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MIT launches China Future City Lab

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 23:59

MIT has launched a unique new urban research and innovation program that looks to advance city life in China through an ambitious range of academic and entrepreneurial activities.

The China Future City Lab, created with university, corporate, and governmental partners, has officially taken flight following a two-day conference, launch event, and signing ceremony late last week.

“We want to be a pioneer,” said Siqi Zheng, the MIT urban studies associate professor who heads the new lab, speaking at the launch event last Friday. The China Future City Lab, she also noted, will have “a clear focus on China’s sustainable urbanization.”

The China Future City Lab consists of three foundational elements. First, the lab will support a wide range of basic research in China, investigating many aspects of urban social and economic life.

Second, the lab will house a program known as the MIT-Tsinghua Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which will support startup teams applying ideas to China’s urban areas. The FCIC will also aim to identify innovative concepts and technologies that could be implemented in China.

As a third element of its activities, the China Future City Lab will engage with Chinese cities that will serve as “living labs” or testing sites where MIT researchers will have a unique opportunity to examine their urban-focused ideas and innovations.

The development of the new lab comes at a time when China has been rapidly urbanizing. Over half of the country’s population now lives in urban areas, up from roughly 20 percent in the early 1980s. As Zheng noted in her remarks on Friday, lessons from this rapid change can be applied to other countries and regions, since the global population is also urbanizing markedly, albeit at a slower pace than in China.

“The new knowledge should have implications everywhere,” Zheng said.

Fitting the global strategy

The creation of the China Future City Lab fits closely with a new framework for global activities that MIT released last spring. As detailed in a preliminary report, “A Global Strategy for MIT,” this approach calls for, among other things, enhanced efforts to cultivate collaborative projects in different regions of the world, including China.

“Our intention is to bring the best of MIT to China, and the best of China to MIT, and I know the China Future City Lab will be a key building block of that strategy,” said Richard K. Lester, the associate provost of MIT overseeing the Institute’s international activities, in remarks at the launch on Friday.

China’s urbanization, Lester added, is “of enormous intellectual and practical interest to the MIT community, to our faculty, to our students, across a wide range of disciplines.” The areas of research that figure to be directly involved in the subject, Lester suggested, include urban studies, economics, architecture, management,  computer science, artificial intelligence, transportation systems, and civil and environmental engineering.

In turn, he noted, those disciplines will need to tackle a variety of large-scale problems common to China and other societies, including climate change mitigation and the deployment of clean energy technologies, access to clean water, access to affordable health care, and new challenges brought about by aging populations.

A tradition of engagement — and a renewal of it

As Lester detailed in his remarks, MIT also has a lengthy history of engagement with China. The first Chinese student at MIT arrived in 1877, just 16 years after the Institute opened, and, as shown in an ongoing campus exhibit, “China Comes to Tech,” curated by MIT professor of history Emma Teng, over 400 students from China studied at MIT over the next half-century.

More recently, MIT has been building a more extensive network of institutional ties with China, including parterships within academia. One of those agreements is with Tsinghua University, which is MIT’s partner in the Future City Innovation Connector component of the new lab.

The China City Future Lab also builds upon the precedent established by the Beijing Studio, a 30-year partnership the School of Architecture and Planning established with Tsinghua University that enabled hundreds of MIT students to evaluate urban studies issues in China.

The China Future City Lab is also launching with the help of eight corporate founding members, comprising six private companies and two state-run property firms, that have interests spread across China and Hong Kong. They are:

  • Hongkong Land, founded in 1889, which is one of Asia’s oldest established property groups;
  • Zall Group, a major developer in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province;
  • Fosun Property, an international conglomerate and investment company based in Shanghai;
  • China Resources Land, a state-run property developer with headquarters in Shenzhen;
  • Tusincere Science City Investment Group Co., Ltd., a firm that builds business parks;
  • Nash Work, China’s largest operator of co-working spaces, with sites in several major cities;
  • ChengYu Construction Investment Group, a development firm located in Zhengzhou; and
  • Tianyi Holding, a property firm with interests in investment, planning, design, development, and management, located in Tianjin.

Executives from the group of founding partners appeared and gave remarks at a launch event on Friday in MIT’s Samberg Conference Center.

A separate symposium for the China Future City Lab, on Thursday, featured talks by several MIT faculty members, as well as remarks from Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, and Eran Ben-Joseph, head of the school’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

Zheng is the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship in DUSP and the Center for Real Estate.

On Friday, Lester lauded Zheng’s work, as both a researcher and a program-builder at the Institute. Zheng has formally been an MIT faculty member for less than a year, but, as Lester noted, she has quickly assembled the kinds of institutional and international support needed to launch a major new project.

“In that short time, she has established herself as a real force, and a builder of new educational and research programs in the very best tradition of MIT,” Lester said.

In her remarks, Zheng emphasized the open-ended nature of the new lab’s work. Set against an urbanizing population and the rapid economic growth of China this century, the nature of urban studies, she suggested, means that scholars need to be open-minded about the kinds of issues they will study and the methods they will use to examine them.

“I’m sure we can explore more and more opportunities,” Zheng said.

An American in Paris

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 15:30

“Living here has been a lesson in the importance of bridges, whether between different concepts of nationalism and faith, or on a personal level, between different ways of communicating, working, or even eating,” says Elizabeth Dekeyser, an American in Paris who also happens to be an MIT doctoral candidate in political science.

Moving to another country often sparks serious thinking about identity and belonging. This is doubly true for Dekeyser, who is on a multi-year research project investigating the ways Islam shapes people’s sense of citizenship and allegiance to the French state.

Newcomers to France must learn to build bridges that that take into account both the country’s laws and culture, she says. There are, for instance, commonly shared ideas about what it means to be French, tacit understandings about everyday behavior: “Not greeting someone at a store or speaking loudly on a bus can be viewed as a lack of respect for society," says Dekeyser.

There is also the principle of laïcité, or secularism, which occupies a central role in the French constitution. Dekeyser, who is focused on the challenges faced by Muslims attempting to assimilate in France, began her research with the hypothesis that mosques could provide crucial bridges between individuals and the state. During exploratory fieldwork, she visited a mosque where she met “an imam who quoted Rousseau on how to raise children, then two minutes later, the Koran.” 

“I was impressed by how eloquently he wove together his French and Muslim identities and philosophies, and wondered both how common and how influential this type of thinking was,” she says.

Conversations with strangers

After spending the past year conducting more than 150 interviews in the banlieues (autonomous suburbs) around Paris, Dekeyser has found that “while imams and religious organizations play a big role in how people view themselves in relation to the state, ideas about religion and France don’t emanate exclusively from the mosque,” she says. “Rather, an entire ecosystem of institutions, businesses, and social groups such as the halal boucherie or community centers reinforce the importance of religious identity.”

Engaging strangers in conversation about some of the most private aspects of their lives, Dekeyser says she found people “quite open to talking about their faith.”

“They are usually excited to find that someone is interested in their experiences and after about 30 minutes, people really start to open up” she says.

Among the deeply-felt beliefs shared by her interview subjects was that they had been rejected by the state.

“This is a belief that is reinforced by very real state failures, whether poor schools or unsafe streets in immigrant neighborhoods,” Dekeyser says. “For Muslims in these communities, it is the religious ecosystem that often fills in the gap for the state.”

Dekeyser understands how religion can play a central role in an individual’s life in a multiplicity of ways. She grew up in a devout Christian family in Houston — “a beautifully diverse city” — where she says her tightknit, multiethnic religious community “played an important role shaping everything in my life.” Whether through friends, summer camps, or an active volunteering life, Dekeyser says she observed first-hand “how religion can be all-encompassing, shaping not just social and spiritual life but political and national identity.”

Questions of religion and immigration

As a high school student, Dekeyser found anti-immigrant rhetoric “very jarring” and work in Africa cemented her desire to pursue international relations in college.

“My interest in other cultures — how people are different but so similar at the same time — has always been what drives me,” she says.

Dekeyser began her undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University, but transferred to Stanford University in order to focus on nationalism in African nations. “I was really interested in the causes of instability in some countries, why some had a strong sense of national identity, and others were so factionalized that they failed.” Her undergraduate thesis on the topic won the Stanford Firestone Medal for excellence in undergraduate research, and the guidance and experience she received paved the way for her doctoral work at MIT.

Although she arrived at MIT in 2013 interested in these questions, with the encouragement of her first-year advisor, Fotini Christia, and graduate student office mates (one who is Jewish, one Muslim), she turned her attention to questions of religion and immigration. Then came the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French weekly satirical magazine, a decisive moment for Dekeyser. She seized on a surprising research goal: “I wanted to understand what sorts of environments undermine the evolution of terrorism, not to understand where terrorists come from.”

In pursuit of this goal, Dekeyser is not merely conducting large-scale ethnographic interviews, but analyzing vast troves of French Twitter feeds, search results, Google maps data, and review websites looking at French Muslim communities’ varying responses to terror attacks and how this correlates with local-level religiosity and attitudes toward the state. These data are all geographically sourced, so she can pinpoint the locations of users and connect them to likely neighborhood mosques, organizations, crime rates, and businesses.

Data analysis, together with ethnographic research, will enable her to create a dynamic portrait of Muslim attitudes toward citizenship in France and the key factors shaping those attitudes.

Healthy communities

Dekeyser is still in the process of writing her dissertation, but she has already identified some potential policy applications of her research. Local governments, as the primary representative of the state, play an important bridging role in helping Muslims feel included as citizens, she says.

A local government can make choices about whether cafeterias serve halal food, how headscarf bans are enforced, or even whether mosques have access to free or inexpensive land in the same way that Christian churches do. These policies, she argues, have an important effect on how individuals reconcile their national and religious identities.

