OMSI - Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland, Oregon, USA
Learning by doing: A museum’s mission for sustainability education
A Natural Step Network Case Study
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
• Founded in 1944
• One million visitors annually
• 200 employees and 400 volunteers
• Hand-on exhibits, interactive labs, OMNIMAX films and planetarium
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is a premiere science and technology museum that is visited by more than one million people each year. OMSI has 501(c)(3) status and relies upon donations, admissions, and memberships from its 75,000 members. Nancy Steuber, made sustainability a priority when she became president of OMSI in 2000. Inspired by The Natural Step Framework, Steuber invited AXIS Performance Advisors to help OMSI develop a steering committee to create and implement a sustainability plan. This plan includes goals of carbon neutrality, waste elimination, sustainably-produced exhibits, and sustainability education for museum visitors. OMSI’s initiatives include recycling and composting, efficient lighting and HVAC, and bioswales that filter stormwater runoff. The effectiveness of these projects is tracked by OMSI’s metrics team. As OMSI integrates The Natural Step into its decision-making, it also strives to make sustainability part of what OMSI does best: provide fun, interactive education on science and technology.
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is “a scientific, educational, and cultural resource center” on the banks of the Willamette River in the heart of Portland. Offering hands-on exhibits, interactive labs, OMNIMAX films, and a planetarium, it provides the public with entertaining education on science and technology. It was founded in 1944 and is an independent 501 (c)(3) funded through admissions, donations, and memberships. While OMSI sustained a brief period of financial difficulty resulting from flood damage in 1996, today it draws support from a membership of 25,000 households in the Portland area.
This 60-year reciprocal relationship between OMSI and the public is what underlies OMSI’s sustainability mission. While OMSI is not a for-profit business, Senior Business Analyst Damien Francaviglia likens the museum’s educational services to a company’s product. In this respect, OMSI is in an unusual position to be able to contribute towards The Natural Step’s fourth system condition of social sustainability: not only can OMSI become a more sustainable operation, but it
can connect sustainability to science and technology through its exhibits.
Even prior to the introduction of The Natural Step, OMSI had enacted concrete measures to lessen their environmental impact. In the 1990s, OMSI started a recycling program and created bioswales around their parking lot to collect and filter stormwater runoff. As is the case in many organizations, however, these projects were not part of a larger umbrella program with long-term goals. Still, these independent efforts formed a current of awareness amongst employees, which facilitated a shift towards sustainability.
Introduction of The Natural Step
Nancy Steuber, who had been the head of the exhibits department since 1988, became the president of OMSI in 2000. In 2001, Steuber, a trained environmental scientist who was familiar with The Natural Step Network, invited Darcy Hitchcock of AXIS Performance Advisors to help organize a sustainability program at OMSI. AXIS draws upon The Natural Step framework, as well as the Triple Bottom Line, to consult with organizations who wish to integrate sustainability principles into their business models. Nancy Steuber appreciated the scientific nature of The Framework and felt that it would translate well to a science museum. One of Steuber’s top concerns was that this be done with a grassroots approach that encouraged employee initiatives and feedback. While the effectiveness of an employee-driven approach may vary depending on the context, other Natural Step case studies have shown positive results: when employees are given ample opportunities to participate, not only do they bring their own specific expertise to share, they are more likely to buy in to the changes since they are involved.
While some organizations adopt The Natural Step Framework directly, others partner it with complementary approaches that fit their organizational needs. Although not all OMSI employees received a formalized TNS training, Hitchcock helped OMSI integrate TNS system conditions into its sustainability plan. Over the course of a few years, Darcy Hitchcock helped OMSI form its first Sustainability Steering Committee and develop its sustainability plan. However, because of a lack of time and funding, the Committee has endured periods of dormancy. Sustainability planning has yet to be integrated into all employees’ job descriptions and OMSI has never had a Sustainability Coordinator position—a role commonly appointed in larger organization to coordinate different departmental efforts. Recently, Damien Francaviglia has coordinated the Sustainability Steering Committee in addition to his other responsibilities, resulting in more regular meetings and an updated sustainability plan.
