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MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

But while thinking globally, MIT is also acting locally, working to make its own campus more resilient.

“We don’t presume to have all the answers here,” says Brian Goldberg, assistant director of the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS). “But we intend to draw on knowledge from around the world to solve problems here on campus. And then we intend to send those solutions back out into the world.”

Founded in 2013 under the Executive Vice President and Treasurer’s Office, MITOS uses the MIT campus as a test bed and incubator for strategies Goldberg and his colleagues hope will help meet the challenges posed by our changing planet. “One thing we do is try to downscale some of the work the Institute is doing across the globe to help understand and tackle the risks we face right here,” he explains.

While the campus is a primary focus for MITOS, it hardly exists in a vacuum. MIT is situated in a city, on a river, near a harbor. The campus is vulnerable to regional events, including severe rains and flash floods, and to such global trends as soaring temperatures and rising seas. To accurately assess campus risks and provide planning parameters, MITOS has established a series of strategic partnerships, including one with the City of Cambridge. “A flood in Cambridgeport can affect MIT,” Goldberg says. “And a flood on the MIT campus can affect city neighborhoods.”

In 2017, Cambridge considered current conditions and projected climate changes and issued a flood risk assessment that charted flood risk for 90% of the city. The missing 10%—the unmapped part of Cambridge—was the MIT campus. “MIT was an open gray area on that model,” says Kenneth Strzepek ’75, SM ’77, PhD ’80, a climate impact specialist and MITOS faculty fellow. “The campus had four major outlets to the Charles River that weren’t in the city model. That meant both the campus and the city were unable to fully assess their risk.”

Mapping drainage system

Working with the city and with researchers at the MIT Center for Global Change Science, the MIT Department of Facilities, and local engineering consultants, MIT conducted a thorough survey of its drainage systems, mapping every drainpipe, catchment, and manhole. With those data, a campus flood-risk model was built that was then integrated into the Cambridge city model. “Now both parties can use the same model for their mutual good,” says Strzepek.

“We can better decide where and how to build, whether to raise structures or put valuable machinery on roofs. It’s the result of a marvelous collaboration between MIT and Cambridge.”

While exemplary, this partnership might be difficult to replicate elsewhere, since few areas have comparable expertise or resources. That’s why MITOS is developing an affordable model that small schools and municipalities worldwide can use to assess their own flood risk, an example of the MITOS strategy to acquire local knowledge and share it with the world.

“In our small, urban, climate-resiliency lab, we built a complex flood-risk model,” says Goldberg. “Now we’re working with climate scientists and campus facility staff to develop a modeling approach that can help predict the likelihood, duration, and impact of heat and rain events for the MIT campus, and we are using the best available science to guide our work.”