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    K. Lisa Yang Global Engineering and Research Center will prioritize innovations for resource-constrained communities

    Billions of people worldwide face threats to their livelihood, health, and well-being due to poverty. These problems persist because solutions offered in developed countries often do not meet the requirements — related to factors like price, performance, usability, robustness, and culture — of poor or developing countries. Academic labs frequently try to tackle these challenges, but often to no avail because they lack real-world, on-the-ground knowledge from key stakeholders, and because they do not have an efficient, reliable means of converting breakthroughs to real-world impact.

    The new K. Lisa Yang Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Center at MIT, founded with a $28 million gift from philanthropist and investor Lisa Yang, aims to rethink how products and technologies for resource-constrained communities are conceived, designed, and commercialized. A collaboration between MIT’s School of Engineering and School of Science, the Yang GEAR Center will bring together a multidisciplinary team of MIT researchers to assess today’s most pressing global challenges in three critical areas: global health, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the water-energy-food nexus.

    “As she has shown over and over through her philanthropy, Lisa Yang shares MIT’s passion for connecting fundamental research and real-world data to create positive impact,” says MIT president Sally Kornbluth. “I’m grateful for her powerful vision and incredible generosity in founding the K. Lisa Yang GEAR Center. I can’t imagine a better use of MIT’s talents than working to improve the lives and health of people around the world.”

    Yang’s gift expands her exceptional philanthropic support of human health and basic science research at MIT over the past six years. Yang GEAR Center will join MIT’s Yang Tan Collective, an assemblage of six major research centers focused on accelerating collaboration in basic science, research, and engineering to realize translational strategies that improve human health and well-being at a global scale.

    “Billions of people face daily life-or-death challenges that could be improved with elegant technologies,” says Yang. “And yet I’ve learned how many products and tools created by top engineers don’t make it out of the lab. They may look like clever ideas during the prototype phase, but they are entirely ill-suited to the communities they were designed for. I am very excited about the potential of a deliberate and thoughtful engineering effort that will prioritize the design of technologies for use in impoverished communities.”

    Cost, material availability, cultural suitability, and other market mismatches hinder many major innovations in global health, food, and water from being translated to use in resource-constrained communities. Yang GEAR Center will support a major research and design program with its mission to strategically identify compelling challenges and associated scientific knowledge gaps in resource-constrained communities then address them through academic innovation to create and translate transformative technologies.

    The center will be led by Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering, whose lab focuses on creating technologies that marry innovative, low-cost design with an in-depth understanding of the unique socioeconomic constraints of emerging markets.

    “Academia has a key role to play in solving the historically unsolvable challenges in resource-constrained communities,” says Winter. “However, academic research is often disconnected from the real-world requirements that must be satisfied to make meaningful change. Yang GEAR Center will be a catalyst for innovation to impact by helping colleagues identify compelling problems and focus their talents on realizing real-world solutions, and by providing mechanisms for commercial dissemination. I am extremely grateful to find in Lisa a partner who shares a vision for how academic research can play a more efficient and targeted role in addressing the needs of the world’s most disadvantaged populations.”

    The backbone of the Yang GEAR Center will be a team of seasoned research scientists and engineers. These individuals will scout real-world problems and distill the relevant research questions then help assemble collaborative teams. As projects develop, center staff will mentor students, build and conduct field pilots, and foster relationships with stakeholders around the world. They will be strategically positioned to translate technology at the end of projects through licensing and startups. Center staff and collaborators will focus on creating products and services for climate-driven migrants, such as solar-powered energy and water networks; technologies for reducing atmospheric carbon and promoting the hydrogen economy; brackish water desalination and irrigation solutions; and high-performance, global health diagnostics and devices.

    For instance, a Yang GEAR Center team focused on creating water-saving and solar-powered irrigation solutions for farmers in the Middle East and North Africa will continue its work in the region. They will conduct exploratory research; build a team of stakeholders, including farmers, agricultural outreach organizations, irrigation hardware manufacturers, retailers, water and agriculture scientists, and local government officials; design, rigorously test, and iterate prototypes both in the lab and in the field; and conduct large-scale field trials to garner user feedback and pave the way to product commercialization.

    “Grounded in foundational scientific research and blended with excellence in the humanities, MIT provides a framework that integrates people, economics, research, and innovation. By incorporating multiple perspectives — and being attentive to the needs and cultures of the people who will ultimately rely on research outcomes — MIT can have the greatest impact in areas of health, climate science, and resource security,” says Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics.

    An overarching aim for the center will be to educate graduates who are global engineers, designers, and researchers positioned for a career of addressing compelling, high-impact challenges. The center includes four endowed Hock E. Tan GEAR Center Fellowships that will support graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows eager to enter the field of global engineering. The fellowships are named for MIT alumnus and Broadcom CEO Hock E. Tan ’75 SM ’75.

    “I am thrilled that the Yang GEAR Center is taking a leading role in training problem-solvers who will rethink how products and inventions can help communities facing the most pressing challenges of our time,” adds Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “These talented young students,  postdocs, and staff have the potential to reach across disciplines — and across the globe — to truly transform the impact engineering can have in the future.” More

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    Hearing Amazônia: MIT musicians in Manaus, Brazil

    On Dec. 13, the MIT community came together for the premiere of “We Are The Forest,” a documentary by MIT Video Productions that tells the story of the MIT musicians who traveled to the Brazilian Amazon seeking culture and scientific exchange.

    The film features performances by Djuena Tikuna, Luciana Souza, Anat Cohen, and Evan Ziporyn, with music by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Fred Harris conducts the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and MIT Wind Ensemble and Laura Grill Jaye conducts the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble.

    Play video

    “We Are The Forest”Video: MIT Video Productions

    The impact of ecological devastation in the Amazon reflects the climate crisis worldwide. During the Institute’s spring break in March 2023, nearly 80 student musicians became only the second student group from MIT to travel to the Brazilian Amazon. Inspired by the research and activism of Talia Khan ’20, who is currently a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the trip built upon experiences of the 2020-21 academic year when virtual visiting artists Luciana Souza and Anat Cohen lectured on Brazilian music and culture before joining the November 2021 launch of Hearing Amazônia — The Responsibility of Existence.

    This consciousness-raising project at MIT, sponsored by the Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), began with a concert featuring Brazilian and Amazonian music influenced by the natural world. The project was created and led by MIT director of wind and jazz ensembles and senior lecturer in music Frederick Harris Jr.

    The performance was part eulogy and part praise song: a way of bearing witness to loss, while celebrating the living and evolving cultural heritage of Amazonia. The event included short talks, one of which was by Khan. As the first MIT student to study in the Brazilian Amazonia (via MISTI-Brazil), she spoke of her research on natural botanical resins and traditional carimbó music in Santarém, Pará, Brazil. Soon after, as a Fulbright Scholar, Khan continued her research in Manaus, setting the stage for the most complex trip in the history of MIT Music and Theater Arts.“My experiences in the Brazilian Amazon changed my life,” enthuses Khan. “Getting to know Indigenous musicians and immersing myself in the culture of this part of the world helped me realize how we are all so connected.”

    “Talia’s experiences in Brazil convinced me that the Hearing Amazônia project needed to take a next essential step,” explains Harris. “I wanted to provide as many students as possible with a similar opportunity to bring their musical and scientific talents together in a deep and spiritual manner. She provided a blueprint for our trip to Manaus.”

