The Market of Virginia Tech

30 09 2020

Over the past several months, Dr. Jessica Agnew (Assistant Director, Research, Operations, and Program Management at Center for International Research, Education, and Development, Virginia Tech), Jesse Harden (a PhD student in Computer Science at Virginia Tech), and I have been running an impact evaluation of Phase 1 and 2 of Virginia Tech’s new food access program. The Market of Virginia Tech was officially announced today. In the coming weeks, we plan to release a platform that will share the results from our 2019 study of Food Access and Security at Virginia Tech and the insights we obtained from our impact evaluation of The Market of Virginia Tech. In the future, this new platform will also present the research we are currently undertaking on how blockchain technology can be used to improve food security through African indigenous vegetables in Kenya.

New Paper on “Addressing Inequality”

9 07 2020

Our new paper entitled “Addressing Inequality: The First Step Beyond COVID-19 and Towards Sustainability” is now available. I will provide the story behind this paper in a subsequent post.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted billions of lives across the world and has revealed and worsened the social and economic inequalities that have emerged over the past several decades. As governments consider public health and economic strategies to respond to the crisis, it is critical they also address the weaknesses of their economic and social systems that inhibited their ability to respond comprehensively to the pandemic. These same weaknesses have also undermined efforts to advance equality and sustainability. This paper explores over 30 interventions across the following nine categories of change that hold the potential to address inequality, provide all citizens with access to essential goods and services, and advance progress towards sustainability: (1) Income and wealth transfers to facilitate an equitable increase in purchasing power/disposable income; (2) broadening worker and citizen ownership of the means of production and supply of services, allowing corporate profit-taking to be more equitably distributed; (3) changes in the supply of essential goods and services for more citizens; (4) changes in the demand for more sustainable goods and services desired by people; (5) stabilizing and securing employment and the workforce; (6) reducing the disproportionate power of corporations and the very wealthy on the market and political system through the expansion and enforcement of antitrust law such that the dominance of a few firms in critical sectors no longer prevails; (7) government provision of essential goods and services such as education, healthcare, housing, food, and mobility; (8) a reallocation of government spending between military operations and domestic social needs; and (9) suspending or restructuring debt from emerging and developing countries. Any interventions that focus on growing the economy must also be accompanied by those that offset the resulting compromises to health, safety, and the environment from increasing unsustainable consumption. This paper compares and identifies the interventions that should be considered as an important foundational first step in moving beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and towards sustainability. In this regard, it provides a comprehensive set of strategies that could advance progress towards a component of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 to reduce inequality within countries. However, the candidate interventions are also contrasted with all 17 SDGs to reveal potential problem areas/tradeoffs that may need careful attention.

2020 Beyster Symposium

18 06 2020

On Tuesday, June 23, from 9:00 to 10:30am (EDT), I will be participating in the online (and open access) 2020 Beyster Symposium. The purpose of the symposium is to study broad-based forms of capital ownership and capital income such as employee stock ownership, equity compensation, profit sharing, gain sharing, and worker cooperatives in the corporation.

During my session at the symposium – which focuses on “UBI, Taxation, and the Environment,” a recording of my presentation will be released and the panelists in the session will be available in the chat feature of the conference platform to answer any questions you might have on our presentations or papers.

To join my session, go to and select Room 2 at 9:00am on June 23.

All of the material prepared for the symposium can be accessed via this dropbox site.

I will be presenting a co-authored paper entailed “Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Capitalism: Consequences for Sustainability.” My Prezi presentation can be accessed via this link.

A Message for the 2020 SPIA Undergraduates

15 05 2020

Since I was unable to celebrate with the class of 2020 today, I tasked my children with helping me record a video message for our graduating seniors. I even managed to find enough courage to record myself playing the guitar 🙂

The online VT commencement ceremony will start at 6:30pm (EDT) this evening and can be accessed here:

Congratulations to all of our 2020 graduates!

Faculty Fellow Five

25 04 2020

I was recently asked the five questions below for the “Faculty Fellow Five” section of the Leadership and Social Change Residential College (LSCRC) newsletter. Over the past year I have had the pleasure of serving as faculty fellow for the LSCRC, which is one of the newest living learning communities on campus and a community that has close connections with the SPIA undergraduate program.

1) How did you get to where you are now?

