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    Amy Moran-Thomas receives the Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award

    Amy Moran-Thomas, the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology, has received the 2021-22 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award in recognition of her “exceptional commitment to innovative and collaborative interdisciplinary approaches to resolving inequitable impacts on human health,” according to a statement by the  selection committee.A medical anthropologist, Moran-Thomas investigates linkages between human and environmental health, with a focus on health disparities. She is the author of the award-winning book “Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic” (University of California Press, 2019), which frames the diabetes epidemic in Belize within the context of 500 years of colonialism.

    On human and planetary well-being Moran-Thomas “stands out in this field by bringing a humanistic approach into dialogue with environmental and science studies to investigate how bodily health is shaped by social well-being at the community level and further conditioned by localized planetary imbalances,” the selection committee’s statement said. “Professor Moran-Thomas shows how diabetes resides not only within human bodies but also across toxic environments, crumbling healthcare infrastructures, and stress-inducing economic inequalities.”Heather Paxson, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology and head of the MIT Anthropology program, calls Moran-Thomas “a fast-rising star in her field.” Paxson, who nominated Moran-Thomas for the award, adds, “She is also a highly effective teacher and student mentor, an engaged member of our Institute community, and a budding public intellectual.” A profound discovery for medical equity

    “Professor Moran-Thomas’s work has an extraordinarily profound and impactful reach,” according to the committee, which highlighted a widely read 2020 essay in Boston Review in which Moran-Thomas revealed that the fingertip pulse oximeter — a key tool in monitoring the effects of respiratory distress due to Covid-19 and other illness — gives misleading readings with darkly complected skin. This essay inspired a subsequent medical research study and ultimately led to an alert from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration spotlighting the limitations of pulse oximeters.

    The selection committee further lauded Moran-Thomas for her pedagogy, including her work developing the new subject 21A.311 (The Social Lives of Medical Objects). She was also commended for her service, notably her work on the MIT Climate Action Advisory Committee and with the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing group within MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing.

    Moran-Thomas earned her bachelor’s degree in literature from American University and her PhD in anthropology from Princeton University. She joined MIT Anthropology in 2015, following postdocs at the Woodrow Institute for Public and International Affairs and at Brown University’s Cogut Humanities Center. She was promoted to associate professor without tenure in 2019.

    The annual Edgerton Faculty Award, established in 1982 as a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton, honors achievement in research, teaching, and service by a nontenured member of the faculty.The 2019-20 Edgerton Award Selection Committee was chaired by T.L. Taylor, a professor of Comparative Media Studies/Writing. Other members were Geoffrey Beach, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Mircea Dinca, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy in the Department of Chemistry; Hazhir Rahmandad, an associate professor of system dynamics in the Sloan School of Management; and Rafi Segal, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture.

    Story prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsSenior Writer: Kathryn O’NeillEditorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand More

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    Q&A: Bettina Stoetzer on envisioning a livable future

    In an ongoing series, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving the economic, political, ethical, and cultural dimensions of climate change, as well as mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Bettina Stoetzer is the Class of 1948 Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT; her research combines perspectives on ecology and environmental change with an analysis of migration, race, and social justice. In this conversation with SHASS Communications, she shares insights from anthropology and from her forthcoming book, “Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin” (Duke University Press, 2022).Q: You research “ruderal” ecologies — those rising up like weeds in inhospitable locales such as industrial zones. What does your work reveal about the relationship between humans and the environment, particularly as climate change presents ever more challenges to human habitation?A: The term ruderal originates from the Latin word “rudus,” meaning “rubble.” In urban ecology it refers to organisms that spontaneously inhabit inhospitable environments such as rubble spaces, the cracks in sidewalks, or spaces alongside train tracks and roads. As an anthropologist, I find the ruderal to be a useful lens for examining this historical moment when environmental degradation, war, forced migration, economic inequality, and rising nationalism render much of the world inhospitable to so many beings.

    My book, “Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin,” is inspired by the insights of botany, ecology, as well as by social justice struggles. During my fieldwork in Berlin, I engaged with diverse communities — botanists, environmentalists, public officials, and other Berlin residents, such as white German nature enthusiasts, Turkish migrants who cultivate city gardens, and East African refugees who live in the forested edges of the city.The botanists I spoke with researched so-called “ruderal flora” that flourished in the city’s bombed landscapes after the end of World War II. Berlin’s rubble vegetation was abundant with plants that usually grow in much warmer climate zones, and the botanists realized that many of these plants’ seeds had arrived in the city by chance — hitching a ride via imported materials and vehicles, or the boots of refugees. At the same time, the initial appearance of these plants illustrated that Berlin had become hotter, which shed light on the early signs of climate change. But that is only part of the story. Listening to migrants, refugees, and other Berlin residents during my fieldwork, I also learned that it is important to consider the ways in which people who are often not recognized as experts relate to urban lands. White European environmental discourse often frames migrants and communities of color as having an inappropriate relation to “nature” in the city, and racializes them on that basis. For example, Turkish migrants who barbecue in Berlin’s parks are often portrayed as polluting the “green lungs” of Berlin.Yet from working with these communities, as well as with other Berliners who cultivated urban vegetable gardens, built makeshift shelters in abandoned lots, produced informal food economies in Berlin’s parks, or told stories about their experience in the forest edges of the city, I learned that people, while grappling with experiences of racism, actually carved out alternative ways of relating to urban lands that challenged white European and capitalist traditions.Engaging with these practices, I utilize the concept of the ruderal and expand it as an analytic for tracking seemingly disparate worlds — and for attending to the heterogeneous ways in which people build lives out of the ruins of European nationalism and capitalism. My goal in the book is not to equate people with plants, but rather to ask how people, plants, animals, and other living beings are intertwined in projects of capitalist extraction and in nation-making — and how they challenge and rework these projects.Q: In what ways do you think the tools and insights from anthropology can advance efforts to address climate change and its impacts?A: When tackling complex environmental challenges, climate change included, the focus is often on “the social consequences of” climate change and technological solutions to address it. What is exciting about anthropology is that it gives us tools to interrogate environmental challenges through a broader lens.Anthropologists use in-depth fieldwork to examine how people make sense of and relate to the world. Ethnographic fieldwork can help us examine how climate change affects people in their everyday lives, and it can reveal how different stakeholders approach environmental challenges. By providing a deeper understanding of the ways in which people relate to the material world, to land, and to other beings, anthropological analyses also shed light on the root causes of climate change and expand our imagination of how to live otherwise.Through these close-up analyses, ethnography can also illuminate large-scale political phenomena. For instance, by making visible the relation between climate change denial and the erosion of democratic social structures in people’s everyday lives, it can provide insights into the rise of nationalist and authoritarian movements. This is a question I explore in my new research project. (One case study in the new research focuses on the ways in which pigs, people, and viruses have co-evolved during urbanization, industrial agriculture, and the climate crisis, e.g.: the so-called African Swine Fever virus among wild boar — which proliferate in the ruins of industrial agriculture and climate changes — trigger political responses across Europe, including new border fences.)

