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How United Technologies Is Propelling Us Toward a Future of Sustainable Urbanization

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 7th article in the series.

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 7th article in the series.

John Mandyck is Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Corporation (UTC). He has been with the company since 1993, having started at UTC’s Carrier brand.

In his spare time, Mandyck also chairs the Board of Directors for the Urban Green Council in New York City and Corporate Advisory Board of the World Green Building Council, is a member of the Corporate Council at the Harvard University Center for Health and the Global Environment, and blogs about sustainability at He also coauthored the book, Food Foolish, on the topic of global food waste, hunger and climate change.

We caught a few minutes with him at SB’16 San Diego in June to learn more about the parts of his work that fuel him most.

How would you describe the excitement and challenges of your role at UTC?

John Mandyck: UTC is in a unique position to help the world urbanize in a more sustainable manner. We have two megatrends in the world today. The first is population growth: We’re going to grow our population 35 percent over the next 35 years; we’re going to go from a planet of 7 billion people to greater than 9.5 billion people. At the same time, more and more people are moving to cities. Today, about half of the world lives in an urban setting; in 2050, nearly 70 percent of everybody on the planet is going to live in a city.

These two trends are converging – it’s fundamentally going to reshape our society [and] our economy. We’re looking at ways that we can help the world urbanize in a more sustainable way. Our new jet engine is an important step.

Tell us more about that, especially the jet engine and its development. How has the demand for clean aviation changed over the past two decades?

Mandyck: An outcome of the urbanization we just talked about is that the middle class will grow substantially; about 20 percent of the world today is considered to be in the middle class. In the next 30 years, that’s going to grow to 60 percent. For thousands of years, people have moved to cities for the same reason – for economic opportunity. The fact that we have a lot more people on the planet, and they’re moving to cities faster, means that we’re going to grow the middle class faster.

That’s going to have a profound impact on many aspects of our economy, and aviation is one of them. Today, less than 18 percent of the world’s population has set foot on an airplane. Less than 18 percent! As the middle class grows, more people are going to fly. The forecast is that we’re going to double the number of commercial airplanes in service in the next 20 years. We’ll go from about 22,000–23,000 commercial airplanes to 46,000 commercial airplanes in the next 20 years.

As one of the world’s leading providers of jet engines, we think about: How do we accommodate that growth in a more sustainable way? Our answer is a breakthrough technology that we have on display here, which is our geared turbofan engine. It’s our revolutionary change in aviation and particularly in the jet engine business, where we spent $1 billion reinventing the jet engine with new technology. Then, we spent another $10 billion bringing it to market.

This engine is in flight on two different continents today. It’s revolutionary in the sense that it’s greener, so it saves 16 percent on fuel burn. It’s cleaner; it saves 50 percent on the particulate emissions coming out of the engine. It’s quieter; it reduces the sound footprint by 75 percent. We think this jet engine changes everything when it comes to the future of sustainable aviation.

Where do you think the industry is headed in terms of meaningful action on clean energy?

Mandyck: I think the aviation industry recognizes it has a really powerful role to play in the future of sustainability. As more and more people move to cities, not only do we have the effect of the emergence of the middle class and people with disposable income, but we also have the fundamental need to connect these cities.

We’re going to have bigger cities, more cities, and we have to connect them culturally, socially, economically. As people move to these cities, they’re going to want to go back and see Mom and Dad, or their brother and sister. All this means that aviation is going to grow.

When it comes to our customers - who are the air framers (the people who build the airplanes) to the airlines to the people who fly the airplanes to the technology providers like UTC - we all have a strong interest in helping the industry grow sustainably as we face this tremendous ramp-up in the uptake of air travel.

Can you give examples of the most promising progress you’ve seen?

Mandyck: The biggest breakthrough is our new jet engine. A 16 percent improvement in fuel burn is revolutionary. People spend their whole careers trying to get 1–2 percent improvements in fuel burn. To get 16 percent at once redefines the sustainability of a jet engine. It brings big benefits not only to the environment, but to the airlines themselves. That improvement in fuel efficiency will save the airlines $1 million per airplane per year on fuel cost, at today’s fuel costs, which are much lower than historically they had been. There’s a big economic value proposition with this engine for the airlines.

That’s why we have 7,000 of these jet engines on back order. The engine’s in service in Europe and in Asia and it will continue to grow.

Are there any unsolved problems or key challenges that you see coming up?

Mandyck: As we look at the aviation industry, technology has a really big role to play. Aside from the engine, another area that we’re looking at is alternative fuels. If you take our jet engine and use a less carbon-intensive fuel, now you’re making even greater gains. We chair the industry body that looks at alternative fuels, including biofuels. I think that’s an area that needs greater exploration because it holds good promise.

The issue there is economic competitiveness. Biofuels have to compete with traditional fuel and in today’s lower-oil-price world, that equation is not paying off quite yet. But over time, I think that as fuel prices go back up someday, it’ll make biofuels that much more competitive. I think that’s another evolution in the aviation industry that we could look to.

You used the engine as an example of good alignment of business and purpose - that it’s highly efficient and that’s going to save money. Do you have any other examples of new developments that are good alignments of business and purpose?

Mandyck: People don’t often recognize us for this, but the products and technologies of United Technologies keep more food fresh before it reaches the home refrigerator than anybody else on the planet. We’re the world leader in truck and trailer refrigeration that moves food from our farms to our supermarkets. We’re the world leader in marine container refrigeration that moves food in our oceans. We’re the world leader in supermarket refrigeration that keeps food fresh in our grocery stores. As we think about these trends and the tremendous growth in our population, we have a unique insight into the world’s food supply, and what we see concerns us.

