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ILP Institute Insider

October 27, 2014
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Searching for Global Water and Food Solutions

As world population continues to grow so does the need for water and food. It would be easy if the fix was laying down more pipes and cultivating more crops. But it’s not that simple. The global climate is becoming unevenly warmer and more people are moving into cities. Both conditions put stress onto already limited resources. These complex issues need complex solutions, and, for that, MIT has created the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab.
John Lienhard, Director
Abdul Latif Jameel
World Water and Food Security Lab
Started in the fall of 2014 under the direction of Professor John Lienhard, the lab will be able to support and coordinate research all over campus, helping both industries trying to improve their productivity and localities trying to thrive. As Lienhard says, it’s the interdisciplinary approach, coupled with MIT’s unique capabilities, which will set the lab apart and bring innovative solutions to bear.

Taking on Each Region
The lab was established through a gift from Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, a 1978 civil engineering graduate, with the intent of tackling world food and water issues and the intricacy of factors that affect them. As an example, in the Arabian Gulf States, conditions are arid with little agricultural capacity. Most of the water comes from desalinated seawater, and much of the food is imported. It’s an area that will become warmer and drier and be subjected to extreme weather in the coming years, with a population that is rapidly growing, Lienhard says.

Along the equator, climate change will particularly affect agricultural regions. Some of these areas are going to warm faster, but Lienhard says that the bigger issue is that food productivity will shift, making some crops less viable in equatorial areas and more productive closer to the poles, changing what can be grown, and turning strong producers into weaker ones and vice versa. Since food always requires water, one question is whether changing management practices can be the answer to increased production. Fertilizer is a known commodity and would be an easy solution, but, as Lienhard says, it brings with it runoff into waterways and resulting damage to ecosystems.

These specific considerations are reflective of the inherent nature of what the lab faces. “Each of these issues is a regional problem that needs to be looked at in its own context,” says Lienhard, adding, “There is no single answer that’s going to come from a neat invention and a new technology.”

The lab will address this complexity by engaging faculty from across schools, including science, engineering, architecture and urban planning, humanities, arts and social sciences, and management, and by drawing upon work being done in various labs – for example, graphene membranes that can be used for desalination and wireless communication signals that can identify pipe leaks. “When we put people from different disciplines together, we get radically new ideas and approaches to the problems,” he says.

The Entry Into Food
One particular opportunity the lab will provide MIT is to have a clear presence in solving global food needs. The impact of population growth is a central issue. In 1960, the world had 3 billion people. Today, it’s 7 billion, and in 2050, the estimate is 9 billion. With that three-fold increase and ongoing development, 50, possibly 70, percent more food will be needed by 2050 than is produced today, Lienhard says. The challenge is that more than one-third of the world’s ice-free land is already being used for farming. Since converting more land to farms through practices such as cutting down rainforests isn’t viable, the answer may lie in more efficient production techniques or different food choices. As he says, one-third of all crops are used for livestock, and producing beef takes 15 times more water than producing an equivalent amount of grain.

Another issue is the rise in urbanization. More than 50 percent of the population already lives in cities. By 2050, it’s estimated that 86 percent of the developed world and 64 percent of the developing one will be there, Lienhard says. Most food, accordingly, is consumed in cities, and so another question is whether urban agriculture can be developed as a water and energy efficient approach to some portion of the food supply.

Many of these issues are known and studied, but a course of action hasn’t been established, let alone enacted. While the lab will be able to identify already existing food technology on campus to address a problem, one other benefit is it can help to identify work that wasn’t conceived for food-related uses but which nonetheless can be applied.

Take food spoilage. One MIT program in nanotechnology has developed sensors that can detect chemical weapons. But these sensors can also be used to detect ripening or rotting food. This could provide the chance to improve food distribution and reduce waste and spoilage along the supply chain. If that can be done, a significant obstacle can be cleared, since estimates have it that wasted food is four times the amount needed to feed the world’s hungry people, Lienhard says.

In Search of Partners
The next step, and the essential one, is collaboration, not only within the university but also with industry. Lienhard says that the lab is looking for partners around the world who can develop and implement new water and food technologies and approaches. But more than that, the lab will help partners address their own business challenges. Some companies want to make their environmental footprints smaller. Others face product struggles in international markets, such as beverage makers and water. They have to contend with a different quality while also competing for it with locals. Lienhard says that the lab can help find the equitable balance between commerce and sharing resources for domestic use.

