Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Summer of Research and Traveling: My Search for Sustainability Hits the Road

This summer, I am conducting a research project on four different community-based energy conservation initiatives. I will travel extensively through this comparative case study, as I will spend approximately two weeks with energy conservation programs in Baltimore, Washington DC, Minneapolis, and Corvallis OR. In each location, I hope to learn how each program organizes and empowers citizens to conserve energy. In addition, I hope to observe and learn from each city's unique history, architecture, and culture. I am very excited to share my summer experiences with you through this blog.

My research will primarily focus on building qualitative system dynamics models for each program.  To create these models, I plan to use a participatory technique called “group model building.”  In this technique, the program members themselves will do most of the model building and I will merely facilitate the sessions.  This will hopefully lead to team learning and systemic understanding, as group model building sessions allow participants to see the interrelated nature of many different variables and describe feedback processes in great detail.

In many ways, my summer research is highly unorthodox.  By using group model building rather than statistical analysis to examine the dynamics energy conservation, I am taking a subjective view in a field that typically consists of empirical, objective studies.  In addition, most group model building sessions are conducted by a 3-5 person team, with different tasks and realms delegated for each person. For my research, I am “flying solo,” and will thus need to train program members in basic modeling skills as I go. While having only one person direct group model building sessions may be difficult, it also provides a high level of flexibility, as I will not have to consult anyone else before going “off script” and changing the session’s design.

Ultimately, I hope to accomplish two things through this project.  First, I seek to gain a better understanding of the various strategies possible in promoting energy conservation.  By spending close to two weeks with each energy conservation program, I expect to gain a solid understanding of its strengths, weaknesses, and overall dynamics.  Second, I desire to hone my skills as a model builder and group facilitator.  I believe that the technique of group model building has a huge potential to help progressive organizations achieve their goals of implementing positive social change, especially for groups dealing with complex “messy” issues.  By using this technique throughout the summer, I hope to learn how systems modeling can move from an academic exercise conducted by experts into a useful tool readily accessible to any group.

There is no guarantee that I will succeed in either of these goals.  However, I know my chances of success will be much higher with the support of my mentors, family, and friends.  Therefore, I am plan to blog regularly as my research progresses.

Ideally, this blog will become a running narrative of my all of my summer experiences. I encourage comments, as I would love to see this blog stimulate new conversations about energy conservation, systems modeling, and community organizing.  Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy my search for sustainability.

If you are interested in reading more about the details of my research project, please see my next post “My Summer Research Project: The Executive Summary.”

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