Somewhere, in some heretofore ignored corner of the US—perhaps in the Nevada desert or upon the Appalachian plateau—a new city may grow. But where? And how? And to what end?
These are some of the questions that engage Michael Simpson, a longtime Antioch New England faculty member, director of the Master of Science in Resource Management and Administration, and an environmental advisor to the “Telosa” city-building project spearheaded by the billionaire Marc Lore. This last project, a utopian quest to create a new city imagined as an urban landscape necessary for expanding populations, engages many of Simpson’s interests and skills, from issues of environmental and social inequity to questions of water rights and sustainable waste management. Although he’s only one of many advisors assembled to push this exciting project forward, he is excited by this project. And it provides a good window into the remarkable range of expertise and experience that Simpson has developed over his career.
A Novel Solution to Sustainable New Housing Needs
It’s projected that by 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Countries around the world are both developing plans for new cities and reshaping their existing urban centers. Each task faces different challenges. Older cities often have to shift deeply rooted infrastructures and cultural norms, whereas new cities need to attract citizens while addressing the systemic roots of inequity. But there may be more possibilities available to those who start from scratch. Simpson frames it this way: “What innovations can be put in place when you start from the ground up, as opposed to trying to retool an old decision?”
As a sustainability consultant on the Telosa project, Simpson gets to do just this. And he draws knowledge from all four of his areas of expertise: wetland ecology, organic waste management, materials management, and climate vulnerability and resilience of infrastructure. He gets to imagine a city that is completely sustainable and that centers on inclusion, diversity, and participatory government for its citizens.
Of course, it’s a big project, and he doesn’t agree with everything that is proposed. “Sometimes I’m just a lone voice in the wilderness, pushing back,” Simpson says. But since the beginning of the project there have been a handful of promising shifts. “Their understanding of what makes a sustainable city has matured,” says Simpson. “They’ve acknowledged that the success of any sustainable city must first address the wise use and security of water, energy and food.”
This is important if they’re going to attract the five million people that the planners intend to have live in the city. Jobs, housing, and education will all be necessary to support the population. Simpson describes this as important to the quality of life. “That’s all part of the complexity of this system we’re looking at,” he says.
Location will matter, too. Although western desert regions have the space to develop a brand new city like Telosa, they also have a major drawback: they might not have the capacity to support it long term. But it’s questions just like this that make the project so exciting to work on.
A Passion for Understanding Sustainable Systems
Simpson himself has been pushing for Telosa to be sited in the Appalachian plateau. He grew up in Cincinnati and spent summers hiking in Tennessee and Kentucky and feels a connection to the region. With a personal interest, he has been following the region’s economic plight in recent decades. Locating any new city in Appalachia “would provide an economic driver,” Simpson explains. Such a new city could help support the transition from a coal economy and theoretically combat the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the area.
Although his career path has been varied, Simpson’s background gave him the question that ties it all together: what makes a system sustainable? “I can take that paradigm, and the critical thinking that goes with it, and transition from one discipline to the other,” Simpson says. This is the scope of thinking and passion he is bringing to the Telosa project and it’s also what he brings to his work in the Antioch community.
Expertise into Education
Simpson started his professional career as a high school teacher, has worked as a docent at the University of Michigan Biological Station, and a NOLS instructor in Wyoming. Simpson even frames positions one might not consider to be educational as such. “To be honest with you, my consulting is teaching,” he says. “I’m educating people on how they should think about problem solving.”
The list of accomplishments in Simpson’s history is long, and the work he’s done helps him understand the many facets that go into resource management. Early in his career he worked on a team that started the first curbside recycling program and state-level composting system in the United States. He has worked throughout the global south with the disenfranchised urban poor to develop micro-enterprises addressing environmental challenges. And today he runs a consulting firm often collaborating with former students who are now professional colleagues. Currently he is working with the EU and the International Solid Waste Association in Rotterdam to develop how to measure sustainable material use through developing metrics for ascertaining the circularity of a city’s economy.
These roots and his rich and varied professional experiences form the foundations of his work in the classroom and as program director. They give Simpson a broad lens with which to consider Resource Management as a field. “It’s not just natural resources,” he says. “It’s time, money, expertise, stakeholders, networks. “That’s what you’re managing.”
Simpson is an Antioch Alum himself; he was one of the first graduates of the Resource Management program. Now that he directs that program, he credits a mentor at Antioch, Alexandra Dawson, for shaping how he sees his position. When he returned to his alma mater to direct the program he graduated from, she told him this job was “to put as many people out on the landscape as we can, to do the good work.”
In a time when it is easy to despair at the magnitude of challenges human beings will face globally because of the climate crisis, Simpson has continued that legacy by taking the long view. Simpson wants to instill hope and stoke students’ passions. “That passion,” he says, “can be snuffed out very quickly, with all the problems.” Simpson doesn’t truck with the idea we’re looking at the potential of change, but instead he insists that we’re living in the midst of it. Citing a list of shifts that have already happened, from new atmospheric systems to biodiversity loss, he says, “The point is, how do you minimize the pain that goes along with transitioning or adapting to the change?”
Teaching How to Think, Not What to Think
When considering the ongoing development of the Master of Science in Resource Management and Administration degree program at Antioch New England, Simpson is grounded by considering the kinds of skills that students will need to remediate the effects of a changing climate. “We can’t use old ways of thinking,” Simpson says. That’s why he is training people to be more expansive thinkers. It’s so that students learn to “connect the dots out there, ones that are normally balkanized.” This is how he believes students will be able to approach challenges and—rather than feeling overwhelmed—feel confident to apply critical new ideas quickly to help people.
This is also how he approaches his work in the classroom—and he has seen some amazing projects come out of the systems he originated. One of the ways he feels most rewarded as a teacher, he says, “Is when I see students take my original ideas and personal skill sets…and they actually take them to the next step.”
For example, one methodology he developed was used to assess vulnerability to the passage of fish and other aquatic organisms when building infrastructure along river corridors. Simpson often has students work on projects with him, and in this case a student used what they learned from project-management in this internship and then applied it more broadly through Trout Unlimited, a conservation group. Now the methodology is used across the state of New Hampshire when building new water-conveyance infrastructure.
Simpson loves his work at Antioch, and perhaps nothing inspires him more than having the chance to work with a specific kind of student: one who is engaged in their learning process and eager to address environmental justice through understanding systems. To best serve these students, he makes sure learners are presented with all the systems they may have to work under, from policy and their associated regulations, economics to land and water resource management, soil science, and climate modeling. This way, when they meet a complex problem in the landscape they’ll know what resources will be needed and manage the process to develop a viable path forward.
“What is at the core?” asks Simpson. “Really, you know, it’s how you approach problem solving, how you use critical thinking, and how you find and utilize resources.”
These are the skills that guide Simpson in all of his work, whether he’s supporting the creation of a new American city called Telosa, tracking product use and material waste in Rotterdam, or teaching Antioch students how to navigate the many factors that will enable them to heal, in ways small and large, our world.