Yet she has observed that it is not solely religious policies that matter. Rather, towns in which Muslim communities appear to feel most integrated “offer effective policing, urban renewal projects, and lots of grassroots engagement celebrating ethnic, not just religious, diversity, such as Malian dancing demonstrations or Algerian movie festivals,” she says.

“I firmly believe that when people have a sense of community that goes above religion — when they feel accepted by the community where they buy groceries, go to school, there will be less anger toward the state and, possibly, less motivation to join terrorist or other anti-state movements.”

Tackling complex Middle East statehood issues

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 17:45

Two guest lecturers this fall offered a vivid look at the questions that concern any contested territory: Does a nation of people need a state to have self-determination, and if so, what is the most effective strategy for earning statehood? These questions have different answers in different historical eras, but represent one of the most fundamental debates in international studies.

Both Leila Faraskh and Peter Krause PhD '11 explored the complex forces and political workings behind national movements and the pursuit of statehood in separate lectures sponsored by the Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar.

Faraskh, an associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts at Boston, laid out the history of the fight for Palestinian statehood, beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 100 years ago, through the various political movements that have sought to strengthen protections for the nation of Palestine within the state of Israel.

Frequently referencing political theorist Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the right to have rights,” Farsakh made a case for the idea that a formal state that respects the rights of all people regardless of “nation” is the only solution to the political struggle in Israel. As a part of her research, she recently conducted a survey of Palestinians in the West Bank which found that a majority of young people there approved of a single state in which all citizens enjoy the benefits of statehood, in contrast to the more hardline views of previous generations of Arab political leaders.

Krause, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College, gave an engaging presentation on the research that culminated in his new book, “Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight and Win.” Krause, who earned his doctorate in political science at MIT and is a research affiliate with the MIT Security Studies program, offered an analytical approach to understanding and predicting the strategies of national movements.

Krause said most disputes over statehood involve multiple groups in competition with another. The organization in power, with the most to lose, is risk averse, while groups that seek to gain more power have a greater risk acceptance. In countries with extreme disparity between the amount of power wielded by those in control of the state and those seeking to gain control, challengers to organizational power are more likely to use divisive and “risky” tactics such as political violence, he said. Krause’s presentation was illustrated by examples from historical and current national movements including Algeria, Israel, Palestine, and Ireland.

The Bustani Middle East Seminar is now in its 32nd year. Presenting four speaking programs focused on Middle East affairs each academic year, the lecture series is funded by Myrna Bustani of Beirut, Lebanon, in memory of her father, Emile M. Bustani '33, who earned his degree in civil engineering. Ford International Professor of History and Associate Provost Philip S. Khoury has chaired the Bustani Seminar for three decades.

Portuguese delegation led by Minister Manuel Heitor visits MIT

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 16:50

Following previous meetings at MIT and Portugal, Manuel Heitor, the Portuguese minister for science, technology, and higher education, recently visited MIT to discuss and plan the development of a new phase of the partnership between Portugal and the American university. The president of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), Paulo Ferrão, and a representative of Portuguese universities, António Cunha, accompanied the Portuguese minister. 

During the two-day, visit the Portuguese delegation met with the Richard Lester, associate provost at MIT; Dava Newman, the Apollo Professor of Astronautics and Engineering; David Miller, the Jerome Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Douglas Hart, professor of mechanical engineering. Last May, the same MIT team had been in Portugal to assess MIT Portugal's role in the academic and business communities but also to analyze areas where this partnership actions can be more critical in the future.

This recent visit of the minister is part of a series of contacts established between the Portuguese stakeholders and the American universities — namely MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Texas at Austin — involved in science and education international partnerships aiming to reinforcing the continuity of the scientific and technological cooperation that has marked the relationship between Portugal and the U.S. in recent decades. They've also served to define a new and more ambitious framework for these impactful international partnerships.

Based on many areas of research and development — including bioengineering, sustainable energy, transportation, engineering, and manufacturing — the partnerships established between Portugal and the U.S. are a success story, as they have allowed the development of collaborative scientific research projects between higher education and industry. They are also associated with a range of innovation and technology initiatives that have resulted in business projects and new technology-based businesses.

Tackling the world’s challenges in the field

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 16:50

MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) — MIT’s pioneering international education program — asked the 700-plus students who studied and worked abroad this summer to submit photos and short videos showcasing the ways in which MIT is making the world a better place through the MISTI program.

From Chile to China, current MISTI students submitted one-minute videos and photographs focusing on their international projects and their experiences with different cultures. MISTI announced the contest winners via social media in the midst of its yearly information sessions. Video winners received $300 and photo winners received $50. MISTI received 25 video submissions and over 125 photographs this summer.

Winning videos:

MIT-Netherlands Better World Story: Yara Azouni

At MX3D, Yara Azoni, now a senior in mechanical engineering, worked on the first 3-D-printed steel bridge in the world. The bridge will be "intelligent" with a smart sensor network to monitor the structure's health in response to environmental changes.

MIT-India Better World Story: Wan Chantavilasvong

Chantavilasvong, a master's in city planning candidate, interned with the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) under the Aga Khan Development Network to address the increasing threats to rural towns posed by natural disasters and climate change.

Winning photos:

Prosthetics in India (top left): Max Freitas and his D-Lab project partner Hope Chen (both juniors in biological engineering) developed and field tested prosthetics with Rise Legs through MIT-India.

Entrepreneurship in Jerusalem (top right): Dou Dou '17 brought over 80 Israeli and Palestinian high school students together by teaching them computer science and entrepreneurship through MIT-MEET (Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow).

For today's graduates of MIT, the ability to connect with, learn from and collaborate with people from different countries is essential. Interning, researching and teaching in over 30 countries around the world, MISTI students develop these practical intercultural skills working alongside international colleagues. An embodiment of MIT's "mens-et-manus" ("mind-and-hand") learning culture, MISTI provides students professional opportunities to take their education abroad and apply it to real world problems.

Each year, MISTI — a program of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences within the Center for International Studies — matches nearly 1,000 students with internship, teaching, and research opportunities in leading labs, companies, and schools around the world. At graduation, MISTI students report a higher level of self-confidence and an improved ability to adapt to new situations and to communicate effectively with international peers.

Are you an MIT undergrad or graduate student? Get involved early by reviewing student opportunities and requirements; reading more about MISTI students abroad; and attending MISTI country-specific info sessions this fall.

MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node finds permanent home

Mon, 09/25/2017 - 00:00

The MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node yesterday announced the opening of its permanent, 5,000-square-foot facility, which will serve as a hub for collaborative innovation and entrepreneurship for MIT students, professors, and alumni, as well as others working in Hong Kong.

The opening ceremony at the facility was attended by Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, as well as alumni and friends of MIT, Innovation Node leaders, students, and startups, and MIT professors who helped launch and guide the Innovation Node’s development.

Located in Kowloon Tong, in an area closely linked to major Hong Kong universities and rapid transportation, the facility includes cutting-edge prototyping equipment, a makerspace, and a variety of multipurpose areas that can be used for lectures, classes, and working spaces.

By enabling new programs and initiatives, the new facility will boost innovation, education, and collaboration between the MIT and Hong Kong communities, including high school and college students, professors, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, says Charlie Sodini, the Clarence J. LeBel Professor in Electrical Engineering, who serves as faculty director for the Innovation Node. “It really is about education — we brought MIT’s entrepreneurship and making curriculum across the Pacific Ocean,” he says.

Conceived by the MIT Innovation Initiative, the Node was first announced in November 2015. In June 2016, the Innovation Node launched its first program, a unique hardware accelerator program designed to educate students in key areas of innovation practice. In January came the launch of its flagship program, the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI), a two-week, immersive miniaccelerator that connects MIT students with peers from universities in Hong Kong.

But those programs have been held in rented venues around Hong Kong. Having a permanent space saves time and resources, creates a stronger sense of community, and “opens the door for many more programs” for students, alumni, professors, and even the public, says Brian Yen, executive director of the Innovation Node. “Now that we have our own space, we can start running regular programs, from maker courses to education programs to workshops,” he says.

Prototyping and manufacturing

Inside the Innovation Node is equipment for varying levels of prototyping. For light, rapid prototyping, there are soldering irons, 3-D printers, and equipment for making electronics. For more sophisticated projects, there are laser cutters and machines that make custom circuit boards. The makerspace also has basic construction tools, such as table saws, pipe cutters, and power drills. A wet lab that will support biological engineering tools is in the works.

Positioned above a manufacturing facility, the space also gives students access to more advanced prototyping tools, such as molding equipment and automated machines used for cutting, carving, and milling materials including wood, aluminum, and plastics. “When students do advanced stuff, they can walk downstairs and pay for their time,” Yen says.

Among students who have already benefited from the facility is Aagya Mathur, an MIT Sloan School of Management student who co-founded the startup aam, which began as part of MEMSI in January.

The “femtech” startup — meaning it uses technology to address women’s health issues — is developing a “smart sleeve” for blister packs of contraceptives or other pills, which recognizes individual pills and sends the user a reminder if one hasn’t been taken on schedule. The startup was one of the first to use the new facility over the summer. Now, it has a working prototype. “Because we are a hardware startup, a big piece of the startup is prototyping,” Mathur told MIT News. “The node is really great about having so many machines, such as 3-D printers, mills, vacuum pumps, laser cutters, bandsaws, and soldering stations we were able to use.”

Mathur and her co-founders also took advantage of the Innovation Node’s close proximity to Shenzhen, a major city with advanced manufacturing facilities located a 40-minute train ride away. Over the summer, they visited four manufacturing plants for a look behind the scenes. “It was really eye-opening to see the intricacies of [manufacturing] in person,” Mathur says. “You see how much it costs, how fast things go, and that’s valuable, especially for a hardware startup.”

