Our founder and forever Resilience Hero, Aimée Christensen, took some time this week to share her story on establishing the Sun Valley Institute. During her time as the Executive Director of SVI she made direct impacts throughout Blaine County for a more resilient future; from increasing the number of solar installations by 500% in one year to building demand and access for local food. Christensen took her globally renowned perspective and applied it here, at home, in the Wood River Valley. We are fortunate that she will continue to be a part of SVI as our Board Chair. Christensen shares with us her own definition of resilience, how she applies her work in resilience outside of SVI, and her vision of the future for our community.
As founder and the Executive Director of SVI for the past five years, how do you personally define resilience?
In our rapidly changing world, I see resilience as vital for people, communities, and organizations of all sizes. Some people think of resilience as reactive; I define resilience as proactively developing the ability to weather harm or challenge and come back even stronger as a result.
What inspired you to incorporate a focus on resilience when founding the Institute?
When I moved home ten years ago, I was working around the world to support governments, corporations, nonprofits, communities and multilateral organizations to lead to benefit our planet and people, to build a prosperous, equitable, secure and healthy world, in a word, to build resilience. I realized quickly that our community had the chance to be a leader in resilience, but I was dismayed to see great fragility and a lack of leadership particularly in my field of energy.
Harry Griffith, Executive Director of Sun Valley Economic Development, invited me to join the Planning Committee for the 2013 Sun Valley Economic Summit and as I spent more time here focused on our community, what I saw was a community facing multiple risks, from our mega fires in 2007 and 2013 to battles between water users during drought years, from low snow year early mountain closures to our power outage of Christmas Eve 2009, from unsustainable, low-value agricultural land use to environmentally- and economically-harmful imported energy sources. All of this was made even more dire by our economy so dependent upon recreation and tourism, which relies on smoke-free air in the summer and reliable snows in the winter.
At our 2013 Summit, we agreed on a theme of “Beyond GDP: Investing for Quality of Place,” inspired by other communities identifying their values and priorities for quality of place, and we discussed what mattered most to us. We saw that our risks could be opportunities. We are blessed by incredible natural and human resources: fertile land, flowing rivers, abundant solar and geothermal resources, and creative, caring people and strong leaders in our nonprofits, governments, and businesses. By becoming more thoughtful about our current activities, by tapping into our natural and human resources with an eye to our future, we can ensure that our air, water and land, wildlife and wilderness and the resulting dark skies and peaceful areas for personal restoration are here always for enduring quality of place, and an economy is dependent upon it.
At the 2014 Summit, our theme was resilience, inspired by the Beaver Creek Fire and its economic aftermath. A few months later, we founded SVI to focus on building resilience, taking that forward-looking view, to aim resources toward protecting our local values for all, for all time.
What are you most proud of achieving during your time as Executive Director of SVI?
I am most proud of two aspects of our work: first, the direct impact we’ve had through our early programs in food and energy, two areas that have undermined our resilience, our economy, security and environment by importing our energy and food, sending energy and food dollars out of our region, we have some of the highest food costs in the country, and making us vulnerable to disruption of those imported sources. Local Food Alliance, the Food & Farm program of the Institute has worked to increase demand for and access to local food, supporting this “growing” opportunity for our regional economy. Our energy program ran Solarize Blaine, “tapping” into our local energy resources, driving over 5 times the amount of solar to be installed in just 20 weeks over the entire year prior, helping to grow the local market, benefiting local jobs and reducing individual energy prices. In collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory, we have helped to identify opportunities for local energy projects to backup our grid at critical loads such as our hospital, fire, police, and communications facilities, and look forward to local leaders taking those projects forward. Second, I am proud of our work as conveners of our community, to discuss, prioritize and act on resilience: our 2018-2019 Community Resilience Workshops and our recent Community Resilience Committee has brought us together to continue the conversation started at the Economic Summits, to identify and mobilize resources around local resilience priorities, from regenerative agriculture to local housing, supporting local leaders in nonprofits, governments and businesses in taking these efforts forward.
