It’s said that every Hollywood actor can be connected back to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less. You can play the same game with members of Southern California’s greentech community and David Abel. Working across industry sectors—including land use, transportation, water, infrastructure, and renewable energy—to drive the creation of a greener energy economy, David’s roles include entrepreneur, publisher, professor, and president of his own public policy consultancy, ABL Inc. As his resume suggests, he is a connector, a facilitator of relationships—relationships often that become catalysts for community and global change. Over the past decade, David has leveraged his interests in public policy and sustainability to create the VerdeXchange Institute—an environmental think tank, publisher, and host to an annual B2B market-oriented clean tech and energy conference that assists global market-makers in both connecting the green dots and building successful business relationships that drive positive environmental change.
gb&d: Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on Lois Weisberg? At the time (1999), she was commissioner of cultural affairs for the City of Chicago.
David Abel: I’ve read many of Gladwell’s essays and books, but I don’t recall that piece.
gb&d: It was called “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” because she was a fabulous connector of people. You seem to play a similar role for the sustainable development community in LA. Have you always been gifted at facilitating connections between people?
Abel: My prescient kindergarten teacher wrote a note to my parents some 50 years ago that said, “David will always have his finger in every pie.” I confess that she pegged me well. It’s part of my nature; I feel claustrophobic in silos. I’m a trained (but lapsed) lawyer, as well as an educator and an economist who is married to an accomplished architect. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in many professional, business, and civic endeavors. Clearly I must have attention deficit issues.
gb&d: VerdeXchange, your most recent endeavor, is a clean-technology event that seeks to connect the dots for those charged with pursuing new opportunities in the global green economy. When did you realize there was a need for such a global conference?
Abel: VerdeXchange’s conference design mirrors my own cross-platform interests. I had no interest in competing with what I call the “vertical conferences,” dedicated exclusively to either wind, solar, green building, or water. I was seeking to attract private sector and public sector decision-makers with responsibility for their institution or corporation’s portfolio of energy needs, sustainable investments, and initiatives. VerdeXchange, it’s fair to say, is designed to meet the needs of a Chief Sustainability Officer, of global architecture and engineering firms, of investors and pension funds searching the marketplace for what is in market, about to be in market, and needed in market in renewable energy, transportation, water, waste, ports, planning, architecture, and finance.
gb&d: You founded VerdeXchange, what, seven years ago?
Abel: Yes, following the sale of some transportation companies I’d helped found. For my next act, I quite honestly was inspired by my son’s interest in the environment. A recent Stanford grad and a Green Corps Fellow, he was drawn to environmental policy and technology. Having personally missed out on attending to his teenage music years—my love for classical and folk music was in no way in harmony with his 90s repertoire—I decided that in this next phase of life I needed to better appreciate what he was invested in, and thus I took the opportunity to create a platform for learning about clean and green technology. He now works for GE Renewable Energy and, as I had hoped, we have extended conversations in which he always blows me away with his expertise.
gb&d: What’s in store at this month’s VX2014?
Abel: We will have 50-plus panels and an energy-efficiency tract, which will highlight the uses of data analysis and embedded sensor networks to make energy uses more transparent and more efficient, and a water tract, which will address the nexus of energy and water, as well as how separately managed storm water, wastewater, and water importation systems ought to be treated as one integrated system.
Our transportation panels will feature the innovations driving electrification and the design of autonomous vehicles, as well as rail and port investments in sustainability, including the twelve new rail lines being planned for metropolitan Los Angeles—perhaps the largest set of infrastructure investments in transportation in the world, besides China.
VerdeXchange again includes a partnership with the Urban Land Institute of Los Angeles. Collaboratively we will offer six sustainable green-building case studies. Also included are panels on waste conversion technologies and waste-to-energy.
gb&d: LA is, like Houston or Phoenix, a city of the automobile. I know there were several sessions at last year’s VerdeXchange about electric vehicles. Where is LA on that front?
Abel: Metropolitan Los Angeles is on the cutting-edge of developing next generation mobility. In contrast to the stereotype you mentioned, Los Angeles voters recently approved investing between 30 to 40 billion dollars in our county’s transportation system. LA’s Metro is in the process of planning 12 new rail lines, an extensive light rail system is already in place, and Metro operates the largest alternatively fueled bus fleet in North America—100 percent compressed natural gas. And, believe it or not, the success of a new program, CicLAvia, has encouraged the creation of bicycle lanes and closing of streets to automobiles throughout LA.