At the opening event, aam was one of several student startups to present the prototypes they launched at the Innovation Node. Others were: BeThere, a video-recording device on wheels that parents can control remotely to keep an eye on their young children; InterFace, a smart lanyard that enhances interaction among conference participants; Sella, a sensor-embedded office chair that improves sitting posture for employees; Sightecho, one of the first Innovation Node participants, which is developing an augmented-reality mask for divers that displays vital information, including depth and oxygen level; and TNKK, a high school team from Hong Kong making a smart stress ball that provides tactile sensory relief.

Building a collaborative community

A major benefit of the physical space is that it provides continued access to resources for alumni of Hong Kong universities and MIT, says Marina Chan, director of strategic initiatives for the Innovation Node. “In Hong Kong, university students get a lot of resources, but once they graduate, that access is considerably shrunk,” she says. “In a way, we’re an attachment area for them.”

Innovation Node alumni from MIT and Hong Kong universities can drop by to continue projects or mentor budding entrepreneurs. MIT professors can visit during trips to the region to interact with students or deliver lectures. Startups that launched in the Innovation Node also have continued access to the space for further prototyping, company meetings, and, perhaps as importantly, free coffee. “It’s fuel for the mind,” Yen jokes.

In the future, the Innovation Node may also open to allow members of the public to use the makerspace, for example to take classes in app inventing or 3-D printing. It could also serve as an offline meeting spot for edX and MITx users. “We want to curate the best of what MIT has to offer and bring in the ‘mens et manus’ philosophy into the local context,” says Chan, referring to MIT’s “mind and hand” motto.

As space is scarce in Hong Kong, the facility was designed to be multifunctional under tight area constraints. MIT architecture alumnus Dennis Cheung SM ’13, one of the first Innovation Node participants a year ago, designed the space along with his team at UPSOP, a design studio he co-founded. Inspiration came from MIT Department of Architecture Professor George Stiny’s concept of “shape grammar,” which says furniture and other features in spaces should be designed for assembling in different configurations that encourage working and social interactions.

All of the furniture is custom-made and, along with the whiteboards and partitions, can be scooted around on wheels to form different seating, socializing, lecturing, and working arrangements. Apart from optimizing space, the design is meant to inspire creativity. “It doesn’t look boring,” Yen says. “One of the things we wanted is for people to come in and feel the spirit of innovation, and feel creative about how they use the space.”

MIT and Tsinghua University sign urban innovation agreement

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 16:30

MIT and Tsinghua University in China have signed an agreement establishing a new technology project, the Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which is designed to support research and startup teams applying ideas to China’s rapidly growing urban areas.

FCIC will draw upon the work of MIT professors and labs to identify innovative concepts and technologies that could be implemented in China. At MIT, FCIC will be formally hosted in the MIT China Future City Lab. Its founder and faculty director is Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship, in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and its Center for Real Estate. Zheng also holds a visiting professor position at Tsinghua University.

The program will run in conjunction with the MIT School of Architecture and Planning’s entrepreneurship accelerator, DesignX. FCIC will also work extensively with Chinese municipal governments and industry leaders to support research and startup teams.

The agreement was formally signed on Sept. 16 by MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt and Tsinghua University Vice President and Provost Bin Yang. Richard Lester, MIT’s associate provost for international activities, also participated in the signing ceremony.

“I am thrilled to see the launch of this new collaboration initiative,” Schmidt says. “Under the leadership of Professor Zheng, the MIT-Tsinghua Future City Innovation Connector will become the new starting point of a series of engagements between MIT and Tsinghua in entrepreneurship, education, and urban research.”

Zheng, an expert on urban economics, development, and real estate, says “FCIC aims to support city innovation ideas and startup teams involving MIT and Tsinghua University students, across all disciplines, to make our cities better.”

As Zheng also noted, FCIC can play a significant practical role by linking together researchers and entrepreneurs, on the one hand, with Chinese policymakers and industrial leaders. The project aims to establish collaborations with Chinese cities that face challenges such as urban resilience, urban health, housing, environmental sustainability, responsive urban management, and the development of “smart” cities.

“Urban-focused research teams and startups face unique challenges when they want to work on urban problems in China,” Zheng adds. “Partnerships with city governments are most critical to the success of these teams. The MIT-Tsinghua Future City Innovation Connector will help the innovative urban research teams and startups at MIT and Tsinghua engage with the Chinese market and government resources to realize their societal impact and economic success.”

FCIC is the first program of its kind that explicitly aims to apply the frontiers of urban research and technology to the immense urbanization occuring in China, which should be powered by technological innovation and new business ventures, FCIC leaders believe.

“The rich academic intellectual resources and active entrepreneurship ecosystem at both universities have huge potential to land its impact in Chinese cities,” Bin Yang says. “MIT-Tsinghua FCIC will build broad partnership with local city and industries to scale up its impact. It is of great meaning to MIT, Tsinghua University, local governments, and industry leaders.”

MIT and Tsinghua University have developed extensive formal collaborations in recent decades, across a range of areas involving their shared commitment to research, education, and the support of entrepreneurship.

Saving Venice, MIT-style

Wed, 08/23/2017 - 12:15

This summer, MIT professors Paola Malanotte Rizzoli of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and Andrew Whittle of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) led an intensive workshop with several Italian faculty exploring key challenges facing Venice. Ten MIT students and seven students from the University of Venice (IUAV) joined their engineering and urban planning expertise during the first two weeks at a research camp in Pellestrina, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon. Donning fluorescent orange vests and hard hats, the bilingual group worked in a pop-up classroom on a live construction site for the massive flood gates built to protect Venice from high waters.

Through a combination of lectures, interviews with local residents, and on-site visits to observe the city's Experimental Electromechanical Module (MOSE) floodgates in action, MIT and IUAV students set to work developing solutions to pressing engineering and climate change challenges.

Rizzoli explained the dynamics of rising sea levels, storm surges, and wind waves in the Venetian Lagoon under various climate change circumstances. IUAV Professor Laura Fregolent discussed depopulation, another major threat to Venice. Looking at solutions, Whittle compared the novel technology of the MOSE gates with about 15 major storm surge barriers worldwide. MIT students speculated about the risk of flooding back home, and what could be learned from the MOSE project as Boston considers building a four-mile barrier restricting the flow of water into the city.

Outside of the classroom, camp participants were treated to what Whittle describes as “an engineer’s delight” — the opportunity to observe the precise positioning of a 95-foot-long steel gate through four underwater cameras. Rising MIT junior Malik Coville enthusiastically concurred. “As a mechanical engineer, typically we tend to mess with smaller technologies in class,” he explains. “This is the first time I was introduced to something much larger.”

After the first week, MIT and IUAV students bridged divides across cultures and disciplines through field work, data collection, and big-picture ideas. One group performed statistical and spatial analysis of flood risk in the Venetian Lagoon and analyzed historical data to create projections for the years 2050 and 2100. Another group formed a think-tank to develop repopulation strategies, formulating plans to refurbish urban workspaces with 21st century technology and self-sustaining energy systems. They also created strategies to involve local students in community development by collaborating with Italian universities. A third group conducted extensive mapping and interviews to explore the impact and the perception of the MOSE project among Pellestrina’s inhabitants.

Paige Midstokke, MIT grad student in civil engineering and technology and policy, worked on mapping and data analysis, and appreciated her group’s multicultural, multidisciplinary composition. “It’s a really interesting group, a mix of Italian and U.S. university students with different styles of working and different perspectives on this place,” Midstokke said.

Of the 10 MIT students who participated in the research camp, eight stayed for an additional two-month period to continue their research. Hosted by IUAV and Consorzio Venezia Nuova, they continued to work on meteorological statistical models, urban issues, and prototyping an electrical system to control the MOSE floodgates. Thanks to their extensive contacts with Italian experts and locals, the MIT students came to view Venice not only as a unique research lab, but also as a deeply-rooted way of life. They embraced the urgency of the problems and the applied character of their research. “For one, it’s the most hands-on thing that we’ve ever dealt with,” Coville said. “We’re applying what we’re learning to actually save a city.”

Rizzoli, in agreement with Whittle, the Italian partners, and MIT-Italy Program Co-Director Serenella Sferza, praises the initiative as “successful beyond expectations.” She is working with EAPS, CEE, and all others involved to replicate the workshop next summer. “This is an exemplary prototype of how a global classroom should work,” Rizzoli says.

The students who participated in this year’s pilot experience will present their research, made possible by support from IROP, other academic grants, and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), on Sept. 8 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Room 54-915 within the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Bringing poverty-alleviating solutions to market in India, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 12:20

Six social entrepreneurs who are addressing pressing poverty challenges through market-based approaches make up this year's cohort of the MIT D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellows.

The entrepreneurs are all part of the D-Lab-affiliated International Development Design Summit (IDDS). The 2017 fellows include Tunde Alawode PhD ’17, Honey Bajaj SM ’17, and Rebecca Hui MCP ’17, as well as three IDDS alumni: Abraham Salomon, Sebastian Rodriguez, and Chebet Lesan.

“I'm excited to be selected as a 2017 D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellow,” says Lesan, the founder and CEO of BrightGreen Renewable Energy, Ltd. in Kenya. “This fellowship will provide a wonderful opportunity for me to pursue my vision to increase the engagement of women in Kenya's green energy sector.”

Lesan joins a growing community of more than 30 current and former participants in the D-Lab Scale-Ups program, which offers one year of comprehensive support to social entrepreneurs.

