talk. And before we get started with our own little conversation here, I want to present you with a gift. This is a bell that's made by the folks up at Arcosanti and if you're familiar with them-- I'm going to ring it, because it sounds good.

Kate Brandt: That is beautiful.

Christopher Boone: And this was a quasi-utopian community that was created by Paolo Soleri, the architect, where he was trying to blend ecology with urban planning. And it's open today. So if you ever go up Highway 17 North, you can stop off and take a look at it.

Kate Brandt: I'll have to stop and check it out.

Christopher Boone: But we love their bells. And is this one embossed with the-- it's embossed with the ASU symbol. So, when the wind's blowing in San Francisco, which I know it doesn't happen that often, you'll be reminded of us.

Kate Brandt: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Christopher Boone: And you're never going to get through TSA with this, so we're going to mail it to you.

Kate Brandt: Oh, thank you.


Christopher Boone: OK. We asked for some questions before your talk. And so I'm going to just go through a few of these, if I may. I don't think anything any of them will be-- hopefully, not too surprising, but I think these are some excellent questions in here. Just bear with me while I get my glasses on. So one of the questions that came to us, these are from students and faculty. That's better. Are there any sustainability initiatives that you would judge to be transformative rather than incremental? And if so, how do you know what success looks like? How do you know that you've transformed something rather than just made small, incremental changes?

Kate Brandt: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I think, as you guys may know, these kind of-- we think of them as 10x shifts at Google-- are really what our company was founded on. And I think that there are huge 10x solutions in the sustainability space as well. I think the one that I'm most excited about right now, I spoke to in my remarks, which is the potential of machine learning and AI. You know, I gave that example of our data centers, where we saw this 40% increase in efficiency. And in a highly efficient system. That all of the smartest engineers-- and we have some really smart engineers at Google-- could not have possibly done that on their own. And so I think that points to a really potentially transformative solution.

Christopher Boone: Excellent. Thank you. Another question, how will industry disruptions based on shared economy principles, such as Waymo, play in moving society closer to resource neutrality by increasing asset use per person?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I think this is another really interesting trend, that I think is sort of owned by the circular economy movement. The ability to utilize assets in new ways. So we've seen different ride-hailing services that have done that. We've seen the Airbnbs of the world that have done that. And I think it is really powerful to think about, how do we shift our relationship to natural resources? How do we use them at their highest utility and their highest utilization rate? And so, I think that's a really important part of the conversation. And I think that, certainly, self-driving cars have a role to play in that. And I think new business models have a role to play in that too. You know, thinking about, as a service models, thinking about, how do we close loops by either having the manufacture of a product, take it back in, or new industrial symbiotic relationships. So I think there's a huge amount of value to be unlocked there.

Christopher Boone: Great. Thank you. While Google is working toward sustainable operations, how does Google use search engine queries and other collected data from its user base to provide information on local, regional, and global trends in sustainability? And if you can use that to detect shifts to increase sustainability or increase use of sustainability practices or circular economy as well.

Kate Brandt: Yeah, it's a great question. So probably a lot of you have utilized the Google Trends tool. I love to use it. And what's interesting is, we don't have any special back functionality with that tool. The way that we all can use it at home is the same way we have it at Google. But we have been thinking about this exact question, of how can we share insights into what's on people's minds? And we've done this a few times in the past. But I would love to see us do more of that. So it's in the works, so stay tuned.

Christopher Boone: I remember a couple of years ago, there was a story about how people making queries about flu symptoms actually help to predict flu outbreaks. So Google seemed to provide that information. So it would be interesting to see if you could do the same thing for sustainability.

Kate Brandt: Yeah. And I know we do it with other things, like Halloween costumes. You know, we predicted the most popular Halloween costumes. Yes, I would love to see us--

Christopher Boone: What was the most popular Halloween costume?

Kate Brandt: I think it was Wonder Woman this year.

Christopher Boone: Wonder Woman.

Kate Brandt: It's a pretty good one.

Christopher Boone: Aren't you Wonder Woman? You are to us. How is a culture of sustainability cultivated at Google and how is it operationalized? You talked about this a little bit in your presentation. But obviously, it takes more than just one individual. How do you generate that culture shift? These are important questions, I think, to all institutions.

