Welcome to Britney and Sean’s individualistic park. The park is not accessible by public transport, and the lone entrance is through a turnstile (seen in the upper left hand corner). The park itself is divided into nine plots, divided by hedges around their perimeters. Each plot has an electrical outlet to allow you to charge your electronic devices, and thus avoid engaging other people (if that’s what you would prefer). Instead of benches, we included single chairs.
My personal theory of change comes with some caveats. For the purposes of this class I am interested in changes that I, or other individuals or groups, have the capacity to effect. I am interested in sustainable, not ephemeral, change. Change is not inherently positive or negative. Change may be intended or unintended, and individuals and groups can at times bear responsibility for the unintended consequences of their change efforts. Change, of the meaningful variety, is usually not easy or unobstructed. Change oftentimes entails risk—reputational, financial, and sometimes physical. Unless one relies on compulsion, change requires persuasion. It does not happen fast, and it requires the infrastructure of change. Change of the personal variety might be invisible to others, as might the early signs of an ongoing social change.
I am particularly interested in the infrastructure of change. What organizational features, what communications systems, and what types of strategy enable success? How do we choose to measure change in the first place? How does coalition-building impact the potential for change? When are the costs of compromise, or conversely the price of going it alone, too high? The answers to these questions, or the attempt to answer them, form the foundation of my personal theory of change.
In 2009, my boss was named co-chair of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. President Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu charged the commission with examining options for managing spent nuclear fuel in the aftermath of the administration’s decision to not certify the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository facility in Nevada. During the early stages of the Commission I focused on community engagement.
There are currently tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel at over 70 nuclear plants across the United States. The absence of a long-term repository has left these facilities no option but storing the radioactive waste on-site. The most glaring example of the threat this waste poses is the Hanford facility in Eastern Washington. Hundreds of tanks—many of them single layer and failing—possess hazardous nuclear waste with the potential to contaminate the nearby Columbia River. The environmental and human consequences would be catastrophic for the Pacific Northwest.
The Department of Energy had selected a diverse and capable commission that included individuals with experience in academia, politics, environmental activism, and the nuclear power industry. It was led by a prominent Democrat (Lee Hamilton) and Republican (Brent Scowcroft) with reputations for bipartisanship. This allowed us to frame the commission’s work in a non-partisan way, despite the increased polarization across the country.
The communities we sought to impact were those currently hosting waste. The Commission’s aim was to amplify the ongoing debate about nuclear energy with hopes that it would catalyze political action at the federal level. Furthermore, by engaging affected communities through a series of town-hall style meetings, we hoped to build consensus for addressing the waste challenge. Consequently, our biggest contribution was in the process, not the product. Identifying key stakeholders in each community and providing them space to voice concerns was essential, and in this we were successful.
In retrospect, our biggest assumption was the role nuclear energy would play in America’s future. At the time, the price of West Texas Intermediate was hovering around $80 per barrel, $30 more than it is today. The Commission viewed nuclear energy as a low-carbon, cost-effective source of energy—despite the high capital expenditure involved in inaugurating a plant. But the collapse of oil prices and the low costs of natural gas have cratered the nuclear power industry. S&P Global Ratings estimates that America’s entire nuclear energy infrastructure could be decommissioned by 2055. The shifts in the energy market—while perhaps not permanent—muted the sense of urgency surrounding the commission’s work. While the best-case scenario for the Commission’s outcome would have been momentum towards resolving the nuclear waste, the status quo has been preserved.
Waste continues to be stored on-site at nuclear facilities across the country. There are growing concerns about environmental protection in Hanford. The Commission did not gain buy-in from elected officials in Congress and state legislatures, the kind of buy-in that will ultimately be necessary to do justice by American communities where the nuclear waste will far outlive plant decommission dates.
I’m a second-year MBA student at the Sloan School of Management. I grew up in Providence, RI and studied history at Yale.
I started my career as a magazine editor before transitioning into speechwriting, but left Washington behind in 2010 to spend a year teaching at a small public university in Northeastern Turkey on a Fulbright grant. After one year of grad school in Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies I moved back to Istanbul to finish my master’s thesis—on the relationship between clock towers and modernization in the late Ottoman empire—and do a bit of writing. I then spent three years working in a strategy role for the Turkish Basketball Federation. At MIT I spend a lot of my free time organizing the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and also volunteer with a local Big Brothers and Sisters organization. I’m excited to learn from such a talented group of people this semester.
Find me on Twitter at @SeanSinger84