Someday I hope to write this story for my children so they know why I moved my life from the UK to the US. At this point, I have spent half of my life in each country, with my formative years in the UK and most of my higher education and professional life here. Both of my parents were teachers at a comprehensive school (a high school) in the county of Wiltshire and I grew up in a small village surrounded by farmland. One of the oldest houses in the village was built in the fifteenth century, and my family house was built around a hundred years later. When I arrived in Boston as a graduate student in 2000, I often found myself reflecting on the fact that the oldest parts of the city were probably built after my family house. I believe this intergenerational perspective has played a significant role in shaping my research and professional activities that center around sustainability. My education and training as a young civil engineer also provided me with a global perspective – by taking me to Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Ecuador – revealing our ability to shape (for good and bad) the environment that surrounds us. During my graduate studies in the US, my focus shifted to technology, management, and policy. While my civil engineering roots provided me with knowledge on how to build things, my graduate studies allowed me to explore the policy, law, and economic frameworks that shape why we build things. The legacy of this interdisciplinary education continues today through my research on sustainable water supply/sanitation and transportation systems and macro policies/strategies focused on how we can transform industrial states towards sustainability. I also think it is important to recognize that none of this would have been possible without the support I received over the years from university scholarship programs, professional organizations such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the US Transportation Research Board, and mentors who continue to inspire my work.

2) What are your favorite things to do outside of work? 

We live in a beautiful area and I love riding my ElliptiGO around the town and rural roads. Yes, I am that person on the black standup/elliptical bike wearing the luminous yellow bib that you see around town!

3) If you could pick one person who you admire the most, who would it be and why?

I’m going to be a little cheeky here and change this question to … “If you could pick one type of person who you admire the most, who would it be and why?” The people I most admire at this moment in time are those who are using their voices/platforms to advocate for transformative change. People who fall into this group include Andrew YangScott StantensMarjorie KellyMariana MazzucatoJason HickelGiorgos Kallis, Steve Keen, and Grace Blakely to name a few. What they have in common are a set of ideas that challenge the status quo and advance visions that could benefit all members of society. While these ideas/visions vary, they are starting to shape narratives and agendas around the world that could form a new era of change.

4) If you could give one piece of advice to any student, what would it be?

When making any decision about your future, pay attention to what makes you the most excited/energized, and lean into this. When you do lean in, work collaboratively and strategically, and focus on what is truly important. I would also add the need to take risks and be adaptable when things don’t quite work as planned.

5) How does your work intersect with leadership and social change? 

I would say the core of my work is connected with the need for visionary leadership to advance sustainability. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic we were facing two crises – one environmental and one social. The pandemic has temporarily eased the environmental crisis, but has dramatically worsened the social inequality crisis. Millions of people will struggle to recover from the economic shutdown and some may never recover. My work is focused on how do we change the structure of the systems we create so they directly address environmental and social crises, and could help minimize the impact of global shocks such as pandemics.

TRB 2020 + a Conversation with Congressmen Garcia and Takano

2 01 2020

For more than a decade, I have served as a member of the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) Transportation and Sustainability Committee (ADD40). During the TRB 2020 Annual Meeting, ADD40 will be holding its final series of conference meetings, workshops, and lectern sessions (see below for more information on these activities). The success of the ADD40 committee has meant the subject of sustainability will now be elevated to the Sustainability and Resilience Group (AM000), which will have a special Section on Transportation and Sustainability (AMS00). The new TRB structure can be accessed here.

During this conference, I will have the pleasure of hosting a conversation with Representatives Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (Fourth Congressional District of Illinois) and Mark Takano (41st Congressional District of California), who along with Representative Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts 7th Congressional District) launched the Future of Transportation Caucus in 2019. During our session – entitled A Century of Progress? Reflecting on How Transportation Has or Has Not Promoted Sustainability Outcomes in Equity, the Economy, and the Environment – we will discuss the role of the new caucus and explore what can be done to advance environmental, social, and economic sustainability through transportation system development. We plan to dedicate over one half of our session to an open Q&A with conference participants.

Monday (Jan 13)

Tuesday (Jan 14)

Wednesday (Jan 15)

Thursday (Jan 16)

Challenging Human Supremacy

31 10 2019

On Friday, November 8, I will be taking part in a symposium in honor of Eileen Crist, the author of Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The symposium is tilted Challenging Human Supremacy: Degrowth, post-growth, and the future of life on earth.

The symposium is open to the Virginia Tech community and the public and will be held from 1:30 to 5:00pm in the New Classroom Building, room 360.