    An experience of a lifetime

    A multitude of musicians from three MTA ensembles traveled to Manaus, located in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest and home to the National Institute of Amazonian Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, or INPA), the most important center for scientific studies in the Amazon region for international sustainability issues.

    Tour experiences included cultural/scientific exchanges with Indigenous Amazonians through Nobre Academia de Robótica and the São Sebastião community on the Tarumã Açu River, INPA, the Cultural Center of the Peoples of the Amazon, and the Museu da Amazônia. Musically, students connected with local Indigenous instrument builders and performed with the Amazonas State Jazz Orchestra and renowned vocalist and Indigenous activist Djuena Tikuna.

    “Hearing Amazônia: Arte ê Resistência,” a major concert in the famed 19th century opera house Teatro Amazonas, concluded the trip on March 31. The packed event featured the MIT Wind Ensemble, MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, vocalist Luciana Souza, clarinetist Anat Cohen, MIT professor and composer-clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, and local musicians from Manaus. The program ended with “Nós Somos A Floresta (We Are The Forest) — Eware (Sacred Land) — Reflections on Amazonia,” a large-scale collaborative performance with Djuena Tikuna. The two songs were composed by Tikuna, with Eware newly arranged by Israeli composer-bassist Nadav Erlich for the occasion. It concluded with all musicians and audience members coming together in song: a moving and beautiful moment of mediation on the sacredness of the earth.

    “It was humbling to see the grand display of beauty and diversity that nature developed in the Amazon rainforest,” reflects bass clarinetist and MIT sophomore Richard Chen. “By seeing the bird life, sloths, and other species and the flora, and eating the fruits of the region, I received lessons on my harmony and connection to the natural world around us. I developed a deeper awareness of the urgency of resolving conflicts and stopping the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and to listening to and celebrating the stories and experiences of those around me.”

    Indigenous musicians embodying the natural world

    “The trip expanded the scope of what music means,” MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble member and biomedical researcher Autumn Geil explains. “It’s living the music, and you can’t feel that unless you put yourself in new experiences and get yourself out of your comfort zone.”

    Over two Indigenous music immersion days, students spent time listening to, and playing and singing with, musicians who broadened their scope of music’s relationship to nature and cultural sustainability. Indigenous percussionist and instrument builder Eliberto Barroncas and music producer-arranger César Lima presented contrasting approaches with a shared objective — connecting people to the natural world through Indigenous instruments.

    Barroncas played instruments built from materials from the rainforest and from found objects in Manaus that others might consider trash, creating ethereal tones bespeaking his life as one with nature. Students had the opportunity to play his instruments and create a spontaneous composition playing their own instruments and singing with him in a kind of “Amazonia jam session.”

    “Eliberto expressed that making music is visceral; it’s best when it comes from the gut and is tangible and coming from one’s natural environment. When we cannot understand each other using language, using words, logic and thinking, we go back to the body,” notes oboist and ocean engineer Michelle Kornberg ’20. “There’s a difference between teaching music as a skill you learn and teaching music as something you feel, that you experience and give — as a gift.”

    Over the pandemic, César Lima developed an app, “The Roots VR,” as a vehicle for people to discover over 100 Amazonia instruments. Users choose settings to interact with instruments and create pieces using a variety of instrumental combinations; a novel melding of technology with nature to expand the reach of these Indigenous instruments and their cultural significance.

    At the Cultural Center of the Peoples of the Amazon, students gathered around a tree, hand-in-hand singing with Djuena Tikuna, accompanied by percussionist Diego Janatã. “She spoke about being one of the first Indigenous musicians ever to sing in the Teatro Amazonas, which was built on the labor and blood of Indigenous people,” recalls flutist and atmospheric engineer Phoebe Lin, an MIT junior. “And then to hold hands and close our eyes and step back and forth; a rare moment of connection in a tumultuous world — it felt like we were all one.”

    Bringing the forest back to MIT

    On April 29, Djuena Tikuna made her MIT debut at “We Are the Forest — Music of Resilience and Activism,” a special concert for MIT President Sally Kornbluth’s inauguration, presenting music from the Teatro Amazonas event. Led and curated by Harris, the performance included new assistant professor in jazz and saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenón, director of the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble; Laura Grill Jaye; and vocalist Sara Serpa, among others. 

    “Music unites people and through art we can draw the world’s attention to the most urgent global challenges such as climate change,” says Djuena Tikuna. “My songs bring the message that every seed will one day germinate to reforest hearts, because we are all from the same village.”

    Hearing Amazônia has set the stage for the blossoming of artistic and scientific collaborations in the Amazon and beyond.

    “The struggle of Indigenous peoples to keep their territories alive should concern us all, and it will take more than science and research to help find solutions for climate change,” notes President Kornbluth. “It will take artists, too, to unite us and raise awareness across all communities. The inclusivity and expressive power of music can help get us all rowing in the same direction — it’s a great way to encourage us all to care and act!” More

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    Q&A: Three Tata Fellows on the program’s impact on themselves and the world

    The Tata Fellowship at MIT gives graduate students the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary research and work with real-world applications in developing countries. Part of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, this fellowship contributes to the center’s goal of designing appropriate, practical solutions for resource-constrained communities. Three Tata Fellows — Serena Patel, Rameen Hayat Malik, and Ethan Harrison — discuss the impact of this program on their research, perspectives, and time at MIT.

    Serena Patel

    Serena Patel graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in energy engineering and a minor in energy and resources. She is currently pursuing her SM in technology and policy at MIT and is a Tata Fellow focusing on decarbonization in India using techno-economic modeling. Her interest in the intersection of technology, policy, economics, and social justice led her to attend COP27, where she experienced decision-maker and activist interactions firsthand.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: The Tata Center appealed to my interest in searching for creative, sustainable energy technologies that center collaboration with local-leading organizations. It has also shaped my understanding of the role of technology in sustainable development planning. Our current energy system disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, and new energy systems have the potential to perpetuate and/or create inequities. I am broadly interested in how we can put people at the core of our technological solutions and support equitable energy transitions. I specifically work on techno-economic modeling to analyze the potential for an early retirement of India’s large coal fleet and conversion to long-duration thermal energy storage. This could mitigate job losses from rapid transitions, support India’s energy system decarbonization plan, and provide a cost-effective way to retire stranded assets.

    Q: Why is interdisciplinary study important to real-world solutions for global communities, and how has working at the intersection of technology and policy influenced your research?

    A: Technology and policy work together in mediating and regulating the world around us. Technological solutions can be disruptive in all the good ways, but they can also do a lot of harm and perpetuate existing inequities. Interdisciplinary studies are important to mitigate these interrelated issues so innovative ideas in the ivory towers of Western academia do not negatively impact marginalized communities. For real-world solutions to positively impact individuals, marginalized communities need to be centered within the research design process. I think the research community’s perspective on real-world, global solutions is shifting to achieve these goals, but much work remains for resources to reach the right communities.

    The energy space is especially fascinating because it impacts everyone’s quality of life in overt or nuanced ways. I’ve had the privilege of taking classes that sit at the intersection of energy technology and policy, involving land-use law, geographic representation, energy regulation, and technology policy. In general, working at the intersection of technology and policy has shaped my perspective on how regulation influences widespread technology adoption and the overall research directions and assumptions in our energy models.

    Q: How has your experience at COP27 influenced your approach to your research?