Kate Brandt: Yeah, most certainly. So I've been at Google for a little over two years and I've worked in the sustainability space for a long time. And something that I just find to be really amazing is how much sustainability is really embedded in our culture and in how we think. So we're a 19-year-old company now. And I really think it is embedded in how we've grown up, how we've approached building our data centers, how we've approached our real estate, how we think about our products. And so that's really powerful. And what that looks like today, 19 years later, is that we have a bunch of different sustainability teams that are embedded in different parts of our business. In our data center team, in our real estate team, in our supply chain team, and many others.

And then I have the great honor of working across all of those teams to think about, what's our strategy? How can we do more together? Where can we take new leadership positions? And that's the many people we have across the company that their day job is sustainability. But as you guys know, everyone's day job should be sustainability. And we're, again, really lucky, and I'm sure this is true here at ASU as well, that our Google community is incredibly passionate about this issue. And I have spent a lot of time thinking about, how do we ensure we are communicating with them and empowering them to get involved even if it isn't necessarily a big chunk of their day jobs? So we've come up with ways to get them involved in projects, volunteer opportunities, the newsletters, through tech talk series, bringing people in to talk about these issues. But I think there's always more work to be done on that.

Christopher Boone: So when Google employees are onboarded, do they receive any kind of sustainability training? Is that part of the HR process?

Kate Brandt: We're actually working on that right now. So we have-- our training is called the Noogler training. That's what we call new Googlers, are Nooglers. So we're actually working with that team right now to think about what that could look like.

Christopher Boone: Wonderful. One of the things that we're proud of here is that all employees at ASU have to take a course-- it's probably on some of your to-do lists, on your tasks-- it's called Seeds of Sustainability. Is Mick in the room? Mick Dalrymple? Is he here? Well, he stars in the movie. It's actually quite good. And we're really proud of that, because it's, again, to the goal and aspiration of making sure that everyone knows that everyone can play a role in achieving the sustainability goals. And also for all staff at the University, they're evaluated in part by their contributions to sustainability. So there's a built in incentive as well.

Kate Brandt: I'd love to check out the video. We're trying to make our own video actually.

Christopher Boone: OK, good. Maybe we can co-brand it.


That might increase our hit rate. Search engine optimization. Put Google as your partner. What perspective do you have on food choices in the circular economy and/or in advancing Google's sustainability goals? You talked a little bit about reducing food waste, but does food choice play a role in the strategy as well?

Kate Brandt: Yeah, absolutely. So you know, the food waste work, I think, has been really powerful. But also, we've been really focused on thinking about more plant forward diets. And so that's for us, you know, a culture shift and it's fundamentally about taste and how do we make better food that is also plant forward and more sustainable. And we have an incredible food team that thinks about this every day. And we've also been thinking about the role of urban biocycles and urban farming. And we've done a little bit of experimenting on campus. We have this shipping container called the Leafy Green Machine and we're able to grow some herbs and some lettuces in the shipping container with far less water. And they're right across the way from the cafe. And so that's just sort of one small pilot that we're doing, but I think that points to the really tremendous opportunity that there is for urban farming and for really rethinking urban biocycles.

Christopher Boone: How is Google using the strength of its resources' near ubiquitous brand, given 1.2 billion people still lack access to electricity and may not have heard of Google, to reach and educate developing portions of the world that would benefit greatly from a circular economy?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. So I think for us, I talked a little bit about some of the tools we've developed. But we have a lot of other tools that we've built on top of Google Earth and on top of Google Earth Engine that at a global scale, can help communities, for example, project their fisheries. We have a tool called Global Fishing Watch where we unlock this data set. There are 200,000 ships at sea at any given time. And they're constantly pinging out a signal.

And so we used a machine learning algorithm to look at those signals, two million plus signals, and to learn, what's a fishing boat, what's a sailboat, or a tanker, or something else, and then, to create a map that shows you where fishing activity is happening in real time. And so we've started to see communities around the world, from the Galapagos to [INAUDIBLE], starting to use that tool to protect their fisheries. And we've seen the same thing with Global Forest Watch. Same idea. We were able to track 100% of tropical rainforests globally. And we've seen communities in Brazil, in the Philippines, and in Peru, use this tool to protect their local resources. So one of the things that we really try to do is empower people through the data.