    Through several case studies, I examine how the changing mobility patterns of wildlife (due to climate change, habitat loss, and urbanization) pose challenges for tackling the climate crisis across national borders and for developing new forms of care for nonhuman lives.Q: You teach MIT’s class 21A.407 (Gender, Race, and Environmental Justice). Broadly speaking, what are goals of this class? What lessons do you hope students will carry with them into the future?A: The key premise of this class is that the environmental challenges facing the world today cannot be adequately addressed without a deeper understanding of racial, gender, and class inequalities, as well as the legacies of colonialism. Our discussion begins with the lands on which we, at MIT, stand. We read about the colonization of New England and how it radically transformed local economies and landscapes, rearranged gender and racial relations, and led to the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous communities and their way of life.From this foundation, the goal is to expand our ideas of what it means to talk about ecology, the “environment,” and justice. There is not one way in which humans relate to land and to nonhuman beings, or one way of (re-)producing the conditions of our livelihoods (capitalism). These relations are all shaped by history, culture, and power.We read anthropological scholarship that explores how climate change, environmental pollution, and habitat destruction are also the consequences of modes of inhabiting the earth inherited from colonial relations to land that construct human and nonhuman beings as extractable “resources.” Considering these perspectives, it becomes clear that pressing environmental challenges can only be solved by also tackling racism and the legacies of colonialism.Throughout the semester, we read about environmental justice struggles that seek to stop the destruction of land, undo the harm of toxic exposures, and mitigate the effects of climate change. I hope that one of the takeaways students gain from this course is that Black, Indigenous, people-of-color, and feminist activists and scholars have been leading the way in shaping more livable futures.

    Q: In confronting an issue as formidable as global climate change, what gives you hope?A: I am really inspired by youth climate justice activists, especially from the Global South, who insist on new solutions to the climate emergency that counter market-driven perspectives, address global economic inequalities, and raise awareness about climate-driven displacement. Confronting climate change will require building more democratic structures and climate justice activists are at the forefront of this.Here at MIT, I also see a growing enthusiasm among our students to develop solutions to the climate crisis and to social injustices. I am particularly excited about Living Climate Futures, an initiative in Anthropology, History, and the Program on Science, Technology, and Society. We will be hosting a symposium at the end of April featuring environmental and climate justice leaders and youth activists from across the country. It will be a unique opportunity to explore how community leaders and research institutions such as MIT can collaborate more closely to tackle the challenges of climate change.

    Interview prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsSenior writer: Kathryn O’NeillSeries editor, designer: Emily Hiestand, communications director More

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    Q&A: Latifah Hamzah ’12 on creating sustainable solutions in Malaysia and beyond

    Latifah Hamzah ’12 graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering and minors in energy studies and music. During their time at MIT, Latifah participated in various student organizations, including the MIT Symphony Orchestra, Alpha Phi Omega, and the MIT Design/Build/Fly team. They also participated in the MIT Energy Initiative’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the lab of former professor of mechanical engineering Alexander Mitsos, examining solar-powered thermal and electrical co-generation systems.

    After graduating from MIT, Latifah worked as a subsea engineer at Shell Global Solutions and co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding sustainable and empowering solutions that impact disadvantaged populations in Malaysia. More recently, Latifah received a master of science in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, where they are currently pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering with a focus on water and sanitation in developing contexts.

    Q: What inspired you to pursue energy studies as an undergraduate student at MIT?

    A: I grew up in Malaysia, where I was at once aware of both the extent to which the oil and gas industry is a cornerstone of the economy and the need to transition to a lower-carbon future. The Energy Studies minor was therefore enticing because it gave me a broader view of the energy space, including technical, policy, economic, and other viewpoints. This was my first exposure to how things worked in the real world — in that many different fields and perspectives had to be considered cohesively in order to have a successful, positive, and sustained impact. Although the minor was predominantly grounded in classroom learning, what I learned drove me to want to discover for myself how the forces of technology, society, and policy interacted in the field in my subsequent endeavors.

    In addition to the breadth that the minor added to my education, it also provided a structure and focus for me to build on my technical fundamentals. This included taking graduate-level classes and participating in UROPs that had specific energy foci. These were my first forays into questions that, while still predominantly technical, were more open-ended and with as-yet-unknown answers that would be substantially shaped by the framing of the question. This shift in mindset required from typical undergraduate classes and problem sets took a bit of adjusting to, but ultimately gave me the confidence and belief that I could succeed in a more challenging environment.

    Q: How did these experiences with energy help shape your path forward, particularly in regard to your work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia and now at Stanford?