“With MIT alumni fellows as well as fellows from our global network, the Scale-Ups Fellowship is a great example of the way D-Lab brings the MIT community together with innovators and entrepreneurs in the developing world,” says the D-Lab’s Jona Repishti, who manages the fellowship program.

During the yearlong program, D-Lab Scale-Ups fellows work to retire risk in technical feasibility and market viability to position their ventures for investment, partnership, and growth. Each social entrepreneur receives a $20,000 grant, tailored mentoring, skills building, networking opportunities, and an invitation to participate in a retreat for current and past fellows. Fellows are also encouraged to take full advantage of D-Lab courses, students, instructors, researchers, industry contacts, the D-Lab workshop, and the D-Lab’s global network of innovators, entrepreneurs, and industry contacts.

Now in its sixth year, the D-Lab Scale-Ups program has provided fellowships to 33 social entrepreneurs working on four continents in sectors including agriculture, energy, water, health care, housing, livelihoods, mobility, recycling, education, and personal finance. At the close of last year’s cycle, Scale-Ups Fellows had raised $11.4 million in capital, created over 343 direct and 3,278 indirect full-time equivalent jobs, and directly improved the lives of an estimated 700,000 people living in low-income settings through their product and service offerings.

Tunde Alawode: dot Learn, Nigeria

Tunde Alawode is compressing video to increase access to online education. The co-founder and chief operating officer of dot Learn, Alawode is working with his team to make video-based online education accessible and affordable on cheap smartphones and 2G connections, the devices and connections most commonly used in Africa. Their tagline is "We compress videos to expand education."

By encoding chalkboard-style learning videos, such as those created by the Khan Academy, in a text-based vector format, dot Learn is able to put an hour-long video into a tiny 1 megabyte file. By encoding video as text rather than pixels, file sizes are hundreds of time smaller, and a student can access five hours of video for the cost of sending a single text message. This makes online video learning practical and affordable for the first time to millions of students across Africa. “That is game-changing,” says Alawode. “With this technology, dot Learn is building Africa’s education platform in the form of apps.”

Honey Bajaj: Avir Technologies, India

Honey Bajaj is developing a low cost, clinically-validated mobile app for accurately diagnosing the most common types of pulmonary disease. Bajaj and the Avir Technolgies team have deep expertise in human-centered design to help patients and digitally-illiterate health workers understand test results and at-home care solutions. Bajaj will use the fellowship to advance work on Swas, a mobile solution that uses proprietary, clinically validated technologies to accurately diagnose the most common types of pulmonary disease.

Swas was specifically designed for rural health workers and low-income patients who lack familiarity with pulmonary disease and the use of sophisticated medical technology. Requiring only a mobile app and a complementary device to diagnose pulmonary symptoms, Swas is both low-cost and easy to use. It will initially include only an asthma diagnostic solution, but each license will include software updates which will allow the tool to diagnose other pulmonary diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, pneumonia, tuberculosis), and will eventually integrate with diagnostic tools in other disease areas to deliver individualized health recommendations to patients on a simple mobile phone.

Rebecca Hui: Roots Studio, India and other locations

Rebecca Huis is creating a digital marketplace where tribal artists can access licensing and intellectual property rights. Her venture, Roots Studio, is creating a digital marketplace that enables isolated rural artists living on less than $1,000 per household per year to do business with buyers around the world. Through Roots Studio, artists who previously had little opportunity to profit from their work in the global marketplace are able to both digitize and license their work. That allows them to benefit from long-term royalty streams and protect their intellectual property rights.

At a cost of about $1,000, Roots Studio installs a computer and scanner in a village to enable artists to digitize their art and post to Roots Studio online. Once the art is uploaded in their cloud repository, Roots Studio markets the collection to clients, such as stationery and home goods companies, around the world. Roots Studio gives back 30 percent of the gross profits, with 75 percent going to the artist and 25 percent to a village community fund. By creating income streams for rural artists, Roots Studio hopes their work will contribute to the dissemination and preservation of indigenous art forms, imagery, and techniques.

Chebet Lesan: BrightGreen Renewable Energy/Moto Briquettes, Kenya

Chebet Lesan is bringing affordable, cleaner-burning, and eco-friendly charcoal briquettes to low-income households in Kenya. Her women-led social enterprise, BrightGreen Renewable Energy, designs, produces, and sells innovative briquettes made from recycled waste such as captured char fines, carbonized sawdust from lumber industries, and waste flour from local flourmills. Lesan says BrightGreen will continue to iterate its product by testing new raw materials.

“With assistance from MIT D-lab, KIRDI, Energy 4 Impact, and University of Nairobi, the quality of our briquettes continues to be tested for bulk density, calorific value, fixed carbon, volatile matter, briquette durability, briquette moisture absorption, briquette moisture content, and ash content,” she says. “Our goal for this next year is to work closely with MIT D-lab to improve accessibility of recycled charcoal briquettes to local communities through developing a micro-distribution system of women entrepreneurs doing last-mile distribution in low-income areas in Nairobi City.”

Sebastian Rodriguez: KopaGas, Tanzania

Sebastial Rodriguez is bringing digital technology to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) distribution in order to accelerate access to clean cooking fuel for millions of households. More than 727 million people (four of every five households) in Sub-Saharan Africa use wood or charcoal for cooking their daily meals. Because cooking on an open fire is equivalent to being exposed to the smoke of 400 cigarettes per hour, contributing towards over 4.3 million deaths per year worldwide, it is essential to increase access to affordable cleaner burning fuels.

Using mobile money technology and a proprietary smart meter that can be attached to refillable cylinders, Rodriguez and the team at KopaGas are digitizing LPG distribution, enabling a pay-as-you-go business model. KopaGas has completed a commercial pilot in Dar Es Salaam Tanzania in close collaboration with Oryx Tanzania, giving each participating household access to a kit consisting of a stove, an LPG cylinder, a meter, and accessories, after payment of a small commitment fee. The household then pays for the service using mobile money and their meter automatically stops the gas flow when the credit or the gases in the cylinder are depleted. The pilot has shown a number of benefits including high consumer satisfaction, better user understanding of consumption, improved asset management, and a reduced need for cash management.

Abraham Salomon: Agriworks, Uganda

Abraham Salomon is providing irrigation solutions to small commercial farmers, who need technology that is powerful enough for commercial-scale production but that has low upfront investment costs and requires minimal technical know-how.

Private companies have traditionally been reluctant to invest in R&D and marketing for this customer segment. Salomon, the founder and chairman of Agriworks Uganda, is addressing this need by reducing the capital cost of irrigation systems through modular, easy-to-use, and easy-to-maintain mobile systems that can be shared by multiple farmers. Known as the Agriworks Mobile Irrigation System (AMIS), the water delivery system includes all the components needed to set up, irrigate a plot, and take it home again in a matter of hours. The AMIS is sized and designed to operate at small commercial scale, targeting smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, a substantial but neglected market.

Building on MIT’s ecosystem for social entrepreneurship

Many of the MIT Scale-Ups Fellows are the product not only of D-Lab, but of the wider MIT ecosystem for international development, innovation, and entrepreneurship. With programs like the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center and the IDEAS Global Challenge, the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, the MIT Innovation Initiative, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and the 100K competition, MIT graduates who pursue social ventures have been able to take advantage of a myriad of educational, mentorship, and funding resources.

“MIT Scale-Ups fellows are a great lens through which to experience the impressive and growing ecosystem of support for social entrepreneurship at MIT,” Repishti says.

Alawode, the co-founder of dot Learn, is a great example. 

"Dot Learn was created in the Development Ventures class in fall 2015, and our first real break was when we pitched to Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar when he was teaching D-Lab: Education,” says Alawode. “He offered us flight tickets to go for our very first market research trip in Ghana. Beyond that, we got the even more valuable network of contacts D-Lab has built in Ghana over the years. Over the course of last year, we also participated in D-Lab-supported programs such as the Scaling Development Ventures Conference and the IDEAS Global Challenge. We also particularly recognize the support we have received from the Legatum Center and the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship."

Founded in 2012 at MIT D-Lab with support from Community Jameel, the Scale-Ups Fellowship Program has received additional funding from the International Development Innovation Network (which is funded by the USAID’s Global Development Lab). D-Lab Scale-Ups also receives generous support from the Newman’s Own Foundation and anonymous donors.

To find out more about the program, visit the D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship page or contact Jona Repishti.

Six from MIT awarded 2017 Fulbright grants

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 13:20

Three MIT undergraduate students and three recent alumni have been awarded Fulbright U.S. Student Program grants to conduct independent research projects overseas during the coming academic year. In addition, a graduate student alumnus was named a Fulbright Finalist but declined the award.

The 2017-2018 Fulbright Students from MIT will engage in research projects in Germany, Austria, China, New Zealand, Mexico, and Poland.

The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and operates in over 160 countries worldwide. It is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement as well as record of service and leadership potential in their respective fields. The MIT winners are:

James Deng '17 graduated from MIT this spring with a BS in chemistry. During his Fulbright year in Germany, he will do research on epigenetics at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich. Deng will be investigating the interactions and regulation of TET proteins, which are associated with cancer and other diseases.

Jesse Feiman is an art history doctoral student in the History Theory and Criticism program within the School of Architecture and Planning. He will be spending his Fulbright year in Austria conducting archival research on the taxonomy system developed by the 18th century Viennese artist Adam von Bartsch.  

Jessica Gordon is a doctoral student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Her Fulbright research in China will examine how governmental policies affect climate change adaptation. She will be conducting her research in Inner Mongolia, Jiangxi, and Guizhou provinces.

