Two silo breakers awarded at EPFL's graduation ceremony
This year’s Outstanding Commitment Award, handed out at EPFL’s Master’s graduation ceremony, went to two people: Aurore Nembrini, the Sustainability & Operations Manager at EPFL’s Sustainability Unit, and Pascal Vuilliomenet, a project manager for EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs (DLLs) and Sportech initiative.
She’s the workhorse behind our School’s sustainability efforts; he’s the driving force for our students’ hands-on, cross-disciplinary projects. Aurore Nembrini and Pascal Vuilliomenet both work tirelessly behind the scenes promoting a cause important to them. Nembrini helps bring sustainability to our School, while Vuilliomenet gives budding engineers a chance to roll up their sleeves and apply the theory they’ve learned in class. And although their paths rarely cross, they each have well over a decade of experience at EPFL and are determined to break down the silos in what is still a fairly compartmentalized organization. Their hard work was recognized at the School’s Master’s graduation ceremony on 7 October when they each received an Outstanding Commitment Award, after being selected by EPFL’s upper management from a short list put together by the EPFL Assembly. We spoke with Nembrini and Vuilliomenet about their vocation, levers of action, cross-disciplinary mindset and perseverance.
What does implementing sustainability have in common with creating “incubators” for applied student projects?
Pascal Vuilliomenet (PV): I’d say they both involve rolling out cross-functional initiatives that aim to break down silos and form bonds across the School. Our roles at EPFL are hard to pin down since they span the entire organization. You can’t attribute them to just one function or unit. Aurore and I each interface with people from a range of departments.
Aurore Nembrini (AN): I completely agree. And I’d add there’s a second way in which our jobs fit together: the education team within our Sustainability Unit relies in part on Pascal’s DLLs in order to achieve a cross-functional reach.
How are you breaking down silos at EPFL?
PV: I look for and team up with people with the necessary capabilities, wherever they are in the organization. The first thing I do is try to identify potential levers of change. Then I start the painstaking task of motivating individuals and getting them on board. Our bottom-up projects are guided by a top-down vision, and implementing them requires forging relationships step by step with the various stakeholders.
AN: My approach entails incorporating sustainability across EPFL’s departments. Except for transportation and outdoor facilities, which we now manage directly at the Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation (VPT), we work with staff at other departments to help them adopt new, more sustainable practices. For us, this means going out into the field to understand their real-world conditions. The people at VPT who are responsible for sustainability in a given area – like purchasing or digital technology, for example – spend one or two days a week working side by side with the staff in that function, such as our purchasing department or IT department. That lets us better grasp the challenges faced by these employees, their workplace culture, and how we can best engage the corresponding stakeholders. The same holds true at the level of EPFL schools and colleges. They’re each in the process of appointing a sustainability manager who will relay their specific needs and constraints. This system appears to be working well!
When you get down to it, our roles involve effecting a culture change.
PV: At the DLLs, we likewise use a field-based approach, in that the people who work at our labs also have a position in an EPFL research group. The Discovery Labs are intended to serve our community, and for that, we have to know what our community needs. We also try to blur the lines between education, research, outreach and our projects. Some of the DLL projects are intended to add real value to our campuses across all aspects of campus life. We take a systemic approach.
AN: However, our scope goes beyond EPFL’s campus. We also want to build ties with the neighboring urban areas, as we have a duty to address their needs as well.
PV: Absolutely. Network building is an important element of both the DLLs and the Sportech event. At EPFL, our goal isn’t to simply teach and conduct research in an ivory tower. We want our work to feed into the local economy and, going the other way, we want to be able to draw on the input of outside interests. You have to spend time in a local ecosystem to grasp its full complexity – it’s not something that can be taught. It’s no accident that Aurore and I have been with EPFL for so long. We work on initiatives designed to last 10 to 15 years, which isn’t easy at a time of instant messaging and quick-read content that soon becomes outdated. Ours is a completely different timescale. I’ve spent 12 years setting up the DLLs, and our Sportech venture with Alinghi dates back 20 years!