    A: When I returned home after graduation, I was keen to harness my engineering education and explore in practice what the Energy Studies minor curriculum had taught by theory and case studies: to consider context, nuance, and interdisciplinary and myriad perspectives to craft successful, sustainable solutions. Recognizing that there were many underserved communities in Malaysia, I co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia with some friends with the aim of working with these communities to bring simple and sustainable engineering solutions. Many of these projects did have an energy focus. For example, we designed, sized, and installed micro-hydro or solar-power systems for various indigenous communities, allowing them to continue living on their ancestral lands while reducing energy poverty. Many other projects incorporated other aspects of engineering, such as hydrotherapy pools for folks with special needs, and water and sanitation systems for stateless maritime communities.

    Through my work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, I found a passion for the broader aspects of sustainability, development, and equity. By spending time with communities in the field and sharing in their experiences, I recognized gaps in my skill set that I could work on to be more effective in advocating for social and environmental justice. In particular, I wanted to better understand communities and their perspectives while being mindful of my positionality. In addition, I wanted to address the more systemic aspects of the problems they faced, which I felt in many cases would only be possible through a combination of research, evidence, and policy. To this end, I embarked on a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in anthropology and pursued a Community-Based Research Fellowship with Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service. I have also participated in the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), which helps graduate students “hone their leadership and communications skills to maximize the impact of their research.” RELP afforded me the opportunity to interact with representatives from government, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], think tanks, and industry, from which I gained a better understanding of the policy and adjacent ecosystems at both the federal and state levels.

    Q: What are you currently studying, and how does it relate to your past work and educational experiences?

    A: My dissertation investigates waste management and monitoring for improved planetary health in three distinct projects. Suboptimal waste management can lead to poor outcomes, including environmental contamination, overuse of resources, and lost economic and environmental opportunities in resource recovery. My first project showed that three combinations of factors resulted in ruminant feces contaminating the stored drinking water supplies of households in rural Kenya, and the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Consequently, water and sanitation interventions must also consider animal waste for communities to have safe drinking water.

    My second project seeks to establish a circular economy in the chocolate industry with indigenous Malaysian farmers and the Chocolate Concierge, a tree-to-bar social enterprise. Having designed and optimized apparatuses and processes to create biochar from cacao husk waste, we are now examining its impact on the growth of cacao saplings and their root systems. The hope is that biochar will increase the resilience of saplings for when they are transplanted from the nursery to the farm. As biochar can improve soil health and yield while reducing fertilizer inputs and sequestering carbon, farmers can accrue substantial economic and environmental benefits, especially if they produce, use, and sell it themselves.

    My third project investigates the gap in sanitation coverage worldwide and potential ways of reducing it. Globally, 46 percent of the population lacks access to safely managed sanitation, while the majority of the 54 percent who do have access use on-site sanitation facilities such as septic tanks and latrines. Given that on-site, decentralized systems typically have a lower space and resource footprint, are cheaper to build and maintain, and can be designed to suit various contexts, they could represent the best chance of reaching the sanitation Sustainable Development Goal. To this end, I am part of a team of researchers at the Criddle Group at Stanford working to develop a household-scale system as part of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an initiative aimed at developing new sanitation and toilet technologies for developing contexts.

    The thread connecting these projects is a commitment to investigating both the technical and socio-anthropological dimensions of an issue to develop sustainable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive solutions, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). I believe that an interdisciplinary approach can provide a better understanding of the problem space, which will hopefully lead to effective potential solutions that can have a greater community impact.

    Q: What do you plan to do once you obtain your PhD?

    A: I hope to continue working in the spheres of water and sanitation and/or sustainability post-PhD. It is a fascinating moment to be in this space as a person of color from an LMIC, especially as ideas such as community-based research and decolonizing fields and institutions are becoming more widespread and acknowledged. Even during my time at Stanford, I have noticed some shifts in the discourse, although we still have a long way to go to achieve substantive and lasting change. Folks like me are underrepresented in forums where the priorities, policies, and financing of aid and development are discussed at the international or global scale. I hope I’ll be able to use my qualifications, experience, and background to advocate for more just outcomes.

    This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative More

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    Q&A: Latifah Hamzah ’12 on creating sustainable solutions in Malaysia and beyond

    Latifah Hamzah ’12 graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering and minors in energy studies and music. During their time at MIT, Latifah participated in various student organizations, including the MIT Symphony Orchestra, Alpha Phi Omega, and the MIT Design/Build/Fly team. They also participated in the MIT Energy Initiative’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the lab of former professor of mechanical engineering Alexander Mitsos, examining solar-powered thermal and electrical co-generation systems.

    After graduating from MIT, Latifah worked as a subsea engineer at Shell Global Solutions and co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding sustainable and empowering solutions that impact disadvantaged populations in Malaysia. More recently, Latifah received a master of science in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, where they are currently pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering with a focus on water and sanitation in developing contexts.

    Q: What inspired you to pursue energy studies as an undergraduate student at MIT?

    A: I grew up in Malaysia, where I was at once aware of both the extent to which the oil and gas industry is a cornerstone of the economy and the need to transition to a lower-carbon future. The Energy Studies minor was therefore enticing because it gave me a broader view of the energy space, including technical, policy, economic, and other viewpoints. This was my first exposure to how things worked in the real world — in that many different fields and perspectives had to be considered cohesively in order to have a successful, positive, and sustained impact. Although the minor was predominantly grounded in classroom learning, what I learned drove me to want to discover for myself how the forces of technology, society, and policy interacted in the field in my subsequent endeavors.

    In addition to the breadth that the minor added to my education, it also provided a structure and focus for me to build on my technical fundamentals. This included taking graduate-level classes and participating in UROPs that had specific energy foci. These were my first forays into questions that, while still predominantly technical, were more open-ended and with as-yet-unknown answers that would be substantially shaped by the framing of the question. This shift in mindset required from typical undergraduate classes and problem sets took a bit of adjusting to, but ultimately gave me the confidence and belief that I could succeed in a more challenging environment.

