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Yearly Archives: 2018

What it takes to reach win-win

What is the true art of the deal? Is it about who can be more forceful? The most manipulative? Bruno Verdini believes a successful negotiation is when everybody leaves the table satisfied. Executive director of the MIT-Harvard Mexico Negotiation Program and author of the new book, “Winning Together: The Natural Resource Negotiation Playbook,” Verdini studied negotiations between the United States and Mexico over hydrocarbon drilling rights. What he learned was how conflicts can be resolved through proactive collaboration.

Verdini explored age-old disputes between the two countries regarding the hydrocarbon reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico and environmental and water resources from the Colorado River. In 2012, following a decades-long stalemate, the countries developed joint agreements that have been implemented, enhanced, and renewed. What changed?

The U.S. had historically enforced the “rule of capture,” specifying that if a company drills into a reservoir on the U.S. side, regardless of whether the reservoir crosses the border, it is entitled to all extracted oil. Mexico protested what it considered a unilateral ruling that put it at a disadvantage, but it was also laboring under its own restrictive policies. Constitutional rulings forbid joint drilling between Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), its national oil company, and energy companies outside of Mexico.

Negotiators for the two countries, finding themselves at an impasse in 2000, agreed to place a ten-year moratorium on drilling in the contested area. In 2010, they extended the moratorium for another four years, but this time, they set about resolving the core issue. Eighteen months later, the United States and Mexico signed a landmark agreement to overhaul all prior practices and incentivize their energy companies to develop shared hydrocarbon reservoirs.

Leaping the impasse

Verdini talked with negotiators from both countries. He wasn’t so much interested in the specifics of the agreement but in how the day-to-day communications unfolded. The lead negotiator for the United States, who had deep oil-industry experience, suggested that before the start of negotiations, the two groups participate in a series of collaborative workshops to develop a deeper understanding of each country’s goals and constraints. Working side by side in these monthly workshops, the participants came to understand one another’s points of view. The environment was friendly, positive, and productive, and in the end, the two negotiating teams built a solid rapport and sincerely wanted to come to a win-win conclusion.

“There’s evidence that one of the best ways to satisfy one’s own interests is to find an effective way to meet the core interests of the other side,” Verdini notes in an article published in the MIT Energy Initiative’s magazine Energy Futures. “Embracing a mutual-gains approach to negotiation implies switching away from the traditional, widespread, zero-sum, win-lose mindset in order to structure the negotiation process instead as an opportunity for stakeholders to learn about and respond to each other’s core needs. The result tends to be a more robust agreement that both sides experience and view as beneficial.”

Verdini’s research received Harvard Law School’s award for best research of the year in negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution, the first time the honor has been awarded to faculty member based at MIT. He is now heading the development of a Mexico-based bi-national negotiation center devoted to training stakeholders and organizations.

Read more about Verdini’s research in Energy Futuresthe magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Alter your work environment to suit your mood—without ever leaving your desk

You are where you work—virtually, at least. A new project at the MIT Media Lab is examining how much your environment influences your mood, behavior, sleep, health—even your capacity for creativity. And it’s fine-tuning ways for individuals to control and change that environment. The project is called Mediated Atmosphere and is the work of the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group, which focuses on augmenting and mediating human experience, interaction, and perception using sensor networks.

In a time of declining worker satisfaction, researchers on the project are hoping to enhance wellbeing and productivity in the workplace by improving each individual’s personal workplace atmosphere. With biosensors, lighting, image projection, and sound, the group is creating immersive environments designed to help users focus, de-stress, and do their best work.

MIT Media Lab's Mediated Atmosphere Project

Atmospheric Scene: Forest Photo credit: Nan Zhao

The idea is that, during the course of the workday, we are likely to be inspired by different environments. The studious quiet of a grand library might motivate us as we settle in to research. Or we might need a break after a stressful meeting by virtually strolling along a path beside a stream. Media Lab researcher Nan Zhao noticed that most lighting solutions, wireless speakers, and home automation platforms lack a multimodal quality to synchronize light, sound, images, fragrances, and temperature. She also noted the paucity of research on the impact of atmospheric scenes on cognition and behavior.

Zhao drew on what little existing research she could find that explored the positive effects of natural views and sounds on mental state as well as the effects of light and sound on mood, alertness, and memory. During that research, she came to realize that any given environmental stimulus will have a very different effect on different people. As individual as our reactions are to specific environments, however, she also concluded that each of us needs rich, absorbing, but predictable places to visit in the course of a day, places that are fascinating and give us a feeling of having changed our surroundings.

