What’s your planetary solution? Yale puts out call for world-changing ideas

In a Q&A, Yale’s Julie Zimmerman describes progress made by the Yale Planetary Solutions initiative — and how members of the campus community can get involved.
Colorful mural

(Photo by Andrew Hurley)

In 2020 Yale University unveiled an ambitious new initiative, Yale Planetary Solutions (YPS), that unites leadership and experts across campus, and across disciplines, to advance solutions to the greatest environmental challenges facing the planet.

In just over three years, YPS has identified dozens of innovative projects from across the Yale community — involving 90 faculty members from 25 different departments — and has delivered funding to help get them off the ground.

And now YPS leaders are looking for more innovative ideas. They recently opened a third call for proposals through the initiative’s Seed Grant Program. And over the next few weeks, YPS will host a series of events — called ColLABoratories — where individuals from across the Yale community and beyond are invited to brainstorm ideas, meet others working on similar challenges, and explore potential opportunities for collaboration.

In an interview, Julie Zimmerman, the inaugural vice provost for planetary solutions, discussed the “astonishing” range of expertise tackling environmental threats on the Yale campus, how YPS is creating a new model for bringing these experts together and transforming their ideas into action, and how new contributors can share their own ideas.

Julie Zimmerman
Julie Zimmerman

This is exciting and important work, and we are ready as a university to take on this challenge and build Yale Planetary Solutions,” Zimmerman said. “We want this effort to be something that everyone can contribute to and feel proud of.”

There are many faculty, staff, and students across campus addressing planetary threats. How does Planetary Solutions bring these researchers together and strengthen the potential impact of their work?

Julie Zimmerman: The goal of Yale Planetary Solutions is to accelerate action and drive solutions to the greatest global threats of our time. The work going on in individual labs, programs, and schools across campus is incredibly important. But the complexity of planetary challenges demands that we also create interdisciplinary, multi-pronged solutions that leverage diverse skill sets and areas of expertise. YPS creates opportunities for Yale faculty, staff, students, alumni, and external partners to connect, identify synergies, and collaborate.

We also provide funding opportunities to facilitate this work. It’s our way of organizing people and resources to transform knowledge into positive, scalable actions that can be shared with the world. We’re breaking boundaries and encouraging people to look beyond intellectual and operational siloes to spur advances. Advances that transcend the university and have a positive impact on the planet.

Can you share some specific examples of this work?

Zimmerman: The Seed Grant program is a great example of our work to spark cross-campus collaboration and support interdisciplinary efforts that advance solutions to planetary challenges. Thanks to generous funding from the Climate Impact Innovation Fund, among others, we’ve been able to support two rounds of seed grants over the last two years. We’ve funded 40 projects, representing more than 90 faculty across 25 departments in seven different schools. For an example of the innovative work that’s going on, check out a recent video about one of the 2023 seed grant-funded projects led by Dean Kym Pinder [from Yale School of Art] and Professor Karen Seto [from Yale School of the Environment]. Their project explores the use of paint to mitigate urban heat islands through public art, particularly murals.

Anyone interested in this work should know that we’ve just launched another call for proposals through the Seed Grant Program. We’ll fund a third round of projects this spring. It’s generating tremendous excitement, and we’re looking forward to learning about all of the ideas coming from our campus community.

This spring, we’re also encouraging people to attend a series of ColLABoratories, open sessions organized around specific themes where faculty, staff, and students can come together to find collaborators, share ideas, and brainstorm new opportunities for synergistic solutions. You can learn more on our website. We expect that these events will be ongoing.

You’ve been engaged in the search for new solutions to environmental threats for a number of years on the Yale campus. How has your involvement with Planetary Solutions changed how you feel about this kind of work?

Zimmerman: I think one of the most exciting things is that we have begun to understand Planetary Solutions as a pan-university initiative. We are thinking about how everything that Yale is and does can contribute to our goals. This requires us to consider work across the entire university and beyond. How can the ways we teach (and who we teach), the ways we create knowledge and transform it into action, the ways we operate and power campus, how we build facilities, and how we interact with our surrounding communities and other partners advance our goals? This is exciting and important work, and we are ready as a university to take on this challenge and build Yale Planetary Solutions. We want this effort to be something that everyone can contribute to and feel proud of.

Has there been anything that has been particularly exciting to you about this effort since you took on this new role?

Zimmerman: Perhaps the most exciting thing — which has become even clearer to me since taking on this role — is Yale’s potential for positive impact on the planet. The depth and breadth of knowledge that the Yale community generates is astonishing. The range of expertise on this campus is just stunning. Because of this, we have an incredible opportunity to connect all of this work. We can create more robust solutions that integrate approaches from all branches of study and capture a range of perspectives.

Of course, Yale is already doing an extraordinary amount of interdisciplinary work, and that says a lot about this community’s desire to learn from each other and find solutions. The projects that bring together the theoretical and applied sciences, or the natural sciences and the humanities, or the ones working with international partners are particularly exciting to see. It has also been energizing to learn about all the work to bring our knowledge and expertise to bear on the decisions that Yale as an institution is making right here at home — from the purchase of carbon offsets to responsible investing of the endowment. All of this work drives forward our YPS endeavors. As we learn and test ourselves, we can help to define best practices and demonstrate the unique role of higher education in advancing solutions.

How is Yale positioned to contribute meaningful new solutions to the climate crisis and other environmental threats?

Zimmerman: Yale Planetary Solutions goes far beyond specific, well-identified problems because Yale has almost infinite potential to have a positive impact on the world. While the challenges that we are addressing include the climate crisis and known environmental threats, that is clearly not where it ends.  Because Yale has the ability to develop interconnected solutions to complex issues, we seek to engage the entirety of the Yale community from those currently on campus to our alumni and partners around the globe. With Yale Planetary Solutions, our challenge is focusing all of that positive potential, and enabling it to do the very best and the very most that we possibly can to inform and impact a better future for everyone.

It will require us to collaborate in new ways both within and beyond the university, explore problems in new ways with frameworks and approaches that push boundaries, and engage thoughtfully with our global community to help define priorities. This is no small challenge, but we are excited to have the opportunity for the university to lead in these critical ways.

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