Christopher Boone: That's excellent. Thank you. A question about the multiple hats that you've worn. So you've worked for the Secretary of the Navy, and then the White House, and now at Google. What were you able to achieve in each of those that you wouldn't have been able to achieve in the other? So now that you're working for Google, what opportunities has it opened up that you weren't able to achieve in the White House and vice versa?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I think, I've touched on it a little bit this evening, but the thing that gets me really excited about our work at Google is not only the ability to really lead by example in our own operations, but also the role of technology. And really getting to sit at this intersection point of starting to see what's possible from machine learning, from cloud computing, from geo-mapping. And I've learned a ton being at Google and doing this work. So that's been really powerful.

And I think on the federal government side, the federal government is the single largest energy user in the world, largely on account of the Department of Defense. And so having the privilege to have worked on sustainability in the federal government, you know, when we set goals like three gigawatts of renewable energy for the military, which was met-- in fact, I see one of my colleagues in the audience who I know worked on that-- that is tremendously powerful. Both because it shows what's possible and because it can really move the needle on a huge energy consumer.

Christopher Boone: Excellent. When you're approached and asked about your position-- I mean, this is something that our sustainability suits ask all the -- what's the elevator speech or what's the short description that you provide for sustainability and its role and importance for a company like Google? Do you start with sustainability or do you start with something else and then lead conversation towards sustainability?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. You know, it's a good question. And I'm always trying to find the best way of talking about it. But I think what I always come back to as it relates to Google-- that was kind of what I was saying a moment ago-- that really built into our DNA is a systems thinking approach, is wanting to be as efficient as possible, wanting to create products that have a positive impact for people on the planet. So that's kind of usually where I start, which isn't necessarily about sustainability, it's really about our founding principles and the same ones we operate on today.

Christopher Boone: You know, we had a speaker from Starbucks, I'm blanking on his name. But he told the story of how, when he first-- do you remember? Who was the former sustainability officer for Starbucks? Help me out here, people.

Audience Member: Jim Hanna?

Christopher Boone: Jim Hanna.

Kate Brandt: I know Jim Hanna. He's great.

Christopher Boone: You know Jim? OK. So Jim told the story about when he first got to Starbucks, he was running around from department to department, trying to press the sustainability case, saying, this is important. This is the core value the company. We need to be working on this. And he basically got brushed off by most of the individuals, who said, well, I've got a real job to do, you go do it. You need to do. And then, what he found was that the more effective strategy was to first to walk in with the business case. Say, I'm going to save you some money. This is how I'm going to do it. So making the business case, do you find that that's the kind of conversation that you need to have within Google and working with partners? Is that the key leading part of the conversation? Or can you start with other sets of prerogatives or priorities and ideas?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I think for us at Google, it is really coequal. The business case is critical. And the business case has really been there for all of our key initiatives, for the deep energy efficiency that we've given in our data centers, for how we're rethinking how we use resources in our servers, our purchasing of renewable energy, is a great hedge for us. It makes business sense. So that is critical. But I think equally important is that this is what we think that we should be doing. This is what we think that every global company should be doing for the planet, for this generation and future generations. So it's very much both for us.

Christopher Boone: You talked today, but also in your presentation, about the importance of the machine learning. So if you're looking out on the horizon, what do you see as some potential benefits? Also some potential things to watch out for, some cautionary tales? Because clearly, this raises the ire some people who think that this is going to replace occupations. So if you could talk a little bit about how Google, and even from your own perspective, what you think are the potential benefits and windfalls as well as some perils.

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I think that the potential for efficiency and optimization is tremendous. And I talked a little bit about some of those early use cases that we're seeing, you know, advertising grids, optimizing engines, even food waste. So I think there are huge applications. And I think we've really only just scratched the surface. But I also think you're absolutely right. I think that machine learning and AI has to be stewarded in an incredibly responsible way. And that is a huge value to Google. That's sort of less part of my personal role there, but as a company, this is a huge priority for us. And really thinking about, how can machine learning be an enabler of the jobs of the future?

Christopher Boone: Great. There's a question here about e-waste, electronic waste. About a decade ago, there was a lot of concern about e-waste ending up in impoverished parts of the world and it being treated under some pretty difficult circumstances and exposing people to toxins and so forth. What role is Google playing in trying to make sure that e-waste part of the circular economy isn't ending up in places where it shouldn't?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I think there are-- we kind of think of this as those inner loop solutions that I talked about, is actually trying to not generate the waste to begin with. Of how do we, for us with our servers, reuse parts, remanufacture, sell them to secondary markets? So that's a focus. But of course, we also have to recycle responsibly. And so, you need to work with certified recyclers and we offer take-back programs for our electronics. We just launched a new trade-in program as well for our electronics. So absolutely, I think that's a key priority.