The study of 29 users offered five different ambient scenes, ranging from forest streams to bustling coffee shops, measuring how the environment influenced participants’ ability to focus and bounce back from stress. Using nonintrusive biosensors, the research team learned each worker’s activity, work habits, and physiological or behavioral reactions to environmental changes. Building on data from realistic work scenarios, the team then created personalized response models to synchronize the workspace experience with the ever-changing requirements of workers.

Mediated Atmosphere uses a frameless screen (designed with a special aspect ratio so it doesn’t feel like watching TV), a custom lighting network, speaker array, video projection, and wearable biosignal sensors. The team can label what specific atmospheric scenes mean for the user and learn how to automatically trigger a change in environment based on their responses. Looking ahead, the team envisions more complex applications that would use ambiance to strengthen memory and enhance learning activities.

“We want to create an environment player that can recommend or automate your space similar to how Spotify or Pandora gives you access to a world of music,” Zhao says. “We want to help people to manage their days by giving them the right place at the right time.”

Read the related story in MIT News.

Watch the Mediated Atmosphere video.

Tiny houses offer big benefit to Seattle’s homeless

Homelessness in Seattle might not grab the national headlines as it does in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but the city has the third-largest homeless population in the country, behind those other two metropolises. Seattle-based MIT alumna Sharon Lee has found one inventive solution to the crisis—tiny houses.

Lee graduated from MIT in 1981 with degrees in architecture and city planning. She founded the Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute in 1991 to provide a range of supportive service programs that allow residents to maintain stable housing and increase self-sufficiency.

The micro-dwellings measure 8 x 12 feet and are fully heated and electrified. Each cluster of 16 homes—seven clusters have been built across the city—is located on open land or in an unused parking lot. Each cluster is set up to be its own village with a communal kitchen and bathroom facilities. The city funds the utilities as well as full-time social workers and case managers to support the residents. Volunteers—many from trade organizations and schools—build the homes, which cost about $2,500 each to construct.

A catalyst for turning lives around

Because the tiny homes are under 120-square-feet, they aren’t considered a dwelling and can be built and made operational quickly with a relative minimum of red tape. “If you want to build a [traditional] building, it takes a year to get financing, a year to get permits, and a year to year-and-a-half to build,” Lee notes. “In the meantime, people are literally dying on the streets.”

Designed as a temporary solution, the homes have proven to be an effective vehicle for turning lives around. In the last two years, nearly 2,000 members of Seattle’s 10,000+ homeless citizens have taken advantage of the tiny house communities, and 300+ residents have moved on to permanent housing. More than 250 have gained employment. “It’s not a perfect solution,” Lee emphasizes. “It’s a crisis response.”

At LIHI, Lee oversees a staff of 140 engaged in housing development, management, advocacy, and support services. Her team has developed more than 4,500 units of housing, including tiny homes. In addition to recognition for its humanitarian impact, the organization’s efforts have won several local and national awards for design excellence and environmental sustainability.

“It is very emotional,” says Lee. “When we offer people a tiny house, they may have been on the street for four years and they finally move into a place that’s heated and where they can stay, and they’re just overwhelmed. Then they find that they can get their life together. They can address their health care, their mental health, and their employment situation because they can be stable.”

Read the story in the Slice of MIT blog.

Residents and staff discuss the benefits of tiny home villages.

Problem-led leadership: A new entrepreneurial model

CEO, entrepreneur, and theoretical neuroscientist, Vivienne Ming believes we should—and will—embrace cyborgs. Within the next generation, she recently told a packed audience at MIT Sloan, cognitive neuroprosthetics will “fundamentally change the definition of what it means to be human.” Cofounder of the machine learning company Socos Labs and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, Ming’s goal is to solve sticky dilemmas at the intersection of advanced technology, learning, and labor economics.

Named one of Ten Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. magazine, Ming is renowned for her heady predictions about the future direction of tech, but it’s her leadership model that most intrigues MIT Leadership Center Executive Director Hal Gregersen and Faculty Director Deborah Ancona. They expound on her distinctive style in a recent Harvard Business Review post, because it’s a model they are observing more and more in contemporary C-suites.

Don’t do as I say. Do what I can’t do.

Gregersen and Ancona say that Ming has come to the conclusion that she can make her strongest contributions as an individual, rather than as a team booster. “For a long time, I tried to be the whole package. I put a lot of energy into making certain that I was shepherding everyone along, doing all the right things for my teams. Then I realized: You know what? If I can get some people that are really good at the things that I’m not, then I can focus on my strengths. And my strengths are in creative problem solving — all the way down to writing the code myself.”