Integrating The Natural Step Framework
The Sustainability Steering Committee, or “Walk the Walk” team that formed in 2001, had voluntary membership from employees representing every department. During the first year, Hitchcock facilitated monthly meetings where OMSI assessed its processes and material flows against TNS system conditions. The Committee initially focused on energy use at the facility, transportation-related carbon emissions, and solid waste. Today, the Sustainability Steering Committee advises senior management and is the locus for documenting and communicating sustainability efforts throughout the organization. In an example of backcasting, the Sustainability Steering Committee identifies projects that helps move OMSI towards its larger sustainability goals. OMSI uses the following parameters to guide the Steering Committee’s mission:
Tools levelUsing performance measurements to evaluate actionsBeing flexible and adaptive to new informationAction levelImplementing actions (D) outlined from the backcastingStrategies levelUsing the Backcasting tool to create a plan for actionAssessing tradeoffs between different materials and processesSuccess LevelBaseline Assessment (B)Creating a Vision (C) based on system principlesSystems LevelAwareness (A) of the interactions between the biosphere and human society Funnel metaphor
Sustainability Steering Committee Parameters for Success
1. Use science-based principles, adapted from TNS framework.
2. Sustainability initiative increase publicity and reputation as organization with triple bottom line credentials.
3. Decision guidelines and business analysis tools with triple bottom line framework are used routinely throughout the organization.
4. Organizational performance targets are clearly defined and adopted; progress is monitored with Key Indicator metrics.
5. Staff and volunteers express conceptual understanding and behaviors that demonstrate sustainability is an essential value of the organization.
6. OMSI’s experience is shared with others and used to disseminate information about sustainable practices.
7. Committee structure and function will be reviewed annually, with documentation of best practices and lessons learned, that can be applied to the formation of other cross-functional teams.
(A) Creating Awareness
Although The Natural Step offers training sessions designed both for staff and managers, OMSI used an informal approach to raise awareness among their employees. Francaviglia describes the process as “organic”, where several initiatives come from within departments. OMSI has engaged its employees through monthly staff meetings, employee newsletters, and informal discussions within departments. One group of OMSI staff has formed a global climate change education committee to educate other staff through newsletter articles, emails, and guest speakers. Museum members are kept abreast of sustainability efforts through a members’ newsletter. According to Francaviglia, generating support from employees has not been difficult:
“Sustainability is a natural fit for OMSI. Not only because we’re in Portland but because we are focused on science and technology and industry, all of which are key to developing enduring sustainable solutions. The link for us is technology and the public and how that gets communicated.”
If OMSI has not formalized a sustainability training program for its staff, it has focused on educating the public on sustainability. Exhibit organizers take a systems approach to presenting sustainability as it connects to the theme of the exhibit. OMSI has gone so far as to develop a rubric that classifies exhibits based on the strength of their sustainability component. An explanation of the rubric can be found in the “Down to Action” section.
(B) Baseline Analysis
During the first few years of the Sustainability Steering Committee, three task forces were formed to analyze energy use, CO2 emissions from transportation and solid waste output. The Oregon Energy Trust provided a free energy audit while the CO2 Footprint Team assessed the carbon impact of business vehicles, employee commuting and other energy usages. The Zero Waste Team analyzed the waste stream by sorting and weighing trash in the dumpsters to determine what could be eliminated. In 2005, these focus areas were consolidated into CO2 Emission Reduction and Solid Waste Reduction, while Sustainability Content Delivery and Sustainable Exhibit Production were added as focus areas.
In January of 2005, a metrics committee was formed to measure the baseline from which to assess progress. The CO2 team decided at this point to focus on facility energy use and emissions from OMSI vehicles, but not to include employee commuting, which it found too difficult to measure. These emissions were measured in 2005 to be a monthly average of 400 metric tons.
