How do the decisions leaders make—and the choices you make based on those decisions—affect the quality of life where you live? Paul H. O’Neill Professor Douglas Noonan is working to answer those questions.
“I’m an economist who studies how people make decisions in a world full of constraints,” he says.
Noonan analyzes environmental, urban, and cultural policies and the impact they have on people, whether it’s how clean places are, where parks are located, how cities approach infrastructure, or even what influences an area’s cultural scene.
“A lot of my research looks at the environment we construct—not just what nature gives us,” Noonan explains. “How do we maintain or improve the environment we’ve built for ourselves? How does it adapt? What does it support for arts and culture and other parts of urban life?”
His wide-ranging work has focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the arts, how the green building movement has been spurred on by private businesses, and—most recently—how communities are trying to manage and adapt to increasing flood risk amid climate change.
His focus on urban policy was a natural fit for the O’Neill School. The Indianapolis campus’ urban location—combined with the school’s standing in the public affairs field—is what made it the ideal place for him to both research and teach.
“O’Neill has an incredible reputation and is such a fantastic place,” he says. “Its scale and skill are unparalleled in my world.”
Noonan says that reputation is just one of many reasons students should come to O’Neill.
Why do you think students should come to O’Neill?
“There’s no shortage of passion among O’Neill students. But for students who go beyond that and are curious, we can help them scratch that itch of curiosity. They’re going to be able to learn as much about anything they want here, that’s relevant. If you want to develop new skills and broaden or deepen your skill set, this is the place to do that. In addition, the network effects that students will develop with their classmates and instructors will keep them connected to people in the industries that they’re interested in. Those networks and relationships and connections that they make at O’Neill are going to be really valuable. For some people, that’s what sets them on a career path that they decades later will really look back on and enjoy.”
Why do you enjoy teaching at O’Neill?
“If you’re just doing research, you can lose perspective. Going into the classroom and working with students helps keep that in check. It helps bring in broader perspectives and remind you of other priorities and bigger issues. I love to research, but I really enjoy bringing students along for part of that process. I really enjoy having students be part of that. It’s always been rewarding.”
“I also get to watch them change over the semester. Many of them start off being stressed out and anxious about the topic, thinking they can’t handle it. Then, by the end of the semester, they’ve realized they understand it, they could handle the material, and that it’s actually applicable. The best piece is actually when I get the emails back three years later from a student who’s saying, ‘Now I get it.’ A lot of what we get to do in universities is to go beyond the moment and think big. So, we’re planting the seeds and it just takes time for it to grow.”
How do you hope your work will help O’Neill students and communities?
“I like to teach and research to help change mindfulness or open awareness and appreciation for the unintended consequences of certain types of policies. It pays to appreciate what these policies are doing, where they’re coming from, how you can either adapt and react to them, or how you might be able to try to affect the system from the outside to generate more favorable policies.”
“I’m hoping that the practitioners, the advocates, the people who are supporting and pressuring policy makers can benefit from my research. They’re the ones who are advocating for certain types of policies and certain types of approaches. I’m hoping my research helps make them smarter advocates.”