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    Understanding the impacts of mining on local environments and communities

    Hydrosocial displacement refers to the idea that resolving water conflict in one area can shift the conflict to a different area. The concept was coined by Scott Odell, a visiting researcher in MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). As part of ESI’s Program on Mining and the Circular Economy, Odell researches the impacts of extractive industries on local environments and communities, especially in Latin America. He discovered that hydrosocial displacements are often in regions where the mining industry is vying for use of precious water sources that are already stressed due to climate change.

    Odell is working with John Fernández, ESI director and professor in the Department of Architecture, on a project that is examining the converging impacts of climate change, mining, and agriculture in Chile. The work is funded by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). Specifically, the project seeks to answer how the expansion of seawater desalination by the mining industry is affecting local populations, and how climate change and mining affect Andean glaciers and the agricultural communities dependent upon them.By working with communities in mining areas, Odell and Fernández are gaining a sense of the burden that mining minerals needed for the clean energy transition is placing on local populations, and the types of conflicts that arise when water sources become polluted or scarce. This work is of particular importance considering over 100 countries pledged a commitment to the clean energy transition at the recent United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28.

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    J-WAFS Community Spotlight on Scott Odell

    Water, humanity’s lifebloodAt the March 2023 United Nations (U.N.) Water Conference in New York, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned “water is in deep trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating.” A quarter of the world’s population already faces “extremely high water stress,” according to the World Resources Institute. In an effort to raise awareness of major water-related issues and inspire action for innovative solutions, the U.N. created World Water Day, observed every year on March 22. This year’s theme is “Water for Peace,” underscoring the fact that even though water is a basic human right and intrinsic to every aspect of life, it is increasingly fought over as supplies dwindle due to problems including drought, overuse, or mismanagement.  

    The “Water for Peace” theme is exemplified in Fernández and Odell’s J-WAFS project, where findings are intended to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms inflicted on mining communities and their limited water sources.“Despite broad academic engagement with mining and climate change separately, there has been a lack of analysis of the societal implications of the interactions between mining and climate change,” says Odell. “This project is helping to fill the knowledge gap. Results will be summarized in Spanish and English and distributed to interested and relevant parties in Chile, ensuring that the results can be of benefit to those most impacted by these challenges,” he adds.

    The effects of mining for the clean energy transition

    Global climate change is understood to be the most pressing environmental issue facing humanity today. Mitigating climate change requires reducing carbon emissions by transitioning away from conventional energy derived from burning fossil fuels, to more sustainable energy sources like solar and wind power. Because copper is an excellent conductor of electricity, it will be a crucial element in the clean energy transition, in which more solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles will be manufactured. “We are going to see a major increase in demand for copper due to the clean energy transition,” says Odell.

    In 2021, Chile produced 26 percent of the world’s copper, more than twice as much as any other country, Odell explains. Much of Chile’s mining is concentrated in and around the Atacama Desert — the world’s driest desert. Unfortunately, mining requires large amounts of water for a variety of processes, including controlling dust at the extraction site, cooling machinery, and processing and transporting ore.

    Chile is also one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products. Farmland is typically situated in the valleys downstream of several mines in the high Andes region, meaning mines get first access to water. This can lead to water conflict between mining operations and agricultural communities. Compounding the problem of mining for greener energy materials to combat climate change, are the very effects of climate change. According to the Chilean government, the country has suffered 13 years of the worst drought in history. While this is detrimental to the mining industry, it is also concerning for those working in agriculture, including the Indigenous Atacameño communities that live closest to the Escondida mine, the largest copper mine in the world. “There was never a lot of water to go around, even before the mine,” Odell says. The addition of Escondida stresses an already strained water system, leaving Atacameño farmers and individuals vulnerable to severe water insecurity.

    What’s more, waste from mining, known as tailings, includes minerals and chemicals that can contaminate water in nearby communities if not properly handled and stored. Odell says the secure storage of tailings is a high priority in earthquake-prone Chile. “If an earthquake were to hit and damage a tailings dam, it could mean toxic materials flowing downstream and destroying farms and communities,” he says.

    Chile’s treasured glaciers are another piece of the mining, climate change, and agricultural puzzle. Caroline White-Nockleby, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, is working with Odell and Fernández on the J-WAFS project and leading the research specifically on glaciers. “These may not be the picturesque bright blue glaciers that you might think of, but they are, nonetheless, an important source of water downstream,” says White-Nockleby. She goes on to explain that there are a few different ways that mines can impact glaciers.

    In some cases, mining companies have proposed to move or even destroy glaciers to get at the ore beneath. Other impacts include dust from mining that falls on glaciers. White-Nockleby says, “this makes the glaciers a darker color, so, instead of reflecting the sun’s rays away, [the glacier] may absorb the heat and melt faster.” This shows that even when not directly intervening with glaciers, mining activities can cause glacial decline, adding to the threat glaciers already face due to climate change. She also notes that “glaciers are an important water storage facility,” describing how, on an annual cycle, glaciers freeze and melt, allowing runoff that downstream agricultural communities can utilize. If glaciers suddenly melt too quickly, flooding of downstream communities can occur.

    Desalination offers a possible, but imperfect, solution

    Chile’s extensive coastline makes it uniquely positioned to utilize desalination — the removal of salts from seawater — to address water insecurity. Odell says that “over the last decade or so, there’s been billions of dollars of investments in desalination in Chile.”

    As part of his dissertation work at Clark University, Odell found broad optimism in Chile for solving water issues in the mining industry through desalination. Not only was the mining industry committed to building desalination plants, there was also political support, and support from some community members in highland communities near the mines. Yet, despite the optimism and investment, desalinated water was not replacing the use of continental water. He concluded that “desalination can’t solve water conflict if it doesn’t reduce demand for continental water supplies.”