    A: Attending COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, last November influenced my understanding of the role of science, research, and activism in climate negotiations and action. Science and research are often promoted as necessary for sharing knowledge at the higher levels, but they were also used as a delay tactic by negotiators. I heard how institutional bodies meant to support fair science and research often did not reach intended stakeholders. Lofty goals or financial commitments to ensure global climate stability and resilience still lacked implementation and coordination with deep technology transfer and support. On the face of it, these agreements have impact and influence, but I heard many frustrations over the lack of tangible, local support. This has driven my research to be as context-specific as possible, to provide actionable insights and leverage different disciplines.

    I also observed the role of activism in the negotiations. Decision-makers are accountable to their country, and activists are spreading awareness and bringing transparency to the COP process. As a U.S. citizen, I suddenly became more aware of how political engagement and awareness in the country could push the boundaries of international climate agreements if the government were more aligned on climate action.

    Rameen Hayat Malik

    Rameen Hayat Malik graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering and a Bachelor of Laws. She is currently pursuing her SM in technology and policy and is a Tata Fellow researching the impacts of electric vehicle (EV) battery production in Indonesia. Originally from Australia, she first became interested in the geopolitical landscape of resources trade and its implications for the clean energy transition while working in her native country’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: I came across the Tata Fellowship while looking for research opportunities that aligned with my interest in understanding how a just energy transition will occur in a global context, with a particular focus on emerging economies. My research explores the techno-economic, social, and environmental impacts of nickel mining in Indonesia as it seeks to establish itself as a major producer of EV batteries. The fellowship’s focus on community-driven research has given me the freedom to guide the scope of my research. It has allowed me to integrate a community voice into my work that seeks to understand the impact of this mining on forest-dependent communities, Indigenous communities, and workforce development.

    Q: Battery technology and production are highly discussed in the energy sector. How does your research on Indonesia’s battery production contribute to the current discussion around batteries, and what drew you to this topic?

    A: Indonesia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, while also having one of the largest nickel reserves in the world — a key mineral for EV battery production. This presents an exciting opportunity for Indonesia to be a leader in the energy transition, as it both seeks to phase out coal production and establish itself as a key supplier of critical minerals. It is also an opportunity to actually apply principles of a just transition to the region, which seeks to repurpose and re-skill existing coal workforces, to bring Indigenous communities into the conversation around the future of their lands, and to explore whether it is actually possible to sustainably and ethically produce nickel for EV battery production.

    I’ve always seen battery technologies and EVs as products that, at least today, are accessible to a small, privileged customer base that can afford such technologies. I’m interested in understanding how we can make such products more widely affordable and provide our lowest-income communities with the opportunities to actively participate in the transition — especially since access to transportation is a key driver of social mobility. With nickel prices impacting EV prices in such a dramatic way, unlocking more nickel supply chains presents an opportunity to make EV batteries more accessible and affordable.

    Q: What advice would you give to new students who want to be a part of real-world solutions to the climate crisis?

    A: Bring your whole self with you when engaging these issues. Quite often we get caught up with the technology or modeling aspect of addressing the climate crisis and forget to bring people and their experiences into our work. Think about your positionality: Who is your community, what are the avenues you have to bring that community along, and what privileges do you hold to empower and amplify voices that need to be heard? Find a piece of this complex puzzle that excites you, and find opportunities to talk and listen to people who are directly impacted by the solutions you are looking to explore. It can get quite overwhelming working in this space, which carries a sense of urgency, politicization, and polarization with it. Stay optimistic, keep advocating, and remember to take care of yourself while doing this important work.

    Ethan Harrison

    After earning his degree in economics and applied science from the College of William and Mary, Ethan Harrison worked at the United Nations Development Program in its Crisis Bureau as a research officer focused on conflict prevention and predictive analysis. He is currently pursuing his SM in technology and policy at MIT. In his Tata Fellowship, he focuses on the impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on global vulnerability and the global energy market.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: Coming to MIT, one of my chief interests was figuring out how we can leverage gains from technology to improve outcomes and build pro-poor solutions in developing and crisis contexts. The Tata Fellowship aligned with many of the conclusions I drew while working in crisis contexts and some of the outstanding questions that I was hoping to answer during my time at MIT, specifically: How can we leverage technology to build sustainable, participatory, and ethically grounded interventions in these contexts?

    My research currently examines the secondary impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on low- and middle-income countries — especially fragile states — with a focus on shocks in the global energy market. This includes the development of a novel framework that systematically identifies factors of vulnerability — such as in energy, food systems, and trade dependence — and quantitatively ranks countries by their level of vulnerability. By identifying the specific mechanisms by which these countries are vulnerable, we can develop a map of global vulnerability and identify key policy solutions that can insulate countries from current and future shocks.

    Q: I understand that your research deals with the relationship between oil and gas price fluctuation and political stability. What has been the most surprising aspect of this relationship, and what are its implications for global decarbonization?

    A: One surprising aspect is the degree to which citizen grievances regarding price fluctuations can quickly expand to broader democratic demands and destabilization. In Sri Lanka last year and in Egypt during the Arab spring, initial protests around fuel prices and power outages eventually led to broader demands and the loss of power by heads of state. Another surprising aspect is the popularity of fuel subsidies despite the fact that they are economically regressive: They often comprise a large proportion of GDP in poor countries, disproportionately benefit higher-income populations, and leave countries vulnerable to fiscal stress during price spikes.

    Regarding implications for global decarbonization, one project we are pursuing examines the implications of directing financing from fuel subsidies toward investments in renewable energy. Countries that rely on fossil fuels for electricity have been hit especially hard 
by price spikes from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, especially since many were carrying costly fuel subsidies to keep the price of fuel and energy artificially low. Much of the international community is advocating for low-income countries to invest in renewables and reduce their fossil fuel burden, but it’s important to explore how global decarbonization can align with efforts to end energy poverty and other Sustainable Development Goals.

    Q: How does your research impact the Tata Center’s goal of transforming policy research into real-world solutions, and why is this important?

    A: The crisis in Ukraine has shifted the international community’s focus away from other countries in crisis, such as Yemen and Lebanon. By developing a global map of vulnerability, we’re building a large evidence base on which countries have been most impacted by this crisis. Most importantly, by identifying individual channels of vulnerability for each country, we can also identify the most effective policy solutions to insulate vulnerable populations from shocks. Whether that’s advocating for short-term social protection programs or identifying more medium-term policy solutions — like fuel banks or investment in renewables — we hope providing a detailed map of sources of vulnerability can help inform the global response to shocks imposed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and post-Covid recovery. More

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    Bringing sustainable and affordable electricity to all

    When MIT electrical engineer Reja Amatya PhD ’12 arrived in Rwanda in 2015, she was whisked off to a village. She saw that diesel generators provided power to the local health center, bank, and shops, but like most of rural Rwanda, Karambi’s 200 homes did not have electricity. Amatya knew the hilly terrain would make it challenging to connect the village to high-voltage lines from the capital, Kigali, 50 kilometers away.

    While many consider electricity a basic human right, there are places where people have never flipped a light switch. Among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is global access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy by 2030. Recently, the U.N. reported that progress in global electrification had slowed due to the challenge of reaching those hardest to reach.

    Researchers from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid created Waya Energy Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup commercializing MIT-developed planning and analysis software, to help governments determine the most cost-effective ways to provide electricity to all their citizens.