The Solid Waste team measured the amount of trash sent to solid waste, as well as the amount diverted through recycling and composting. The analysis found that OMSI produces 140 metric tons of solid waste annually, derived mostly from the restrooms and cafeteria. Much of the waste is either recyclable or compostable.
The Sustainability Content Delivery team created a ranking system to measure the quantity and quality of sustainability content in programs, events, and exhibits. While the goal is not to make sustainability the central theme in every exhibit, OMSI recognizes that it can educate the public by showing how themes and topics from exhibits connect to global well-being.
The rubric that ranks the exhibits is shown below:
Program or Exhibit is not related at all to sustainability, and has no mention of issues surrounding environmental or social responsibility.
Bronze - Program or Exhibit mentions ideas and issues relating to sustainability (economic, environmental or social issues), but it is not woven into the overlying theme of the program or exhibit.
Gold - Program or Exhibit deals specifically with sustainability in a systemic way. While this does not mean all content centers solely on sustainability, the topic should deal with the interconnection between economic, social, and environmental health, and should present visitors with options for improvement or progressing forward.
Platinum - Program or Exhibit deals entirely with issues related to sustainability.
The Sustainable Exhibit Production team developed a LEED-inspired point system that allows them to compare the sustainability of different exhibit materials. The criteria are based around reused material, toxicity, distance of source, process or production, and recyclability of the final product.
Sustainable Exhibit Production Criteria
1. Rapidly Renewable Materials--Substitute finite material use with rapidly renewing resources.
2. Resource Reuse--Reduce waste and demand for virgin materials while reducing impacts of extraction and processing.
3. Recycled Content—Reduce extraction and processing by increasing use of recycled materials.
4. End Life Assessment—Reduce waste quantity that ends up in a landfill.
5. Low-Emitting Materials—Reduce the use of materials that emit Volative Organic Compounds (VOC) that pose environmental and health threats. Avoid use of PVC, styrene, and sintra.
6. Sustainably-Certified Wood—Encourage environmentally-responsible forest management.
7. Conservation—Design exhibits that conserve energy and water.
8. Regional Materials—Increase the use of materials that were produced within 500 miles to support regional economy and reduce transportation emissions.
(C) Creating a Vision
Prior to the work of the metrics team in 2005, OMSI’s did not have clear benchmarks to measure progress. Since then however, OMSI’s has developed measurable targets in five year intervals. OMSI’s sustainability goals in each of the four areas identified in the baseline analysis are set for 2017, or ten years since the plan was last updated.
Eliminating carbon emissions and solid waste by 2017 are both bold goals, particularly for their short timeframe. These goals help meet multiple Natural Step system conditions since the systemic effects of waste and carbon emissions affect human societies, physical processes, and ecosystem health and security. Goals three and four, however, are specific to OMSI and could have direct and indirect positive impacts. While OMSI has yet to perform an inventory of toxic, persistent chemicals in its operations, the sustainable exhibit production includes this criterion as part of its point system. OMSI’s third goal of increasing the presence of sustainability education could have lasting impacts on its visitors, although this is difficult to assess.
(D) Down to Action
Since being inspired by The Natural Step framework, OMSI has taken several actions that show a gathering momentum in its commitment to sustainability. Listed below are some of the most significant steps:
CO2 emissions reduction
• Variable Speed fans (2004)—Partnered with Energy Trust of Oregon, OMSI installed eight variable speed fans that reduce electricity demand by 240,000 kWh per year and eliminate 150 metric tons of carbon emissions.
• Lighting system efficiency (ongoing)—OMSI is constantly seeking efficiency improvements in their lighting system by using fluorescents, automatic dimming controls, and motion sensors. However, OMSI has not been able to replace the theatrical exhibit lighting with fluorescents.
• HVAC upgrade (2004)—An upgrade in the HVAC automation system to a Niagara software platform allows facilities to monitor and respond to inefficiencies.