As directors of the MIT Leadership Center, Gregersen and Ancona have been trying to get to the bottom of this new style. Is it a trend? A future best practice? “We weren’t sure if it was because we spent so much time with MIT-trained people,” they note in their Harvard Business Review post, “or if there was a much more widespread shift under way, but the people we saw driving impactful, world-changing initiatives just didn’t look like old-school leadership material—and didn’t seem to want to. Cautiously, we called it problem-led leadership and launched into all the interviewing, case studying, and literature review that goes into a leadership research project.”

Gregersen and Ancona found several common threads in the work of problem-led leaders. Most noteworthy, they say, is that none of these leaders appear to harbor any expectations that they will attract “followers” by the sheer power of their charisma or status. Instead, they note, “their method is to get others excited about whatever problem they have identified as ripe for a novel solution.” They take a leadership role only to bring together the problem-solvers necessary to reach a solution. For Ming, the style is simply a tool, a means to an end. “The only reason I do it is because it is an amazingly effective way to have an impact on the world.”

Read more in the MIT Sloan Experts blog.

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.

Lighting the world: MIT graduate student invents scalable solar

It’s tough to be competitive within the global marketplace when your company languishes for large spans of time off the power grid, but it’s a problem that people in many developing nations face. In his native Zimbabwe, Prosper Nyovanie says that life was continually lived in work-around mode as frequent electricity outages plagued the country. Realizing how crippling this was to Zimbabwe’s economic culture, Nyovanie set about looking for a solution. He found it in a scalable solar electric system that expands with demand.

Nyovanie, who majored in mechanical engineering as an MIT undergraduate, discovered his calling when he took the course Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies, which explored the production, distribution, and consumption of energy. The experience inspired him to minor in energy studies and eventually led to the birth of Voya Sol, the company he cofounded to enable individuals to build their own solar energy micro-grids from the bottom-up.

As an undergraduate, Nyovanie took on a UROP with Martin Culpepper in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and realized that the success of his ideas were rooted at the intersection of business and technology. In a recent interview with MIT News he recalled, “One big thing that I liked about the class was that it introduced this other complexity that I hadn’t paid that much attention to before, because when you’re in the engineering side, you’re really focused on making technology, using science to come up with awesome inventions. But there are considerations that you need to think about when you’re implementing [such inventions]. You need to think about markets, how policies are structured.”

Now a graduate student and fellow in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, Nyovanie is building that pivotal combination of skills. Through the LGO program, he will earn an MBA from MIT Sloan and a master’s in mechanical engineering. He is also a fellow in the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.

Global fieldwork in key markets

Before cofounding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo, Nyovanie worked at renewable energy company SunEdison as a process engineer and analyst through the Renewable Energy Leadership Development Rotational Program. He rotated between different roles at the company around the world, including a stint as a project engineer overseeing the development of rural mini-grids in Tanzania. When SunEdison declared bankruptcy, Nyovanie continued his discussions with rural electricity providers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria before eventually founding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo.

Nyovanie believes that their scalable, personalized solar solution is the first of its kind. If all goes according to plan, they will provide customers with all the components necessary to independently assemble a solar energy system that can power their own homes, connect to their neighbors’ systems, or even build out a community grid. The first country to test the product? Zimbabwe, of course.

The social media chain reaction

It’s one thing for our culture to develop an awareness of the power of microtargeting on social media—influencing people to buy a certain product or vote in favor of or against a certain candidate or issue. What has received less attention is the chain reaction that ensues as a result of microtargeting. Those who have been influenced go on to influence and not just on social media.

Once a microtargeting campaign changes the “influencer’s” ideas or behavior, that person may well go on to influence the behavior of friends and family outside the realm of social media says MIT Sloan’s Sinan Aral and Paramveer Dhillon in a new study published in Nature Human Behavior. “If you can change behaviors through microtargeting,” the authors say, “what role do influencers play in spreading those behaviors beyond the reach of the targeting campaign itself? That’s a crucial question for those wishing to influence everything from elections to health campaigns to product adoption.”

In the same way that Facebook data can be used to improve the targeting of persuasive messages, this pioneering study proves that empirical data can actually improve the identification of influencers. Aral and Dhillon demonstrate that the use of empirical data can maximize influence by up to 87%, simply by reaching—and changing the behavior—of more people. The influencers identified through data have more cohesive, embedded ties with their contacts.

