Professor of History James Merrell let me in on a not-so-guilty pleasure this week: “One of the many joys of working with Vassar students is that you know they’re going to go on from your classroom into every field you can imagine, and some you can’t. Rob Phocas, class of ‘91, is a prime example of them.”
Phocas was a history major at Vassar and this past Tuesday, he returned to campus to give a presentation called “Where do we go from here: Building Smart Cities.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the History and Environmental Studies (ENVS) Departments.
Phocas is the prime example of someone learning from history to create the future. As the Energy and Sustainability Manager for the City of Charlotte, North Carolina, Phocas is in charge of developing and implementing the City’s federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program (EECBG).
This grant, according to CharlotteNC.gov, is used for projects that focus on reducing fossil fuel emissions created as a result of activities within the community, reducing total energy use or improving energy efficiency in the transportation, construction and other sectors.
Merrell, who was Phocas’s thesis advisor when he was a student at Vassar, explained that Phocas’s lecture focused as much on the past as it did on the future. “His talk showed many of the traits that the History Department aspires to teach students,” Merrell said.
He went on to add, “It made clear how important it is to understand the history of any topic, even one that might seem as contemporary as sustainable cities. The talk was very well organized, carefully structured, bristling with ideas and evidence. He presented it in a very engaging, even entertaining fashion, connecting with his audience as every good historian must.”
Anna Beeman ’18, an attendee of the presentation and an Environmental Studies major explained her interest in the lecture. “It was interesting to see that many of these technologies are ready and available for cities and businesses to begin investing in them, the challenge now is to convince businesses that these types of investments are to their advantage,” she said. “Even Vassar has a lot of work to do with efficiency and sustainability.”
Associate Professor of History Leslie Offutt added prospective from the administrative side, saying, “The History department’s involvement in bringing Rob stemmed in part from the fact that the department had invited his wife Jane Mangan, also an ‘91 History major, to give an endowed lecture in the department.”
Mangan gave a lecture called “Family, Love, and the Law in Sixteenth Century Peru” on Monday evening. Offutt continued, “Given the fascinating work that Rob is doing with the City of Charlotte as its Energy and Sustainability Manager, and the fact that we’re always interested in sharing with our students what they can do with a History major.”
For Vassar students, and all college students who may worry if they can find work with a history major, they can be comforted by Merrell’s words regarding Phocas: “He personifies the virtues of a Vassar education and the liberal arts more broadly, that it helps people acquire a habit of mind and a set of tools. Research and writing, sure, but also curiousity and a skeptical, critical eye that will stand them in good stead regardless of what paths they ultimately follow after graduation.”
Specifically, Phocas’s involvement with EECBG is critical to promoting an economic stimulus for Charlotte. The Facebook event page for the lecture explained in greater detail, “The City’s U.S. Department of Energy-required energy efficiency and conservation strategy. The strategy includes 17 projects designed to reduce fossil fuel emissions, reduce energy consumption, create new green jobs, and increase the use of renewable technologies.”
In addition to Phocas’s role as Energy and Sustainability Manager, he also serves as a lead staff resource and advocate for environmental initiatives and policies within the Environment Focus Area Plan, one of City Council’s five focus areas.
As Offutt added, “The History department tries to showcase what its alums are doing in their careers, drawing out from those choices some sense of how their history major prepared them for the interesting and varied professions they’ve pursued.” Phocas has proven that a history major can be applied to various occupations.
Regarding what Phocas discussed specifically, Beeman said, “I did agree with him that cities need to work towards a ‘smart’ system, and with that comes urban sustainability. I like how he emphasized the importance of a public/private partnership between the technology companies, businesses, and government that will help the business save more money, but also help the environment.”
For those of us who do not know as much about sustainability as Beeman, she provided some background, “He discussed building smart metering infrastructure in buildings to track energy usage and work towards reducing energy consumption. Therefore, to businesses this technology is seen as a money saver.”
She concluded, “It’s a win-win scenario. Selling it as “smart” instead of “sustainable” could turn the tide in businesses investing in more environmentally friendly technologies while also putting their business at advantage.”
Beeman did find one shortcoming of Phocas’ presentation. He suggested an iPhone app where everyone would be able to tap into the larger data grid and accustom their daily lives to it. She said, “The app would tell you that there was an accident on X street, or Y bus is late. However, not everyone has access to these types of technologies and it seemed that he was targeting a very specific audience.”
She continued, “Sustainability only comes with everyone’s participation, and if smaller businesses are unable to spend money on these types of technologies they begin to fall behind. I would like to hear more about these types of issues, especially since most cities have a sizable low-income class.”
Although Phocas’ work comes out of an education focused on history, the work he is doing today is centered on a topic that many people are less familiar with. Merrell went on to say, “Rob’s field is something I knew little about. My biggest takeaway from the lecture was that, amid all of the justifiable alarm about such matters as global climate change and American politics, there is reason for cautious optimism. A lot of very smart and talented people around the world are coming together and working hard to combat the perils facing the country and the planet.”