• Wind power (2008)—OMSI now receives 20% of its electricity from wind power provided by PGE.
Solid waste elimination
• Composting worm bin (2005)—A composting worm bin with a 3,000 lb capacity diverts food waste from the solid waste stream.
• Bioswales (Ongoing)—OMSI planted bioswales in 1992 and again in 2007 to collect and filter stormwater runoff that would otherwise flush contaminants into the Willamette River. In part for this work, OMSI has received a Salmon-Safe certification.
• Recycling (Ongoing)—OMSI recycles plastics, metal, and paper; however they have not tracked the ratio of waste diverted from landfills, preferring instead to concentrate on the total waste stream.
• Styrofoam collection (Ongoing)—OMSI hosts and publicizes annual “Styrofoam round-up” events, where the public can bring Styrofoam to be recycled. Approximately 1,000 lbs are recycled each year.
• Reused shipping materials (Ongoing)—The Science store uses 100% reused packaging materials to ship internet and phone orders.
• Composting in the cafeteria (ongoing)—Biodegradable plates, beverage, and silverware are provided to customers in the OMSI café. All the materials can be composted, but OMSI has found that despite signage, many customers continue to mix up the containers.
• Vinyl Reuse (Ongoing)—OMSI donates its vinyl promotional banners to “Queen Bee Creations”, where they are made into purses and messenger bags. 465 ft. of vinyl and styrene have been reused this way.
Sustainable Content Delivery
• Annual Living Green Expo (ongoing)—This two-day event provides resources, information, products, and motivation to live more sustainably. Participants include businesses, NGOs, and government agencies that are merging environmental practices into their products and operations. In 2007, over 2,500 visitors and 30 companies participated.
• Sustainable products in the Science Store (ongoing)—The Science Store makes a concerted effort to sell products with a sustainability theme. These include books, toys, and renewable energy kits.
• Science Pub (ongoing)—A free, informal lecture series offered to the public covers scientific topics of public interest, such as nutrition, health, climate change, and natural sciences.
• OMSI Science Camps and summer classes (ongoing)—Summer Camp participants are educated in waste reduction by composting and smaller serving sizes. Children in summer classes are provided with reusable lunch box utensils to exemplify how waste can be reduced.
• Bon Appetit and the OMSI café (ongoing)—Bon Appetit, the company who manages the OMSI café, sources locally-grown, organic products, and transfers this information along to customers to raise awareness. In 2008, the company began promoting a low carbon diet, to illustrate how food purchasing decisions can impact climate change.
• Moneyville exhibit (2002)—This traveling exhibit focuses on the connections of global economics and encourages visitors to investigate where the materials in their consumer goods are sourced.
Sustainable Exhibit Production
• Innovation Station (2004)—OMSI created this technology exhibit from sustainably-supplied materials that were either reused or recycled. The Exhibit Production team has developed methods that reduced the use of toxic adhesives so that
exhibits could be more sustainably disassembled and reused.
• Green Exhibits Checklist (ongoing)—A LEED-inspired points system adapted by OMSI employees is being used to evaluate the sustainability of exhibits. A review of 10 exhibits over the past three years suggests that there is room for improvement: exhibits averaged 5.5 out of 32 possible points.
Measuring the Results
The importance of matching metrics to sustainability goals is illustrated by OMSI’s metrics committee. In 2005, the metrics committee identified four areas to measure as indicators for sustainability, which were eventually adopted as the four main sustainability goals at OMSI. A reliable system of metrics enables an organization to evaluate progress, identify problems, and make programmatic adjustments. In short, metrics are essential for an organization to be flexible to new technologies, information, and market conditions.
