Faculty Profile: Phil LaRocco

by |August 16, 2013

Phil LaRocco, MS in Sustainability Management Faculty MS in Sustainability Management faculty member Phil LaRocco spent twenty years with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, ending his career there as the Director of World Trade and Economic Development. In 1990, he founded E+Co, a non-profit investor in over two hundred energy enterprises in over twenty developing countries, with offices and staff on five continents. After retiring as CEO of E+Co in 2009, LaRocco began teaching courses at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He joined the MS in Sustainability Management program in Fall 2012, where he teaches SUMA K4150 Energy and Sustainable Development. He has just launched a start-up distance learning company focused on (what else?) energy entrepreneurs in developing countries. This start-up, Embark Energy, began operations in Tanzania in 2013.

What Is special about Columbia?
The word “diversity” is overused; otherwise, it would apply. Columbia is an eclectic, heterogeneous, alive place… world class researchers, rock star thought leaders, career academics and well regarded practitioners all rubbing elbows with an amazing cross-section of different passports, cultures and learning objectives. Much like the city where it is located, Columbia is a lively, provocative mash-up and melting pot of all the different ways you can assemble ideas and points of view.

What do your classes and workshops cover?
All of my class and workshop topics fit under the umbrella of “energy in developing countries” but that’s a very big umbrella. There tend to be three recurring themes: (1) the role of energy as it impacts the quality of societies (2) the problem and symptoms of energy poverty, waste and inequality (3) how energy technology, policies, programs and businesses both cause and correct poverty, waste and inequality.

These three themes represent the “stuff” of course and workshop efforts. The “learning” around these themes tend towards testing our ability to handle ambiguity, evaluating proposals and ideas through a set of common sense frameworks and connecting the dots between high level “policy”, mid-level “programs” and “businesses” to ground level impact. The constant that connects these dots is the customer, the household that either has or does not have access to modern energy (small amounts of electricity, clean cooking and light) and the enterprise that can deliver improvements to that customer’s doorstep. As a result of this end-user and delivery enterprise focus, the review of “big” programs, institutions and activities tends to involve deconstructing the press releases and web sites and publications of large activities and asking critically, “What does it really means in terms of improved quality of life for the end-user?”

What can students expect from SUMA K4150 Energy and Sustainable Development?
This course explores the tension and ambiguity that characterizes energy and development issues in the world’s most marginal markets; the inadequacies of “business-as-usual” energy planning and implementation in these markets; and, the potential of non-traditional energy businesses, projects and programs to reach beyond “business as usual” approaches.

The course mixes the topics of cleaner energy production and use; energy efficiency and waste reduction; and, energy access and energy poverty. Its entry point and theme is “energy through enterprise”. Individual enterprise examples are used to examine resources and technologies, business and program models, policies and institutional approaches and the analysis of macro (country), meso (sector) and micro (transactions).

Participants learn and use a set of “frameworks” to achieve a more balanced view of activities at all three of the levels. Students work individually on country analysis and propose a relevant enterprise for a usually unfamiliar country. Students also work in groups to compare similarities and differences among assigned countries and to collaborate on enterprise development ideas and issues. Each participant creates a “Wikispace” that houses their research throughout the semester and prepare a final paper that summarizes this research and the logical use of that information to create an enterprise suitable to the circumstances studied.

Given your extensive practitioner experience, how do you approach classroom teaching?
I have spent over four decades (yikes!) at the professional intersection of the public sector and the private sector. If you can put aside the horrendous job my over-the-hill hippie generation has done on so many things (please don’t), I think I have learned a few things that constructively color the discussions in the classroom and workshop.

• SILOS: We spend too much time compartmentalizing the “public” sector and the “private” sector”. While a fair number of things are purely one or the other (e.g., anonymous charity or betting against a stock index), most things are actually a combination of both (e.g., the donor who sees his charity as an enhancement of his commercial or institutional brand or the commercial real estate developer who parlays his private investment into a tax abatement or infrastructure investment from local government). Educationally we do not spend enough time exploring the merits and shortcomings of this mixed approach and we spend way too much time wallowing around in silos of what this or that institution or program can do or cannot do, and what task belongs to which sector. We’ve turned “public-private partnership” into a cliché rather than a strategy and set of tactics. Young professionals need to have all the possibilities at their fingertips not just the neatly classified ones. That means they need to see real-life cases, warts and all, and spend less time on neat, idealized structures and policies, or in responding to the neat categories opaque institutions put before them.

• PROPOSALS: Most of us spend most of our professional lives either preparing, enhancing or reviewing proposals by whatever name our particular profession uses for a request to do something and a request for the resources to do it. Yet we do not spend nearly enough time preparing young professionals for this fact-of-life or devote enough of the assignment load to honing these skills. This isn’t about Monte Carlo scenarios underpinning an IPO to “cure” climate change. This is about cogently separating the essential elements of a good idea from the important (but non-essential) ones and from the nice (but neither important nor essential) ones. The assignments in the classes and workshops I have the chance to influence are heavily geared to ramping up the skills and tools of young professionals to prepare and present complete, balanced and internally consistent proposals, something they will spend decades actually doing in whatever path they follow.

• VESTED INTERESTS: The single largest impediment to progress – I am quoting a dear colleague, Dr. Al Binger, here—is captured in two words: “vested interests”. Vested interest comes in all manner and shape, some clearly “in your face” – the local thug who wants a bribe—to subtle (the public official who enjoys the perquisites of large projects despite the argument that many small projects offer greater benefit to the end-user) to the very opaque and ambiguous (the large scale, well meaning, highly public project that is so stuck in its project design or institutional bias or fundraising needs that it shuts out more effective ideas and resource use) to the purely egoistical (the official who controls a travel budget and thinks he thereby controls the entire agenda and program of world-class professionals). If proposals are what we spend most of our professional lives preparing or reviewing, the parallel point is that vested interests are what we spend a large part of our professional lives trying to overcome. Therefore, it isn’t enough to have good ideas and understand the levers of policy and institutional heft. Young professionals need to “see” the cloudy, ambiguous and difficult-to-change world where they will try to organize, sell and implement their ground-breaking ideas.

• PLANNING: “Nothing Goes As Planned”. That’s why plans are called… plans. Young professionals need to see, hear, read and get answers to the question: “What Happened?” Having four decades of experience in the development space I like to think I have made a lot of mistakes that if shared might allow someone to not make such a mistake. I have found that students really want this kind of information and experience. It is some of the most difficult “stuff” to share and do so in a way that is instructive rather than just good story telling. The 2011-2012 implosion of the organization I founded in 1994 and retired from as CEO in 2009 is one such story. Working these types of lessons (as options growing from lesson plans within curricula) is challenging. But at the end of the proverbial day what’s the point of Columbia hiring career “practitioners” as instructors if this part of the “excellent adventure known as life” isn’t part of the package to be delivered to young professionals.


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