Christopher Boone: So in one of the conversations today, you talked about Google as being 90% of Alphabet, but Alphabet being the other 10%. And so, in what ways are you working with encouraging sustainability across the other bets?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, we have an incredible family of companies and it's growing all the time. You know, one of the really powerful ones I mentioned in my talk is Nest. You know, one of their primary products is the learning thermostat. And I gave those statistics about really deep efficiency savings for our customers. And more recently, launching a low cost version of the thermostat. So that's an incredibly powerful solution. But we also have other Alphabet companies that are doing really interesting work in this space. We have X, which used to be called Google X or Moonshot Lab. They do a lot of work in this space, most of it we can't talk about. Some of it I don't even know about. But one of their--

Christopher Boone: We wouldn't tell.


Christopher Boone: One of their more public-facing projects is called Makani, which is an energy kite technology. And the concept behind Makani is that, rather than a traditional wind turbine, it's a kite. So it can go up much higher, get access to much more consistent wind, and use about 90% less material than a large scale wind turbine. I could go on and on, but there's lots of great projects happening out in the Alphabet family as well.

Christopher Boone: That's excellent. So if you don't mind, we can turn to something a little more personal. And that is, how did you get to where you are? I mean, when did it start for you? You heard from Julie today about the abalone story. So it was watching the abalone disappear from the coast of California and not be able to see Catalina Island. It's something that inspired her, even as a young child. What charted your pathway to where you are now? Say a little bit about the history, your own history.

Kate Brandt: Yeah. Julie, it was so fun to share our stories today, because we have these similar stories, kind of based on the coast of California. So my mind is somewhat of a similar one. I grew up in northern California, in a really small, little beach town called Muir Beach, named after John Muir. And I was so lucky that most of the surrounding area was national and state parkland. And so I got to the beach and go hiking and horseback riding pretty much every day, all of growing up. And I just loved being in nature. And I felt, from a very young age, really passionate about conservation and protecting the environment. And it really grew from there for me. It's really, ever since then, it's just been my passion.

Christopher Boone: So did you anticipate that you would be-- I know it's a difficult question-- but did you anticipate you'd be working in sustainability based on what you studied as an undergraduate? Did you have your path charted then? Or did it-- was it more a series of happy accidents?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. A little bit of both, I would say. I studied international relations in undergrad and grad school. And a lot of my research looked at the role of natural resources in conflict and in security. In my graduate work, I particularly focused on energy and climate security. So that was sort of my core academic interest. And I had this incredible opportunity to work for the Secretary of the Navy and to really work on these issues in the early part of my career. But it was also in my work at the Navy that I fell in love with this kind of broader vision of sustainability, because we had 100 Navy and Marine Corps installations that really, who were motivated to think about energy and water and waste in their fleets. And so, you know, that kind of opened my eyes to this even broader world. And I think I'll probably do this the rest of my life.

Christopher Boone: Well, we hope you do, because the world needs you. So there's quite a number of students here tonight. So if you're able to talk directly to them, what should they be-- how should they be spending their time here during their college years? What can prepare them for work in the field of sustainability, whether it's for Google, or for the military, or the White House, or other companies? What advice would you give to them?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. And you know, it was so wonderful that you guys gave me the chance to meet several students. I know a couple of you are here tonight. But I'm so impressed with your passion. And we need you so much. So I feel so grateful that you guys are providing this incredible education. And you know, what I saw from the great minds in the room gives me an incredible amount of hope. And I think they're already doing all the things they need to be doing. But I mean I think for me, it's really about, as you guys approach this issue, it's incredibly interdisciplinary. We need people in literally every field to be thinking about how do we tackle these challenges, whether that's engineers, or biologists, or business majors. I think we all need--

Christopher Boone: Or sustainability majors.

Kate Brandt: Or sustainability majors. Most certainly.

Christopher Boone: Shameless plug.


Kate Brandt: So I think my advice is-- and Julie said this earlier today-- is really follow your passions. You know, I feel like I've been really lucky to do that in my career. And I learned a tremendous amount during my education, but I've learned so much on the job. And so I think it's getting those internship opportunities. It's taking a class that might feel a little bit outside your comfort zone. And it was fun even hearing from students today, folks who said, well, I came and I was undeclared. I took a sustainability class and I was hooked, you know, and that's it. But, yeah. I think it's just follow your passions.