    However, after publishing those results, Odell learned that new estimates at the national level showed that desalination operations had begun to replace the use of continental water after 2018. In two case studies that he currently focuses on — the Escondida and Los Pelambres copper mines — the mining companies have expanded their desalination objectives in order to reduce extraction from key continental sources. This seems to be due to a variety of factors. For one thing, in 2022, Chile’s water code was reformed to prioritize human water consumption and environmental protection of water during scarcity and in the allocation of future rights. It also shortened the granting of water rights from “in perpetuity” to 30 years. Under this new code, it is possible that the mining industry may have expanded its desalination efforts because it viewed continental water resources as less secure, Odell surmises.

    As part of the J-WAFS project, Odell has found that recent reactions have been mixed when it comes to the rapid increase in the use of desalination. He spent over two months doing fieldwork in Chile by conducting interviews with members of government, industry, and civil society at the Escondida, Los Pelambres, and Andina mining sites, as well as in Chile’s capital city, Santiago. He has spoken to local and national government officials, leaders of fishing unions, representatives of mining and desalination companies, and farmers. He observed that in the communities where the new desalination plants are being built, there have been concerns from community members as to whether they will get access to the desalinated water, or if it will belong solely to the mines.

    Interviews at the Escondida and Los Pelambres sites, in which desalination operations are already in place or under construction, indicate acceptance of the presence of desalination plants combined with apprehension about unknown long-term environmental impacts. At a third mining site, Andina, there have been active protests against a desalination project that would supply water to a neighboring mine, Los Bronces. In that community, there has been a blockade of the desalination operation by the fishing federation. “They were blockading that operation for three months because of concerns over what the desalination plant would do to their fishing grounds,” Odell says. And this is where the idea of hydrosocial displacement comes into the picture, he explains. Even though desalination operations are easing tensions with highland agricultural communities, new issues are arising for the communities on the coast. “We can’t just look to desalination to solve our problems if it’s going to create problems somewhere else” Odell advises.

    Within the process of hydrosocial displacement, interacting geographical, technical, economic, and political factors constrain the range of responses to address the water conflict. For example, communities that have more political and financial power tend to be better equipped to solve water conflict than less powerful communities. In addition, hydrosocial concerns usually follow the flow of water downstream, from the highlands to coastal regions. Odell says that this raises the need to look at water from a broader perspective.

    “We tend to address water concerns one by one and that can, in practice, end up being kind of like whack-a-mole,” says Odell. “When we think of the broader hydrological system, water is very much linked, and we need to look across the watershed. We can’t just be looking at the specific community affected now, but who else is affected downstream, and will be affected in the long term. If we do solve a water issue by moving it somewhere else, like moving a tailings dam somewhere else, or building a desalination plant, resources are needed in the receiving community to respond to that,” suggests Odell.

    The company building the desalination plant and the fishing federation ultimately reached an agreement and the desalination operation will be moving forward. But Odell notes, “the protest highlights concern about the impacts of the operation on local livelihoods and environments within the much larger context of industrial pollution in the area.”

    The power of communities

    The protest by the fishing federation is one example of communities coming together to have their voices heard. Recent proposals by mining companies that would affect glaciers and other water sources used by agriculture communities have led to other protests that resulted in new agreements to protect local water supplies and the withdrawal of some of the mining proposals.Odell observes that communities have also gone to the courts to raise their concerns. The Atacameño communities, for example, have drawn attention to over-extraction of water resources by the Escondida mine. “Community members are also pursuing education in these topics so that there’s not such a power imbalance between mining companies and local communities,” Odell remarks. This demonstrates the power local communities can have to protect continental water resources.The political and social landscape of Chile may also be changing in favor of local communities. Beginning with what is now referred to as the Estallido Social (social outburst) over inequality in 2019, Chile has undergone social upheaval that resulted in voters calling for a new constitution. Gabriel Boric, a progressive candidate, whose top priorities include social and environmental issues, was elected president during this period. These trends have brought major attention to issues of economic inequality, environmental harms of mining, and environmental justice, which is putting pressure on the mining industry to make a case for its operations in the country, and to justify the environmental costs of mining.

    What happens after the mine dries up?

    From his fieldwork interviews, Odell has learned that the development of mines within communities can offer benefits. Mining companies typically invest directly in communities through employment, road construction, and sometimes even by building or investing in schools, stadiums, or health clinics. Indirectly, mines can have spillover effects in the economy since miners might support local restaurants, hotels, or stores. But what happens when the mine closes? As one community member Odell interviewed stated: “When the mine is gone, what are we going to have left besides a big hole in the ground?”

    Odell suggests that a multi-pronged approach should be taken to address the future state of water and mining. First, he says we need to have broader conversations about the nature of our consumption and production at domestic and global scales. “Mining is driven indirectly by our consumption of energy and directly by our consumption of everything from our buildings to devices to cars,” Odell states. “We should be looking for ways to moderate our consumption and consume smarter through both policy and practice so that we don’t solve climate change while creating new environmental harms through mining.”One of the main ways we can do this is by advancing the circular economy by recycling metals already in the system, or even in landfills, to help build our new clean energy infrastructure. Even so, the clean energy transition will still require mining, but according to Odell, that mining can be done better. “Mining companies and government need to do a better job of consulting with communities. We need solid plans and financing for mine closures in place from the beginning of mining operations, so that when the mine dries up, there’s the money needed to secure tailings dams and protect the communities who will be there forever,” Odell concludes.Overall, it will take an engaged society — from the mining industry to government officials to individuals — to think critically about the role we each play in our quest for a more sustainable planet, and what that might mean for the most vulnerable populations among us. More

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    At Sustainability Connect 2024, a look at how MIT is decarbonizing its campus

    How is MIT working to meet its goal of decarbonizing the campus by 2050? How are local journalists communicating climate impacts and solutions to diverse audiences? What can each of us do to bring our unique skills and insight to tackle the challenges of climate and sustainability?