    The researchers’ 2015 trip to Rwanda marked the beginning of four years of phone calls, Zoom meetings, and international travel to help the east African country — still reeling from the 1994 genocide that killed more than a million people — develop a national electrification strategy and extend its power infrastructure.

    Amatya, Waya president and one of five Waya co-founders, knew that electrifying Karambi and the rest of the country would provide new opportunities for work, education, and connections — and the ability to charge cellphones, often an expensive and inconvenient undertaking.

    To date, Waya — with funding from the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank for Latin America, and the World Bank — has helped governments develop electrification plans in 22 countries on almost every continent, including in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel and Chad regions, where violence has led to 3 million internally displaced people.

    “With a modeling and visualization tool like ours, we are able to look at the entire spectrum of need and demand and say, ‘OK, what might be the most optimized solution?’” Amatya says.

    More than 15 graduate students and researchers from MIT and Comillas contributed to the development of Waya’s software under the supervision of Robert Stoner, the interim director at MITEI, and Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management from Comillas. Pérez-Arriaga looks at how changing electricity use patterns have forced utilities worldwide to rethink antiquated business models.

    The team’s Reference Electrification Model (REM) software pulls information from population density maps, satellite images, infrastructure data, and geospatial points of interest to determine where extending the grid will be most cost-effective and where other solutions would be more practical.

    “I always say we are agnostic to the technology,” Amatya says. “Traditionally, the only way to provide long-term reliable access was through the grid, but that’s changing. In many developing countries, there are many more challenges for utilities to provide reliable service.”

    Off-grid solutions

    Waya co-founder Stoner, who is also the founding director of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, recognized early on that connecting homes to existing infrastructure was not always economically feasible. What’s more, billions of people with grid connections had unreliable access due to uneven regulation and challenging terrain.

    With Waya co-founders Andres Gonzalez-Garcia, a MITEI affiliate researcher, and Professor Fernando de Cuadra Garcia of Comillas, Pérez-Arriaga and Stoner led a team that developed a set of principles to guide universal regional electrification. Their approach — which they dubbed the Integrated Distribution Framework — incorporates elements of optimal planning as well as novel business models and regulation. Getting all three right is “necessary,” Stoner says, “if you want a viable long-term outcome.”

    Amatya says, “Initially, we designed REM to understand what the level of demand is in these countries with very rural and poor populations, and what the system should look like to serve it. We took a lot of that input into developing the model.” In 2019, Waya was created to commercialize the software and add consulting to the package of services the team provides.

    Now, in addition to advising governments and regulators on how to expand existing grids, Waya proposes options such as a mini-grid, powered by renewables like wind, hydropower, or solar, to serve single villages or large-scale mini-grid solutions for larger areas. In some cases, an even more localized, scalable solution is a mesh grid, which might consist of a single solar panel for a few houses that, over time, can be expanded and ultimately connected to the main grid.

    The REM software has been used to design off-grid systems for remote and mountainous regions in Uganda, Peru, Nigeria, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere. When Tata Power, India’s largest integrated power company, saw how well mini-grids would serve parts of east India, the company created a mini-grid division called Tata Renewables.

    Amatya notes that the REM software enables her to come up with an entire national electrification plan from her workspace in Cambridge. But site visits and on-the-ground partners are critical in helping the Waya team understand existing systems, engage with clients to assess demand, and identify stakeholders. In Haiti, an energy consultant reported that the existing grid had typically been operational only six out of every 24 hours. In Karambi, University of Rwanda students surveyed the village’s 200 families and helped lead a community-wide meeting.

    Waya connects with on-the-ground experts and agencies “who can engage directly with the government and other stakeholders, because many times those are the doors that we knock on,” Amatya says. “Local energy ministries, utilities, and regulators have to be open to regulatory change. They have to be open to working with financial institutions and new technology.”

    The goals of regulators, energy providers, funding agencies, and government officials must align in real time “to provide reliable access to energy for a billion people,” she says.

    Moving past challenges

    Growing up in Kathmandu, Amatya used to travel to remote villages with her father, an electrical engineer who designed cable systems for landlines for Nepal Telecom. She remembers being fascinated by the high-voltage lines crisscrossing Nepal on these trips. Now, she points out utility poles to her children and explains how the distribution lines carry power from local substations to customers.

    After majoring in engineering science and physics at Smith College, Amatya completed her PhD in electrical engineering at MIT in 2012. Within two years, she was traveling to off-grid communities in India as a research scientist exploring potential technologies for providing access. There were unexpected challenges: At the time, digitized geospatial data didn’t exist for many regions. In India in 2013, the team used phones to take pictures of paper maps spread out on tables. Team members now scour digital data available through Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other sources for useful geographical information. 

    It’s one thing to create a plan, Amatya says, but how it gets utilized and implemented becomes a big question. With all the players involved — funding agencies, elected officials, utilities, private companies, and regulators within the countries themselves — it’s sometimes hard to know who’s responsible for next steps.

    “Besides providing technical expertise, our team engages with governments to, let’s say, develop a financial plan or an implementation plan,” she says. Ideally, Waya hopes to stay involved with each project long enough to ensure that its proposal becomes the national electrification strategy of the country. That’s no small feat, given the multiple players, the opaque nature of government, and the need to enact a regulatory framework where none may have existed.

    For Rwanda, Waya identified areas without service, estimated future demand, and proposed the most cost-effective ways to meet that demand with a mix of grid and off-grid solutions. Based on the electrification plan developed by the Waya team, officials have said they hope to have the entire country electrified by 2024.

    In 2017, by the time the team submitted its master plan, which included an off-grid solution for Karambi, Amatya was surprised to learn that electrification in the village had already occurred — an example, she says, of the challenging nature of local planning.

    Perhaps because of Waya’s focus and outreach efforts, Karambi had become a priority. However it happened, Amatya is happy that Karambi’s 200 families finally have access to electricity. More

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    System tracks movement of food through global humanitarian supply chain

    Although more than enough food is produced to feed everyone in the world, as many as 828 million people face hunger today. Poverty, social inequity, climate change, natural disasters, and political conflicts all contribute to inhibiting access to food. For decades, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) has been a leader in global food assistance, supplying millions of metric tons of food to recipients worldwide. Alleviating hunger — and the conflict and instability hunger causes — is critical to U.S. national security.

    But BHA is only one player within a large, complex supply chain in which food gets handed off between more than 100 partner organizations before reaching its final destination. Traditionally, the movement of food through the supply chain has been a black-box operation, with stakeholders largely out of the loop about what happens to the food once it leaves their custody. This lack of direct visibility into operations is due to siloed data repositories, insufficient data sharing among stakeholders, and different data formats that operators must manually sort through and standardize. As a result, accurate, real-time information — such as where food shipments are at any given time, which shipments are affected by delays or food recalls, and when shipments have arrived at their final destination — is lacking. A centralized system capable of tracing food along its entire journey, from manufacture through delivery, would enable a more effective humanitarian response to food-aid needs.

    In 2020, a team from MIT Lincoln Laboratory began engaging with BHA to create an intelligent dashboard for their supply-chain operations. This dashboard brings together the expansive food-aid datasets from BHA’s existing systems into a single platform, with tools for visualizing and analyzing the data. When the team started developing the dashboard, they quickly realized the need for considerably more data than BHA had access to.

    “That’s where traceability comes in, with each handoff partner contributing key pieces of information as food moves through the supply chain,” explains Megan Richardson, a researcher in the laboratory’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group.

