I am joining the ecoinvent association

From https://www.flickr.com/photos/us_army_fort_huachuca/47179699052/

The ecoinvent association publishes the ecoinvent database, and has been around for around two decades. It has a long history of providing consistent background data with transparent supply chains, and forms the foundation for a lot of life cycle assessment (LCA), and basically all the LCA work I have been a part of. In addition to planning, curating, reviewing, and publishing data, the association is also an active participant in most community efforts to improve the state of sustainability science.

This spring, the governing board of the ecoinvent association hired Nic Meyer as the new CEO, and reshuffled the existing management. After I decided to start Cauldron, my consulting company supporting Brightway development and use, I was asked to develop a proposal to simplify data sharing across database and nomenclature systems. I shopped this proposal to a number of actors, and got a range of responses, but the most interesting one came from Nic. He told me that my proposal was too idealistic, with too small a budget, and that if I wanted to actually realize my goals I should come work for ecoinvent.

This was a bit of a shock for me. I have asked the ecoinvent association some hard questions lately, and did not expect the response I got from Emilia and Nic. They were honest, kind, understanding, positive, and realistic about my plans and ideas. After a week of talking with both of them, and thinking on my own, I received a formal offer to be product manager for data publication. My heart told me that this was the right direction. In the end, this was an easy choice, and the only choice if I wanted to make a real difference, instead of offering (hopefully constructive) criticism from the sidelines. One year ago, such a change would have been inconceivable to me, and I know that some people have certain opinions of the ecoinvent association. If you are one of those people, here is why I think you should reconsider.

First, the new CEO has allowed the management team, and the whole organization, to reconsider their long term goals, and how the association can continue to play a positive role in a growing community. They don't want to just keep releasing annual database versions following the same pattern, but to pivot, to evolve the role of the database and the association. For example, they understand and sympathize with the push for open data, especially from academic users, and are considering different business models. No specific decisions have been made so far, but I am confident that there will be developments in the next year that will make open science advocates happy. Note here that the details are still very much to be decided, and change will not happen overnight.

I also think Nic deserves a lot of individual credit. He has created a work environment where people can focus on their most important tasks, can say no to projects or tasks when needed, and can choose their way of working that maximizes their productivity. I could feel the respect and positive energy flowing between him and the rest of the ecoinvent team. I don't mean to say that he will always say yes to suggestions - to make changes, one needs to say no much more often than yes, and to make decisions which upset people. But when he does piss me off - and I am sure he will - I will be able to talk with him about it from a place of mutual respect.

I also felt a philosophical shift in the attitude of ecoinvent staff. They are open to different modelling concepts and system models, and are willing to engage in constructive dialogue on things which in the past were set in stone. To be trite, they shifting from fighters to lovers. This might just be my opinion, and I obviously can't speak for others. I also think that online discussions can drive people to extremes as we lack social cues on what is really being meant. Now that travel is possible again, I would encourage you to talk to someone from the association in person, and give them a chance to make a fresh impression.

My specific position is to help redesign the way that ecoinvent publishes data. This is really exciting! The IT team has some great coders, doing things I have been dreaming about for years, like reproducible cloud workflows, user-centered data APIs, and planning for deeper data and result integration with other databases. My job will be to design how these technical systems should behave, merging my programming experience with what the market currently demands and will need in the future. There is an enormous possibility space for both the association and the broader community here, and the ecoinvent association can be one of those companies who are the nucleus of a widely-used, well-supported set of hybrid open and proprietary tools and data. I also see myself as a developer advocate, someone who understands the pain points of consuming the current database, and who can communicate with the IT team and drive improvements. I can also act as a bridge for research on calculation methods to enter into the ecoinvent infrastructure, and lead the push upstream to improve data or change the way data is gathered or modeled. Of course, technical infrastructure is only one part of a broader set of changes, and I don't underestimate the hard work that will be needed on all levels over the coming years.

I will still be running Cauldron, but without the pressure to support the family, I can be selective about when and what kind of work we will do. If you are interested in adapting Brightway to your organization or carbon footprinting startup, please let me know! We have experience with these kinds of projects and offer focused support and consulting. The priority for Cauldron in the short term is to invest whatever money we earn into the Brightway 3 strategic plan.

Finally, I turn 45 the day I write this. One doesn't need to read too much into such things - our time accounting is arbitrary, after all. But I feel extremely blessed to be given this opportunity, one which which builds on my previous experience but lets me grow in interesting ways. If you have suggestions, questions, or just complaints about ecoinvent data publishing or APIs, please get in touch. We can design a better and broader data ecosystem together.