    These are all questions asked — and answered — at Sustainability Connect, the yearly forum hosted by the MIT Office of Sustainability that offers an inside look at this transformative and comprehensive work that is the foundation for MIT’s climate and sustainability leadership on campus. The event invites individuals in every role at MIT to learn more about the sustainability and climate work happening on campus and to share their ideas, highlight important work, and find new ways to plug into ongoing efforts. “This event is a reminder of the remarkable, diverse, and committed group of colleagues we are all part of at MIT,” said Director of Sustainability Julie Newman as the event kicked off alongside Interfaith Chaplain and Spiritual Advisor to the Indigenous Community Nina Lytton, who offered a moment of connection to attendees. At the event, that diverse and committed group was made up of more than 130 community members representing more than 70 departments, labs, and centers.

    This year, Sustainability Connect was timed with announcement of the new Climate Project at MIT, with Vice Provost Richard Lester joining the event to expound on MIT’s deep commitment to tackling the climate challenge over the next 10 years through a series of climate missions — many of which build upon the ongoing research taking place across campus already. In introducing the Climate Project at MIT, Lester echoed the theme of connection and collaboration. “This plan is about helping bridge the gap between what we would accomplish as a collection of energetic, talented, ambitious individuals, and what we’re capable of if we act together,” he said.

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    Sustainability Connect 2024: Decarbonizing the Campus Video: MIT Office of Sustainability

    Highlighting one of the many collaborative efforts to address MIT’s contributions to climate change was the Decarbonizing the Campus panel, which provided a real-time look at MIT’s work to eliminate carbon emissions from campus by 2050. Newman and Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins, along with Senior Campus Planner Vasso Mathes, Senior Sustainability Project Manager Steve Lanou, and PhD student Chenhan Shao, shared the many ways MIT is working to decarbonize its campus now and respond to evolving technologies and policies in the future. “A third of MIT’s faculty and researchers … are working to identify ways in which MIT can amplify its contributions to addressing the world’s climate crisis. But part and parcel to that goal is we’re putting significant effort into decarbonizing MIT’S own carbon footprint here on our campus,” Higgins said before highlighting how MIT continues to work on projects focused on building efficiency, renewable energy on campus and off, and support of a cleaner grid, among many decarbonization strategies.

    Newman shared the way in which climate education and research play an important role through the Decarbonization Working Group research streams, and courses like class 4.s42 (Carbon Reduction Pathways for the MIT Campus) offered by Professor Christoph Reinhart. Lanou and Shao also showcased how MIT is optimizing its response to Cambridge’s Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance, which is aimed at tracking and reducing emissions from large commercial properties in the city with a goal of net-zero buildings by 2035. “We’ve been able [create] pathways that would be practical, innovative, have a high degree of accountability, and that could work well within the structures and the limitations that we have,” Lanou said before debuting a dashboard he and Shao developed during Independent Activities Period to track and forecast work to meet the Cambridge goal. 

    MIT’s robust commitment to decarbonize its campus goes beyond energy systems, as highlighted by the work of many staff members who led roundtables as part of Sustainability in Motion, where attendees were invited to sit down with colleagues from across campus responsible for implementing the numerous climate and sustainability commitments. Teams reported out on progress to date on a range of efforts including sustainable food systems, safe and sustainable labs, and procurement. “Tackling the unprecedented challenges of a changing planet in and around MIT takes the support of individuals and teams from all corners of the Institute,” said Assistant Director of Sustainability Brian Goldberg in leading the session. “Whether folks have sustainability or climate in their job title, or they’ve contributed countless volunteer hours to the cause, our community members are leading many meaningful efforts to transform MIT.”

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    Sustainability Connect 2024: Climate in the Media PanelVideo: Office of Sustainability

    The day culminated with a panel on climate in the media, taking the excitement from the room and putting it in context — how do you translate this work, these solutions, and these challenges for a diverse audience with an ever-changing appetite for these kinds of stories? Laur Hesse Fisher, program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiate (ESI); Barbara Moran, climate and environment reporter at WBUR radio; and independent climate journalist Annie Ropeik joined the panel moderated by Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT Director Deborah Blum. Blum spoke of the current mistrust of not only the media but of news stories of climate impacts and even solutions. “To those of us telling the story of climate change, how do we reach resistant audiences? How do we gain their trust?” she asked.

    Fisher, who hosts the TIL Climate podcast and leads the ESI Journalism Fellowship, explained how she shifts her approach depending on her audience. “[With TIL Climate], a lot of what we do is, we try to understand what kinds of questions people have,” she said. “We have people submit questions to us, and then we answer them in language that they can understand.”

    For Moran, reaching audiences relies on finding the right topic to bridge to deeper issues. On a recent story about solar arrays and their impact on forests and the landscape around them, Moran saw bees and pollinators as the way in. “I can talk about bees and flowers. And that will hook people enough to get in. And then through that, we can address this issue of forest versus commercial solar and this tension, and what can be done to address that, and what’s working and what’s not,” she said.

    The panel highlighted that even as climate solutions and challenges become clearer, communicating them can remain a challenge. “Sustainability Connect is invaluable when it comes to sharing our work and bringing more people in, but over the years, it’s become clear how many people are still outside of these conversations,” said Newman. “Capping the day off with this conversation on climate in the media served as a jumping-off point for all of us to think how we can better communicate our efforts and tackle the challenges that keep us from bringing everyone to the table to help us find and share solutions for addressing climate change. It’s just the beginning of this conversation.” More

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    Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla named 2024 Gates Cambridge Scholars

    This article was updated on April 23 to reflect the promotion of Gosha Geogdzhayev from alternate to winner of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

    MIT seniors Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla have won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which offers students an opportunity to pursue graduate study in the field of their choice at Cambridge University in the U.K.