The metrics committee at OMSI has succeeded in measuring the solid waste stream, energy usage, and CO2 emissions. It was also responsible for developing the scorecard to grade the sustainability of OMSI exhibits. Some outputs are harder to quantify, however. Francaviglia explains that OMSI is constantly trying to improve their ability to measure their educational impact on the community. Fortunately, while qualitative information like this can be difficult to measure, many of the important environmental metrics are quantitative. Carbon footprinting metrics are constantly improving and as organizations make the decision integrate sustainability, this is pressuring suppliers to be more transparent in their materials and design processes.
OMSI’s solid waste program provides a telling example of the need to measure the effectiveness of a program. While some organizations create programs to lessen their environmental impact, if their flows of waste continue to increase, then the impact is marginal. Despite numerous efforts to cut down on the 140 metric tons of annual waste, the average monthly waste output has continued to increase at OMSI. Francaviglia attributes this to increased attendance, visitor behavior, and the learning curve in implementing new programs. Even when the results aren’t meeting expectations, this doesn’t mean that the program necessarily should be abandoned. In this case, having this measurement indicated that there were factors limiting the effectiveness of the recycling and composting programs—most notably in generating understanding and cooperation among museum visitors.
“If you don’t know where you stand, you’ll never know how far you can get”
- Former Metrics Committee member Hester Yorgey
As OMSI continues to refine its sustainability program, it will be crucial to learn from past challenges and be adaptable to new ones. The Natural Step case studies illuminate the frequency that certain challenges occur amongst different organizations. While there are important distinctions between non-profits, government agencies, and businesses, certain aspects of organizational development can be similar across sectors. For this reason, The Natural Step presents these challenges so that solutions to these obstacles can be discussed between members. OMSI’s challenges have included:
- Maintaining continuity and building momentum: OMSI has yet to create a sustainability coordinator position, in part due to lack of resources. While this position may not be necessary for success, it can certainly aid in the early implementation of new sustainability programs. Staff turnover and the lack of a formalized training program may also hinder program development.
- Making sustainability part of the job description: Implementing new programs which call for structural and behavioral change takes time and energy from employees who have other responsibilities. Some Natural Step members have found that adding to employees’ workloads without extra compensation can lead to resentment or resistance. To avoid this, several organizations have integrated this work into employees’ job descriptions. OMSI representatives say that this step is one that may need to happen soon in order to create stronger, lasting support from within.
- Developing metrics and programs around alternative transportation: While OMSI does provide secure bike racks and has showers on site for employee who cycle to work, so far they have been unsuccessful in producing a reliable estimate of carbon emissions from employee commuting. A lack of resources has prevented OMSI from subsidizing TRI-MET passes for employees.
- Developing awareness and compliance strategy for visitors: OMSI has experienced some early struggles in the four months of collecting compostable materials in the cafeteria. Although OMSI now provides clearly marked recycling and composting receptacles in the cafeteria, some customers either remain unaware or unconvinced when dumping the contents of their lunch trays. While the Office of Sustainable Development has commended OMSI’s low rate of compost contaminated with garbage, OMSI employees continue to find compostables within the trash. These issues are to be expected in the beginning phases of a new program. Acknowledging that while it would be difficult to make a trash director/sorter position enticing, Francaviglia notes that other organizations have succumbed to the stubborn consumer demand for convenience.
Benefits and Lessons Learned
- The metrics committee has succeeded in making the metrics meaningful by linking them with the sustainability goals to be sure that the results are indeed useful.
- The Sustainability Steering Committee has promoted cross-departmental collaboration, where employees’ share expertise and participate together for a common purpose. Francaviglia says that this has been a challenge at times, but that ultimately it has empowered employees and improved working relationships.
- OMSI appreciates The Natural Step Framework because of its scientific appeal and ability to provide a common language for an organization. Hester Yorgey, who worked on the metrics committee, says that The Natural Step served as a catalyst for OMSI to unify departmental projects under one program.
- Although they have yet to study the impact that their sustainability has on customer opinion of OMSI, OMSI managers feel strongly that sustainability is part of the overall OMSI mission and will create more interest for potential members.