Christopher Boone: Follow your passions. I like that. So, one of the things that we talk a lot about, especially as we try to anticipate what we need to do over the next 10 years, is how to scale solutions. So we spend a lot of our time and effort and energy doing something that's really important, which is educating students and we understand the value of that. But we also, within the Institute, think seriously about how can we take good ideas and scale them so they don't just reach 70,000 students that we have here at ASU, but how-- to Gary Dirks, who's the director of the Institute, would argue, how do we reach hundreds of millions of people? And even then, that will only be a small percentage of the total global population in the years to come. So, what's the role of Google, but what's the role of other institutions in taking those ideas and in reaching the scale that's really necessary to make a dent in the sustainability project?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I'm so impressed by, of course, not only what you guys are doing here on campus, but your incredibly inclusive approach to education. And you know, I think that's the work you're doing in the community, the work that you're doing by bringing so much access to education online, that to me seems critical. And I think equally with Google, you know, we're constantly thinking about, how do we use our platforms to unlock data, to make it accessible to as many people as possible? So I think that's really the key.

Christopher Boone: So one of the things that our students often ask us to help with is the issues that they're dealing with are quite complex. I mean, trying to get them to understand the dynamics of socio-ecological technical systems, how to intervene in them in order to build a better future. There's a lot of knowledge techniques, methods, and everything else that's locked up in that. But the one message that we often get is, how do we explain it to our relatives? How do we communicate that? All right? So Thanksgiving is coming up, and so when Aunt so and so leans across the room from you and says, you're studying what? And then giving them the tools to explain what they're doing. So I'm thinking in terms of, how does Google tell its story around sustainability? And I presume it's more than just you, but what kind of strategies do you use to use the power of Google, which is fabulous, as a way of telling the story of what Google's doing for sustainability?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. It's a really good question. And I think we're constantly trying to get better at that, to tell you the truth. I think we've used a lot of different tools over the years. A big part of our strategy has been to try to share as much of our work as we can, share our learnings. So we've published white papers, and case studies, and blogs, and videos on YouTube. We've put out, more recently, a couple of environmental reports, where we've really tried to pull all of the information together in one place. But we're always looking for suggestions, because I think this is a challenge for all of us in this space, is how do we explain this work? And how do we both really explain the depth of it to our more technical audiences as well as to our aunts and uncles at the Thanksgiving table? So I think we're still working on it too.

Christopher Boone: OK, thanks. One of the things that we found incredibly valuable, we take a very big tent approach, which I hope you've managed to surmise from today's discussion. So I'm looking at Paul Hirt, historian. The role of narrative is really important. We've got Peter Byck here, who's a documentary filmmaker. So what we try to do is to bring in a whole breadth of assets of the University, of people who can help us tell the story in ways that are meaningful and impactful, whether that's through literature, or film, or storytelling, or visualization. You talk a little bit about visualization as well. So we, like you, are continuing to try to find ways to actually improve our ability to tell those stories. I think it's very important. So, I know you've been at Google for two years, right? And you said you want to be there for life, is that right?

Kate Brandt: I mean, I want to be working on these issues--

Christopher Boone: Oh, working. OK.

Kate Brandt: I'll stay as long as they'll have me.

Christopher Boone: All right. You want to say publicly that you're going to be there.

Kate Brandt: Out no, no, but I want to be doing this work.

Christopher Boone: So where else, maybe not you in particular, but where do you see the new and emerging opportunities in sustainability? Obviously, Google is an IT company, but more than that now. But where do you see some new opportunities for sustainability inroads, whether it's in different economic sectors, different parts of the world, different approaches?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, I think that I'm seeing opportunities all the time. You know, I think we've talked a little bit today about cities. I think the incredible role that city governments are playing in really taking on sustainability and resilience in very powerful ways. I think, equally, at the state level, at the federal level, really, really important work has been done and will continue to be done. You know, I also really admire the work that's happening in academic institutions. I think that's incredibly important. As well as the NGO community and civil society.

And the business community. You know, it's not just the tech sector. I think that we're seeing really important shifts that are being driven by customers, by employees, by investors, that are really driving companies to take this on in a really powerful way and at a global scale. And I actually think the investment community as well. You're really starting to see institutional investors, private equity firms, really taking this on and really thinking about environmental social governance issues as necessary to making strong long term investments. So I think we're seeing it proliferating across a lot of different sectors.