    Established in 2000, Gates Cambridge offers full-cost post-graduate scholarships to outstanding applicants from countries outside of the U.K. The mission of Gates Cambridge is to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

    Gosha Geogdzhayev

    Originally from New York City, Geogdzhayev is a senior majoring in physics with minors in mathematics and computer science. At Cambridge, Geogdzhayev intends to pursue an MPhil in quantitative climate and environmental science. He is interested in applying these subjects to climate science and intends to spend his career developing novel statistical methods for climate prediction.

    At MIT, Geogdzhayev researches climate emulators with Professor Raffaele Ferrari’s group in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and is part of the “Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge” Grand Challenges project. He is currently working on an operator-based emulator for the projection of climate extremes. Previously, Geogdzhayev studied the statistics of changing chaotic systems, work that has recently been published as a first-author paper.

    As a recipient of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Hollings Scholarship, Geogdzhayev has worked on bias correction methods for climate data at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. He is the recipient of several other awards in the field of earth and atmospheric sciences, notably the American Meteorological Society Ward and Eileen Seguin Scholarship.

    Outside of research, Geogdzhayev enjoys writing poetry and is actively involved with his living community, Burton 1, for which he has previously served as floor chair.

    Sadhana Lolla

    Lolla, a senior from Clarksburg, Maryland, is majoring in computer science and minoring in mathematics and literature. At Cambridge, she will pursue an MPhil in technology policy.

    In the future, Lolla aims to lead conversations on deploying and developing technology for marginalized communities, such as the rural Indian village that her family calls home, while also conducting research in embodied intelligence.

    At MIT, Lolla conducts research on safe and trustworthy robotics and deep learning at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory with Professor Daniela Rus. Her research has spanned debiasing strategies for autonomous vehicles and accelerating robotic design processes. At Microsoft Research and Themis AI, she works on creating uncertainty-aware frameworks for deep learning, which has impacts across computational biology, language modeling, and robotics. She has presented her work at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) conference and the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). 

    Outside of research, Lolla leads initiatives to make computer science education more accessible globally. She is an instructor for class 6.s191 (MIT Introduction to Deep Learning), one of the largest AI courses in the world, which reaches millions of students annually. She serves as the curriculum lead for Momentum AI, the only U.S. program that teaches AI to underserved students for free, and she has taught hundreds of students in Northern Scotland as part of the MIT Global Teaching Labs program.

    Lolla was also the director for xFair, MIT’s largest student-run career fair, and is an executive board member for Next Sing, where she works to make a cappella more accessible for students across musical backgrounds. In her free time, she enjoys singing, solving crossword puzzles, and baking. More

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    Anushree Chaudhuri: Involving local communities in renewable energy planning

    Anushree Chaudhuri has a history of making bold decisions. In fifth grade, she biked across her home state of California with little prior experience. In her first year at MIT, she advocated for student recommendations in the preparation of the Institute’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade. And recently, she led a field research project throughout California to document the perspectives of rural and Indigenous populations affected by climate change and clean energy projects.

    “It doesn’t matter who you are or how young you are, you can get involved with something and inspire others to do so,” the senior says.

    Initially a materials science and engineering major, Chaudhuri was quickly drawn to environmental policy issues and later decided to double-major in urban studies and planning and in economics. Chaudhuri will receive her bachelor’s degrees this month, followed by a master’s degree in city planning in the spring.

    The importance of community engagement in policymaking has become one of Chaudhuri’s core interests. A 2024 Marshall Scholar, she is headed to the U.K. next year to pursue a PhD related to environment and development. She hopes to build on her work in California and continue to bring attention to impacts that energy transitions can have on local communities, which tend to be rural and low-income. Addressing resistance to these projects can be challenging, but “ignoring it leaves these communities in the dust and widens the urban-rural divide,” she says.

    Silliness and sustainability 

    Chaudhuri classifies her many activities into two groups: those that help her unwind, like her living community, Conner Two, and those that require intensive deliberation, like her sustainability-related organizing.

    Conner Two, in the Burton-Conner residence hall, is where Chaudhuri feels most at home on campus. She describes the group’s activities as “silly” and emphasizes their love of jokes, even in the floor’s nickname, “the British Floor,” which is intentionally absurd, as the residents are rarely British.

    Chaudhuri’s first involvement with sustainability issues on campus was during the preparation of MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan in the 2020-2021 academic year. As a co-lead of one of several student working groups, she helped organize key discussions between the administration, climate experts, and student government to push for six main goals in the plan, including an ethical investing framework. Being involved with a significant student movement so early on in her undergraduate career was a learning opportunity for Chaudhuri and impressed upon her that young people can play critical roles in making far-reaching structural changes.

    The experience also made her realize how many organizations on campus shared similar goals even if their perspectives varied, and she saw the potential for more synergy among them.

    Chaudhuri went on to co-lead the Student Sustainability Coalition to help build community across the sustainability-related organizations on campus and create a centralized system that would make it easier for outsiders and group members to access information and work together. Through the coalition, students have collaborated on efforts including campus events, and off-campus matters such as the Cambridge Green New Deal hearings.

    Another benefit to such a network: It creates a support system that recognizes even small-scale victories. “Community is so important to avoid burnout when you’re working on something that can be very frustrating and an uphill battle like negotiating with leadership or seeking policy changes,” Chaudhuri says.

    Fieldwork

    For the past year, Chaudhuri has been doing independent research in California with the support of several advisory organizations to host conversations with groups affected by renewable energy projects, which, as she has documented, are often concentrated in rural, low-income, and Indigenous communities. The introduction of renewable energy facilities, such as wind and solar farms, can perpetuate existing inequities if they ignore serious community concerns, Chaudhuri says.

    As state or federal policymakers and private developers carry out the permitting process for these projects, “they can repeat histories of extraction, sometimes infringing on the rights of a local or Tribal government to decide what happens with their land,” she says.

    In her site visits, she is documenting community opposition to controversial solar and wind proposals and collecting oral histories. Doing fieldwork for the first time as an outsider was difficult for Chaudhuri, as she dealt with distrust, unpredictability, and needing to be completely flexible for her sources. “A lot of it was just being willing to drop everything and go and be a little bit adventurous and take some risks,” she says.