    Q: How did these experiences with energy help shape your path forward, particularly in regard to your work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia and now at Stanford?

    A: When I returned home after graduation, I was keen to harness my engineering education and explore in practice what the Energy Studies minor curriculum had taught by theory and case studies: to consider context, nuance, and interdisciplinary and myriad perspectives to craft successful, sustainable solutions. Recognizing that there were many underserved communities in Malaysia, I co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia with some friends with the aim of working with these communities to bring simple and sustainable engineering solutions. Many of these projects did have an energy focus. For example, we designed, sized, and installed micro-hydro or solar-power systems for various indigenous communities, allowing them to continue living on their ancestral lands while reducing energy poverty. Many other projects incorporated other aspects of engineering, such as hydrotherapy pools for folks with special needs, and water and sanitation systems for stateless maritime communities.

    Through my work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, I found a passion for the broader aspects of sustainability, development, and equity. By spending time with communities in the field and sharing in their experiences, I recognized gaps in my skill set that I could work on to be more effective in advocating for social and environmental justice. In particular, I wanted to better understand communities and their perspectives while being mindful of my positionality. In addition, I wanted to address the more systemic aspects of the problems they faced, which I felt in many cases would only be possible through a combination of research, evidence, and policy. To this end, I embarked on a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in anthropology and pursued a Community-Based Research Fellowship with Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service. I have also participated in the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), which helps graduate students “hone their leadership and communications skills to maximize the impact of their research.” RELP afforded me the opportunity to interact with representatives from government, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], think tanks, and industry, from which I gained a better understanding of the policy and adjacent ecosystems at both the federal and state levels.

    Q: What are you currently studying, and how does it relate to your past work and educational experiences?

    A: My dissertation investigates waste management and monitoring for improved planetary health in three distinct projects. Suboptimal waste management can lead to poor outcomes, including environmental contamination, overuse of resources, and lost economic and environmental opportunities in resource recovery. My first project showed that three combinations of factors resulted in ruminant feces contaminating the stored drinking water supplies of households in rural Kenya, and the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Consequently, water and sanitation interventions must also consider animal waste for communities to have safe drinking water.

    My second project seeks to establish a circular economy in the chocolate industry with indigenous Malaysian farmers and the Chocolate Concierge, a tree-to-bar social enterprise. Having designed and optimized apparatuses and processes to create biochar from cacao husk waste, we are now examining its impact on the growth of cacao saplings and their root systems. The hope is that biochar will increase the resilience of saplings for when they are transplanted from the nursery to the farm. As biochar can improve soil health and yield while reducing fertilizer inputs and sequestering carbon, farmers can accrue substantial economic and environmental benefits, especially if they produce, use, and sell it themselves.

    My third project investigates the gap in sanitation coverage worldwide and potential ways of reducing it. Globally, 46 percent of the population lacks access to safely managed sanitation, while the majority of the 54 percent who do have access use on-site sanitation facilities such as septic tanks and latrines. Given that on-site, decentralized systems typically have a lower space and resource footprint, are cheaper to build and maintain, and can be designed to suit various contexts, they could represent the best chance of reaching the sanitation Sustainable Development Goal. To this end, I am part of a team of researchers at the Criddle Group at Stanford working to develop a household-scale system as part of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an initiative aimed at developing new sanitation and toilet technologies for developing contexts.

    The thread connecting these projects is a commitment to investigating both the technical and socio-anthropological dimensions of an issue to develop sustainable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive solutions, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). I believe that an interdisciplinary approach can provide a better understanding of the problem space, which will hopefully lead to effective potential solutions that can have a greater community impact.

    Q: What do you plan to do once you obtain your PhD?

    A: I hope to continue working in the spheres of water and sanitation and/or sustainability post-PhD. It is a fascinating moment to be in this space as a person of color from an LMIC, especially as ideas such as community-based research and decolonizing fields and institutions are becoming more widespread and acknowledged. Even during my time at Stanford, I have noticed some shifts in the discourse, although we still have a long way to go to achieve substantive and lasting change. Folks like me are underrepresented in forums where the priorities, policies, and financing of aid and development are discussed at the international or global scale. I hope I’ll be able to use my qualifications, experience, and background to advocate for more just outcomes.

    This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative More

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    Conversations at the front line of climate

    The climate crisis is a novel and developing chapter in human and planetary history. As a species, humankind is still very much learning how to face this crisis, and the world’s frontline communities — those being most affected by climate change — are struggling to make their voices heard. How can communities imperiled by climate change convey the urgency of their situation to countries and organizations with the means to make a difference? And how can governments and other powerful groups provide resources to these vulnerable frontline communities?The MIT Civic Design Initiative (CDI), an interdisciplinary confluence of media studies and design expertise, emerged in 2020 to tackle just these kinds of questions. It brings together the MIT Design Lab, a program originally founded in the School of Architecture and Planning with its research practices in design, and the Comparative Media Studies program (CMS/W) with its focus on the fundamentals of human connection and communication. Drawing on these complementary sources of scholarly perspective and expertise, CDI is a suitably broad umbrella for the range of climate-related issues that humanistic research and design can potentially address. Based in the CMS/W program of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the initiative is responding to the climate crises with a spirit of inquiry, listening, and solid data. Reflecting on the mission, James Paradis, the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of CMS/W and CDI faculty director, says the core idea is to address global issues by combining new and emerging technologies with an equally keen focus on the social and cultural contexts — the human dimensions of the issue — with many of their nuances.  Working closely with Paradis on this vision are the two CDI co-directors: Yihyun Lim, an architect, urban designer, and MIT researcher; and Eric Gordon, a visiting professor of civic media in MIT CMS/W. Prior to CDI, when she was leading the MIT Design Lab research group, Lim says “At MIT Design Lab, I was working within the realm of applied research with industry partnerships, how we can apply user-centered design methods in creating connected experiences. Eric, Jim, and I wanted to shift the focus into a more civic realm, where we could bring all our collective expertise together to address tricky problems.”

