Antwi Akom Ph.D.

Founding Director UCSF and SFSU

Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab (SOUL) 




NOTE: Dr. Akom is an opening keynote speaker at the 2017 Green Schools Conference and Expo.


I was recently invited to speak at the Frontiers Conference hosted by Former President Barack Obama to explore the future of innovation around the world. The conference focused on building the United States’ capacity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) as well as identifying those emerging technologies that will continue to shape the 21st century.


The conference was mind blowing and a reminder that a decade ago the idea of driverless cars, artificial intelligence seeping—or creeping—into our everyday lives, precision medicine’s ability to unlock the human genome to rid the world of deadly diseases, and augmented reality’s ability to take us “somewhere else” all seemed like the stuff of science fiction. But not any more.  Much of this stuff is now part of our everyday reality.


Being invited to Frontiers made me think about what was missing, and perhaps more importantly, who was missing at a conference of the world’s leading innovators? Particularly the question of social equity in relationship to technological innovation, which wasn’t discussed much at the conference.


We know technology can be used for social good. Silicon Valley has nearly everyone addicted. But technology can also be used to accelerate social and racial injustice and we’ve seen this with the rise of globalization. What are the technological downsides of eliminating jobs for poor people, the working class and middle class, suppressing wages, increasing economic inequality and access to opportunity for our nation’s most vulnerable populations?


Being internationally recognized at Frontiers made me realize just how important it is that now more than ever we become hyper-vigilant about building new social equity constructs for those communities that have been locked out of sustainability conversations, locked out of smart cities conversations, locked out of shareable cities conversations, and locked out of green schools conversations.


In other words, if green schools are to reach their full potential by integrating the technology revolution with the green revolution so that both are more diverse, equitable, and inclusive—then we have to move social equity from the margins to the epi-center of the green schools movement. Why? Because people matter more than technology and the decisions we make today will have implications for how we structure diversity, equity, inclusion, climate change, and income inequality for future generations.


So as the world’s leading innovators were acting like Nostradamus and gazing into their crystal balls, I stood at the front of Frontiers and began to identify five key trends that the green schools movement—including students, teachers, administrators, building and facilities experts—cannot ignore if we want to collectively create a more sustainable and just future for all.


 The Shift to Carbon Neutral School Buildings

The American Institute for Architects has issued the 2030 Challenge asking the global architecture and building community to adopt the following targets:

  • All new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, greenhouse gas (GHG)-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional (or country) average/median for that building type.
  • Increased to:
    • 80% in 2020
    • 90% in 2025
    • Carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG-emitting energy to operate).


It is important that we extend the carbon neutral challenge to the green schools movement. Are carbon neutral schools possible? Yes. But not with the current targets that expect every school to become a mini power plant. However, the targets are achievable if we take a more holistic approach, and encourage community partnerships, cities, and schools to work together to meet their energy needs with renewables.


It happened in Australia in 2007 when South Fremantle High School launched the Carbon Neutral Project and became the first Carbon Neutral High School in Australia by doing the following three things: 1) reducing their fossil fuel use; 2) implementing renewable energy projects; and 3) capturing carbon emissions through tree planting.


Shouldn’t we be replicating this model more here in the United States? Close to 3 million students attend schools with solar energy systems. The electricity generated in one year at these schools represents a combined $77.8 million per year in utility bills ‒ an average of almost $21,000 per year per school. This combined energy value is roughly equivalent to 155,000 tablet computers or nearly 2,200 new teachers’ salaries per year (Brighter Future Report, 2014). Carbon Neutral Projects provides schools with a much-needed means of expanding educational opportunities for STEAM subjects by providing “real world” situations for students to sharpen math, science, and creative thinking skills. So carbon neutrality is not only an important means to reduce climate change but it also saves valuable resources that can be reinvested in schools and communities.


The Data Revolution

The evolution of smart phones, cell phones, Big Data, and information communication technology is transforming sustainability in cities, schools, and the field of environmental education…and beyond (Akom et al 2016). The ability to collect real-time data is a key innovation that is allowing cities and schools to become more sustainable and track progress over time.


