A Green Business Network Member Spotlight
Get to know fellow Green Business Network member William Neds. We recently spoke with Neds to learn more about his work to integrate holistic thinking into every aspect of his life – from his career and serving on his company’s green team to being a dad.
Green Business Network member William Neds is a civil engineer for HDR, an international architecture and engineering company headquartered in Omaha with an office of approximately 150 people located in south Kansas City, MO.
Since joining HDR four years ago, Neds says his most important accomplishment has been the evolving integration of his training as an engineer with his passion for sustainable communities and resiliency planning.
“I started out my career doing generic site development – clear-cutting, leveling a space and then putting a building on it. Then I started considering the environmental and social connections to the work that I do,” says Neds.
Neds says this shift in thinking has led him to increasingly collaborate with HDR’s sustainability and resiliency professionals.
“We’re [HDR] starting to get better at removing the silos and taking a more cross-disciplinary approach. There’s this dichotomy between an engineer’s reductive thinking to provide a sense of control; and the complex, interconnected dynamics of reality. I’m split in my own conditioning, and the same dance plays out in a community. We rightfully trust the knowledge of engineers, but the right set of questions must be asked in order to avoid unintended consequences beyond the project scope.”
There’s a quote Neds refers to reflect this idea:
“’Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions’ – by Peter Senge, an essential contributor to systems thinking. That’s why I think it’s important we’re integrating insights from other groups into our work. It breaks our habits and recontextualizes projects so that we can design for compounding benefits.”
In addition to his engineering degree, Neds has a Master of Science in Resilience and Sustainable Communities – something he says is rare for engineers.
“It was an online program I completed a year ago with people from all over the country. We were challenged to think through the same problems and found that the way they [the problems] manifested themselves was different depending on where you were. Thus, the ways communities, respond must be unique. We talked a lot about the interconnections and vulnerabilities of environmental, social, economic, food, and infrastructure systems; including the reverberating effects of a pandemic. I really wish I could have dialogue with that community right now.”
Neds has applied this holistic thinking to the work he also does serving on HDR’s green team for the local Kansas City office.
“When we [the green team] first started out, we tried all these fragmented ways to get people involved and caring. We did a stream cleanup. We had a presentation on pollinators. We celebrated Earth Day. We did so many different things, but I was observing how people’s behaviors weren’t really changing. We’d do an activity, we’d feel great, and then we’d move on. I realized that when you’re trying to share all these different ideas to someone who doesn’t get it at all, it’s not effective. If you scatter your messaging, it becomes scattered in their minds.”
Instead, the green team decided to focus on one concrete action and show how it relates to everything else: composting coffee grounds in the office.
“We picked composting, because honestly, it felt like low-hanging fruit. And we wanted to ensure that it was something that would be convenient. I want to break away from the idea that what we do must be convenient – I think that’s damaging – but I do think that convenience has to be a part of the initial engagement. If you start with something simple, it gives us something we can build from to show the connection later.”
The team took advantage of reduced office occupancy during the current COVID-19 pandemic to launch a small-scale pilot program in July. Employees simply put their coffee grounds in a central container on each floor, and every week, Neds and another coworker take the collected office coffee grounds. Neds brings his to Urbavore, a local farm with a community composting drop-off. So far, he says, they’re diverting nearly 2 ft3 of viable nutrients from the landfill a week.
He hopes the next phase will be for them to visit Urbavore and spend the day volunteering to give people the opportunity to see firsthand how the coffee grounds are being composted and then used as a soil amendment to help grow food. After that, he plans to organize a trip to the farmers’ market where employees can purchase food grown from local farms such as Urbavore.
“We want to show circular economics and find ways that we can interact with the whole process so we can experience the connections of each step. If you’re not able to think about how your actions are affecting something else you’re experiencing, you’re not likely to have integrity to alter behavior on a consistent basis. You don’t understand how it’s even relevant to you.”
When he’s not working, Neds says he spends his time dabbling in research and spending time with his family.
“I’m really focused on regenerative practices right now. It’s opening my mind into a whole new way to design and see the world. I really enjoy digging into research that’s emerging and seeing how I can share new insights to create systemic change.”
“I also play with my 3-year-old daughter. We’re trying to immerse ourselves with nature through everyday practice. We go on walks a lot. We love trying to create conditions for biodiversity. We observe and log what we see, then try to create more habitat for them.”
“We also have chickens, ducks, and a garden. I’m trying to teach my daughter where food comes from. About two years ago, we ran out of eggs, and she was just like ‘At store,’ and I thought to myself ‘This is going to be a problem if you think things magically appear at the store.’ I want her to understand that you have to take care of life in order to get a lasting return.”