    Deep listeningThe initiative’s flagship project, the Deep Listening Project, is currently working with an initial group of frontline communities in Nepal and Indigenous tribes in the United States and Canada. The work is a direct application of communication protocols: understanding how people are communicating with and often without technologies — and how technologies can be better used to help people get the help they need, when they need it, in the face of the climate crisis.

    The CDI team describes deep listening as “a form of institutional and community intake that considers diversity, tensions, and frictions, and that incorporates communities’ values in creating solutions.”

    Globally, the majority of climate response funding currently goes toward mitigation efforts — such as reducing emissions or using more eco-friendly materials. It is only in recent years that more substantial funding has been focused on climate adaptation: making adjustments that can help a community adapt to present changes and impacts and also prepare for future climate-related crises. For the millions of people in frontline communities, such adaptation can be crucial to protecting and sustaining their communities.Gordon describes the scope of the situation: “We know that over the next 10 years, climate change will drive over 100 million people to adapt where and how they live, regardless of the success of mitigation efforts. And in order for those adaptations to succeed, there must be a concerted collaborative effort between frontline communities and institutions with the resources to facilitate adaptation.“Communication between institutions and their constituents is a fundamental planning problem in any context,” Gordon continues. “In the case of climate adaptation, there will not be a surplus of time to get things right. Putting communication mechanisms in place to connect affected communities with institutional resources is already imperative.“This situation requires that we figure out, quickly, how to listen to the people who will rely on [those institutions] for their lives and livelihoods. We want to understand how institutions — from governments to universities to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] — are adopting and adapting technologies, and how that is benefiting or hurting their constituencies.  People with direct frontline experience need to be supported in their speech and ideas, and institutions need to be able to take in the data from these communities, listen carefully to discern its significance, and then act upon it.” Sensemaking: infrastructure for connection

    One important aspect of meaningful, effective communication will be the ability of frontline and Indigenous communities to communicate likely or imagined futures, based on their own knowledge and desires. One potential tool is what the initiative calls “sensemaking:” producing and sharing data visualizations that can communicate to governments the experiences of frontline communities. The initiative also hopes to develop additional elements of the “deep listening infrastructure” — mechanisms to make sure important community voices carry and that important data isn’t lost to noise in the vast question of climate adaptability.“Oftentimes in academia, the paper gets published or the website gets developed, and everybody says, ‘OK, we’ve done our work,’” Paradis observes. “What we’re aiming to do in the CDI is the necessary work that happens after the publication of research — where research is applied to actually improve peoples’ lives.”The Deep Listening Project is also building a network of scholars and practitioners nationwide, including Henry Jenkins, co-founder and former faculty member at MIT CMS/W; Sangita Shresthova SM ’03 at the University of Southern California; and Darren Ranco at the University of Maine. Ranco, an anthropologist, Indigenous activist, and organizational leader, has been instrumental in connecting with Indigenous groups and tribal governments across North America. Meanwhile, Gordon has helped forge connections with groups like the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, the World Bank, and the UN Development. At the root of these connections is the impetus to communicate lived realities from the level of a small community to that of global relief organizations and governmental powers.

    Potential human futures

    Mona Vijaykumar, a second-year student in the SMArchS Architecture and Urbanism program in the Department of Architecture, and among the first student researcher assistants attached to the new initiative, is excited to have the chance to help build CDI from the ground up. “It’s been a great honor to be working with CDI’s amazing team for the last eight months,” she says. With her background in urban design and research interest in climate adaptation processes, Vijaykumar has been engaged in developing the Deep Listening Project’s white paper as part of MIT Climate Grand Challenges. She works alongside the initiative’s two other inaugural research assistants: Tomas Guarna, a master’s student in CMS, and Gabriela Degetau, a master’s student in the SMarchS Urbanism program, with Vijaykumar.“I was involved in analyzing the literature case study on community-based adaptation processes and co-writing the white paper,” Vijaykumar says, “and am currently working on conducting interviews with communities and institutions in India. Going forward, Gabriela and I will be presenting the white paper at gatherings such as the American Association of Geographers’ Conference in New York and the Climate and Social Impact Conference in Vancouver.”“The support and collaboration of the team have been incredibly empowering,” reflects Degetau, who will be co-presenting the white paper with Vijaykumar in New York and Vancouver, British Columbia. “Even when working from different countries and through Zoom, the experience has been unique and cohesive.”Both Degetau and Vijaykumar were selected as the first fellows of the Vuslat Foundation, organized by the MIT Transmedia Storytelling Initiative. In this one-year fellowship, they are seeking to co-design “climate imaginaries” through the Deep Listening Project. Vijaykumar’s work is also supported by the MIT Human Rights and Technology Fellowship for 2021-22, which guides her personal focus on what she refers to as the “dual sword” of technology and data colonialism in India.As the Deep Listening Project continues to develop a sustainable and balanced communication infrastructure, Lim reflects that a vital part of that is sharing how potential futures are envisioned. Both large institutions and individual communities imagine, separately — and hopefully soon together — how the human world will reshape itself to be viable in profoundly shifting climate conditions. “What are our possible futures?” asks Lim. “What are people dreaming?” 

    Story prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial and design director: Emily HiestandSenior communications associate: Alison Lanier More

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    The power of economics to explain and shape the world

    Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo sympathizes with students who have no interest in her field. She was such a student herself — until an undergraduate research post gave her the chance to learn first-hand that economists address many of the major issues facing human and planetary well-being.“Most people have a wrong view of what economics is. They just see economists on television discussing what’s going to happen to the stock market,” says Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics. “But what people do in the field is very broad. Economists grapple with the real world and with the complexity that goes with it.”

