USC Alum Matt Petersen Believes in a Greener L.A.

The enthusiastic optimist sees opportunities for sustainability around every corner.

March 30, 2020 Katharine Gammon

At the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) offices, Matt Petersen MPA ’94 sits at his desk and fiddles with a yellow pin on his lapel that reads “electric commuter.” It’s not a fashion statement. It’s a rallying cry for electric-powered wheels of all kinds: scooters, bikes, cars and trains. As a dedicated electric commuter, he paves the way for others to get onboard.

Petersen is president and CEO of LACI, a nonprofit that accelerates green technology by harnessing the creativity of entrepreneurs. Its downtown Los Angeles office is home to 18 startups that are developing diverse sectors of sustainable innovation. They’re working on everything from electric airplanes and better batteries to workforce development and cheaper, greener homes.

Environmental sustainability has been on Petersen’s mind since he was a kid growing up in Modesto, California. His father used to tell the story of how, one day, they walked by a neighborhood park covered in litter after a weekend of parties and picnics. “I said to my dad: ‘Look at it. We’ve got to do something to take care of our planet!’” Petersen was 5 years old. The story is now part of family lore.

Another memory he has of Modesto was watching as agricultural land gave way to suburban tract homes. “That really struck me as wrong,” he recalls. “Why are we building this stuff that wasn’t mostly green housing?”

Matt Petersen, Man With a Plan

He never stopped asking tough questions. That’s why he pursued his master’s degree in public administration at the USC Price School of Public Policy — to help him find answers. There he drove deeper into ecology and systems thinking, the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. “You can’t see environmental sustainability as an ‘issue.’ It’s not a thing over there,” he says, gesturing. “The planet is this system. Our economy is this system. Sustainability and climate action have to be core to this system.”

After graduation, he put that philosophy into action. His work stints include leading Global Green USA, an internationally recognized nonprofit. He also served as the city of Los Angeles’ first chief sustainability officer. In that role, he helped develop the city’s first long-term plan for conserving water, creating green jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He also created Climate Mayors, a coalition of 250 U.S. mayors fighting climate change.

Now, as the head of LACI, he tackles thorny issues from three directions: supporting startups that advance sustainable technology, partnering with corporate and government partners to transform markets, and engaging with underserved neighborhoods through workforce development and pilot programs so that the benefits of green innovation are more accessible.

What makes us unique as the human species? Love, hope and an opposable thumb — I’m optimistic about all three.

Matt Petersen

Clean Air Out There

The center recently laid out an ambitious roadmap to accelerate transportation electrification in the Los Angeles region. The goal is to reduce air pollution by an additional 25% by 2028, when the Olympics are slated to arrive.

It’s a tall order, but Petersen is hopeful about the city’s future — and the intrinsic qualities of its inhabitants. “What makes us unique as the human species? Love, hope and an opposable thumb — I’m optimistic about all three.”