    Richardson and the rest of the team have been working with BHA and their partners to scope, build, and implement such an end-to-end traceability system. This system consists of serialized, unique identifiers (IDs) — akin to fingerprints — that are assigned to individual food items at the time they are produced. These individual IDs remain linked to items as they are aggregated along the supply chain, first domestically and then internationally. For example, individually tagged cans of vegetable oil get packaged into cartons; cartons are placed onto pallets and transported via railway and truck to warehouses; pallets are loaded onto shipping containers at U.S. ports; and pallets are unloaded and cartons are unpackaged overseas.

    With a trace

    Today, visibility at the single-item level doesn’t exist. Most suppliers mark pallets with a lot number (a lot is a batch of items produced in the same run), but this is for internal purposes (i.e., to track issues stemming back to their production supply, like over-enriched ingredients or machinery malfunction), not data sharing. So, organizations know which supplier lot a pallet and carton are associated with, but they can’t track the unique history of an individual carton or item within that pallet. As the lots move further downstream toward their final destination, they are often mixed with lots from other productions, and possibly other commodity types altogether, because of space constraints. On the international side, such mixing and the lack of granularity make it difficult to quickly pull commodities out of the supply chain if food safety concerns arise. Current response times can span several months.

    “Commodities are grouped differently at different stages of the supply chain, so it is logical to track them in those groupings where needed,” Richardson says. “Our item-level granularity serves as a form of Rosetta Stone to enable stakeholders to efficiently communicate throughout these stages. We’re trying to enable a way to track not only the movement of commodities, including through their lot information, but also any problems arising independent of lot, like exposure to high humidity levels in a warehouse. Right now, we have no way to associate commodities with histories that may have resulted in an issue.”

    “You can now track your checked luggage across the world and the fish on your dinner plate,” adds Brice MacLaren, also a researcher in the laboratory’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group. “So, this technology isn’t new, but it’s new to BHA as they evolve their methodology for commodity tracing. The traceability system needs to be versatile, working across a wide variety of operators who take custody of the commodity along the supply chain and fitting into their existing best practices.”

    As food products make their way through the supply chain, operators at each receiving point would be able to scan these IDs via a Lincoln Laboratory-developed mobile application (app) to indicate a product’s current location and transaction status — for example, that it is en route on a particular shipping container or stored in a certain warehouse. This information would get uploaded to a secure traceability server. By scanning a product, operators would also see its history up until that point.   

    Hitting the mark

    At the laboratory, the team tested the feasibility of their traceability technology, exploring different ways to mark and scan items. In their testing, they considered barcodes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and handheld and fixed scanners. Their analysis revealed 2D barcodes (specifically data matrices) and smartphone-based scanners were the most feasible options in terms of how the technology works and how it fits into existing operations and infrastructure.

    “We needed to come up with a solution that would be practical and sustainable in the field,” MacLaren says. “While scanners can automatically read any RFID tags in close proximity as someone is walking by, they can’t discriminate exactly where the tags are coming from. RFID is expensive, and it’s hard to read commodities in bulk. On the other hand, a phone can scan a barcode on a particular box and tell you that code goes with that box. The challenge then becomes figuring out how to present the codes for people to easily scan without significantly interrupting their usual processes for handling and moving commodities.” 

    As the team learned from partner representatives in Kenya and Djibouti, offloading at the ports is a chaotic, fast operation. At manual warehouses, porters fling bags over their shoulders or stack cartons atop their heads any which way they can and run them to a drop point; at bagging terminals, commodities come down a conveyor belt and land this way or that way. With this variability comes several questions: How many barcodes do you need on an item? Where should they be placed? What size should they be? What will they cost? The laboratory team is considering these questions, keeping in mind that the answers will vary depending on the type of commodity; vegetable oil cartons will have different specifications than, say, 50-kilogram bags of wheat or peas.

    Leaving a mark

    Leveraging results from their testing and insights from international partners, the team has been running a traceability pilot evaluating how their proposed system meshes with real-world domestic and international operations. The current pilot features a domestic component in Houston, Texas, and an international component in Ethiopia, and focuses on tracking individual cartons of vegetable oil and identifying damaged cans. The Ethiopian team with Catholic Relief Services recently received a container filled with pallets of uniquely barcoded cartons of vegetable oil cans (in the next pilot, the cans will be barcoded, too). They are now scanning items and collecting data on product damage by using smartphones with the laboratory-developed mobile traceability app on which they were trained. 

    “The partners in Ethiopia are comparing a couple lid types to determine whether some are more resilient than others,” Richardson says. “With the app — which is designed to scan commodities, collect transaction data, and keep history — the partners can take pictures of damaged cans and see if a trend with the lid type emerges.”

    Next, the team will run a series of pilots with the World Food Program (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization. The first pilot will focus on data connectivity and interoperability, and the team will engage with suppliers to directly print barcodes on individual commodities instead of applying barcode labels to packaging, as they did in the initial feasibility testing. The WFP will provide input on which of their operations are best suited for testing the traceability system, considering factors like the network bandwidth of WFP staff and local partners, the commodity types being distributed, and the country context for scanning. The BHA will likely also prioritize locations for system testing.

    “Our goal is to provide an infrastructure to enable as close to real-time data exchange as possible between all parties, given intermittent power and connectivity in these environments,” MacLaren says.

    In subsequent pilots, the team will try to integrate their approach with existing systems that partners rely on for tracking procurements, inventory, and movement of commodities under their custody so that this information is automatically pushed to the traceability server. The team also hopes to add a capability for real-time alerting of statuses, like the departure and arrival of commodities at a port or the exposure of unclaimed commodities to the elements. Real-time alerts would enable stakeholders to more efficiently respond to food-safety events. Currently, partners are forced to take a conservative approach, pulling out more commodities from the supply chain than are actually suspect, to reduce risk of harm. Both BHA and WHP are interested in testing out a food-safety event during one of the pilots to see how the traceability system works in enabling rapid communication response.

    To implement this technology at scale will require some standardization for marking different commodity types as well as give and take among the partners on best practices for handling commodities. It will also require an understanding of country regulations and partner interactions with subcontractors, government entities, and other stakeholders.

    “Within several years, I think it’s possible for BHA to use our system to mark and trace all their food procured in the United States and sent internationally,” MacLaren says.

    Once collected, the trove of traceability data could be harnessed for other purposes, among them analyzing historical trends, predicting future demand, and assessing the carbon footprint of commodity transport. In the future, a similar traceability system could scale for nonfood items, including medical supplies distributed to disaster victims, resources like generators and water trucks localized in emergency-response scenarios, and vaccines administered during pandemics. Several groups at the laboratory are also interested in such a system to track items such as tools deployed in space or equipment people carry through different operational environments.

    “When we first started this program, colleagues were asking why the laboratory was involved in simple tasks like making a dashboard, marking items with barcodes, and using hand scanners,” MacLaren says. “Our impact here isn’t about the technology; it’s about providing a strategy for coordinated food-aid response and successfully implementing that strategy. Most importantly, it’s about people getting fed.” More

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    Transatlantic connections make the difference for MIT Portugal

    Successful relationships take time to develop, with both parties investing energy and resources and fostering mutual trust and understanding. The MIT Portugal Program (MPP), a strategic partnership between MIT, Portuguese universities and research institutions, and the Portuguese government, is a case in point.