In her new book, Eileen argues that the continued existence of life on earth requires us to rethink our relationship to the planet. She calls for humans to scale down and pull back by challenging human supremacy and economic growth frameworks. During the symposium, I will join a panel discussion with Virginia Tech faculty to explore these ideas from our various perspectives.

Panel Discussion: 1:30 – 3:00 PM

Reception: 3:00 – 3:30 PM

Keynote: 3:30 – 5:00 PM

  • Eileen Crist, “Exiting the Age of Man”

The Story Behind the Paper

2 09 2019

As with most journal articles there is a story behind the work, but these are rarely told. In this post, I thought I’d share why we wrote our paper entitled Universal Basic Income and Inclusive Capitalism: Consequences for Sustainability.

Over the past two decades, I have worked closely with Prof. Nicholas Ashford, Prof. Robert Ashford, and Charles Caldart to identify strategies that could transform the industrial state towards sustainability. This research has resulted in two editions of our textbook entitled Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development. While the scope of this work is vast, at its core is how regulation/policy, innovation, and new economics can be leveraged to create an environment for disruptive change towards sustainability.

When we started this collaboration, the trends in income inequality were clear, but the national/international conversation related to using some form of universal basic income to address inequality was limited. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, this situation started to change, as did the conversation about the role of automation/AI in displacing well-paid employment opportunities.

We have long argued for the need to consider “employment” as a fundamental, but frequently overlooked, aspect of sustainability, which is why we put the words Environment, Economy, and Employment on the front cover of the textbook. What many people may not realize (without a careful read of the textbook) is that we view employment from two perspectives – (1) traditional employment that provides people with an income from their labor and (2) employment of the capital they may own that also provides an income.

Given our focus on employment, we have been tracking how technology (think automation, digital technology, software, AI, robotics, etc.) has been reshaping work and what this means for the idea of full-time, well-paid work. The first section of the new paper presents some of these trends, especially related to the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and many OECD nations.

The second section of the paper looks at the macro environmental challenges we face and raises a critical question. If we advance a scientifically-optimistic “efficiency” agenda (i.e., do much more with much less) to address environmental problems, is this approach likely to result in less well-paid jobs? We believe this could be the case. As knowledge/skills are continually embodied into more advanced forms of capital (technology, AI, etc.), the ability of labor to claim its share of the work being done (what we call productiveness; which is not the same as labor productivity) declines. It is also important to add that while the total number of jobs may actually remain the same or increase, what we are focusing on is what is doing the work and what this means for income (i.e., income from labor and from technology/real capital ownership).

The implications from this understanding of the economy point to some challenging questions. For example, if human knowledge and skills (especially, routine manual and cognitive tasks) are being embodied in technology/real capital, the question of who or what is really doing the value-added work becomes important. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the ability of workers to claim a greater share of the wealth being created, if the majority of the work being done (value being added) comes from the technology/real capital side of the equation.

Over the years, I have tried various ways to explain what is a set of complex and interconnected ideas, but during a conversation I had with our new Dean in 2017, I found a “two ice hockey stick” analogy to be useful. Put simply, both hockey sticks represent curves of the two most pressing issues of our time, increasing inequality and increasing environmental problems. As mentioned above, the typical set of solutions to environmental problems is to essentially do more with less through efficiency/advanced technology (the scientifically optimistic solution to unsustainability). The problem is that as the capability of technology grows, its ability to capture value-added aspects of work also grows. Thus, the environmental solutions adopted may worsen inequality as the number of well-paid jobs declines.

A different problem is revealed if we only consider the inequality ice hockey stick (the inequality challenge) and its potential solutions. For example, if the solution to inequality is to provide everyone with some form of basic or guaranteed income, this raises an important question about what this surge in effective demand (i.e., consumption) would mean for the environment. Hence, both ice hockey stick curves need to be addressed at the same time, in a holistic and integrated way.

During my conversation with Dean Richard Blythe, I used the two ice hockey stick analogy to explain my current research agenda, which led to an invitation to join the Dean, Enric Ruiz-Geli, and Marcelo Stamm for the first Dean’s Discussion focused on Innovation Ecologies. My main remarks in the video of this conversation (below) run from minutes 7-14. Interestingly, the Dean’s Discussion and engagement with Enric and Marcelo helped expand my thinking to include the importance of architecture, but not in the traditional sense related to the artistic design, engineering, and construction of buildings. Rather, in relation to the ‘financial’ architecture behind the construction and ownership of buildings/infrastructure, and what this means for inequality and the ability of community members to participate and engage in the use of newly developed facilities/space. More on this below.