Data can be used for good or ill

Aral adds a cautionary note that such data can be used for good or ill. For example, influencers can be tapped to interfere with legitimate democratic elections through the spread of propaganda. At the same time, they can encourage people to quit smoking or help them recognize the signs of heart disease.

Sinan is a leading expert on social networks, social media, and digital strategy. He has worked closely with Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, the New York Times, IBM, Cisco, Intel, Oracle, SAP and many other leading Fortune 500 firms to realize business value through social media and information technology investments.

Sinan’s research focuses on social contagion, product virality, and measuring and managing how information diffusion in massive social networks such as Twitter and Facebook affects information worker productivity, consumer demand, and viral marketing. He has received a number of awards for his research, including the Microsoft Faculty Fellowship, the PopTech Science Fellowship, an NSF CAREER Award, and multiple “best paper” awards. Sinan was also recently named among “The World’s Top 40 Business School Professors Under 40” by Poets & Quants. Coauthor Paramveer Dhillon, who is working closely with Sinan in this area, is a postdoctoral associate in management science at MIT Sloan.

Read more about Sinan Aral.

Creating food desert oases: Harvard and MIT innovators pitch options

In large swaths of the world, including the United States, urban areas are plagued with food deserts—places where residents have little or no access to affordable, nutritious food. In fact, 40+ million Americans now live in 6,500 food deserts that have been identified across the country. As a result, they also live with significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The winners of the 2018 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize have developed inventive solutions to this dilemma, which has defied 21st-century governments and NGOs.

EatWell, a team of students and agribusiness experts representing the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, won the $15,000 first prize with their plan to bring healthier meal options to low-income communities. They are developing simple, low-cost meal kits that can be sold in food deserts. The team’s test market is Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood where 60 percent of families fall into the low-income category and are served by a single grocery store. Consequently, only a third of all Mattapan residents have access to affordable, nutritious food.

EatWell’s process is to survey residents about meal preferences. A professional chef and dietitian then work together to create simple, healthy, quick-to-table recipes. In Mattapan, that meant a chicken pot pie dish chock full of vegetables and a Haitian pork dish. The $15 kits cost far less than competitors like Blue Apron, in part because they aren’t shipped and don’t have in-box refrigeration.

Crowdsourcing the wisdom of farmers in Africa

The $10,000 second prize went to Context Insights, an outgrowth of a class project in the MIT Sloan course Opportunities in Developing Economies taught by Tavneet Suri. Suri, an associate professor of applied economics, is also scientific director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Africa and the cochair of J-PAL’s agriculture sector. Context Insight’s idea is to crowd-source crop-price predictions from farmers in Africa and aggregate that data for governments and microfinance institutions so that they can increase crop investments that alleviate market volatility.

Context Insights uses the wisdom of savvy local farmers to forecast the price of basic commodities like maize, commodities that are critical to life in sub-Saharan Africa. The team is now piloting the platform with the East Africa Exchange, the largest regional commodity exchange in East Africa. Its goal is to connect the owners of small farms to agricultural and financial markets.

The Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize is sponsored by Rabobank and supported by Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club.

Learn more about the Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize.

Read a related story in MIT News.

Leadership: It’s not who you are. It’s what you do.

Leader is not a word you hear bandied about at MIT. Like wireless Internet, it’s taken for granted on this campus. But more than that, for those immersed in intellectual pursuits, the term is often associated with ambition, self-promotion, and power-grabbing. Such is the insight expressed by Dava Newman, Apollo Professor of Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT and the former deputy administrator at NASA.

In their recent article in strategy+business, MIT Sloan Professor Deborah Ancona and MIT Leadership Center Director Hal Gregersen use Newman as an example of the Institute gestalt. They explain that leadership at a place like MIT is most effective when it’s associated with a goal, like solving a problem or developing an innovation. Far less so when it is associated with power and hierarchy. The authors talk about a group of leaders visiting MIT to find out how to spark cross-disciplinary innovation. They were stunned at the takeaway: “You have to start with really hard, edgy, cool problems.”

Challenges not accolades

Ancona and Gregersen say, in fact, that it is solving problems that brings prestige and satisfaction to up-and-comers in the MIT innovation universe. Although such innovators might recognize the value of being knowledgeable, they pride themselves most on their expertise in specific realms. Most important, they seek leadership positions to get the resources and support to pursue their ideas, not for the glory of the position itself. Their motivation is driving a heartfelt goal to fruition.