Jorlyn Le Garrec '17 graduated this spring with a BS in mechanical and ocean engineering. As a Fulbright Student in New Zealand, she will pursue a research-based mechanical engineering master’s degree through the University of Auckland. Le Garrec’s research focuses on underwater robotics.

Albert Lopez is an architectural history doctoral student in the History Theory and Criticism program within the School of Architecture and Planning. Lopez will be based in Mexico City, where he will use his Fulbright grant to investigate architects’ contributions to Mexican political society and the discourses of integration during the 1940s-1950s. 

Jiwon Victoria Park '17 graduated this spring with a BS in chemistry. She will be traveling to Poland to conduct research in organometallic chemistry at the Warsaw University of Technology. Park’s research has potential applications for drug delivery and electronic devices.

MIT’s Solve initiative seeks solutions to its 2017 global challenges

Wed, 07/19/2017 - 00:00

Solve — MIT’s initiative that brings together problem-solvers of all stripes to tackle the world’s pressing problems — has four new global challenges for 2017: brain health; sustainable urban communities; women and technology; and youth, skills, and the workforce of the future. Applications for those who have a solution to any of these challenges are due August 1.

Solve issues challenges for anybody around the world to apply to participate in. The program identifies the best solutions through open innovation. And, it builds and convenes a community of leaders who have the resources, the expertise, the mentorship, and the know-how to get each solution piloted, scaled, and implemented.

At its most recent event last May, Solve convened technologists, social entrepreneurs, business leaders, policymakers, researchers, and change agents on campus for three days of Solve at MIT.

“As I look out on the world, I’m more certain than ever of the power and significance of the collaborative problem-solving global platform we call Solve,” said MIT President Rafael Reif at Solve at MIT. “In the two and a half years since we first announced Solve, it has evolved in important ways. As many of you know firsthand, since then Solve has launched specific, actionable challenges around refugee education, carbon contributions, chronic diseases, and inclusive innovation. In its first cycle, Solve attracted more than 400 solutions from more than 57 countries.”

The May event celebrated the first cycle of Solvers, who worked on those 2016 challenges, by bringing them together with the Solve community to form partnerships to help implement their solutions. Also at that time, Solve launched its new challenges for 2017. Those challenges are now getting ready to close on August 1. They are:

  • Brain Health: How can every person improve their brain health and mental resilience?
  • Sustainable Urban Communities: How can urban communities increase their access to sustainable and resilient food and water sources?
  • Women and Technology: How can women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds use technology to fully participate and prosper in the economy?
  • Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future: How can disadvantaged youth learn the skills they need to prepare them for the workforce of the future and thrive in the 21st century?

Solve further announced three prizes for the 2017 challenges during Solve at MIT. Applicants for these challenges should be sure to opt in if they’re eligible.

  1. Atlassian Foundation International is pledging up to $1 million in grant funding for the Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Challenge to selected Solvers from non-governmental organizations, nonprofits, social enterprises, academics, entrepreneurs, and for-profit organizations.
  2. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is pledging up to $1 million in grant funding for the Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Challenge to selected Solvers who will have an impact in developing countries across the Indo-Pacific. 
  3. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is pledging to curate a mentorship prize for selected Solvers who propose solutions based in arts and culture to the four challenges.

Applicants who are selected as finalists will join the Solve Challenge Finals in New York City on Sept. 17 during the United Nations General Assembly Week. The Solve pitch session will take place in front of challenge judges, Solve members, and a live audience in New York. 

“This is just the beginning of the community, of the marketplace, of the movement,” said Solve Executive Director Alex Amouyel during Solve at MIT. “And to truly realize the vision of Solve, we need you to continue the charge.”

Jessica Myers: Liberté, Égalité, Sécurité

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 09:00

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Jessica Myers MCP ’17 threw herself into writing a thesis on urban food markets in New Orleans. After many months of work, however, she was disappointed to see it filed away, virtually unread. For her graduate thesis in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), she was determined to resist that fate.

Interested in writing about the urban fabric of Paris, she spoke with members of DUSP’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), who suggested that she produce a podcast that could be disseminated online to a wider audience. She’d never created a podcast, Myers says, but as an avid podcast listener, she was excited about the challenge of figuring it out.

The result is “Here There Be Dragons,” a two-season, 13-episode (and counting) exploration of urban life in New York and Paris through the themes of race, class, and security. “I basically wanted to ask questions about fear,” says Myers, “looking at how people prepare themselves to be in a city and create mental maps and strategies.”

Myers isn’t from a big city herself; she grew up in the bedroom community of Plainfield, New Jersey. But she fell in love with Paris during a study abroad semester during which she held a number of jobs — washing dishes at a restaurant, translating poetry for a cabaret, and working as an archivist at the Centre Pompidou. “I was all over the city, working in a lot of different contexts, and that made me very interested in how it works socially and politically.”

At MIT, she took a class with DUSP lecturer Jota Samper on “conflict cities” that examined how policies around security affect the use of public space. While other students studied Teheran, Donetsk, or Medellin, Myers chose to focus on Paris. “With older Western cities, we typically look at them as historical case studies, seeing them as ‘developed’ rather than ‘developing,’” says Myers. “But on a neighborhood level, they are dealing with the same social and cultural issues as the global south.”

For her podcast, Myers honed her craft with a first “season” on New York, featuring interviews with seven people about how they constructed mental maps of where they felt safe and unsafe. “If I am a woman, where am I not going to wear a short skirt; if I am queer, where can I hold hands,” she says. “I wanted to look at all of these strategies people have and how they change over time.”

After developing her interview techniques and tweaking the software she used to weave together the program, she set forth on a second season on Paris, starting with reactions to the terrorist attacks of November 2015. “What was interesting was that white men were very shocked at the prospect of having to feel worried in a public space,” says Myers. “Whereas women and LGTBQ interviewees were more like, ‘This is another thing I need to add to my running ticker tape of public stress.’”

As she spoke to different groups — white, immigrant, middle class, and poor — about where they felt safe or unsafe in the city, the conversations took a surprising turn toward issues of gentrification. For middle-class Parisians, the introduction of a wine shop or brunch spot on a previously “unsafe” corner made them extend their mental map. For residents of poor neighborhoods, however, an influx of unfamiliar faces made them feel unsafe. “If you rely on the so-called ‘eyes on the street’ to keep your kids safe,” Myers says, “then all of a sudden that change breaks up your sense of community trust.”

Later episodes of the podcast address the contradictions of the French policy of mixité, a social housing program based on the ideal of mixing social classes that relocates poorer people such as immigrants from North and West Africa into more affluent arrondissements. “But what exactly is the support offered to those families?” Myers asks. Often even second- or third-generation African-French citizens are referred to as “immigrants” by white French people. “If they cook food with strong peanut sauces and neighbors smell it, will it be a nuisance? Will they feel hostility in a place that is supposed to be their home?”

For each episode, Myers created a script, transcribing the interviews in French and then translating them into English. She cast English speakers to closely match the original subjects in age, gender, and ethnicity, and overlaid the English audio onto the French. It’s an effective strategy in bringing the issues alive, says Myers’s advisor, professor of landscape architecture and planning Anne Whiston Spirn. “Hearing their voices and their words, it makes it so clear that the ideas are emerging from the data,” she says. “You often don’t get that as directly in a more conventional thesis.”

Since DUSP first offered students the option of a media-based thesis four years ago, Spirn has overseen several other students with backgrounds in film and photography who created multimedia explorations of urban planning. She hopes that in the future, more students like Myers, who didn’t arrive with a media background, can take that approach. “I am interested in promoting these theses and in giving students the support they need in order to do them.”

In telling the stories of her subjects, Myers had to balance between the academic demands of her thesis and the entertainment value of a podcast. “I think academics have lost a crucial audience because there is little emphasis on being engaging, and news has decided to become so much a part of entertainment, that there is no grounding in rigor,” she says. In addition to receiving guidance from Spirn, she’s worked with a producer from BuzzFeed France in maneuvering between those poles.

Her formula seems to be working. “I would say it’s as rigorous as any thesis I’ve seen, and at the same time it’s enormously engaging,” says Spirn. In recognition of the achievement, Myers was awarded honorable mention for the department’s outstanding thesis award.

Currently the podcast is downloaded 200 times a week by listeners in the United States and France, as well as from as far away as Iceland, Hong Kong, and Chile. “I hope that people take away from this the fact that Paris is still developing, and the conversation isn’t over about what it can become,” says Myers, who is thrilled with the wide reach of the work. “Someone in Medellin or Mogadishu might have something to contribute.”

3 Questions: Justin Steil on the Trump administration travel ban

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 16:10

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments relating to President Donald Trump's recent executive order on travel, which limits individuals from six majority-Musliim countries and refugees worldwide from entering the United States. The court also ruled to uphold a limited version of the travel ban, which went into effect on June 29. President Trump cited this as “a clear victory for our national security.”

Justin Steil, assistant professor of professor of law and urban planning at MIT, firmly disagrees. Steil is a member of the The Inter-University Committee on International Migration — a focal point for migration and refugee studies at six universities in the greater Boston area that's hosted by the MIT Center for International of Studies (CIS). He recently spoke with the CIS, arguing that such policies undermine our nation’s security and that immigration makes the U.S. more safe, not less.

Q: What concerns you most about the Supreme Court decision to allow parts of the travel ban to go into effect? 

A: The revised executive order seeking to temporarily ban the migration to the United States of refugees worldwide and of individuals from six predominantly Muslim countries presents both foreign-born residents, particularly Muslim residents, of the United States and those seeking to immigrate here as a threat to national security, against the evidence. The Supreme Court’s decision to stay, in part, the preliminary injunctions issued by the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal and preventing implementation of that executive order unfortunately lends credence to the administration’s political theater. The court’s decision continues to allow the entry of refugees or migrants from the six countries who have “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” but stays the injunction as to other affected foreign nationals.