    That’s why this year Duflo has teamed up with Professor Abhijit Banerjee to offer 14.009 (Economics and Society’s Greatest Problems), a first-year discovery subject — a class type designed to give undergraduates a low-pressure, high-impact way to explore a field. In this case, they are exploring the range of issues that economists engage with every day: the economic dimensions of climate change, international trade, racism, justice, education, poverty, health care, social preferences, and economic growth are just a few of the topics the class covers.“We think it’s pretty important that the first exposure to economics is via issues,” Duflo says. “If you first get exposed to economics via models, these models necessarily have to be very simplified, and then students get the idea that economics is a simplistic view of the world that can’t explain much.”Arguably, Duflo and Banerjee have been disproving that view throughout their careers. In 2003, the pair founded MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a leading antipoverty research network that provides scientific evidence on what methods actually work to alleviate poverty — which enables governments and nongovernmental organizations to implement truly effective programs and social policies. And, in 2019 they won the Nobel Prize in economics (together with Michael Kremer of the University of Chicago) for their innovative work applying laboratory-style randomized, controlled trials to research a wide range of topics implicated in global poverty.“Super cool”

    First-year Jean Billa, one of the students in 14.009, says, “Economics isn’t just about how money flows, but about how people react to certain events. That was an interesting discovery for me.”

    It’s also precisely the lesson Banerjee and Duflo hoped students would take away from 14.009, a class that centers on weekly in-person discussions of the professors’ recorded lectures — many of which align with chapters in Banerjee and Duflo’s book “Good Economics for Hard Times” (Public Affairs, 2019).Classes typically start with a poll in which the roughly 100 enrolled students can register their views on that week’s topic. Then, students get to discuss the issue, says senior Dina Atia, teaching assistant for the class. Noting that she finds it “super cool” that Nobelists are teaching MIT’s first-year students, Atia points out that both Duflo and Banerjee have also made themselves available to chat with students after class. “They’re definitely extending themselves,” she says.“We want the students to get excited about economics so they want to know more,” says Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, “because this is a field that can help us address some of the biggest problems society faces.” Using natural experiments to test theories

    Early in the term, for example, the topic was migration. In the lecture, Duflo points out that migration policies are often impacted by the fear that unskilled migrants will overwhelm a region, taking jobs from residents and demanding social services. Yet, migrant flows in normal years represent just 3 percent of the world population. “There is no flood. There is no vast movement of migrants,” she says.Duflo then explains that economists were able to learn a lot about migration thanks to a “natural experiment,” the Mariel boat lift. This 1980 event brought roughly 125,000 unskilled Cubans to Florida over a matter a months, enabling economists to study the impacts of a sudden wave of migration. Duflo says a look at real wages before and after the migration showed no significant impacts.“It was interesting to see that most theories about immigrants were not justified,” Billa says. “That was a real-life situation, and the results showed that even a massive wave of immigration didn’t change work in the city [Miami].”

    Question assumptions, find the facts in dataSince this is a broad survey course, there is always more to unpack. The goal, faculty say, is simply to help students understand the power of economics to explain and shape the world. “We are going so fast from topic to topic, I don’t expect them to retain all the information,” Duflo says. Instead, students are expected to gain an appreciation for a way of thinking. “Economics is about questioning everything — questioning assumptions you don’t even know are assumptions and being sophisticated about looking at data to uncover the facts.”To add impact, Duflo says she and Banerjee tie lessons to current events and dive more deeply into a few economic studies. One class, for example, focused on the unequal burden the Covid-19 pandemic has placed on different demographic groups and referenced research by Harvard University professor Marcella Alsan, who won a MacArthur Fellowship this fall for her work studying the impact of racism on health disparities.

    Duflo also revealed that at the beginning of the pandemic, she suspected that mistrust of the health-care system could prevent Black Americans from taking certain measures to protect themselves from the virus. What she discovered when she researched the topic, however, was that political considerations outweighed racial influences as a predictor of behavior. “The lesson for you is, it’s good to question your assumptions,” she told the class.“Students should ideally understand, by the end of class, why it’s important to ask questions and what they can teach us about the effectiveness of policy and economic theory,” Banerjee says. “We want people to discover the range of economics and to understand how economists look at problems.”

    Story by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial and design director: Emily HiestandSenior writer: Kathryn O’Neill More

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    “Vigilant inclusion” central to combating climate change

    “To turbocharge work on saving the planet, we need effective, innovative, localized solutions, and diverse perspectives and experience at the table,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, the keynote speaker at the 10th annual U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Women in Clean Energy Symposium and Awards.

    This event, convened virtually over Nov. 3-4 and engaging more than 1,000 participants, was devoted to the themes of justice and equity in clean energy. In panels and presentations, speakers hammered home the idea that the benefits of a zero-carbon future must be shared equitably, especially among groups historically neglected or marginalized. To ensure this outcome, the speakers concluded, these same groups must help drive the clean-energy transition, and women, who stand to bear enormous burdens as the world warms, should be central to the effort. This means “practicing vigilant inclusion,” said Granholm.

    The C3E symposium, which is dedicated to celebrating the leadership of women in the field of clean energy and inspiring the next generation of women leaders, featured professionals from government, industry, research, and other sectors. Some of them spoke from experience, and from the heart, on issues of environmental justice.

    “I grew up in a trailer park in northern Utah, where it was so cold at night a sheet of ice formed on the inside of the door,” said Melanie Santiago-Mosier, the deputy director of the Clean Energy Group and Clean Energy States Alliance. Santiago-Mosier, who won a 2018 C3E award for advocacy, has devoted her career “to bringing the benefits of clean energy to families like mine, and to preventing mistakes of the past that result in a deeply unjust energy system.”