    Portugal’s inaugural partnership with a U.S. university, MPP was established in 2006 as a collaboration between MIT and the Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, or FCT). Since then, the program has developed research platforms in areas such as bioengineering, sustainable energy, transportation systems, engineering design, and advanced manufacturing. Now halfway through its third phase (MPP2030, begun in 2018), the program owes much of its success to the bonds connecting institutions and people across the Atlantic over the past 17 years.

    “When you look at the successes and the impact, these things don’t happen overnight,” says John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and co-director of MPP, noting, in particular, MPP’s achievements in the areas of energy and ocean research, as well as bioengineering. “This has been a longstanding relationship that we have and want to continue. I think it’s been beneficial to Portugal and to MIT. I think you can argue it has made substantial contributions to the success that Portugal is currently experiencing both in its technical capabilities and also its energy policy.”

    With research often aimed at climate and sustainability solutions, one of MPP’s key strengths is its education of future leaders in science, technology, and entrepreneurship. And the program’s impacts carry forward, as several former MPP students are now on the faculty at participating Portuguese universities.

    “The original intent of working together with Portugal was to try to establish collaboration between universities and to instill some of the MIT culture with the culture in Portugal, and I think that’s been hugely successful,” says Douglas Hart, MPP co-director and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “It has had a lot of impacts in terms of the research, but also the people.”

    One of those people is André Pina, associate director of H2 strategy and origination at the company EDP, who was in residence at MIT in 2014 as part of the MPP Sustainable Energy Systems Doctoral Program. He says the competencies and experiences he acquired have been critical to his professional development in energy system planning, have influenced his approach to problem solving, and have allowed him to bring “holistic thinking” to business endeavors.

    “The MIT Portugal Program has created a collaborative ecosystem between Portuguese universities, companies, and MIT that enabled the training of highly qualified professionals, while contributing to the positioning of Portuguese companies in new cutting-edge fields,” he says.

    Building on MPP’s previous successes, MPP2030 focuses on advancing research in four strategic areas: climate science and climate change; earth systems from oceans to near space; digital transformation in manufacturing; and sustainable cities — all involving data science-intensive approaches and methodologies. Within these broad scientific areas, FCT funding has enabled seven collaborative large-scale “flagship” projects between Portuguese and MIT researchers during the current phase, as well as dozens of smaller projects.

    Flagship projects currently underway include:

    ·   AEROS Constellation

    ·   C-Tech: Climate Driven Technologies for Low Carbon Cities

    ·   K2D: Knowledge and Data from the Deep to Space

    ·   NEWSAT

    ·   Operator: Digital Transformation in Industry with a Focus on the Operator 4.0

    ·   SNOB-5G: Scalable Network Backhauling for 5G

    ·   Transformer 4.0: Digital Revolution of Power Transformers

    Sustainability plays a significant role in MPP — reflective of the value both Portugal and MIT place on environmental, energy, and climate solutions. Projects under the Sustainable Cities strategic area, for example, are “helping cities in Portugal to become more efficient and more sustainable,” Hansman says, noting that MPP’s influence is being felt in cities across the country and it is “having a big impact in terms of local city planning activities.”

    Regarding energy, Hansman points to a previous MPP phase that focused on the Azores as an isolated energy ecosystem and investigated its ability to minimize energy use and become energy independent.

    “That view of system-level energy use helped to stimulate activity on the mainland in Portugal, which has helped Portugal become a leader in various energy sources and made them less vulnerable in the last year or two,” Hansman says.

    In the Oceans to Near Space strategic area, the K2D flagship project also emphasizes research into sustainability solutions, as well as resilience to environmental change. Over the past few years, K2D researchers in Portugal and MIT have worked together to develop components that permit cost-effective gathering of chemical, physical, biological, and environmental data from the ocean depths. One current project investigates the integration of autonomous underwater vehicles with subsea cables to enhance both environmental monitoring and hazard warning systems.

    “The program has been very successful,” Hart says. “They are now deploying a 2-kilometer cable just south of Lisbon, which will be in place in another month or so. Portugal has been hit with tsunamis that caused tremendous devastation, and one of the objectives of these cables is to sense tsunamis. So, it’s an early warning system.”

    As a leader in ocean technology with a long history of maritime discovery, Portugal provides many opportunities for MIT’s ocean researchers. Hart notes that the Portuguese military invites international researchers on board its ships, providing MIT with research opportunities that would be financially difficult otherwise.

    Hansman adds that partnering with researchers in the Azores provides MIT with unique access to facilities and labs in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For example, Hart will be teaching at a marine robotics summer school in the Azores this July.

    Cadence Payne, an MIT PhD candidate, is among those planning to attend. Through MPP’s AEROS project, Payne has helped develop a modular “cubesat” that will orbit over Portugal’s Exclusive Economic Zone collecting images and radio data to help define the ecological health of the country’s coastal waters. The nanosatellite is expected to launch in late 2023 or early 2024, says Payne, adding that it will be Portugal’s first cubesat mission.

    “In monitoring the ocean, you’re monitoring the climate,” Payne says. “If you want to do work on detecting climate change and developing methods of mitigating climate change … it helps to integrate international collaboration,” she says, adding that, for students, “it’s been a really beautiful opportunity for us to see the benefits of collaboration.”

    “I would say one of the main benefits of working with Portugal is that we share many interests in research in the sense that they’re very interested in climate change, sustainability, environmental impacts and those kinds of things,” says Hart. “They have turned out to be a very good strategic partner for MIT, and, hopefully, MIT for them.” More

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    Preparing Colombia’s cities for life amid changing forests

    It was an uncharacteristically sunny morning as Marcela Angel MCP ’18, flanked by a drone pilot from the Boston engineering firm AirWorks and a data collection team from the Colombian regional environmental agency Corpoamazonia, climbed a hill in the Andes Mountains of southwest Colombia. The area’s usual mountain cloud cover — one of the major challenges to working with satellite imagery or flying UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, or drones) in the Pacific highlands of the Amazon — would roll through in the hours to come. But for now, her team had chosen a good day to hike out for their first flight. Angel is used to long travel for her research. Raised in Bogotá, she maintained strong ties to Colombia throughout her master’s program in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). Her graduate thesis, examining Bogotá’s management of its public green space, took her regularly back to her hometown, exploring how the city could offer residents more equal access to the clean air, flood protection and day-to-day health and social benefits provided by parks and trees. But the hill she was hiking this morning, outside the remote city of Mocoa, had taken an especially long time to climb: five years building relationships with the community of Mocoa and the Colombian government, recruiting project partners, and navigating the bureaucracy of bringing UAVs into the country. Now, her team finally unwrapped their first, knee-high drone from its tarp and set it carefully in the grass. Under the gathering gray clouds, the buzz of its rotors joined the hum of insects in the trees, and the machine at last took to the skies.