What concerns me most about the court’s decision to let part of Executive Order 13780 go into effect is the impact it will have on refugees who are fleeing persecution in their countries of origin and on immigrants hoping to build a new life and contribute to the vibrancy and growth of the United States. 

I am also concerned about the message the executive order, and the court’s validation of it, sends to the rest of the world, to the potential immigrants who have always contributed and who continue to contribute to the United States, economically, intellectually, culturally, artistically, and in other ways. Thousands of communities across the United States are eager to welcome immigrants, but the order sends a message of fear and division both at home and abroad, and makes it that much more difficult for immigrants to enrich the fabric of our local social and economic lives. In my research analyzing local government policymaking with regard to immigrants, I have seen immigrants scapegoated for political gain, and I have also seen that the targeting of immigrants often comes back to have negative social, economic, and political consequences for the rest of those in the locality, including increasing political polarization and fragmentation in social life, and even violence.

Q: The Trump administration consistently portrays immigrants as a primary threat to national security. Does this stand up to a fact check?

A: Despite the fact that the vast majority of U.S. citizens are descended from either voluntary or involuntary migrants, and the United States often represents itself as a nation of immigrants, it is also a place where, for centuries, some have represented the foreign-born as a danger to the nation’s values and its security. 

As described in an amicus brief by a bipartisan group of former national security officials, there is no legitimate national security rationale for the executive order, and it will instead disrupt existing counterterrorism partnerships, endanger U.S. troops in the field, and have a negative impact on U.S. citizens at home. Refugees — those individuals who have fled their country of nationality because of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion — are already some of the most carefully vetted migrants to the United States and, since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, have not been associated with even a single terrorist attack in the United States. Nor has a single citizen of the six countries targeted by the Executive Order killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States in at least the last four decades, if ever. In the past 15 years, more terrorist attacks have been committed, and significantly more Americans have been killed, by native-born attackers than by foreign-born ones.

Beyond the executive order at issue here, the current White House has worked hard to paint a picture of immigrants generally as a threat to public safety, whether from crime or from terrorism. But overwhelming social scientific evidence has consistently found that immigrants (both documented and undocumented) are significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And higher shares of immigrants have aggregate benefits as well: Cities with larger shares of immigrants have lower crime rates than those with fewer immigrants, and the cities that experienced the largest increase in their foreign-born populations between 1990 and 2000 experienced the largest decrease in murder rates over the same period.

My own research at the municipal level has found that anti-immigrant policies are actually more likely to be enacted in cities where violent crime is decreasing than ones where it is increasing, but that immigrants in those cities are nevertheless blamed for crime and that anti-immigrant rhetoric is used for political gain.

In short, immigration generally makes the United States more, not less, safe. Certainly careful review of those seeking to enter the United States is necessary, but neither bans on refugee admissions, nor bans on migration from certain countries, nor mass deportations will make America safer.

Q: What’s your predicted outcome for the Supreme Court decision this fall? 

A: It is hard to say what the court will do. The Supreme Court has historically been hesitant to intervene in the Executive Branch’s power over immigration, especially when national security justifications are invoked. But reference to national security cannot exempt an executive policy from judicial review. 

The court asked for additional briefing on whether the case will be moot by the time it is argued in October, so the court may dismiss it as moot. If the court does reach the merits of the case, the most discussed legal argument against the executive order is that it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on favoring one religion over another. A second argument is that parts of the order violate provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), including the provision prohibiting discrimination in the issuance of an immigrant visa on the basis of a person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence. There are numerous additional arguments, but I’ll just discuss those two.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause prohibits the government both from establishing an official religion and from favoring one religion over another. The Establishment Clause claim is essentially a challenge based on the president’s intent when he enacted the executive order, and the court is very reluctant to strike down policies based on claims about the discriminatory intent of a policy’s enactor. Indeed, it is often hard to know the intent behind any policy outside of what is written in the policy itself. Some justices may evaluate the executive order based on the text of the revised order alone and, without an explicitly discriminatory classification in that text, argue to uphold it.

Unlike in many cases where discerning intent may be challenging, however, Donald Trump has argued explicitly for a ban on immigration on the basis of religion. For instance, as a candidate, he released a statement on his campaign website calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” And just before signing the first version of the executive order he said, “This is the ‘Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.’ We all know what that means.” Further, the first executive order treated refugees differently on the basis of religion, by excluding from the ban refugees from religious minorities, which Trump explained in an interview to the Christian Broadcasting News would give preference to Christian refugees. Although the executive order does not prohibit all immigration by Muslim individuals to the United States, there is convincing evidence that it did not have a bona fide secular purpose of protecting national security and that its primary purpose instead was to enact a policy discriminating on the basis of religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

The INA prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence in the issuance of an immigrant visa — such as legal permanent resident visas — but does not apply to non-immigrant visas — such as tourist visas — and its application to the actual entry of any visa holder into the United States is unclear. What is clear is that this provision was enacted as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, influenced by the civil rights movement’s push to challenge the overt discrimination codified in the nation’s immigration system forty years prior. In 1924, Congress had enacted immigration quotas explicitly designed to return the United States to the racial and cultural composition it had in 1890, by excluding immigrants from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The current administration’s policies have disturbing parallels to these historic white supremacist policies. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ultimate conclusion about the legality of the current executive order, its mean-spiritedness, short-sightedness, and damage it has done, and will continue to do, are already evident.

Evaluating approaches to agricultural development

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 15:00

As the old saying goes, teaching someone to fish is far more helpful than just giving them a fish. Now, research from WorldFish and MIT takes that adage a step further: Better yet, the study found, is working with the fishermen to help develop better fishing methods.

Involving local people in figuring out how to improve their farming and fishing methods provides more lasting and widespread benefits than just introducing new technologies or methods, the researchers showed. The findings are described in the journal Agricultural Systems, in a paper by Boru Douthwaite of the research funding agency WorldFish, based in Malaysia, and Elizabeth Hoffecker, lead researcher at the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), based at the MIT D-Lab.

Considerable research over the last few decades has shown that bringing about improvements in agricultural systems is a highly complex challenge, with many interrelationships and feedbacks determining how well new methods and devices take hold or provide a real improvement. Yet government agencies as well as research and nonprofit organizations still mostly evaluate the success of their programs using simple metrics that overlook much of this complexity, Hoffecker says.

For three decades, Douthwaite has been studying how these programs work in practice. He says he has often observed a disconnect between the measures agencies use to decide whether a program is working, versus the real effects he saw in some of the communities involved.

For this study, the researchers focused on two quite different examples that help to illustrate these disparities: fishing on lakes and rivers in Zambia, and growing a fiber crop called abaca in the Philippines.

In Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa, refrigeration facilities and ice are scarce, and nearly one-third of the fish caught there is lost to spoilage before it ever reaches the market. Many of the fish are currently dried or smoked, but they are vulnerable to insects and rodents during the drying process, and they become brittle and subject to damage during transportation. Reducing such spoilage could both provide financial benefits for the economically struggling fishing community and help alleviate food shortages for consumers.

The Zambian fisheries were facing two related issues, Hoffecker says: “The narrow challenge was to come up with a way to prevent fish from spoiling.” But in addressing that challenge, it became apparent that “there was a much bigger challenge, which was overfishing.” Though many communities in the region were facing these same challenges, “some of the stakeholders were not working together” to address them, she says. If people had tried to get these groups to work together on the bigger challenge right at the start, she says, “it probably would have failed,” because there was so much mistrust between the different communities.

But instead, she said, “they started out working on this technical challenge,” of reducing spoilage, “which built relationships that allowed them to tackle the bigger challenge.” The participatory research process included meetings of different stakeholders including government officials, non-governmental organizations, researchers, and residents, which were followed by village-level workshops in 10 communities. This resulted in establishing three ongoing working groups to tackle different aspects of the issue: fisheries co-management, establishing cooperatives and other economic associations, and postharvest processing. Among other solutions, the group decided to introduce salting of fish as an improved preservation method.

The overall process led to four significant outcomes, Douthwaite says — none of which had been planned or anticipated initially and thus might have been missed in an evaluation based just on meeting initial, stated goals. The four outcomes consisted of developing a locally sourced fish-processing method (the salting), developing a value chain for the salted fish from harvest to market, creating working groups that could continue to evaluate and improve innovations in the fishery, and improving relationships among the different groups involved, from the fishermen to the government agencies to the traders and buyers. In the end, this led to a growing consensus about the need for measures to prevent overfishing.

In the other case studied, the Philippine abaca farmers had been facing a virus that threatened to greatly diminish their harvests of the widely used fiber plant, which is the nation’s primary source of cordage and paper. With some regions experiencing a 90 percent decline in harvests, the government’s initial strategy was to eradicate all the infected plants to curtail the virus’ spread. But farmers were wary of efforts to destroy the plants they relied on, especially when there was miscommunication about what exactly was being done.

So when a new, virus-resistant variety of the plant was developed, the local farmers’ weren’t willing to make the switch, as they considered the new varieties inferior for fiber-making.

Instead of just pressing the farmers to change, the team used a different approach, “enlisting the farmers in a process of experimentation,” as Hoffecker describes it. Several hybrid varieties were developed, and the local farmers tested them in their fields. “Because they were involved in the process, they were much more receptive to the results,” she says. In fact, many of them came up with their own suggestions for furthering the research, including testing local varieties that seemed to be naturally resistant and trying plantings on different kinds of soils and slopes.

