I came to MIT knowing exactly what I wanted to pursue: ensuring reliable, secure, clean, and affordable energy for all. You’d think that it would be easy to find a community of similarly minded peers in MIT’s large climate and energy ecosystem.
And in a way, it was. My master’s program, Technology and Policy, has a large group of folks interested in issues of decarbonization and energy. My lab, the MIT Energy Initiative, tackles the big challenge of meeting global energy needs in efficient, sustainable, and environmentally friendly ways. And in my second-year, I joined the Exec Team of the MIT Energy Club (MITEC), an umbrella student organization that boasts more than 5,000 members.
However, I quickly realized that these groups were quite separate, each pursuing its own agenda and organizing its own programming, with little cross-group interaction. Not to mention the dozen other labs and student organizations that also focused on energy and climate.
Given the different groups’ funding and organization models, it made sense to establish some boundaries between them. However, that also illustrated the need for better communication across these distinct groups – to better foster community-building at MIT.
This was how the idea for MIT C&E, an online Slack community, was formed.
In June 2020, my MITEC co-VP, Vineet and I, pitched the idea of a virtual community to our club’s leadership. Through it, we aim to bring together members of the MIT community who are passionate about clean energy and climate action, to facilitate virtual meetups, discussions, and collaborations among students, faculty, and research staff. Though initially wary of tackling such a large problem, the club leadership quickly jumped on board, offering their full support.
First, we needed a communications platform. This was a no-brainer. MIT had recently subscribed to Slack’s Enterprise account, and it made logging in a simple one-click process for all MIT members. Since we were already transitioning all team communications to Slack (for both class and research), there would be little additional effort to onboard interested parties to an online communications platform. Slack’s “channels” feature was also integral into our vision, where members could selectively choose to join specific channels (to be grouped by topics) to engage with the content they wanted to engage with.
Second, we needed buy-in from potential partners. Vineet and I reached out to several student organizations and research groups to establish ongoing communications with their leadership teams and float the idea of an MIT-wide climate and energy community. These groups responded with overwhelming support, as this was a gap that many others had identified. In terms of timing, we were lucky that many other groups were also looking for community-building opportunities during this new transition to remote learning. When we met with Alex from the 15.366 (Energy and Climate Ventures course) teaching staff, we established a natural partnership. It turns out that the 15.366 teaching staff was also looking at creating these networks and relationships as part of a larger effort to find potential venture co-founders.
Finally, we needed to build engagement within the platform. I’m sure we’ve all experienced Slack communities that have been better or worse at building engagement. Vineet, Alex, and I brainstormed best practices for engaging with the various channels. We first floated the idea of having channel-specific moderators; though that quickly led to issues with finding people with the interest and time to take on this responsibility. We eventually abandoned that idea, reasoning that the truly passionate folks could start their own channels and pursue conversations and discussions there.
We did, however, establish Slack norms. Upon login, every new member is greeted by a Slack bot, which gives instructions for how to make a self-introduction on the #give-a-quick-intro channel, and offers the list of existing channels to enroll in, such as #climate-news, #clean-energy, #smart-grids, #food-and-ag, and #opportunities. Once we reach critical mass, we plan to organize virtual meetups for sub-communities, and hope that all climate and energy enthusiasts may find an online home.
We’re currently in the early stages of establishing our online community (MIT C&E), and will need much support in the coming months to mold it to fit our vision. If you are passionate about mitigating climate change and/or solving global energy problems, sign up to our Slack community here. And to organizations that are also considering moving to an online platform, we’re always happy to share our experiences. Stay tuned for more updates!