    Role models and reading

    Chaudhuri is quick to credit many of the role models and other formative influences in her life.

    After working on the Climate Action Plan, Chaudhuri attended a public narrative workshop at Harvard University led by Marshall Ganz, a grassroots community organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez and on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. “That was a big inspiration and kind of shaped how I viewed leadership in, for example, campus advocacy, but also in other projects and internships.”

    Reading has also influenced Chaudhuri’s perspective on community organizing, “After the Climate Action Plan campaign, I realized that a lot of what made the campaign successful or not could track well with organizing and social change theories, and histories of social movements. So, that was a good experience for me, being able to critically reflect on it and tie it into these other things I was learning about.”

    Since beginning her studies at MIT, Chaudhuri has become especially interested in social theory and political philosophy, starting with ancient forms of Western and Eastern ethic, and up to 20th and 21st century philosophers who inspire her. Chaudhuri cites Amartya Sen and Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò as particularly influential. “I think [they’ve] provided a really compelling framework to guide a lot of my own values,” she says.

    Another role model is Brenda Mallory, the current chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, who Chaudhuri was grateful to meet at the United Nations COP27 Climate Conference. As an intern at the U.S. Department of Energy, Chaudhuri worked within a team on implementing the federal administration’s Justice40 initiative, which commits 40 percent of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities. This initiative was largely directed by Mallory, and Chaudhuri admires how Mallory was able to make an impact at different levels of government through her leadership. Chaudhuri hopes to follow in Mallory’s footsteps someday, as a public official committed to just policies and programs.

     “Good leaders are those who empower good leadership in others,” Chaudhuri says. More

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    3 Questions: The Climate Project at MIT

    MIT is preparing a major campus-wide effort to develop technological, behavioral, and policy solutions to some of the toughest problems now impeding an effective global climate response. The Climate Project at MIT, as the new enterprise is known, includes new arrangements for promoting cross-Institute collaborations and new mechanisms for engaging with outside partners to speed the development and implementation of climate solutions.

    MIT News spoke with Richard K. Lester, MIT’s vice provost for international activities, who has helped oversee the development of the project.

    Q: What is the Climate Project at MIT?

    A: In her inaugural address last May, President Kornbluth called on the MIT community to join her in a “bold, tenacious response” to climate change. The Climate Project at MIT is a response to that call. It aims to mobilize every part of MIT to develop, deliver, and scale up practical climate solutions, as quickly as possible.

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    At MIT, well over 300 of our faculty are already working with their students and research staff members on different aspects of the climate problem. Almost all of our academic departments and more than a score of our interdepartmental labs and centers are involved in some way. What they are doing is remarkable, and this decentralized structure reflects the best traditions of MIT as a “bottom up,” entrepreneurial institution. But, as President Kornbluth said, we must do much more. We must be bolder in our research choices and more creative in how we organize ourselves to work with each other and with our partners. The purpose of the Climate Project is to support our community’s efforts to do bigger things faster in the climate domain. We will have succeeded if our work changes the trajectory of global climate outcomes for the better.

    I want to be clear that the clay is still wet here. The Climate Project will continue to take shape as more members of the MIT community bring their excellence, their energy, and their ambition to bear on the climate challenge. But I believe we have a vision and a framework for accelerating and amplifying MIT’s real-world climate impact, and I know that President Kornbluth is eager to share this progress report with the MIT community now to convey the breadth and ambition of what we’re planning.

    Q: How will the project be organized?

    A: The Climate Project will have three core components: the Climate Missions; their offshoots, the Climate Frontier Projects; and Climate HQ. A new vice president for climate will lead the enterprise.

    Initially there will be six missions, which you can read about in the plan. Each will address a different domain of climate impact where new solutions are required and where a critical mass of research excellence exists at MIT. One such mission, of course, is to decarbonize energy and industry, an area where we estimate that about 150 of our faculty are already working.

    The mission leaders will build multidisciplinary problem-solving communities reaching across the Institute and beyond. Each of these will be charged with roadmapping and assessing progress toward its mission, identifying critical gaps and bottlenecks, and launching applied research projects to accelerate progress where the MIT community and our partners are well-positioned to achieve impactful results. These projects — the climate frontier projects — will benefit from active, professional project management, with clear metrics and milestones. We are in a critical decade for responding to climate change, so it’s important that these research projects move quickly, with an eye on producing real-world results.

    The new Climate HQ will drive the overall vision for the Climate Project and support the work of the missions. We’ve talked about a core focus on impact-driven research, but much is still unknown about the Earth’s physical and biogeochemical systems, and there is also much to be learned about the behavior of the social and political systems that led us to the very difficult situation the world now faces. Climate HQ will support fundamental research in the scientific and humanistic disciplines related to climate, and will promote engagement between these disciplines and the missions. We must also advance climate-related education, led by departments and programs, as well as policy work, public outreach, and more, including an MIT-wide student-centric Climate Corps to elevate climate-related, community-focused service in MIT’s culture.

    Q: Why are partners a key part of this project?

    A: It is important to build strong partners right from the very start for our innovations, inventions, and discoveries to have any prospect of achieving scale. And in many cases, with climate change, it’s all about scale.

    One of the aims of this initiative is to strengthen MIT’s climate “scaffolding” — the people and processes connecting what we do on campus to the practical world of climate impact and response. We can build on MIT’s highly developed infrastructure for translation, innovation, and entrepreneurship, even as we promote other important pathways to scale involving communities, municipalities, and other not-for-profit organizations. Working with all these different organizations will help us build a broad infrastructure to help us get traction in the world. On a related note, the Sloan School of Management will be sharing details in the coming days of an exciting new effort to enhance MIT’s contributions in the climate policy arena.

