Cassandra Telenko joined Georgia Tech in January 2015. Her prior appointments include a postdoctoral research position in the MIT-SUTD International Design Centre with joint appointments at MIT and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). She was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin where she earned her PhD in Mechanical Engineering. Her work in eco-design results in methods for analyzing environmental impacts of design decisions, redesigning products for energy efficiency, modeling usage contexts, and providing actionable guidelines to help designers reduce environmental impacts.
What brought you to Georgia Tech?
The students and facilities at Georgia Tech are incredible. But, the most distinguishing feature, I think, of Georgia Tech, even during the interview process, is that I'm treated as part of a team. I'm not a lone researcher proving herself, but part of a group of top researchers, educators, and thought leaders addressing the most pressing interdisciplinary issues. Everyone is invested in the success of their colleagues.
What are some exciting new trends and concepts in sustainable design?
If you look at the leading businesses and innovation trends(there's a great article from Harvard Business Review a few years ago), you'll see that movement toward sustainable design is really a development process that requires deliberate incremental increase in understanding of supply chains, impact metrics, and opportunities. It's hard to find widespread trends as many are various ends of the spectrum, but some of the most cutting edge approaches embrace these various levels of competencies when creating tools for designers and decision makers. Sustainability and environmental sustainability has moved beyond recycled materials and alternative energy to more holistic perspectives with increased efforts toward interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary systems, such as food systems, and the social and psychological issues are gaining more attention. Some of the most forward thinking businesses and researchers are starting to innovate in collaboration with their competitors and seemingly unrelated industries (e.g. Ford Motor Co. and Whirlpool for MyEnergi Lifestyle) as they solve these problems that are bigger than one discipline or one corporation.
How does the United States compare to other countries in terms of energy conservation and sustainable systems design?
There is certainly more traction and popular interest in sustainability in the United States than there was when I was a sophomore in college and studying abroad in Germany. The main differences that I see now are in the focus, while the U.S. research is mostly focused on technology development, my colleagues in Europe, for example, are bringing in new social, international development, and design aspects. The United Nations Environmental Program is invested in a number of projects with European researchers and universities to create more sustainable businesses practices globally. I'm currently part of the steering committee for Design Society's EcoDesign special interest group, along with top researchers from the Netherlands, France, and Sweden and one of our current initiatives is connect researchers in eco-design and map out the cutting edge research goals for our field. We still have a lot to learn from biology about how sustainability and energy work or fail at a systems level and can inspire design (an area in which U.S. research is exploring, but in which industry could invest more). Also, there's a lot more to be done to understand the social and global implications of energy systems from a life cycle perspective.
What role will materials play in improving the economic and social benefits of sustainable design?
Materials are a key obstacle in many aspects of society, energy, and environment at many levels and scales. First, we need to research and design materials that enable technologies, like photovoltaics, to achieve higher efficiencies with reduced impact (such as precious materials and the 100-300 kg of CO2 per meter square of silicon). Second, we need to develop metrics and decision-making approaches for balancing tradeoffs, as we might see in hybrid vehicles. How does compare the benefits of reduced petroleum consumption and drawbacks of increased lithium in hybrid vehicles? My work is generally in the latter area, looking at how users behave and utilize resources like energy, but we need more work that bridges the two areas, and there is a lot of interesting progress combining optimization and multi-disciplinary simulation and design of materials from nano- to macro- scale.
Energy efficiency is often viewed as a cost rather than an opportunity. What will it take to change this perception?
Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute likes to say that money is lining the walls of factory floors due to poor, low efficient design, and I tend to agree. Utilities are some of the most successful, creating efficiency programs to avoid building more power plants. A lot of opportunities for energy efficiency are missed or become costly because they are designed more ad-hoc or tacked on instead of up-front as central performance metrics. With better, more holistic design, energy savings and new business opportunities can be realized. The only way to change this perspective is via example, and that is happening. Energy is a more pressing and important topic every day.
If you were not teaching/conducting research, what would you be doing?
I find it hard to imagine myself not teaching or researching in some capacity. I would be restless just working on standard design and solutions, and I'm very passionate about sustainability. As I mentioned, sustainability is really still a learning process, so I would gravitate towards a largely consulting or research and development role outside of academia. I also see a lot of traction for small businesses that offer very exciting, active learning, science and technology and engineering curricula. I could see myself creating a startup in that area as well. Aside from engineering, I am also a NAUI dive master and worked part time in a dive shop in graduate school. SCUBA opened a whole new set of opportunities for me, and I enjoy working with new scuba divers in their first introduction to the sport.