What do you hope to see SVI accomplish in the future?
I am most excited about SVI’s local investment fund that we are building to deploy resources to local resilience projects. Having access to impact capital for priority projects will accelerate our ability to directly benefit our local economy, security, environment and overall quality of life. We have a pipeline of two dozen projects across housing, energy, and food production, distribution and processing and look forward to seeing these projects financed with patient, low-cost capital that the team is pulling together at this time when our community is in especially great need due to the economic impacts from the pandemic.
As Founder and CEO of Christensen Global Strategies, you have helped create policy nationally and globally. How has your work in resilience informed your policy work, and how will it impact your strategy moving forward?
Community resilience benefits the economy, security, environment and equity, and the work I have done on policy has always aimed to benefit all of those as well. The solutions for community resilience like local renewable energy, locally-grown food, smarter, regenerative agricultural practices, and accessible, healthy housing, provide these multiple benefits. So does the statewide policy advocacy and educational work we have done on energy and food: they benefit Idaho’s economy, security, and environment. The policy work I’ve done in the past, in our federal government, at the U.S. Department of Energy with other nations and globally on clean energy and climate change, has also delivered these multiple benefits. When we develop local renewable energy, it benefits our communities and country, when we help other nations to develop their renewable energy, it benefits their communities and country as well, and when we work globally to address climate change, we support economic, environmental, equity, and security outcomes everywhere. This is why business leaders, military leaders, faith leaders and environmental advocates all are supporting urgent action on climate change. The good news is, and what I appreciate about resilience, is that when you’re looking toward the future, you realize that local energy, local food, and local housing, a robust local economy, all benefit resilience and mitigate climate change. They make us more prepared for the rapidly changing world we are facing, whether from climate impacts like fires and storms, or from pandemics, or from economic shocks. With more self-reliance, we rely less on the global system that is disrupted, as we’ve seen with the pandemic and the food supply, or on tourism income when the economy drops. With healthier, more equitable societies, we can respond better in times of crisis. I am an advocate for resilience, as it addresses the system: not just the environment, or just the economy, or just security, or just equity, it points us to solutions that address all of them simultaneously.
Building resilience requires both local programs and global policy, how do your roles as CEO of Christensen Global Strategies and Board Chair of SVI help make the connection between those two?
My local work has made my global advice better. Knowing how local policies impact local projects, understanding the needs of local communities and the role of state policies in benefiting or harming community economic opportunity and resilience, brings greater depth to my global advisory guidance. I’ve encouraged global corporations to empower their teams to engage local and state policymakers to improve policies for resilience. In addition, if I am advising a corporation like Microsoft about where it can continue to build toward its 100% renewable energy goal and generate its own onsite power, I look to state policies. Here in Idaho, Microsoft, (a former client), couldn’t power its data center with generation from a nearby renewable energy facility; instead, they located their data center in Wyoming where they could access wind power for their needs. However, I would encourage them or another client to come to Idaho, and work with our policymakers to improve the regulatory environment, to show them why developing Idaho’s renewable energy resources benefits Idaho jobs and the economy, and hopefully get results and decide to stay. While Idaho Power made a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2045, which is laudable, it isn’t what Microsoft needs when they are already 100% renewable energy and are looking to source it right now.
As SVI’s Board Chair, I am grateful that I get to continue to help our local community by supporting the SVI staff and mission such as with connections to donors and to innovative collaborators who I meet through my global work at CGS.
You have helped to build lasting quality of place here in the Wood River Valley. Do you have a vision for the future of our community?
My vision is for our community to continue to grow its dedication to enduring quality of place, to attract innovators and to pioneer policies and projects that allow it to become a showcase for resilience. This will benefit our community directly by making our economy more diverse and equitable with well-paying jobs, by protecting our environment upon which our economy and quality of life depend, and by increasing our security with less exposure to external forces. It will also benefit our community by making our brand more modern, diverse and attractive to families and young people, with interesting jobs and a more dynamic community. I am proud that SVI will continue to champion this type of future, and be a resource for our community, and far beyond.