AN: When you get down to it, our roles involve effecting a culture change. And I have seen a dramatic shift in the way people view us over the years. At first we met with a lot of resistance, which is typical when you try to convince people to adopt new habits. Some individuals will get on board quickly, while others will always be reluctant to change, even when the need is crystal-clear. But now, people at all levels of EPFL are much more motivated. Our sustainability efforts also get a lot of credibility from the support of EPFL’s upper management and the creation of the VPT.
PV: We’ve been making progress one step at a time, and often in a haphazard way. At first it was students building a boat in a basement. Then as we expanded, we moved our facilities into a container, and eventually EPFL appointed someone to manage the initiative. The whole process required a lot of drive and determination. We had to show people the benefits of what we were doing, explain the added value and normalize the practice of building makeshift prototypes so that it became a regular part of EPFL’s innovation process. I’m happy to say we’ve reached several milestones along the way. The most recent one is the opening of the SPOT makerspace. And with that, there’s no going back!
AN: I also started by carrying out small pilot projects whenever I found people who were interested in trying out a new approach. One example is in EPFL’s food services. We started by measuring the amount of organic waste produced by a campus restaurant. And now, all our restaurants are required to measure this waste. To implement sustainability-oriented practices like these, you have to test different methods, find work-arounds and constantly look at how methods can be improved. Then, little by little, you see that the new practices become part of your organization’s processes or culture. Another example is the vegetarian-only days on our campuses. We first introduced the idea in 2014 with four such days a year. And we got a lot of pushback! The EPFL community wasn’t ready. We tried again a few years later, but with an awareness campaign that highlighted the benefits of vegetarian eating and with vegetarian-cooking workshops. After that, the initiative gained traction and EPFL appointed a food-services manager with a clear duty to improve sustainability. Today, over half of the meals served on our campuses are vegetarian. Our milestones were the creation of the VPT and the introduction of a School-wide climate and sustainability strategy. Now all our sustainability efforts form part of a strategy spearheaded by the upper management. That’s important because it substantiates what we’re doing and sets out clear objectives going forward.
We work on initiatives designed to last 10 to 15 years, which isn’t easy at a time of instant messaging and quick-read content that soon becomes outdated.
How do you feel about winning the award?
PV: It’s great recognition of how far we’ve come. But it’s awkward because it’s a group effort! The individuals who work out in the field deserve just as much credit. We serve as coordinators and our job is to make sure the people we work with can do what they do under the best possible conditions. We’re keenly aware that we couldn’t get anything done on our own.
AN: I also see the award as recognition of the work done by our Sustainability Unit. We’ve got a talented, dynamic team made of people from different backgrounds who are fully invested in what they do. But we have to stay grounded and genuinely listen to our community members so that we can understand their hesitations. There have been many times when we wanted to move faster, but first we had to get buy-in from everyone involved so that the change would be adopted over the long term. Only then could we move to the next level.
What are your next goals?
AN: We believe there’s more work to be done in shrinking our School’s footprint and disseminating information in all environment-related areas: transportation, energy, digital technology, food, construction and more. Our biggest challenge will be to instill an eco-responsible culture – getting people to consume less, share more and pool their resources. That doesn’t necessarily mean doing fewer things or doing things less effectively. It means doing things differently and perhaps even better. We need to build a vision of a future that’s different, but just as good.
PV: We’re currently at a crossroads with the DLLs. They’re obviously an amazing resource for students, but when we look at the skills students will need in today’s job market, there are many we can’t teach at EPFL from a practical standpoint. So our biggest challenge will be to keep the initiative going given everything we’ve already accomplished. Another goal will be to work on projects that meet societal needs while going beyond the strictly technological aspects. We’ll also have to address issues related to ethics, regulatory frameworks and the economy, for instance.
AN: Not to mention social, environmental and political issues!