    MIT is committing $75 million, including $25 million from Sloan, at the outset of the project. But we anticipate developing new partnerships, including philanthropic partnerships, to increase that scope dramatically. More

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    Illustrating India’s complex environmental crises

    Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT, and Sarnath Banerjee (no relation), an MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) visiting artist share a similar background, but have very different ways of thinking. Both were raised for a time in Kolkata before leaving India to pursue divergent careers, Abhijit as an economist who went on to win the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (an award he shares with MIT Professor Esther Duflo and Harvard University Professor Michael Kremer), and Sarnath as a visual artist and graphic novelist. 

    The two collaborated on a pair of short films, “The Land of Good Intentions” and “The Eternal Swamp,” that blend their expertise in a unique and captivating form. Each film addresses a particular environmental crisis facing present-day India by tracing its origins back through the centuries. The films are presented in a kind of lecture style, with Abhijit appearing as the narrator, unraveling historical details, as graphics by Sarnath visualize the story with an often wry and easy wit. The results apply logic and narrative coherence to problems with complex roots in the forces of nature, economics, and local culture. 

    “The Land of Good Intentions” explores the conditions and policies that led to mass protests by farmers, in Punjab and elsewhere, following the passage of farming legislation in September 2020. The film begins by providing historical context from multiple angles, including the significance of rice to regional culture, its growing conditions (which require a lot of water), the region’s climate (which produces very little), and previous government subsidies that led to its overproduction. The 2020 Farm Bills were intended to address rice overproduction and its consequences, including the depletion of Punjab’s groundwater supply, pollution from the burning of rice stalks, and a surplus going to waste. But farmers considered that they were being asked to shoulder the costs of a problem the government created. 

    “The arguments in the film don’t necessarily align with popular liberal arguments, but it gives subtler shape and layers to them,” Sarnath says. “That dialectical way of thinking is important to the liberal movement, which is driven by passion and a sense of justice. Abhijit is driven by factual analysis, which sometimes makes the argument more complex.”

    Their second film, “The Eternal Swamp,” addresses the crisis of flooding in Kolkata and its causes in the geographical and economic development of the city from the start. Because Kolkata was built on very wet land, and real estate has long been one of the only viable industries in the city, it has been developed without regard to proper drainage in a climate that produces more rainfall than it can handle. There is a pervading sense that Kolkata will eventually be entirely below water.

    “It was a good collaboration from the beginning,” Sarnath says of working with Abhijit on the CAST Visiting Artist project, a process which began just before Abhijit was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019 and continued through the pandemic. “Both of us work on instinct, but the way he shapes an argument is very different from me,” Sarnath says. “My work does not follow a linear approach to telling a story; it’s fragmentary, driven by mood and emotion more than narrative, like composing a piece of music.”

    Since they first met at a literary conference years ago, Abhijit and Sarnath have been close friends and intellectual sparring partners. Though Sarnath is based in Berlin and Abhijit in Boston, the two often cross paths in different locales and have long, ambling discussions that traverse a wide array of topics. “We spend a lot of time walking together wherever we find ourselves, whether it’s down the Longfellow Bridge in Boston or through Delhi or Kolkata,” Sarnath says. The idea for this project was born out of such conversations, in response to pressing events in their home country. 

    Abhijit wrote a proposal to MIT CAST, and the questions they received through the process helped them further shape the project. “It’s important, when you have the luxury, just to spend time together. Thanks to MIT, we managed to do that across continents,” Sarnath says of their creative process. “It’s more than just telling a story; Abhijit unpacked what was in his head, and I drew and wrote a bit as well,” Sarnath says. And they worked with the editor and animator Niusha Ramzani, whom Sarnath says lent an Iranian aesthetic to the film’s animations. 

    As for the format of the films, they wanted to capture the sense of a serene Bengali afternoon, with Abhijit seated in his home in Kolkata speaking in a relaxed tone. “We wanted it to be a bit like a Royal Society lecture,” Sarnath says, somewhat like a TED Talk but more personable and intimate. The aim was to make their complicated subjects more easily comprehensible, through the language of Abhijit’s narration and with the help of visual metaphors. Still, they did not want to sacrifice complexity.

    “Economists are fabulists,” says Abhijit Banerjee. “We tell stories, simple stories, but that tends to get obscured in the telling, often because we like to be very careful about not overstating our case. Irony and the kind of playful humor that Sarnath brings to narration seemed to offer a different way to avoid being too emphatic, while allowing the story to be told in a way that it reaches a much larger audience. What is brilliant about Sarnath’s work is the play between reliable and the unreliable — the readers are happy to be misdirected because they know that it will ultimately lead them where they want to be. I was hoping we could bring a little of that into economics.” 

    “You have to emancipate yourself from any one definitive answer,” Sarnath Banerjee says, describing Abhijit’s expansive way of thinking, through which he follows multiple thought processes to their logical conclusions. The result allows for ambiguity and contradiction, though the pathways of thinking are clear. The films illustrate the situations facing farmers in Punjab and the waterlogged streets of Kolkata by tracing their roots and examining the history of cause and effect. The results provide clarity, but no simple answers.

    The process was an enriching one for both of them, the kind of advancement in understanding that can only come in dialogue. “With each collaboration, you learn, and learning to me is an artistic form,” Sarnath says. “We are always learning.” More

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    Reflecting on COP28 — and humanity’s progress toward meeting global climate goals

    With 85,000 delegates, the 2023 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28, was the largest U.N. climate conference in history. It was held at the end of the hottest year in recorded history. And after 12 days of negotiations, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, it produced a decision that included, for the first time, language calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels,” though it stopped short of calling for their complete phase-out.

    U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said the outcome in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, COP28’s host city, signaled “the beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. 

    COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held this year for the 28th time. Through the negotiations — and the immense conference and expo that takes place alongside them — a delegation of faculty, students, and staff from MIT was in Dubai to observe the negotiations, present new climate technologies, speak on panels, network, and conduct research.