It’s not clear how we’re going to feed a growing planet in the most sustainable way, given one ugly truth, which is that 40 percent of our food never makes it from our farm to our fork because it’s lost or wasted along the way. We grow and produce enough food today to feed 10 billion people on our planet. We live on a planet of 7 billion and only 6 billion are eating. More than 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. I can’t think of anywhere else in society where we tolerate 40 percent inefficiency in anything, but we’ve come to accept it with the one resource we need to sustain the human race, which is our food supply.

We’ve engaged in a global effort to convene a different dialogue on this issue and try to help people understand that we need a different paradigm here. Today’s paradigm is: We’ll just try to grow more, to feed more, to throw more out along the way. We think the paradigm has to shift toward wasting less so we feed more, which has big environmental consequences.

The two main environmental benefits are in carbon and water. The UN has estimated that the carbon footprint of the food that we throw away or lose is 3.6 billion metric tons of CO2, which is a big number. If you measured food waste as a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. That’s all the carbon we put into our food that we then throw away; if you think about fuel for tractors, electricity for water pumps, diesel fuel to move our food around, then we throw 40 percent away. It’s got this huge carbon impact and we can do much better.

From a water standpoint, only 1.3 percent of water on the planet is fresh water that we have access to. We take 70 percent of that to grow our food, and we throw 40 percent away.

I’ll paint a different picture for you to bring it home to the United States. There’s a great organization out there called ReFED and they just did a deep-dive analysis on food waste in the United States. The ReFED report shows that if you wanted to create a farm to grow the food that we throw away in the U.S., it would need three-quarters of the landmass of the state of California to do that. If you wanted to water that farm, you would need all the water in California, Texas and Ohio.

The food waste issue represents a lot of the underlying problems that we’re seeing in society – it’s water stress, it’s carbon stress. We contend the low-hanging fruit for this problem is the food that we’re throwing away. It’s the food that’s rotting. We’re trying to change the paradigm on it. I was pleased to coauthor a book on this last year called Food Foolish, which explores the hidden connections of food waste, hunger and climate change.

So to answer your question: We offer technology solutions that can make a big difference. Less than 10 percent of the world’s perishable food supply is refrigerated today. We offer a technology solution here that increasingly, we’re making greener. This is the case where our technology’s going to make a difference – to help feed more people, to reduce the carbon footprint of food waste, to save water. That will be good for our customers, who are the farmers and the food companies, and ultimately good for our shareholders as well.

We believe we can do good for the planet while we do good for our customers [and] for our shareholders. When we do it right together, it’s a really powerful equation.

What’s next for your sustainability initiatives?

Mandyck: We also look at sustainability through the lens of green buildings. In the United States, we’ve reached about 47 percent of our commercial construction as green building construction. That’s a great accomplishment over the past 20 years.

We need more green buildings globally because buildings consume more energy than anything else on the planet. Buildings consume 40 percent of the world’s energy; transportation consumes 28 percent, industry consumes 32 percent. As we urbanize, we’re going to build more buildings, we’re going to build more cities. We need those buildings to be energy efficient.

Green buildings save energy and water - they provide a natural payback. That’s what’s propelled the movement in the first 20 years. But I think we’re holding ourselves back because we’re looking at the value in an artificial way. If you look at the true cost of operating a building, 1 percent is entered; 90 percent of the true cost of operating the building is the salaries and the benefits of the people in it.

If you think about it in a different way, we’ve achieved 47 percent commercial reconstruction in the U.S., chasing 1 percent of the cost. Think how much farther and faster we could go with a green building movement if it addressed the 90 percent of the cost, which are the people in the buildings. To do that, you have to prove that green buildings improve the health and productivity of people in the building. The research in that area’s been slow – until now. We’ve partnered with Harvard University to sponsor landmark research on the cognitive benefits of green buildings.

Harvard set up a clinical laboratory setting to test how the indoor environmental quality offered by green buildings affects how people think and how productive they are. The research showed that in an optimized green building, in that laboratory setting with 24 people, cognitive test scores doubled – they went up 101 percent.

It’s based on two parameters. The amount of CO2 in the room – if you’re talking in a room with high CO2 levels, then the longer you stay in that room, the drowsier you’ll become. So we studied CO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - they’re typical chemicals let off from carpets, from furniture, even from dry cleaning.

Harvard studied how people think in a traditional building setting. To create the environment, we set the standard at the building code for indoor environmental quality – for CO2 in a room, as well as what you would typically see in an office from a VOCs standpoint. We had people in that setting take a standard cognitive test that’s been given 70,000 times in the past 40 years - it’s a well-established test. For the first time it was given in an environment that controlled for these two variables - CO2 and VOCs.

People took the test, and then the lab was reconfigured to bring in air that would be found in a green building. Not any exotic conditions – the CO2 level was taken down from 950 parts per million, which is the code, to 600 parts per million - it’s not a huge adjustment - and the VOCs were reduced as well. The breakthrough finding was that CO2 was originally thought to be benign at these levels, but it didn’t matter. If you were at 1,000 or 900 or 600, it was thought not to have an impact, when in fact it has a tremendous impact on the way that we think.

It’s really bringing science to intuition. We know that in rooms with better air quality, we have a better attention span; we make decisions better. That’s what this research found, and we’re excited about this research because it’ll change everything about how people think about buildings. Buildings can become competitive assets now.

We think this is where the future of the green building movement is going. The past 20 years have been about reducing the building’s impact on the natural environment. I think the next 20 years will be about reducing the building’s impact on the human condition and turning it from less bad to more good. How do we actually make buildings better for people so that people can perform the best that they can? We’re excited about that research and how it will help accelerate the green building movement around the world.