    Tracey A. LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who grew up in South Dakota, described the flooding of her community’s land to create a hydroelectric dam, forcing the dislocation of many people. Today, as administrator and CEO of the Western Area Power Administration, LeBeau manages distribution of hydropower across 15 states, and has built an organization in which the needs of disadvantaged communities are top of mind. “I stay true to my indigenous point of view,” she said.

    The C3E Symposium was launched in 2012 to increase gender diversity in the energy sector and provide awards to outstanding women in the field. It is part of the C3E Initiative, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Texas A&M Energy Institute, and Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy, which hosted the event this year.

    Connecting global rich and poor

    As the COP26 climate summit unfolded in Glasgow, highlighting the sharp divide between rich and poor nations, C3E panelists pursued a related agenda. One panel focused on paths for collaboration between industrialized nations and nations with developing economies to build a sustainable, carbon-neutral global economy.

    Radhika Thakkar, the vice president of corporate affairs at solar home energy provider Greenlight Planet and a 2019 C3E international award winner, believes that small partnerships with women at the community level can lead to large impacts. When her company introduced solar lamp home systems to Rwanda, “Women abandoned selling bananas to sell our lamps, making enough money to purchase land, cows, even putting their families through school,” she said.

    Sudeshna Banerjee, the practice manager for Europe and Central Asia and the energy and extractives global practice at the World Bank, talked about impacts of a bank-supported electrification program in Nairobi slums where gang warfare kept girls confined at home. “Once the lights came on, girls felt more empowered to go around in dark hours,” she said. “This is what development is: creating opportunities for young women to do something with their lives, giving them educational opportunities and creating instances for them to generate income.”

    In another session, panelists focused on ways to enable disadvantaged communities in the United States to take full advantage of clean energy opportunities.

    Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at MIT, believes remote, rural communities require broadband and other information channels in order to chart their own clean-energy journeys. “We must provide access to more than energy, so people can educate themselves and imagine how the energy transition can work for them.”

    Santiago-Mosier described the absence of rooftop solar in underprivileged neighborhoods of the nation’s cities and towns as the result of a kind of clean-energy redlining. “Clean energy and the solar industry are falling into 400-year-old traps of systemic racism,” she said. “This is no accident: senior executives in solar are white and male.” The answer is “making sure that providers and companies are elevating people of color and women in industries,” otherwise “solar is leaving potential growth on the table.”

    Data for equitable outcomes

    Jessica Granderson, the director of building technology at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the 2015 C3E research award winner, is measuring and remediating greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s hundred-million-plus homes and commercial structures. In a panel exploring data-driven solutions for advancing equitable energy outcomes, Granderson described using new building performance standards that improve the energy efficiency and material performance of construction in a way that does not burden building owners with modest resources. “We are emphasizing engagements at the community level, bringing in a local workforce, and addressing the needs of local programs, in a way that hasn’t necessarily been present in the past,” she said.

    To facilitate her studies on how people in these communities use and experience public transportation systems, Tierra Bills, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, is developing a community-based approach for collecting data. “Not everyone who is eager to contribute to a study can participate in an online survey and upload data, so we need to find ways of overcoming these barriers,” she said.

    Corporate efforts to advance social and environmental justice turn on community engagement as well. Paula Gold-Williams, a C3E ambassador and the president and CEO of CPS Energy, with 1 million customers in San Antonio, Texas, described a weatherization campaign to better insulate homes that involved “looking for as many places to go as possible in parts of town where people wouldn’t normally raise their hands.”

    Carla Peterman, the executive vice president for corporate affairs and chief of sustainability at Pacific Gas & Electric, and the 2015 C3E government award winner, was deliberating about raising rates some years ago. “My ‘aha’ moment was in a community workshop where I realized that a $5 increase is too much,” she said. “It may be the cost of a latte, but these folks aren’t buying lattes, and it’s a choice between electricity and food or shelter.”

    A call to arms

    Humanity cannot win the all-out race to achieve a zero-carbon future without a vast new cohort of participants, symposium speakers agreed. A number of the 2021 C3E award winners who have committed their careers to clean energy invoked the moral imperative of the moment and issued a call to arms.

    “Seven-hundred-and-fifty million people around the world live without reliable energy, and 70 percent of schools lack power,” said Rhonda Jordan-Antoine PhD ’12, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank who received this year’s international award. By laboring to bring smart grids, battery technologies, and regional integration to even the most remote communities, she said, we open up opportunities for education and jobs. “Energy access is not just about energy, but development,” said Antoine, “and I hope you are encouraged to advance clean energy efforts around the globe.”

    Faith Corneille, who won the government award, works in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Energy Resources. “We need innovators and scientists to design solutions; energy efficiency experts and engineers to build; lawyers to review, and bankers to invest, and insurance agents to protect against risk; and we need problem-solvers to thread these together,” she said. “Whatever your path, there’s a role for you: energy and climate intersect with whatever you do.”

    “We know the cause of climate change and how to reverse it, but to make that happen we need passionate and brilliant minds, all pulling in the same direction,” said Megan Nutting, the executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Sunnova Energy Corporation, and winner of the business award. “The clean-energy transition needs women,” she said. “If you are not working in clean energy, then why not?” More

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    Mitigating hazards with vulnerability in mind

    From tropical storms to landslides, the form and frequency of natural hazards vary widely. But the feelings of vulnerability they can provoke are universal.

    Growing up in hazard-prone cities, Ipek Bensu Manav, a civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate with the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub), noticed that this vulnerability was always at the periphery. Today, she’s studying vulnerability, in both its engineering and social dimensions, with the aim of promoting more hazard-resilient communities.

    Her research at CSHub has taken her across the country to attend impactful conferences and allowed her to engage with prominent experts and decision-makers in the realm of resilience. But more fundamentally, it has also taken her beyond the conventional bounds of engineering, reshaping her understanding of the practice.

