HBS as a Living Lab

Here is the latest installment of the Up Close series, featuring the day-to-day work of the School and the people who do it.

06 Nov 2019   Shona Simkin
Leah Ricci

Beneath Leah Ricci’s desk sit four boxes of lamps. “I took another two over to my coworker’s desk to test and store,” she laughs as she turns on her desktop model, adjusts the glow, and holds up a ceiling light that will soon be installed throughout the Operations offices. These aren’t standard lights, and this isn’t a standard cubicle set-up. These lamps emit blue-enriched light, which mimic natural daylight.

“Research, including Harvard’s, shows that lighting is the main cue that sets our circadian rhythm, which affects our alertness and performance and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and depression when it’s off kilter,” explains Ricci. “Daylight is blue-enriched, and sets your body going with cortisol, whereas evening’s darker, warmer colors cue melatonin production, which helps your body sleep.” Standard office lighting is not blue-enriched, so with her coworker Julia Musso, manager of energy and sustainability, and researchers from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, she has been sourcing, testing, and evaluating the available options as part of a new Living Lab project. As Harvard Business School’s associate director of sustainability and energy management, Ricci, with the support of Operations leadership, often offers up the HBS campus (and her office space), to test innovative sustainability solutions.

The Living Lab was launched under the University’s 2014 sustainability plan, as a commitment to use the Harvard campus as a test bed for generating and piloting creative solutions to challenges threatening our health and planet. At HBS, those first initiatives included testing healthier finishes and furniture in Klarman, which was mid-construction at the time, and increasing plant-based and more humane food options in Spangler.

Realizing from those pilots that purchasing healthier materials was both fiscally feasible and better for the community, HBS became the first Harvard school to increase its purchasing goals beyond the University’s commitments. Such materials—from carpet to paint to furniture—have since been implemented in renovations across campus, including the summer 2019 renovation of Shad’s Tim Day Room. While finding fewer options in the exercise industry, the team was still able to procure a healthier rubber flooring layer and several exercise mats. Fabric for equipment seats and backs is next on the list. “We’ll learn how these materials hold up, and share our findings. If more schools implement them, that will hopefully encourage the industry to produce more options,” says Ricci. The Tim Day Room also features a preserved moss wall, one of two new pilots of biophilic design features, which are linked to increased productivity and fewer sick days. The second, a new green wall opposite the Operations service counter in the Shad tunnel, was completed in September 2019.

Living Lab projects on the horizon include new air-quality sensors in Batten, Shad, and Travis, and new battery charging software for Batten. Working with researchers from the TH Chan School of Public Health, the team will install new sensors that continuously monitor indoor air and environmental quality factors such as temperature, humidity, light quality, particulate matter, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). In true experimental form, the first set of sensors proved unreliable; the new sensors offer both reliability and additional features. The battery charging software, a new creation by a Harvard post-doc, utilizes estimates of the electic grid’s real-time carbon emissions along with electricity pricing to time battery charging and discharging. This upgrade from the traditional use of only one measure, pricing, will hopefully reduce overall emissions while still reducing energy cost, and peak load.

Back to those blue-enriched lights. For an HMS Division of Sleep Medicine study, Operations staff volunteers will record their sleep data, answer sleep and wellness questionnaires, and participate in alertness testing. A successful pilot in an office setting may lead to implementation in dorms across campus, which as residential facilities would integrate a wider spectrum of light color.

The sustainability team, and HBS as a whole, sees the big picture in participating in Living Lab and overall sustainability measures. “It’s not just about making our campus healthier and more sustainable. We’re also acting as a model for other organizations to potentially replicate, and hoping to inspire action across our whole community,” says Ricci. “We recognize that our students are future leaders. Making these innovations the norm while they’re here, to experience as they’re expanding their career, is very important for us,” adds Sustainability Manager Courtney Fairbrother.


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