Because the lab is new, Lienhard says there’s an unknown element to what the work will look like. But for potential partners, there also comes with it a certainty. “They get MIT,” he says. That means world-recognized faculty members, a large population of graduate and postdoctoral researchers, approximately 120 issued United States patents annually and 20 spin-off companies per year, he says.

And there’s also the overall guiding philosophy of MIT’s approach. It’s a place that doesn’t keep its work in the lab but instead focuses on translating research to real-world use. Supplying sufficient water and food as the population grows and the climate changes is a large task, but Lienhard says that’s precisely the nature of what MIT does. “We take basic science. We apply it to human needs, and we solve problems.”

Research News

October 23, 2014

Microscopic “walkers” find their way across cell surfaces

Nature has developed a wide variety of methods for guiding particular cells, enzymes, and molecules to specific structures inside the body: White blood cells can find their way to the site of an infection, while scar-forming cells migrate to the site of a wound. But finding ways of guiding artificial materials within the body has proven more difficult.

Now a team of researchers at MIT led by Alfredo Alexander-Katz, the Walter Henry Gale Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, has demonstrated a new target-finding mechanism. The new system allows microscopic devices to autonomously find their way to areas of a cell surface, for example, just by detecting an increase in surface friction in places where more cell receptors are concentrated.

The finding is described this week in a paper in the journal Physical Review Letters, written by Alexander-Katz, graduate student Joshua Steimel, and postdoc Juan Aragones.

MIT Sloan
Management Review

October 27, 2014

Capturing the “Chatter Data” That Advertisers Want

As Facebook becomes more global and more mobile-centric, it’s also becoming more versed at laying customer data over advertiser data and third-party data.

One outcome is more customized experiences for its users. Another is a better ability to reach specific demographics for its advertisers.

But a third outcome is the ability to “listen in” on what Facebook users, in the aggregate, are talking about, and to report that information back to brands and marketers. This is what media companies call “chatter data.” It’s very valuable, and it’s something that Facebook has the potential to offer in spades.

“The kind of digital media we’re seeing a lot of asks-for from agencies and from clients and from media companies is around chatter data,” said Blake Chandlee, vice president of global partnerships at Facebook, in a recent interview with MIT Sloan Management Review.

“Chatter data is what people are talking about when they’re watching television or when they’re watching a sporting event,” he continued. “What kind of reaction are they having? Are brand mentions included? How are brands representing themselves in that kind of chatter? What kind of, say, hair color? That might affect a hair care company.”

Chandlee added: “That kind of real-time knowledge and opening up pipes for brands or their agencies and consultants and others to access that data to inform decision making is key. But privacy will always be the primary underlying consideration, which everybody has to consider because the consumer backlash if they find you using their data inappropriately is significant and quick.”

In the interview, called “How Facebook is Delivering Personalization on a Whole New Scale” and conducted by Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, Chandlee said that Facebook is working with brands such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever to help them understand their consumers in newly detailed ways.

“Procter & Gamble might want to see data about users of hair care products and we can help them understand through our Insights platform the kinds of folks that are talking about their brands or engaging with their brands on Facebook,” he said.

“We aggregate the data so there’s no personal identifiable information shared, and help them understand what their consumers are talking about — the kind of television shows they’re watching, the kind of music they like listening to. That kind of information for a brand is very, very powerful. It helps them make a lot of different decisions around product development and communication strategies.”

For advertising agencies, Facebook is providing similar types of information. “We can help them understand frequency curves around media planning, deep insights if they overlay with some insights they have through their own proprietary insights platforms,” said Chandlee. “Again, helping them to help their brands in being more knowledgeable about people and their consumer base.”

Chandlee emphasized that the insights Facebook is able to provide brands and advertising agencies is increasing thanks to the use of mobile devices. “Today, we think mobile first,” said Chandlee. “This fundamental shift of the entire user experience is trickling down to not only our users but to our advertisers. Two years ago, we had zero ad business in the mobile environment. Now well over half of our revenue is mobile. We think between ourselves and Google, we’ve effectively shifted mobile into the forefront. And we think brands are benefitting from that because the user experience and the way brands engage with consumers in mobile is very different than a desktop experience.”

For more about how Facebook is able to deliver nuanced information to brands and marketers, read the full interview.


This article draws from “How Facebook is Delivering Personalization on a Whole New Scale,” an interview with Blake Chandlee (Facebook) conducted by Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane (MIT Sloan Management Review). It was posted online on August 5, 2014, at sloanreview.mit.edu.