The authors point to the recent win by MIT’s Hyperloop team, which formed after Elon Musk’s company Space X announced it would award a prize to the team that could design a critical component in a new high-speed transportation system. To create Hyperloop, MIT scientists immediately created a multidisciplinary team of 28 students in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and other areas. When the team won the competition, its leader John Mayo explained to a reporter from a Boston newspaper just why his team had triumphed. “Hyperloop has the ability to have a good impact on the environment…and just advance physical transportation in general. That’s why we go to school, [to] meet challenges and solve problems.”

Ancona and Gregersen also try to get into the head of MIT cognitive neuroscience professor Rebecca Saxe, who conducts pioneering research on brain function and resilience. Saxe told them that her most effective colleagues “don’t say, ‘You’re crazy.’ They say, ‘OK, when do we start?’” At MIT, Ancona and Gregersen conclude, the real opponents are not peers but “the previous level of capability someone brought to bear on a similar problem.”

Read the full article in strategy+business.

MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems are forging the future of energy

Fusion power is a carbon-free, combustion-free source of energy that uses fusion reactions to produce heat for electricity generation—and it may well be the way we power our future lives. Read about how it works.

Visualization by Ken Filar, PSFC research affiliate

Although, it has been the dream of energy researchers for years, fusion power remained out of reach because of the investment necessary to develop it for practical use. MIT has just announced, however, that it is putting fusion power on the fast track. With $50 million from an Italian energy investor, the Institute and the new private company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) are preparing to launch a rapid research program leading to the development of a working pilot plant within 15 years.

The project was conceived by MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) researchers Robert Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15 (now the CEO of CFS), Dan Brunner, PhD ’13, Brandon Sorbom, PhD ’17, and Zach Hartwig PhD ’14, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. Director Dennis Whyte and Deputy Director Martin Greenwald will lead the effort, which will include a broad interdisciplinary team.

We need a new approach

Mitigating global climate change, Hartwig told MIT News, will require new sources of zero-carbon energy on a very fast track. “We are going to need a completely new approach to ensure that fusion energy can be a significant part of the solution. The hard reality of climate change is that every single nation that has ever industrialized and made a better life for its citizens did so at the expense of the climate. There is, at present, simply no other way to do this than to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels for energy.”

CFS will join the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as part of the new university-industry partnership designed to bolster MIT research and teaching on the science of fusion. MIT President L. Rafael Reif described the project launch as an important historical moment. “Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future,” he said. “As humanity confronts the rising risks of climate disruption, I am thrilled that MIT is joining with industrial allies, both longstanding and new, to run full-speed toward this transformative vision for our shared future on Earth.”

See MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber’s op-ed in the Boston Globe.

Find out more about the MIT-CFS fusion project.

Read a Q&A with one of the project originators Zach Hartwig

MIT unveils task force on the future of work

“We must proactively and thoughtfully reinvent the future of work,” MIT President Rafael Reif said in a recent op-ed piece in the Boston Globe. Soon after, he unveiled the Institute’s much-talked-about new working group—the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future—the Institute’s response to a driving societal challenge: how to harness technological innovations for social benefit.

The MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future will investigate answers to three key questions:

  • How are emerging technologies transforming the nature of human work and the skills that enable humans to thrive in the digital economy?
  • How can we shape and catalyze technological innovation to complement and augment human potential?
  • How can our civic institutions ensure that the gains from these emerging innovations contribute to equality of opportunity, social inclusion, and shared prosperity?

To identify answers, members of the Task Force will integrate pioneering knowledge in engineering, technology, economics, education, business, industrial organization, political science, sociology, anthropology, and public policy. After synthesizing and interpreting current information, the Task Force will break ground with original research to advance understanding of the relationship between technology, work, and society.

Who is the Task Force?

David A. Mindell, Task Force Chair

The MIT Work of the Future Task Force brings together more than two dozen MIT faculty and researchers representing a broad range of disciplines, from aeronautics and robotics to economics and organizational studies. The Task Force will set the research agenda for this two-and-a-half year effort, creating an interdisciplinary conversation that will link existing and new research on campus. In addition to the extensive research agenda, the group will conduct periodic conferences, speakers, and educational outreach.

Chair of the Task Force is historian and electrical engineer David A. Mindell, an expert on human-machine relationships and author of the book “Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy.” Mindell is the Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and the former director of MIT’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society (STS).

“The MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future takes as a guiding premise that addressing the social and human implications of technology should not be an afterthought,” notes Provost Martin A. Schmidt, “but instead should be a first concern that pervades how we design, innovate, and take our ideas to market, as well as what we teach our students, the technologists of tomorrow.”

Visit the Task Force website.

Read the MIT News article about the Task Force.