When she was growing up, Jan Walstrom thought she might become an academic, but life happened—or life “innovated,” as she puts it. 

Walstrom, who is a senior vice president within the Office of Global Climate Response and ESG at engineering company Jacobs, started her career at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency was beginning to really embrace environmental protection as a strategic priority. It was in the wake of the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Walstrom was completing graduate school and had an opportunity that would shape the trajectory of her career. 

At the age of just 25, she was asked to be a project manager for the design and construction of surface water and groundwater remedial actions implemented at the Tar Creek Superfund site in northeastern Oklahoma. The site constituted a major lead and zinc mining district, where extracted ore had been processed to make bullets during the World Wars. When Walstrom showed up, though, about 30 million tons of mining waste was still there, threatening the environment in a multitude of ways. 

“We mined so that we could fight two World Wars and so that we could save and protect democracy across the planet,” Walstrom explained in her talk at Columbia Business School’s inaugural Think Bigger Innovation Summit, supported by The Hub, a CBS think tank. “But as a result of that, we actually harmed the planet that we all call home.”

Her work as a project manager in Oklahoma was formative, and since then, a passion for conservation and sustainability have been the guiding forces in Walstrom’s life. “It just became a very big calling for me,” she said. 

Naturally, though, the projects she’s tackled have not been straightforward. Complex problems call for innovative solutions, and Walstrom recalled two of the most complicated. She was instrumental in safely closing the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility just outside Denver, Colorado—cheaper and faster than anyone thought was possible—which required lobbying Congress for permission to do so. Today, Rocky Flats is a national wildlife refuge. 

The second example she provided couldn’t be more different from the first. After the city of London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Walstrom and her team totally transformed four of the UK's poorest boroughs. The team decontaminated and redeveloped the landscape of East London and then designed and constructed the infrastructure and venues that became Olympic Park and, later, educational institutions, small businesses, and residential houses. “It's a story of belief and innovation and vision, and it's a story of the public sector and the private sector coming together in really interesting ways,” she said. 

All of this is to say that when it comes to the enormity of the goal of reaching net zero in 30 years—of tackling what she terms the “intractable problem” of climate change—Walstrom knows what she’s talking about. “It's going to take every one of us around the globe, and it's going to take the public and private sector doing things differently,” Walstrom said. 

“So what are the main challenges to getting to net zero?” asked Alex Halliday, founding dean of Columbia’s Climate School and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who moderated the conversation. 

Walstrom said several major areas have to be tackled. The first is technology innovation. She said innovation has to continue to happen as rapidly as it has been happening, noting she’s not concerned that technology won’t develop far enough and fast enough. But in addition to that, we need to be unafraid of failure, Walstrom said, and start focusing on what technologies we actually can and are willing, as a society, to scale faster. “This is where we have to have the public and private sector come together in a different way,” she added. 

Next, we must be willing and able to cross geopolitical boundaries. Policy and regulation, which have both started to move in the right direction, must be approached in a holistic way and go beyond national borders. That’s also important in dealing with any supply chain issues that arise, said Walstrom. Here again, nothing will be possible without public and private cooperation. 

The bottom line is that we are leaders who have no roadmap. Over the past 150 to 200 years, she said, “we have perfected being good at leading successfully in a global economy based on fossil fuels.” Now, Walstrom added, “it is our generation, and the immediate generations to come, that have to come to grips with the idea that we can’t do it that way.” 

“We have to come together,” she concluded, “and we have to challenge ourselves with great ideas, with testing things and being willing to fail, with taking innovation from a part of the world you may never have even heard of before.”


Takeaways from this event: 

  1. Rather than focusing on why something might fail because it hasn’t been done before, consider why it might succeed. Then use the chance of success as an incentive to do it.
  2. Always consider ways in which collaborations and partnerships might make projects more successful for more people.