But to your point, global automobile design, the practical fusion of technology and entertainment, is centered in metropolitan Los Angeles. There probably isn’t a major car manufacturer that doesn’t have a design center here that isn’t engaged in developing the car of the 21st century. VX2014 will feature these innovations in mobility via autonomous automobile panels with experts from both JPL/Caltech (a new sponsor of VX2014), automobile manufacturers, and a transportation incubator called CalStart—I chaired the latter in the late 1990s. In terms of electric vehicles, also featured in VX2014 will be NRG, through its subsidiary eVgo, which began installing charging infrastructure in major cities like Houston and is now investing in similar arrangements in cities up and down California, from San Diego north.
gb&d: You also have been managing director of New Schools, Better Neighborhoods. Where does your passion for education and building better neighborhood-centered schools come from?
Abel: Actually, it comes out of guilt. My lifelong interest in education survives me dropping out of a doctorate program in education administration at Harvard at the age of 22 in order to pursue law and business. Decades later, when the opportunity to seriously reengage in education came in 1999 with the passage of both state and local school bond measures for the construction of new schools—something that hadn’t been done in LA for 25 years—I was enticed to lead an initiative that advanced the notion that school districts ought to not only build new schools, but that new schools should serve as community-centered, joint-use facilities that would blur the line between school and community resources. I thought we could use the 100 billion dollars for school construction statewide and the now 14 billion dollars in the LA Unified School District to site and build schools in inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods that would draw on campus health care professionals, libraries, park resources, and adult and after-school care programs that would enrich the school and the health of the neighborhood and community.
NSBN’s work had some influence on state policy and Los Angeles’s school construction program: new school facility siting and environmental design criteria were incorporated into state and local planning for school building. But truthfully, resistance to the notion of school sites being joint-use centers became difficult to overcome.
gb&d: Where did the resistance stem from?
Abel: The golden rule of politics, as many of your readers know, is: “He who has the money makes the rules.” School districts had the bond money, and the idea of sharing their facilities with other jurisdictions and users that didn’t have the resources to complement theirs, served to fuel resistance. “It’s our money, it’s our school, we don’t need a library run by the city librarian on our campus, we don’t need a health center run by a community health center, we don’t need a park run by the park department. These facilities are paid for through school bonds, and we’ll decide how to use them.” Now, that might not be every school district’s view, but it became a predominant view of LAUSD, especially as funding for education became scarce.
gb&d: Are there opportunities with non-public schools, such as charter schools?
Abel: Of course. But centrifugal institutional forces that favor silo-like investments are very, very strong.
gb&d: Across all industries, I’m afraid.
Abel: As Malcolm Gladwell actually noted, we need political, enterprise, and civic leadership to inspire us to rise above the daily fray, crisscross the institutional silos, and integrate the disciplines and our best ideas and innovations.
gb&d: Your view that education is important and that schools can be anchors in communities—how does that frame your approach to VerdeXchange?
Abel: Very perceptive. Yes, integration of cross-disciplinary, environmental best practices is in the DNA of VerdeXchange. The cross-platform nature of our conference design, like our approach to the building of new schools, suggests that opportunities for innovation follow from leveraging disciplines and out-of-the-box thinking. For example, transit-oriented development necessitates the linking of land use and planning with advanced transportation infrastructure investment, and successful water conservation follows from planning and integrating wastewater and storm-water investments with policies that preserve regional watersheds and the siting of neighborhood parks that are able to use treated water.
gb&d: How often do you publish The Planning Report (a newsletter on urban planning and infrastructure in Southern California)?
Abel: Once a month for 25 years. You’re probably too young to know the old [Remington Shaver] commercial, where the fellow says, “I liked the product so much, I bought the company.” I was a subscriber to the original Planning Report, which was produced by a developer/expediter here in LA who was about to leave town and discontinue the newsletter. I asked if he would let me run with it. He consented, and I hired a couple of young, talented folks to edit and manage it, and that’s the way it began.
gb&d: Where does the United States rank right now in terms of growing a green and sustainable economy and actually implementing some of the climate policy initiatives featured over the years at VerdeXchange?
Abel: The simple answer is that the US has made great progress reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting policies that encourage sustainability, and California has led the way. In fact, the state’s policies and innovation economy now attract more venture capital to the renewable energy sector, broadly speaking, than any other jurisdiction in the world. But as Tom Friedman noted, the Earth is increasing flat. These technologies and investments are oblivious to national borders. So, it’s difficult to rank the United States.