Christopher Boone: . We've seen some evidence of that with some of the investment fund discussions that we've been having recently. It seems like it's a burgeoning part of that industry. One discussion we've actually had within the board-- the Global Institute of Sustainability board-- is the notion and idea of a carbon tax. Has there been any discussion within Google about putting a price on carbon? And if so, where is it? Who controls it? Who's responsible for it? Is the initiative coming from you, from another office? Is it part of the conversation?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I mean, we have not taken a position on that, because that's for public policy matter. And I think for us, we've really seen the business case for the work that we've done. So I talked a little bit about our work on renewable energy. There's a really strong business case for us. These are very competitive contracts we're signing. And they're really serving as a hedge for us against financial fluctuations in the brown power market. So you know, we've really just seen that that business case is strong.

Christopher Boone: I'm sure you're aware that Microsoft is now taxing itself with its internal carbon tax. What's your take on that? Do you think it's a valuable tool, an experiment, interesting, crazy? What are your thoughts about it?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. I know they've been doing it for quite some time. And you know, we set this carbon neutral commitment in 2007. They set one a few years later. And the way that they structured that was they had this internal carbon tax as a piece of that and I think it's great. I've chatted with Rob Bernard, who's wonderful, who leads their sustainability program, about it. And it seems like it's unlocked interesting opportunities for them. I think, for us, we've taken a slightly different approach, but are getting in a lot of the same ends.

Christopher Boone: So I mentioned Microsoft, but I haven't mentioned Apple. So when you combine those three-- and I know that it forms some kind of acronym now, along with Facebook, but I don't remember what it is. To what degree are you collaborating with those large organizations to achieve some kind of common sustainability goals? Is it pure competition or do you actually do some collaborative work?

Kate Brandt: Yeah. You know, I know my peers at all of those companies. And I think we really value seeing each other conferences and getting together and sharing what we're up to. And like I said, I mean, we really try to share a lot of this work more broadly too. And we have come together on certain things. We've partnered with other tech companies on policy initiatives, on driving towards a green source rider in North Carolina, so that we have access to a green tariff. We came together with other tech companies to provide an amicus brief to the Supreme Court as they were considering a clean power plan.

So, yeah, there are definitely lots of examples where we've come together. And not just get tech companies too. I mentioned the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. I know you guys work with them very closely as well. And you know, they bring this tremendous network, not only of tech companies, but Nike and Unilever and Phillips. And we really value the opportunity to collaborate through lots of different forums, but one's been a really good one for us.

Christopher Boone: That's excellent. Education. So our core mission is education, but I know you do some work in education as well. So what are the education initiatives at Google that are pushing the notion and idea of sustainability? Not just for the company, but other parts of the world.

Kate Brandt: So I've talked a little bit about some of our geo tools. And our team has done some really incredible work in that space, using geo-technology to basically create virtual field trips or to create voyager experiences. So we say in the new Google Earth that we create these experiences that are learning journeys that are geospatial in nature. So I think there is a huge amount of opportunity there. And we really have been particularly focused on it in that way of, how do we use our platforms to give people greater appreciation of the planet through technology?

Christopher Boone: So one of the areas of expertise, in part given where we are, is on urban sustainability here at ASU. And on our way over to the design building today, you talked about Sidewalk Lab, is that what it is? Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because some people-- I wasn't familiar with it and some people might actually like to take advantage of it.

Kate Brandt: Yeah. So Sidewalk Labs is one of our Alphabet companies. They're based in New York. And they're thinking about, what is the role of technology in cities of the future? And how can technology improve people's lives in cities? And you may have seen, they recently entered into a partnership with the city of Toronto to basically redesign a new district, sort of with this philosophy of how to use technology to improve people's lives in cities. So I'm excited to see what comes of that project.

Christopher Boone: Yeah. Especially given your comments about the trajectory for urbanization. If we can use those tools to start now rather than retrofitting later, then clearly, we can make some huge advances.

Kate Brandt: Exactly.

Christopher Boone: OK. It's 19:00 hours now. So, I'd like to thank you very much for the talk that you gave here this evening, the conversation. I really appreciate it. But could all of you please join me again in thanking Kate Brandt for this fabulous presentation?


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, for educational and non-commercial use only.