One tool that my nonprofit – the Institute for Sustainable Economic Educational and Environmental Design (ISEEED) – helped launched is called Streetwyze. Streeetwyze allows cities and schools to have two-way feedback loops with their most important constituents—everyday people—and to visualize what’s happening in real time with a level of granularity that was previously unimaginable. As a result, communities can begin to solve problems that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. For example, monitoring air, soil, and water quality (for lead contamination) around schools so children do not get sick, or access to fresh and healthy food, which impacts cognitive learning and brain development. By filling these gaps Streetwyze and tools like it begin to address two of the biggest challenges facing the data driven schools movement:

  • The challenge of invisibility and real-time data (i.e., the gaps in what we know and when we find out information)
  • The challenge of inequality (closing the gap between data and information-poor communities and data and information-wealthy communities)


Streetwyze has been recognized by the White House, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Knight News Challenge and has been featured in the Atlantic’s City Lab, The Root, Tech Republic, Green Biz, CIO Digital, Ed Weekly, the Pittsburgh Gazette, and other award winning publications (see As educators, designers, planners, and data scientists continue to find ways to integrate real-time data, community-driven data, and Big Data—the data revolution may begin to deliver on its promise of improving health, well-being, and educational performance with tangible, personalized results for all.


The Social Determinants of Education

The social determinants of education (SDE) refer to the fact that in-school factors, while important, account for no more than a third of the differential performance of students on tests (Johns Hopkins, 2012). Whereas out-of-school factors, including such things as family income, parental education level, and a multitude of health issues, appear to account for the rest. What are the implications of this reality for the green schools movement, and how might a focus on SDEs change how we approach environmental education, across urban, rural, and suburban areas? The SDE will be a key metric in measuring the success of the green schools movement now and long into the future. A great example of an organization working to address SDEs can be found in my TEDx Talk called: Innovation Out of Poverty which is a great talk for students, teachers, administrators, and everyday people interested in bottom up innovation, equity, sustainability, and designing for all.


The Growth of Augmented Reality 

Another megatrend that will impact green schools in the future is augmented reality (AR). AR is a technology that superimposes digital images on a user’s view of the real world. A great example is the popular game Pokémon Go.


Applications of AR in the green schools sector are project Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems, which allow designers, developers, and planners to discuss requirements in greater detail and reduce errors. It can also be used for instructing students, teachers, administrators, and staff on how they would like to see their school or community change and where the best places are to deliver goods and services more accurately that meet community needs and maximize community benefits. The technology is still being developed, and the kinks in this $120B industry are still being worked out, but as we move deeper into the 21st century expect AR to be included in conversations with the next big things.


 The Focus on Green and Healthy Schools

The green schools movement has focused on environmental education for decades now, but the next big opportunity is making school buildings healthier.


Currently, too many educational facilities have lead in the paint, arsenic in the water, PCBs in the windows, and asbestos in the ceilings and floors. We are at a point where the building stock in urban, rural, and suburban America is so dysfunctional and dilapidated that it is creating what I call toxic toddlers. And the school lunches we are feeding our children are contributing to the obesity epidemic and rising incidences of type II diabetes in children and youth.


The focus on healthy schools means that we increasingly recognize how the built environment has profound effects on human health and that at their best, our school buildings and communities can become powerful promoters of health and well-being. The educational opportunities here are endless: from community gardens and urban farms; to college and career pathways where students are trained in energy efficiency, lighting, ventilation, engineering, and high growth; to high wage jobs that can have a significant impact on health and educational outcomes.


Dr. Akom is an Associate Professor in Africana Studies and Education and the Founding Director of the Social Innovation lab, the first joint research lab between the University of California, San Francisco and SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies. He is also a faculty affiliate with UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations where he deploys health information communication technologies that improve health and promote equitable outcomes for all. Dr. Akom has co-founded and launched a series of technology startups, including Streetwyze, which has been recognized by the White House, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Knight News Challenge. He is Co-Founder of ISEEED (, an award-winning community-based center for research, teaching, and action.