    From Colombia to Cambridge

    “I actually grew up on the last street before the eastern mountains reserve,” Angel says of her childhood in Bogotá. “I’ve always been at that border between city and nature.” This idea, that urban areas are married to the ecosystems around them, would inform Angel’s whole education and career. Before coming to MIT, she studied architecture at Bogotá’s Los Andes University; for her graduation project she proposed a plan to resettle an informal neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts to minimize environmental risks to its residents. Among her projects at MIT was an initiative to spatially analyze Bogotá’s tree canopy, providing data for the city to plan a tree-planting program as a strategy to give vulnerable populations in the city more access to nature. And she was naturally intrigued when Colombia’s former minister of environment and sustainable development came to MIT in 2017 to give a guest presentation to the DUSP master’s program. The minister, Luis Gilberto Murillo (now the Colombian ambassador to the United States), introduced the students to the challenges triggered by a recent disaster in the city of Mocoa, on the border between the lowland Amazon and the Andes Mountains. Unprecedented rainstorms had destabilized the surrounding forests, and that April a devastating flood and landslide had killed hundreds of people and destroyed entire neighborhoods. And as climate change contributed to growing rainfall in the region, the risks of more landslide events were rising. Murillo provided useful insights into how city planning decisions had contributed to the crisis. But he also asked for MIT’s support addressing future landslide risks in the area. Angel and Juan Camilo Osorio, a PhD candidate at DUSP, decided to take up the challenge, and in January 2018 and 2019, a research delegation from MIT traveled to Colombia for a newly-created graduate course. Returning once again to Bogotá, Angel interviewed government agencies and nonprofits to understand the state of landslide monitoring and public policy. In Mocoa, further interviews and a series of workshops helped clarify what locals needed most and what MIT could provide: better information on where and when landslides might strike, and a process to increase risk awareness and involve traditionally marginalized groups in decision-making processes around that risk. Over the coming year, a core team formed to put the insights from this trip into action, including Angel, Osorio, postdoc Norhan Bayomi of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and MIT Professor John Fernández, director of the ESI and one of Angel’s mentors at DUSP. After a second visit to Mocoa that brought into the fold Indigenous groups, environmental agencies, and the national army, a plan was formed: MIT would partner with Corpoamazonia and build a network of community researchers to deploy and test drone technology and machine learning models to monitor the mountain forests for both landslide risks and signs of forest health, while implementing a participatory planning process with residents. “What our projects aim to do is give the communities new tools to continue protecting and restoring the forest,” says Angel, “and support new and inclusive development models, even in the face of new challenges.”

    Lifelines for the climate

    The goal of tropical forest conservation is an urgent one. As forests are cut down, their trees and soils release carbon they have stored over millennia, adding huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Deforestation, mainly in the tropics, is now estimated to contribute more to climate change than any country besides the United States and China — and once lost, tropical forests are exceptionally hard to restore. “Tropical forests should be a natural way to slow and reverse climate change,” says Angel. “And they can be. But today, we are reaching critical tipping points where it is just the opposite.” This became the motivating force for Angel’s career after her graduation. In 2019, Fernández invited her to join the ESI and lead a new Natural Climate Solutions Program, with the Mocoa project as its first centerpiece. She quickly mobilized the partners to raise funding for the project from the Global Environmental Facility and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean, and recruited additional partners including MIT Lincoln Laboratories, AirWorks, and the Pratt Institute, where Osorio had become an assistant professor. She hired machine learning specialists from MIT to begin design on UAVs’ data processing, and helped assemble a local research network in Mocoa to increase risk awareness, promote community participation, and better understand what information city officials and community groups needed for city planning and conservation. “This is the amazing thing about MIT,” she says. “When you study a problem here, you’re not just playing in a sandbox. Everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by the complexity of the technical challenge and the opportunity for meaningful engagement in Mocoa, and hopefully in many more places besides.” At the same time, Angel created opportunities for the next generation of MIT graduate students to follow in her footsteps. With Fernández and Bayomi, she created a new course, 4.S23 (Biodiversity and Cities), in which students traveled to Colombia to develop urban planning strategies for the cities of Quidbó and Leticia, located in carbon-rich and biodiverse areas. The course has been taught twice, with Professor Gabriella Carolini joining the teaching team for spring 2023, and has already led to a student report to city officials in Quidbó recommending ways to enhance biodiversity and adapt to climate change as the city grows, a multi-stakeholder partnership to train local youth and implement a citizen-led biodiversity survey, and a seed grant from the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium to begin providing both cities detailed data on their tree cover derived from satellite images. “These regions face serious threats, especially on a warming planet, but many of the solutions for climate change, biodiversity conservation, and environmental equity in the region go hand-in-hand,” Angel says. “When you design a city to use fewer resources, to contribute less to climate change, it also causes less pressure on the environment around it. When you design a city for equity and quality of life, you’re giving attention to its green spaces and what they can provide for people and as habitat for other species. When you protect and restore forests, you’re protecting local bioeconomies.”

    Bringing the data home

    Meanwhile, in Mocoa, Angel’s original vision is taking flight. With the team’s test flights behind them, they can now begin creating digital models of the surrounding area. Regular drone flights and soil samples will fill in changing information about trees, water, and local geology, allowing the project’s machine learning specialists to identify warning signs for future landslides and extreme weather events. More importantly, there is now an established network of local community researchers and leaders ready to make use of this information. With feedback from their Mocoan partners, Angel’s team has built a prototype of the online platform they will use to share their UAV data; they’re now letting Mocoa residents take it for a test drive and suggest how it can be made more user-friendly. Her visit this January also paved the way for new projects that will tie the Environmental Solutions Initiative more tightly to Mocoa. With her project partners, Angel is exploring developing a course to teach local students how to use UAVs like the ones her team is flying. She is also considering expanded efforts to collect the kind of informal knowledge of Mocoa, on the local ecology and culture, that people everywhere use in making their city planning and emergency response decisions, but that is rarely codified and included in scientific risk analyses. It’s a great deal of work to offer this one community the tools to adapt successfully to climate change. But even with all the robotics and machine learning models in the world, this close, slow-unfolding engagement, grounded in trust and community inclusion, is what it takes to truly prepare people to confront profound changes in their city and environment. “Protecting natural carbon sinks is a global socio-environmental challenge, and one where it is not enough for MIT to just contribute to the knowledge base or develop a new technology,” says Angel. “But we can help mobilize decision-makers and nontraditional actors, and design more inclusive and technology-enhanced processes, to make this easier for the people who have lifelong stakes in these ecosystems. That is the vision.” More

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    Powering the future in Mongolia

    Nestled within the Tuul River valley and embraced by the southern Khentii Mountain Range, Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia’s largest city, presents itself as an arena where nature’s forces wage an unrelenting battle against human resilience. The capital city is an icy crucible, with bone-chilling winters that plummet temperatures to an astonishing -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius). Mongolia, often hailed with the celestial moniker of “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” paradoxically succumbs to a veil of pollution and energy struggles during the winter months, obscuring the true shade of the cherished vista.

    To understand the root of these issues, MIT students from classes 22.S094 (Climate and Sustainability Systems: Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar at Scale) and 21A.S01 (Anthro-Engineering: Decarbonization at the Million-Person Scale) visited Mongolia to conduct on-site surveys, diving into the diverse tapestry of local life as they gleaned insight from various stakeholder groups. Setting foot on Mongolian soil on a crisp day in January, they wasted no time in shaking off the weariness of their arduous 17-hour flight, promptly embarking on a waiting bus. As they traversed the vast expanse of the countryside, their eyes were captivated by snow-laden terrain.

    That is, until a disconcerting sight unfolded — thick smog, akin to ethereal pillars, permeated the cityscape ahead. These imposing plumes emanated from the colossal smokestacks of Ulaanbaatar’s coal-fired power plants, steadfastly churning electricity and heat to fuel Mongolia’s central and district energy systems. Over 93 percent of the nation’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants, where the most considerable load is caused by household consumption. Nevertheless, with nearly half of Ulaanbaatar’s population disconnected from the central heating networks, one of Mongolia’s most significant sources of pollution comes from coal-burning stoves in the residential settlements known as the ger districts. Over the past three decades, since the democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolians have grappled with escalating concerns surrounding energy provision, accessibility, and sustainability.