    On Jan. 17, the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS) hosted a panel discussion with MIT delegates who shared their reflections on the experience. Asking what’s going on at COP is “like saying, ‘What’s going on in the city of Boston today?’” quipped Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, director of CIS, and faculty director of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). “The value added that all of us can provide for the MIT community is [to share] what we saw firsthand and how we experienced it.” 

    Phase-out, phase down, transition away?

    In the first week of COP28, over 100 countries issued a joint statement that included a call for “the global phase out of unabated fossil fuels.” The question of whether the COP28 decision — dubbed the “UAE Consensus” — would include this phase-out language animated much of the discussion in the days and weeks leading up to COP28. 

    Ultimately, the decision called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” It also called for “accelerating efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power,” referring to the combustion of coal without efforts to capture and store its emissions.

    In Dubai to observe the negotiations, graduate student Alessandra Fabbri said she was “confronted” by the degree to which semantic differences could impose significant ramifications — for example, when negotiators referred to a “just transition,” or to “developed vs. developing nations” — particularly where evolution in recent scholarship has produced more nuanced understandings of the terms.

    COP28 also marked the conclusion of the first global stocktake, a core component of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The effort every five years to assess the world’s progress in responding to climate change is intended as a basis for encouraging countries to strengthen their climate goals over time, a process often referred to as the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism.” 

    The technical report of the first global stocktake, published in September 2023, found that while the world has taken actions that have reduced forecasts of future warming, they are not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

    “Despite minor, punctual advancements in climate action, parties are far from being on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Fabbri, a graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning and a fellow in MIT’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. Citing a number of persistent challenges, including some parties’ fears that rapid economic transition may create or exacerbate vulnerabilities, she added, “There is a noted lack of accountability among certain countries in adhering to their commitments and responsibilities under international climate agreements.” 

    Climate and trade

    COP28 was the first climate summit to formally acknowledge the importance of international trade by featuring an official “Trade Day” on Dec. 4. Internationally traded goods account for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, raising complex questions of accountability and concerns about offshoring of industrial manufacturing, a phenomenon known as “emissions leakage.” Addressing the nexus of climate and trade is therefore considered essential for successful decarbonization, and a growing number of countries are leveraging trade policies — such as carbon fees applied to imported goods — to secure climate benefits. 

    Members of the MIT delegation participated in several related activities, sharing research and informing decision-makers. Catherine Wolfram, professor of applied economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR), presented options for international cooperation on such trade policies at side events, including ones hosted by the World Trade Organization and European Parliament. 

    “While COPs are often criticized for highlighting statements that don’t have any bite, they are also tremendous opportunities to get people from around the world who care about climate and think deeply about these issues in one place,” said Wolfram.

    Climate and health

    For the first time in the conference’s nearly 30-year history, COP28 included a thematic “Health Day” that featured talks on the relationship between climate and health. Researchers from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) have been testing policy solutions in this area for years through research funds such as the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI). 

    “An important but often-neglected area where climate action can lead to improved health is combating air pollution,” said Andre Zollinger, K-CAI’s senior policy manager. “COP28’s announcement on reducing methane leaks is an important step because action in this area could translate to relatively quick, cost-effective ways to curb climate change while improving air quality, especially for people living near these industrial sites.” K-CAI has an ongoing project in Colorado investigating the use of machine learning to predict leaks and improve the framework for regulating industrial methane emissions, Zollinger noted.

    This was J-PAL’s third time at COP, which Zollinger said typically presented an opportunity for researchers to share new findings and analysis with government partners, nongovernmental organizations, and companies. This year, he said, “We have [also] been working with negotiators in the [Middle East and North Africa] region in the months preceding COP to plug them into the latest evidence on water conservation, on energy access, on different challenging areas of adaptation that could be useful for them during the conference.”

    Sharing knowledge, learning from others

    MIT student Runako Gentles described COP28 as a “springboard” to greater impact. A senior from Jamaica studying civil and environmental engineering, Gentles said it was exciting to introduce himself as an MIT undergraduate to U.N. employees and Jamaican delegates in Dubai. “There’s a lot of talk on mitigation and cutting carbon emissions, but there needs to be much more going into climate adaptation, especially for small-island developing states like those in the Caribbean,” he said. “One of the things I can do, while I still try to finish my degree, is communicate — get the story out there to raise awareness.”

    At an official side event at COP28 hosted by MIT, Pennsylvania State University, and the American Geophysical Union, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, stressed the importance of opportunities to share knowledge and learn from people around the world.

    “The reason this two-way learning is so important for us is simple: The ideas we come up with in a university setting, whether they’re technological or policy or any other kind of innovations — they only matter in the practical world if they can be put to good use and scaled up,” said Zuber. “And the only way we can know that our work has practical relevance for addressing climate is by working hand-in-hand with communities, industries, governments, and others.”

    Marcela Angel, research program director at the Environmental Solutions Initiative, and Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, also spoke at the event, which was moderated by Bethany Patten, director of policy and engagement for sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  More

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    Co-creating climate futures with real-time data and spatial storytelling

    Virtual story worlds and game engines aren’t just for video games anymore. They are now tools for scientists and storytellers to digitally twin existing physical spaces and then turn them into vessels to dream up speculative climate stories and build collective designs of the future. That’s the theory and practice behind the MIT WORLDING initiative.

    Twice this year, WORLDING matched world-class climate story teams working in XR (extended reality) with relevant labs and researchers across MIT. One global group returned for a virtual gathering online in partnership with Unity for Humanity, while another met for one weekend in person, hosted at the MIT Media Lab.

    “We are witnessing the birth of an emergent field that fuses climate science, urban planning, real-time 3D engines, nonfiction storytelling, and speculative fiction, and it is all fueled by the urgency of the climate crises,” says Katerina Cizek, lead designer of the WORLDING initiative at the Co-Creation Studio of MIT Open Documentary Lab. “Interdisciplinary teams are forming and blossoming around the planet to collectively imagine and tell stories of healthy, livable worlds in virtual 3D spaces and then finding direct ways to translate that back to earth, literally.”