    From her time in Miami, Florida, and Istanbul, Turkey, Manav is no stranger to natural hazards. Istanbul, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1999, is predicted to experience an equally violent tremor in the near future, while Miami ranks among the top cities in the U.S. in terms of natural disaster risk due to its vulnerability to hurricanes.

    “Growing up in Miami, I’d always hear about hurricane season on the news,” recounts Manav, “While in Istanbul there was a constant fear about the next big earthquake. Losing people and [witnessing] those kinds of events instilled in me a desire to tame nature.”

    It was this desire to “push the bounds of what is possible” — and to protect lives in the process — that motivated Manav to study civil engineering at Boğaziçi University. Her studies there affirmed her belief in the formidable power of engineering to “outsmart nature.”

    This, in part, led her to continue her studies at MIT CSHub — a team of interdisciplinary researchers who study how to achieve resilient and sustainable infrastructure. Her role at CSHub has given her the opportunity to study resilience in depth. It has also challenged her understanding of natural disasters — and whether they are “natural” at all.

    “Over the past few decades, some policy choices have increased the risk of experiencing disasters,” explains Manav. “An increasingly popular sentiment among resilience researchers is that natural disasters are not ‘natural,’ but are actually man-made. At CSHub we believe there is an opportunity to do better with the growing knowledge and engineering and policy research.”

    As a part of the CSHub portfolio, Manav’s research looks not just at resilient engineering, but the engineering of resilient communities.

    Her work draws on a metric developed at CSHub known as city texture, which is a measurement of the rectilinearity of a city’s layout. City texture, Manav and her colleagues have found, is a versatile and informative measurement. By capturing a city’s order or disorder, it can predict variations in wind flow — variations currently too computationally intensive for most cities to easily render.  

    Manav has derived this metric for her native South Florida. A city texture analysis she conducted there found that numerous census tracts could experience wind speeds 50 percent greater than currently predicted. Mitigating these wind variations could lead to some $697 million in savings annually.

    Such enormous hazard losses and the growing threat of climate change have presented her with a new understanding of engineering.

    “With resilience and climate change at the forefront of engineering, the focus has shifted,” she explains, “from defying limits and building impressive structures to making structures that adapt to the changing environment around us.”

    Witnessing this shift has reoriented her relationship with engineering. Rather than viewing it as a distinct science, she has begun to place it in its broader social and political context — and to recognize how those social and political dynamics often determine engineering outcomes.

    “When I started grad school, I often felt ‘Oh this is an engineering problem. I can engineer a solution’,” recounts Manav. “But as I’ve read more about resilience, I’ve realized that it’s just as much a concern of politics and policy as it is of engineering.”

    She attributes her awareness of policy to MIT CSHub’s collaboration with the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research & Education Foundation. The commitment of the concrete and cement industries to resilient construction has exposed her to the myriad policies that dictate the resilience of communities.

    “Spending time with our partners made me realize how much of a policy issue [resilience] is,” she explains. “And working with them has provided me with a seat at the table with the people engaged in resilience.”

    Opportunities for engagement have been plentiful. She has attended numerous conferences and met with leaders in the realm of sustainability and resilience, including the International Code Council (ICC), Smart Home America, and Strengthen Alabama Homes.

    Some opportunities have proven particularly fortuitous. When attending a presentation hosted by the ICC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that highlighted people of color working on building codes, Manav felt inspired to reach out to the presenters. Soon after, she found herself collaborating with them on a policy report on resilience in communities of color.

    “For me, it was a shifting point, going from prophesizing about what we could be doing, to observing what is being done. It was a very humbling experience,” she says. “Having worked in this lab made me feel more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone and reaching out.”

    Manav credits this growing confidence to her mentorship at CSHub. More than just providing support, CSHub Co-director Randy Kirchain has routinely challenged her and inspired further growth.

    “There have been countless times that I’ve reached out to him because I was feeling unsure of myself or my ideas,” says Manav. “And he’s offered clarity and assurance.”

    Before her first conference, she recalls Kirchain staying in the office well into the evening to help her practice and hone her presentation. He’s also advocated for her on research projects to ensure that her insight is included and that she receives the credit she deserves. But most of all, he’s been a great person to work with.

    “Randy is a lighthearted, funny, and honest person to be around,” recounts Manav. “He builds in me the confidence to dive straight into whatever task I’m tackling.”

    That current task is related to equity. Inspired by her conversations with members of the NAACP, Manav has introduced a new dimension to her research — social vulnerability.

    In contrast to place vulnerability, which captures the geographical susceptibility to hazards, social vulnerability captures the extent to which residents have the resources to respond to and recover from hazard events. Household income could act as a proxy for these resources, and the spread of household income across geographies and demographics can help derive metrics of place and social vulnerability. And these metrics matter.

    “Selecting different metrics favors different people when distributing hazard mitigation and recovery funds,” explains Manav. “If we’re looking at just the dollar value of losses, then wealthy households with more valuable properties disproportionally benefit. But, conversely, if we look at losses as a percentage of income, we’re going to prioritize low-income households that might not necessarily have the resources to recover.”

    Manav has incorporated metrics of social vulnerability into her city texture loss estimations. The resulting approach could predict unmitigated damage, estimate subsequent hazard losses, and measure the disparate impact of those losses on low-income and socially vulnerable communities.

    Her hope is that this streamlined approach could change how funds are disbursed and give communities the tools to solve the entwined challenges of climate change and equity.

    The city texture work Manav has adopted is quite different from the gravity-defying engineering that drew her to the field. But she’s found that it is often more pragmatic and impactful.

    Rather than mastering the elements, she’s learning how to adapt to them and help others do the same. Solutions to climate change, she’s discovered, demand the collaboration of numerous parties — as well as a willingness to confront one’s own vulnerabilities and make the decision to reach out.  More