Around the same time as the Dean’s Discussion, I read Andrew Yang’s new book – The War on Normal People – which provides a data-rich description of how technology/AI is displacing jobs in America. Yang’s solution to this problem is to provide every citizen over the age of 18 with $1,000 a month, which is now commonly known as the Freedom Dividend. As my Tweet to Yang below highlights, while our understanding of the inequality challenge is the same, Yang’s book did not mention the environmental problems that may accompany a surge in effective/aggregate demand. Hence, the idea for a paper was born that connects the inequality and environmental challenges (the two ice hockey sticks) with an economic theory that understands the ability of capital to do work (like labor) and addresses inequality through its broad ownership.

For those outside of academia, one of the best ways to advance an idea is to share, discuss, and debate it at academic conferences. Fortunately, two opportunities arose. The first was a conference at Oxford University on Endogenous Growth, Participatory Economics, and Inclusive Capitalism, and the second was the 12th Biannual Conference of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economists (CANSEE) in Waterloo. Both of these conferences helped define the boundaries of the paper and allowed me to experiment with different ways of communicating key ideas such as the two ice hockey sticks. My CANSEE conference presentation is provided below.


A video of my CANSEE presentation can be accessed by clicking on the image below. [Note: select the fifth video from the top of the list on the right of the screen, which has a graph behind the play icon.] My presentation starts at minute 29; however, I recommend first listening to Prof. Jennifer Clapp’s presentation on “Financialization and its Sociological Effects.” Her research reveals the rapid growth of financialization and its implications for the social and biophysical world. I would argue it also makes a powerful case for rethinking how we consider the architecture of financial investments/arrangements and what this means for ‘real’ capital ownership, inequality, and environmental sustainability.

The several month timeframe of the conferences provided a window to search for UBI proposals to incorporate into the paper. A keen eye will spot eight UBI proposals in the CANSEE presentation, but our final paper included 14 UBI proposals alongside a proposal for a federal work program. When reviewing each of these proposals, our attention focused on the rationale behind the programs, how they would be financed, who would be illegible for funds (e.g., was there a work or age requirement), how much people might receive, and whether the programs had any connection to the environment. What was illuminating was the sheer diversity of ideas and how the ideological framing of the inequality problem tended to dictate the solution. For example, those who view work as essential for individual/social well-being tended to advance a conditional UBI (i.e., the basic income is received if the recipient is working). In contrast, those who view inequality as a product of the current economic system tended to advance an unconditional UBI (i.e., the income is received regardless of the recipient’s employment status).

What the writing of this paper revealed is the need for additional articles that describe how the Binary Trust would function, what a government-backed inherently sustainable corporate investment certification system might look like, and what needs to change for sustainability investments to look promising from a return on investment perspective. From an advancement of knowledge perspective, I’m looking to collaborate with colleagues in architecture/engineering who are interested in exploring how the financial architecture behind their developments could transform the use of their architectural/engineering designs. The basic idea is to integrate the visible (physical) and invisible (financial) components of architecture in ways that enrich society and the biophysical world.

Given Yang’s connection to the genesis of this paper, it seemed fitting to show how a binary economics approach to inclusive capitalism could be implemented alongside his UBI proposal. Another important argument of the paper is how this system needs to be focused on inherently sustainable investments. Put simply, the paper advocates an approach to addressing both ice hockey sticks at the same time and in an integrated, holistic way.

A week before the final article was published, Elon Musk endorsed Andrew Yang as his pick for the next U.S. President. Thus, I decided to launch the release of the paper with the following tweet.

2019 EPP and PUA Graduation

20 08 2019

Congratulations to our 2019 Public and Urban Affairs (PUA) and Environmental Policy and Planning (EPP) graduates! The video below (taken through Google Glass) captures my view of the 2019 CAUS Commencement Ceremony. It also provides a behind the scenes look at the ceremony, which I hope the family and friends of our graduates will enjoy.

Public-inspired Science Podcasts

24 07 2019

Earlier this year I attended a Story Collider event where students in the U.S. Water Study research team (at Virginia Tech) gave inspirational talks about how they found their way to working on public-inspired science. The team just released a recording of the five talks.

One of the talks was given by Chivonne Battle, a graduate student in our Masters of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program. I highly recommend listening to her remarkable story.