    At this year’s virtual version of WORLDING, five multidisciplinary teams were selected from an open call. In a week-long series of research and development gatherings, the teams met with MIT scientists, staff, fellows, students, and graduates, as well as other leading figures in the field. Guests ranged from curators at film festivals such as Sundance and Venice, climate policy specialists, and award-winning media creators to software engineers and renowned Earth and atmosphere scientists. The teams heard from MIT scholars in diverse domains, including geomorphology, urban planning as acts of democracy, and climate researchers at MIT Media Lab.

    Mapping climate data

    “We are measuring the Earth’s environment in increasingly data-driven ways. Hundreds of terabytes of data are taken every day about our planet in order to study the Earth as a holistic system, so we can address key questions about global climate change,” explains Rachel Connolly, an MIT Media Lab research scientist focused in the “Future Worlds” research theme, in a talk to the group. “Why is this important for your work and storytelling in general? Having the capacity to understand and leverage this data is critical for those who wish to design for and successfully operate in the dynamic Earth environment.”

    Making sense of billions of data points was a key theme during this year’s sessions. In another talk, Taylor Perron, an MIT professor of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, shared how his team uses computational modeling combined with many other scientific processes to better understand how geology, climate, and life intertwine to shape the surfaces of Earth and other planets. His work resonated with one WORLDING team in particular, one aiming to digitally reconstruct the pre-Hispanic Lake Texcoco — where current day Mexico City is now situated — as a way to contrast and examine the region’s current water crisis.

    Democratizing the future

    While WORLDING approaches rely on rigorous science and the interrogation of large datasets, they are also founded on democratizing community-led approaches.

    MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning graduate Lafayette Cruise MCP ’19 met with the teams to discuss how he moved his own practice as a trained urban planner to include a futurist component involving participatory methods. “I felt we were asking the same limited questions in regards to the future we were wanting to produce. We’re very limited, very constrained, as to whose values and comforts are being centered. There are so many possibilities for how the future could be.”

    Scaling to reach billions

    This work scales from the very local to massive global populations. Climate policymakers are concerned with reaching billions of people in the line of fire. “We have a goal to reach 1 billion people with climate resilience solutions,” says Nidhi Upadhyaya, deputy director at Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. To get that reach, Upadhyaya is turning to games. “There are 3.3 billion-plus people playing video games across the world. Half of these players are women. This industry is worth $300 billion. Africa is currently among the fastest-growing gaming markets in the world, and 55 percent of the global players are in the Asia Pacific region.” She reminded the group that this conversation is about policy and how formats of mass communication can be used for policymaking, bringing about change, changing behavior, and creating empathy within audiences.

    Socially engaged game development is also connected to education at Unity Technologies, a game engine company. “We brought together our education and social impact work because we really see it as a critical flywheel for our business,” said Jessica Lindl, vice president and global head of social impact/education at Unity Technologies, in the opening talk of WORLDING. “We upscale about 900,000 students, in university and high school programs around the world, and about 800,000 adults who are actively learning and reskilling and upskilling in Unity. Ultimately resulting in our mission of the ‘world is a better place with more creators in it,’ millions of creators who reach billions of consumers — telling the world stories, and fostering a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable world.”

    Access to these technologies is key, especially the hardware. “Accessibility has been missing in XR,” explains Reginé Gilbert, who studies and teaches accessibility and disability in user experience design at New York University. “XR is being used in artificial intelligence, assistive technology, business, retail, communications, education, empathy, entertainment, recreation, events, gaming, health, rehabilitation meetings, navigation, therapy, training, video programming, virtual assistance wayfinding, and so many other uses. This is a fun fact for folks: 97.8 percent of the world hasn’t tried VR [virtual reality] yet, actually.”

    Meanwhile, new hardware is on its way. The WORLDING group got early insights into the highly anticipated Apple Vision Pro headset, which promises to integrate many forms of XR and personal computing in one device. “They’re really pushing this kind of pass-through or mixed reality,” said Dan Miller, a Unity engineer on the poly spatial team, collaborating with Apple, who described the experience of the device as “You are viewing the real world. You’re pulling up windows, you’re interacting with content. It’s a kind of spatial computing device where you have multiple apps open, whether it’s your email client next to your messaging client with a 3D game in the middle. You’re interacting with all these things in the same space and at different times.”

    “WORLDING combines our passion for social-impact storytelling and incredible innovative storytelling,” said Paisley Smith of the Unity for Humanity Program at Unity Technologies. She added, “This is an opportunity for creators to incubate their game-changing projects and connect with experts across climate, story, and technology.”

    Meeting at MIT

    In a new in-person iteration of WORLDING this year, organizers collaborated closely with Connolly at the MIT Media Lab to co-design an in-person weekend conference Oct. 25 – Nov. 7 with 45 scholars and professionals who visualize climate data at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, planetariums, and museums across the United States.

    A participant said of the event, “An incredible workshop that had had a profound effect on my understanding of climate data storytelling and how to combine different components together for a more [holistic] solution.”

    “With this gathering under our new Future Worlds banner,” says Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics chair, “the Media Lab seeks to affect human behavior and help societies everywhere to improve life here on Earth and in worlds beyond, so that all — the sentient, natural, and cosmic — worlds may flourish.” 

    “WORLDING’s virtual-only component has been our biggest strength because it has enabled a true, international cohort to gather, build, and create together. But this year, an in-person version showed broader opportunities that spatial interactivity generates — informal Q&As, physical worksheets, and larger-scale ideation, all leading to deeper trust-building,” says WORLDING producer Srushti Kamat SM ’23.

    The future and potential of WORLDING lies in the ongoing dialogue between the virtual and physical, both in the work itself and in the format of the workshops. More