They not only came up with an acceptable resistant variety, but when it turned out there were not enough seeds available, the farmers developed their own strategy for sharing the seeds, requiring those who got the initial seedling allotments to pay back new seedlings into the system for others to plant.

Many development organizations are well aware of these kinds of complexities and of the need for more community involvement and fewer “top-down” aid solutions, Hoffecker says. A problem, though, is that the metrics and results-assessment frameworks used to measure success often leave no room for complex, emergent outcomes. Instead, they typically focus on measuring the extent to which various solutions — such as a new crop variety, tool, or farming method — are adopted, equating scale of use with success.

Outcomes associated with how the solutions were developed, such as the creation of greater cooperation among communities or stakeholder groups, and the instilling of local empowerment and problem-solving abilities and motivation, are much harder to measure and typically left to anecdotes rather than rigorously assessed, she says.

This research was designed to help provide a basis for new ways to assess the success of programs that are working towards these types of outcomes. “It’s a first step in developing such a model and encouraging others to develop such models,” Douthwaite says.

And such assessments are essential, Hoffecker says, for making development interventions more effective and lasting. Some worthy projects, she says, are “not getting funded, because the results are not understood by the donors. Some projects are producing important outcomes, but they’re not being seen and appreciated.” Hopefully, she says, this new study can begin to address that need.

The fieldwork for this research was funded by WorldFish, which is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a World Bank agency that promotes research on sustainable development of agriculture. 

Academics without borders

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 17:45

In January, MIT President L. Rafael Reif sent an update to the MIT community that described the international makeup of the campus. “Like the United States, and thanks to the United States, MIT gains tremendous strength by being a magnet for talent from around the world,” he wrote. “Faculty, students, post-docs, and staff from 134 other nations join us here because they love our mission, our values and our community.”

Inspired by President Reif’s description of MIT “magnificently global, absolutely American community,” researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab recently studied 20 years of enthnographic data in order to visualize where international faculty, students, and researchers have come from over time. The result is “MIT World,” an online map showing the countries of origin of MIT students and scholars from 1999 to present.

“The international nature of MIT’s community can be seen just by walking through campus each day,” says Newsha Ghaeli, an Iranian-born researcher from Canada working at the MIT Senseable City Lab, along with Wonyoung So, one of the project’s leaders, who came to MIT from South Korea. “At our lab alone, we currently work with colleagues from 19 different countries including India, Mexico, China, Russia, Israel, and Croatia. However, we wanted to dig a bit deeper in order to discover just how global MIT really is and how we can learn about our community by specifically seeing where our colleagues and peers come from.”

Using data from the International Students Office and the International Scholars Office, MIT World is an interactive map that allows users to pick a region or specific country to see the flows of students and scholars coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from that part of the world. Accompanying interactive graphs show the number of students and scholars per country and per year coming to MIT.

The researchers also credit the project for demonstrating the power of visualization as a platform to disseminate data to large audiences. “The raw data for MIT World is available online to anyone via the MIT website, but visualizing it creates a different understanding ,” says Carlo Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Lab, professor of the practice in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and a native of Italy. “Data visualization helps sharing insights with a broader audience.”

MIT World shows how openness and academic excellence go hand-in-hand, says Ghaeli. “The ability to attract the best global talent is what makes MIT what it is: a vibrant and diverse community driven to serve the nation and the world.”

"Mens et manus" goes global

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 15:15

This year the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program will send more than 1,000 students abroad. From conceptualizing electric-bicycle kits in Spain to developing assistive technology devices in Mexico, MISTI students will learn about new cultures and explore techniques for solving the world’s challenges through experiences with partners across the globe. Through their experiences abroad, students gain a firsthand understanding of the international workplace, learn to navigate scientific networks and begin to understand just how far an MIT education can take them.

Here are a few things the more than 600 2017 MISTI summer interns will do:

  • hole up in the island of Pellestrina, Italy, with MIT professors Paola Rizzoli and Andrew Whittle to study the Venice lagoon and the mechanical gates that will protect Venice from high waters;
  • explore ancient sites in Italy with a view to inventing new technologies and materials to protect them with Assistant Professor Admir Masic;
  • design a recumbent tricycle for athletes with disabilities using robotic technologies in Berlin;
  • team up with Israeli scientists at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat to research coral reefs;
  • work on the development of an Earth observation spacecraft in collaboration with Russia’s first private space company, Dauria Aerospace;
  • teach STEM subjects to high school students in Armenia;
  • mentor future mobile-tech entrepreneurs and spur start-up development in Algeria, Mauritius, South Africa, Peru, Brazil, Russia, and Germany; and
  • collaborate with researchers and farmers in Uganda to identify and tackle debilitating crop disease.

MISTI is MIT’s pioneering international education program, based in the Center for International Studies in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). Founded in 1983 by SHASS faculty, the program is rooted in the "mens-et-manus" ("mind-and-hand") tradition: Faculty in SHASS first prepare MIT students for their internships with courses in the language, history, and culture of their host countries. MISTI then matches students with tailored internship, research, and teaching opportunities abroad — training them for cross-cultural careers and leadership on global teams. MISTI also facilitates international faculty collaborations and develop partnerships with leading companies, research institutes, and universities around the world.

For great challenges, a global strategy

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 11:30

At a time of great societal challenges worldwide, MIT has released a new plan for global engagement, outlining a framework for the Institute’s burgeoning international activites in education, research, innovation, and service.

Published after extensive consultations with members of the Institute community, the report, “A Global Strategy for MIT,” establishes core principles to help guide the Institute’s future international activities, and proposes several new initiatives to promote these activities, both on campus and around the world.

“MIT’s international activities have been growing rapidly, and further growth is likely,” the report states. “The plan is designed to create a more robust and durable platform to support the international initiatives of individual faculty, while also establishing a principled framework for selecting and undertaking larger-scale activities to increase MIT’s impact in the world.”

Among its recommendations, the report calls for new efforts to cultivate and coordinate faculty- and Institute-level collaborations in different regions of the world. While MIT will likely increase its engagement in many countries, the plan specifically calls for an increased focus on China, Latin America, and Africa — places that “have been underrepresented in the MIT portfolio of activities previously and that have high potential for impactful engagement.”

Additional recommendations are designed to continue building out MIT’s distinctive “global classroom,” which already provides many opportunities for students to learn about the world through hands-on projects that solve practical problems. Another recommendation calls for a more steamlined approach to helping build new institutions and capabilities in other countries. The plan also calls for a review of the cap on international undergraduate admissions.

“Working internationally and achieving international impact are essential to achieving MIT’s mission of service to the nation and the world,” says Richard K. Lester, the associate provost of MIT who oversees international activities, and who authored the report. “Engaging internationally also strengthens our own campus in many ways,” adds Lester, who is also the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering. 

Partners in progress

MIT already has a global character; its campus community of more than 20,000 includes about 6,500 faculty, academic staff, and students from about 150 foreign countries. About 43 percent of faculty, 43 percent of graduate students, and 65 percent of postdocs are from outside the U.S.

These figures have risen significantly within the last two decades: International students accounted for 75 percent of the increase in MIT’s graduate student population since 1998, and 80 percent of the growth in the Institute’s postdoctoral population since 2006. International sponsorship of research and other campus activities has grown threefold over the last decade, and accounted for 18 percent of all such activity at MIT in 2016.

Meanwhile, MIT faculty and students are engaged in research, education, and service projects in 75 countries. Half of graduating MIT seniors in 2016 reported having at least one international educational experience, up from 23 percent in 2006.

MIT’s orientation toward innovative solutions, exemplified by its current “Campaign for a Better World,” will continue to encourage projects in other countries, in areas including health, energy, the environment, education, and water access.

The new plan’s recommendation to strengthen MIT’s regional outreach — “MIT Partnerships for a Better World,” as the plan calls them — includes three elements.

First, the report calls for faculty working groups, organized by geographic region, to provide strategic advice and create regional action plans. Second, the plan suggests that periodic MIT summit meetings in targeted regions will help establish new programs and connections.  And third, the plan calls for an expansion of international seed funds to support collaborative research and educational programs with faculty and institutions in these regions.

MIT is already a participant in high-level summits with leaders around the world. This week, MIT President L. Rafael Reif will be speaking at a forum in Saudi Arabia hosted by Khalid Al-Falih, head of the country’s Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources.

(Al-Falih also spoke at MIT in June 2016, at a meeting of university and business leaders from Massachusetts. At that event, he discussed Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” project, a new policy agenda aiming to diversify the country’s economy beyond oil, to other technologies as well as services, logistics, and tourism.)

As the new report outlines, MIT’s existing programs will continue to play a central role in its global strategy. For example, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) arranged almost 1,000 student internships in 30 countries in 2016 — representing a fourfold increase over the last decade. MIT’s OpenCourseWare website has received nearly 200 million visits from around the world since its launch in 2003, while 3.5 million learners, 75 percent of whom are from outside the U.S., have signed up for MITx courses since the launch of the edX platform in 2012. MIT is also continuing to develop a MicroMasters credential available to global learners in multiple fields. 

Still room for MIT-style “bottom-up” enterprise

Lester emphasizes the importance of “bottom up” activities, driven by enterprising faculty and students, to the new global strategy.

“We must support and encourage and help those efforts grow,” Lester says. “But in addition, MIT sometimes seeks to act on a larger scale, in order to increase its impact. We can’t do everything and be everywhere in the world, and the new plan will help us think systematically about what we want to do, where we want to do it, and who we want to do it with.”

Finally, as the plan notes, MIT’s international activities are subject to geopolitical shifts and the possibility of “disruptive developments” around the world. Given the pace of global change, the plan states, another comprehensive stragetic review should be undertaken in five years or less. But for now, Lester says, MIT’s commitment to global engagement is strengthening.