    Engineers who think like anthropologists

    “We find ourselves compelled to venture on-site, engaging in direct conversations with the locals, and immersing ourselves in the fabric of daily life to uncover what we don’t know,” emphasized Michael Short, professor in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and faculty lead of MIT’s NEET Climate and Sustainability Systems thread, shortly before heading to Mongolia.

    The Ulaanbaatar Project sprang from a multiyear collaboration between MIT and the National University of Mongolia (NUM). Shedding light on the matter, Professor Munkhbat Byambajav of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at NUM underscored the paramount importance of mitigating environmental pollution at an economic scale to alleviate the heavy burden borne by the people.

    Class 22.S094 is offered through MIT’s New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program, which allows students with multidisciplinary interests to collaborate across departments within four different subject areas, or threads. In this capstone project, students consider ways to decarbonize a city like Ulaanbaatar, transitioning from burning coal briquettes to a more sustainable, energy-efficient solution, given several parameters and constraints set by the local context.

    One of the ideas students have recently explored is a thermal battery made with molten salt that can store enough energy to heat a ger for up to 12 hours with added insulation for cooling curve regulation. The Mongolian ger, meaning home, is a dome-like portable dwelling covered in felt and canvas, held together by ropes traditionally crafted of animal hair or wool. Over several semesters, students have been testing a version of their proposed idea on campus, working with a prototype that weighs around 35 pounds.

    Nathan Melenbrink, the lead instructor of NEET’s Climate and Sustainability Systems (CSS) thread, believes that the complexity of the Ulaanbaatar capstone project allows students to reject the one-way solution approach and instead consider challenges with a nonprescriptive mindset. The uniqueness of the CSS thread is that students are asked to build on the previous findings from the past cohort and iterate on their designs each year. This workflow has allowed the project to mature and advance in ways that may not be feasible within a semester schedule. When asked how the recent trip impacted the ongoing research back on campus, Melenbrink states, “In light of the recent trip to Mongolia, students are beginning to see the impact of cultural immersion and social awareness leveraging the technical scope and rigor of their work.”

    Course 21A.S01, taught by Professor Manduhai Buyandelger of the MIT Anthropology Section, proved instrumental in deepening students’ understanding of the intricate dynamics at play. She asks, “The prototype works in the lab, but does it work in real life once you factor in the challenges in the larger structures of delivery, production, and implementation in Mongolia?”

    This recognition of the social dimensions of engineering permeated the early stages of the UB project, engaging all participants, including students from MIT and NUM, professionals residing in Mongolia, and local nongovernmental organizations, fostering what Buyandelger aptly describes as “a collaboration on multiple scales: trans-disciplinary and transcontinental.” Lauren Bonilla, co-lecturer for the anthropology course, was crucial in devising the first onsite trip to Mongolia. Drawing upon her extensive ethnographic research in Mongolia that spans decades, Bonilla remarks, “To me, engineering is a highly social discipline.” She further stresses how anthro-engineering elevates the social dimensions of engineering by critically questioning the framing of problems and solutions, stating, “It draws on anthropological insights and methods, like ethnography, to bring a human face to the users of a technology and adds complexity and nuance to the social constraints that limit designs.”

    Making of khorkhog

    Amidst the frigid atmosphere, a traditional Mongolian ger stands in front of the Nuclear Science Laboratory at the National University of Mongolia, emitting warm steam from its roof. The faculty and students of NUM organize a welcoming event inside the ger, inviting everyone to partake in a khorkhog cookout. Earlier that week, a remark from the Mongolian energy representative stood out during one of the presentations: “We need powerful heat. Solar is not enough, and electricity is not enough. Mongolians need fire,” he had emphasized.

    Indeed, the culinary delight known as khorkhog demands the relentless embrace of scorching flames. The process involves a large metal jug, stones, fire, and lamb. With skillful precision, the volunteer chef places the fire-heated stones and large pieces of lamb into the cooking container, triggering a cascade of steam that fills the ger, accompanied by the sounds of sizzling and hissing. Everyone waits patiently as the cook carefully inspects the dish, keenly listening for signs of readiness. And when the time comes, a feast is shared among all, complemented by steam-cooked potatoes, freshly sliced onions, and vegetables. In this moment, the presence of fire symbolizes a profound connection with the heart of Mongolian culture, evoking a deep resonance among the gathered crowd as they partake in this cherished staple meal.

    The distance between two points

    Familiar faces form a grid on the computer screen as the standing meeting between the students in Massachusetts and Ulaanbaatar begins. Sharing the morning (evening in Mongolia) for updates has been a critical effort by both sides to stay engaged and make decisions together. NEET CSS students in Cambridge proceeded to share their latest findings.

    Lucy Nester, a nuclear science and engineering major, has been diligently working on developing a high-efficiency electrical heating solution for individual consumers. Her primary focus is leveraging the discounted electricity rates available in the ger districts and utilize existing infrastructure. Recognizing the importance of maximum flexibility in heating the brick, Nester emphasizes the “no one-size-fits-all” solution. She shares the results of her test trials, which involve both inductive and resistive heating methods, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Despite her limited experience in electrical engineering and circuit building, Nester has impressively overcome the steep learning curve. She enthusiastically describes her UB trip as “one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had during my time at MIT.”

    Darshdeep Grewal, a dedicated materials science and engineering major with a strong passion for data science and computation, has been diligently conducting research on convection heating using COMSOL Multiphysics. In his investigation, Grewal explores the correlation between air temperature and heating, investigates the impact of convecting air arrangement on the heating process, and examines the conditions that may contribute to overheating. Leveraging his expertise in computational workflows, Grewal presents an impressive collection of heatmap simulations derived from the extensive data accumulated by his team throughout the project. Recognizing the immense value of these simulations in modeling complex scenarios, he highlights the importance of running experiments concurrently with simulations to ensure accurate calibration of results, stating, “It’s important to stay rooted in reality.”

    Arina Khotimsky, another materials science and engineering major, has actively engaged in NEET’s Climate and Sustainability Systems thread since her sophomore year. Balancing the demands of her final semester at MIT and the upcoming review of 22.S094, Khotimsky reveals how she has seamlessly integrated her project involvement into her energy studies minor. Reflecting on her journey, she remarks, “Working on the Ulaanbaatar project has taught me the significance of taking local context into account while suggesting solutions as an engineer.” Khotimsky has been tirelessly iterating and refining the insulation box prototype, which holds the thermal battery and controls the rate at which the battery releases heat. In addition, the on-site observations have unveiled another design challenge — ensuring the insulation box functions as a secure and dependable means of transportation. 

    To “engineer” means to contrive through one’s deliberate use of skills. What confronted the UB Project team on site was not the limitations of skill or technology, but the real-world constraints often amiss in the early equation: the people and their everyday lives. With over 6,195 miles of distance between the two groups, it takes more than just dedication to make a collaboration blossom. That may be the desire for a positive impact. Moreover, it may be the goal of cultivating a healthier relationship with energy that spans a million-person scale. No matter where you are, there is no one solution to the complex story of energy. This progressive realization brings the two teams together every two weeks in virtual space, bridging the distance between the two points.  More