“Now is not the time to change course,” Lester says. “On the contrary, this is the time to affirm our commitment to working with others, across national borders, on the world’s most challenging problems. In a very fundamental sense, that is who we are.”

Q&A: When is giving to charity the wrong thing to do?

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 16:20

The race to cure poverty has turned into a vast multi-billion dollar industry, but there’s not a silver-bullet solution that’s going to end impoverishment, says MIT grad student Mark Weber, co-producer of the 2015 documentary film “Poverty, Inc.

Most people give to charity with the best of intentions, and although foreign aid is vital following a disaster, fueling a country with aid dollars can foster unintended bad consequences, such as when it prevents local entrepreneurs from getting their own businesses off the ground.

The 91-minute movie, which looks at global charity — from disaster relief to social entrepreneurship — has earned more than 50 international film festival honors. In a recent interview, Weber explained why charity has sometimes failed and what individuals can do to help.

Q: "Poverty, Inc." argues that we’ve been doing charity wrong for many years. Why is that?

A: It’s not that simple. I think one of the things that we try to emphasize in the film is that it’s not just foreign aid. Foreign aid is symptomatic of the deeper problem. The problem … at its philosophical core is about our tendency to objectify the poor. We have turned them into objects of our pity and our charity, and we make ourselves the protagonists of this development story.

This film is more about embracing complexity and understanding that there are broken models, more than saying ‘Oh, here’s a new silver bullet that everybody should follow.’ It’s more about learning how to think deeply and algorithmically in terms of principles and functions.

Q: What if there is a famine in Africa and I do want to help?

A: If a person is in crisis, you don’t wax poetic to them about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the rule of law; you help them. But how do we then transition from crisis mode to development? This is where the safety net often becomes a spider’s web.

If we take a long-term approach to food security, not just a reactionary crisis approach, we should be reconsidering American and European domestic industrial agricultural subsidies and food aid programs, which undermine the agrarian economies of many developing nations. This is well documented and highlighted with the example of Haitian rice in the film.

Q: The movie talks about volunteering with orphanages abroad. Why is that destructive?

A: Virtually every kid [in an orphanage] is struggling or will struggle with an attachment disorder. What we do is, we come in and … hug them, and play with them, and take pictures with them, and sometimes we make promises that we can’t keep, and then we are gone forever. We think that these kids are without [love], but in reality, a lot of people — even their own parents — are visiting them throughout the year. And so that love is coming and going. So, we actually exacerbate the attachment disorders that these kids struggle with, and it can be incredibly damaging to them.

Q: Is the situation with the orphanages one where nothing can be done?

A: First, do no harm. I see this as connected to the sponsor-a-child issue, which I think is also problematic because a lot of these kids have parents. And by making orphanages more robust in terms of their educational and daycare services, we actually incentivize parents to give up their kids and we break families apart, which is a much bigger problem in the long run.

I think there are many ways we can support children, and two are featured in the film with the story of the Haitian solar panel company Enersa and the Apparent Project. By creating employment in those communities, hundreds of children are being fed, clothed, and put through school by their own parents.

Q: So, what can we do if we want to aid other countries?

A: It depends on who you are individually, and your unique qualities, and perspective. We need good people working for good governance. Rule of law, property rights, and basic freedoms are critically important, as is creating cultures of trust.

We also need to be conscious consumers and harness the democratic function of the market economy to signal demand for vertically integrated ethics in the economy. If I’m willing to donate a couple of thousand dollars a year to charity, then why am I not willing to spend an extra $20 here or there to buy something from a company [like Patagonia] that is willing to give me information about its supply chain? There are more and more companies championing intentionality and transparency in their supply chains.

We also need good people working in business. Business is the normative way in which people rise out of poverty.

J-WAFS awards $1.4 million in third round of seed grant funding

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 14:30

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its third round of seed grant funding to the MIT community. J‑WAFS, launched in 2014, is MIT’s Institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding population on a changing planet.

This year, seven new projects will be funded, led by 10 faculty principal investigatorss across seven MIT departments. The winning projects include fertilizer technologies, technologies for water supply, and policy-oriented research addressing the uptake of irrigation technologies in Africa.

An ever-increasing number of faculty from across the Institute are deeply invested in addressing critical global challenges in water and food security, and this is reflected in this year’s batch of successful proposals. The third J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 38 principal investigators, nearly two-thirds of whom had not submitted proposals to J-WAFS before. Competing for funding were established experts in water and food-related research areas as well as professors who are only recently applying their disciplinary expertise to the world’s water and food challenges. Engineering faculty from four departments were funded, including the departments of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Additional funded principal investigators are from the Department of Chemistry in the School of Science, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, and the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

The seven newly funded projects bring the total number of seed research projects supported by J-WAFS to 24 since 2015. J-WAFS Director John Lienhard argues that “we must continue to advance innovations and creative ideas for delivering safe and secure food and clean and renewable water supplies. Through the innovative technologies and collaborations we are supporting with these new research projects, J-WAFS is working to secure the future of our communities, the sustainability of our cities, and the prosperity of our economies in the face of rising population, greater urbanization, and changing climate.” 

Project highlights appear below, followed by a full listing of 2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant-funded projects.

Enhancing crop production with an eye toward sustainability

Enhancing crop production while supporting environmentally sustainable farming practices in developing countries was a theme of several funded projects this year. Two projects are addressing challenges around nitrogen fertilizer.  Nitrogen is required for agricultural productivity, and most nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured using fossil fuels, which has a large carbon footprint. In Africa and other parts of the world, nitrogen fertilizer is not accessible to most farmers due to poor infrastructure for distribution, limiting the crop yields they can achieve. However, in North America and elsewhere, excess fertilizer runoff from farms contributes to water pollution.

Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will develop a solar-powered electrochemical device that can convert nitrogen from air, water, and sunlight into ammonia to be added to soil to promote plant growth. Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering, is pursuing an entirely different path, with the objective of engineering cereal grains that can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen the way that legumes do. Once realized, these grains could become self-fertilizing high-yield producers in varied regions across the globe and dramatically reduce the damage to soil health, water supply, and local ecosystems often associated with the use of chemical fertilizer. 

Improving methods for culturing microalgae for food and fuel

Another funded project could significantly contribute to our ability to expand a promising future source of protein and oil, and reduce the energy use associated with its production. Mathias Kolle, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, aims to create a new class of multifunctional micro- and nanostructural optical fibers that can more efficiently and effectively transport light and carbon dioxide throughout industrial microalgae cultures.

Microalgae are effective generators of protein-rich biomass that could, if produced on an industrial scale, supplement human nutrition, provide animal feedstock, and serve as biofuel. However, current production methods aren’t economically viable for this scale. Kolle’s microfibers could transform large-scale industrial microalgae production, making microalgae-produced protein and fuel an economically viable, sustainable, and energy efficient option in the future. 

Harvesting water from air

Securing clean drinking water in environments that are water-scarce or polluted is a challenge in many regions of the world. Additionally, agriculture and industrial uses deplete — and contaminate — global supply of freshwater, which increases the demand for alternative means of water gathering. Mircea Dinca, associate professor of chemistry, and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are teaming up to develop a new technology that can be used to harvest water in even the most arid regions of the globe. They will create a passive solar device that can extract clean, fresh water from the air at any range of humidity, using a metal-organic framework (MOF), a specialized porous material. J-WAFS seed funding will support the development of MOFs that can be used for providing water to remote areas, with greatly reduced infrastructure costs.

2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects:

"Affordable Potassium Fertilizer from K Feldspar for Africa." PI: Antoine Allanore, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

"Characterizing Extension Policy and Private Irrigation Supply Chain Linkages: Lessons from Senegal." PIs: Stephen Graves, the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science in the Sloan School of Management; and Bishwapriya Sanyal, professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning

"Distributed Water Harvesting from Air in Water-Stressed and Remote Areas using Metal-Organic Frameworks." PIs: Mircea Dinca, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering 

"Electrochemical Nitrogen Fixation for Distributed Fertilizer Production." PI: Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering

"Evaluation of Fully Synthetic Nitrogen Fixation Pathways, Designed for Plant Mitochondria and Plastids." PI: Christopher Voigt, professor in the Department of Biological Engineering 

"High-efficiency Chemical-Free Backwash Strategy for Reverse Osmosis Membrane Antifouling." PIs: Xuanhe Zhao, the Noyce Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and John H. Lienhard, V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and J-WAFS 

"Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors." PI: Mathias Kolle, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

MIT community celebrates its many cultures

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 15:30

The MIT community came out in full force Saturday for a spirited festival celebrating the Institute’s diverse cultures.

A stage show at the Johnson Athletics Center drew an audience of more than 1,600, including many families, for 17 student performances showcasing dance, music, poetry, and costumes from around the world.

The program’s hosts, sophomore Bruke Mesfin Kifle, junior Sravya Bhamidipati, and seniors Alberto Hernandez and Pragya Tooteja, kept the packed program running like clockwork, as artists took the stage to perform acrobatic capoeira, a gliding tango, traditional dances of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a tribute to an iconic Scottish poet, and much more.

Later in the evening, approximately 9,000 people comprising MIT students, faculty, staff, and friends got their groove on in four tent dance parties on campus. The dancing, music, and food centered around four themes: A World of Music: Middle East/K-pop/Hip-hop/India; Campus Night Club; Caribbean Rhythms and African Beats; and Country Two-Step to Salsa. Dance teams Mocha Moves and MIT Bhangra made special guest appearances.

The OneWorld @ MIT Multicultural Festival and Dance Parties event was presented by members of the MIT student body and the One World@MIT planning group, which is led by Raul Radovitzky, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

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