Models for a climate changed

Ideas competition spotlights new approaches

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MIT Climate Changed poster. Designed by Omnivore.

By Sera Tolgay, an urban planner and designer with dual master’s degrees in Islamic Architecture and Urban Studies from MIT.

In 2016, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide passed 400 parts per million (ppm) — a meaningful threshold.[1] Current rates of growth suggest that we could reach 500 ppm in 50 years, which climate scientists have called an irreversible tipping point.[2]

Yet predicting future CO2 levels in the atmosphere is complex. We are still piecing together the planet’s network of natural sources and sinks of carbon dioxide. We are also struggling to anticipate the geopolitical outcomes of the Paris Climate Agreement. Given these planetary-scale uncertainties, how do we model and design in a climate changed?

The Climate Changed ideas competition posed this question to emerging designers, engineers, and scientists as part of the spring 2018 Climate Changed event series that explored the agency of models in the future for the built environment.

The competition­­ — cosponsored by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, with award funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation — was organized by MIT PhD candidates Irmak Turan and Jessica Varner. The challenge prompted interdisciplinary teams to consider how environmental models could be translated into climate-responsive design interventions at the urban scale. Participants were asked to imagine climate impacts for the year 2050 on one of three pre-selected sites in the greater Boston area and develop an ideal and a model for change.

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MIT Climate Changed poster. Designed by Omnivore.

Competition proposals ranged from novel coastal infrastructure systems and adaptive use of existing building spaces to interactive public platforms that visualize climate impacts and new risk indices that redefine vulnerability in flood insurance maps. The seven-member interdisciplinary jury — from MIT, the local government, and the private sector — selected competition winners of more than $15,000 in prize money at the conclusion of the two-day Climate Changed symposium. All entries were displayed in the Climate Changed exhibition “After Models?” in MIT’s Keller Gallery.

First place was awarded to the proposal “Emerald Tutu.” Project teams “Higher Grounds” and “WAVE of Change” were named finalists, and proposals “Adaptability” and “R_RAD” received honorable mentions.

Video: MIT Climate Changed ideas competition winner “Emerald Tutu.”

The jury commended “Emerald Tutu” for its “technical and architectural depth” and its “scientifically sound models and a clear design agenda.” The team — Gabriel Cira, Julia Hopkins, Nicholas Lutsko, Connie Lu, and Helen White — brought together expertise from architecture, environmental engineering, and atmospheric and oceanic sciences to imagine a system of soft infrastructure to protect the East Boston coastline.

Project lead Cira mentioned that the team referenced its work against precedents from members’ varied fields at each scale: ecological, hydrological, infrastructural, and architectural. “Each team member used their knowledge of ongoing research and completed projects within their field to ensure that we were always working on something that would be buildable in its final form.”

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Image: Floating rendering, “Emerald Tutu.” Courtesy of the team.

Unlike hard infrastructure that requires constant maintenance, the “tutu” proposed a system of interconnected buoys to act as a substrate that also enables the growth of organisms that provide bioremediation and storm protection. “The ‘soft infrastructure’ idea is definitely a critique of how we currently consider infrastructure and how we treat solutions to problems,” says Cira. “People are starting to warm up to alternatives.”

“For example, a research team at UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab, commissioned by the City of Boston, recently concluded that heavy infrastructure projects will not be effective based on their high cost and risks in Boston, and that the city should instead focus on smaller, shore-based projects.” Cira adds that demonstrating the effectiveness of such soft infrastructure models will be key, requiring more prototyping, testing, and careful scaling analysis to translate results in the lab to geographical-scale simulations.

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Image: Pathway rendering, “Emerald Tutu.” Courtesy of the team.

The jury described the “tutu” project as “a deeply interdisciplinary proposal that embraces the spirit of the competition with rigor, creativity, and playfulness.” Indeed, humor was an integral part of the proposal. “It’s really an idea about the attitudes that a society may take if it expects to survive,” says Cira. “If we forget how to laugh at ourselves, we are already dead in the water.”

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Image: Bird’s-eye view, “Emerald Tutu.” Courtesy of the team.

Unlike calls for significant infrastructural investments, such as storm tanks and sea walls, “Higher Grounds,” one of the two finalists of the competition, proposed a less resource-intensive solution to mitigate projected effects of coastal storm surge and sea level rise. Students Tom Beucler, Jonathan Lin, and Syndey Sroka, from the fields of atmospheric science, computer science, and structural engineering, proposed to link the economics of protection with predicted flooding risks.

The jury commended the team’s “sophisticated science model” and “no-nonsense measures for maximizing the protection of valuable equipment and property.” Using advanced probabilistic risk assessment methods as an alternative to flood level maps to understand the future threats to MIT’s campus, the team concluded that reorganizing academic buildings to transfer all equipment and records to higher floors and add flood-proofing measures in the most at-risk buildings could save the Institute millions of dollars in damage.

Video: MIT Climate Changed ideas competition finalist, “Higher Grounds.”

The second finalist, “WAVE of Change,” focused on making visible the effects of sea level rise through an interactive mobile application. The team of architects, engineers, and a physicist included Alpha Yacob Arsano, Norhan Magdy Bayomi, Nikhilesh Ghanta, Gualtiero Spiro Jaeger, and Valentina Sumini. The team developed a community-centered digital platform showing the tangible effects of global climate change on local urban environments, to engage citizens in the planning of climate change action via an interactive app. According to the jury, the proposal puts forth “an optimistic, forward-looking model for active social engagement in a changing climate.”

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Image: MIT Climate Changed ideas competition finalist, “WAVE of Change.” Courtesy of the team.

Honorable mention went to “Adaptability,” a proposal by Alexander Kaspar, Mohamed Ismail, and Paul Mayencourt, that addresses flexible-use building spaces. The team combined their expertise in computer science and building technology by using qualitative occupancy data available through Google’s Popular Times feature and built a model to pair businesses with opposite- occupancy hours to enable dual uses of a single space. The jury found the team’s innovative use of symbiotic real estate usage to reduce building energy consumption “a clear and compelling paradigm for space co-occupation in an urban economy.”

Finally, a team of urban planners — Collyn S. Chan, Alexander Meeks, Amelia Taylor-Hochberg, and Joshua M. Brooks — received honorable mention for “R_RAD.” This proposal posits a hybrid Climate Risk Index in East Boston, which reconciled a range of social, economic, and physical data at a higher resolution than currently exists. The team also proposed a modular pneumatic flood wall installed underground at the property line of all residences and deployable rapidly when needed. The jury noted that the proposal “highlights the importance of social inequity and vulnerability in the face of a changing climate.”

Although climate projections are alarming — local sea levels will have risen by as much as 1.5 feet[3] and temperatures would resemble that of Washington, D.C., in the Greater Boston region in 2050[4] — the competition entries encapsulate the diverse range of responses that might help communicate risks and allow communities to adapt. The reimagining of climate-related models is just one of many ways that collaborative efforts can help us navigate the uncertainties of a climate changed.

The two-day Climate Changed was held April 20–21, 2018. The related exhibition “After Models?” was on display from April to May 2018 in MIT’s Keller Gallery. Visit MIT Climate Changed on YouTube to watch more proposal videos from the ideas competition.

[1] Nicola Jones, “How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters.” Yale Environment 360, January 26, 2017. https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-the-world-passed-a-carbon-threshold-400ppm-and-why-it-matters.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Boston Research Advisory Group, Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston. Climate Ready Boston, December 2016, https://www.boston.gov/sites/default/files/document-file-12-2016/brag_report_-_final.pdf

[4] The Boston Research Advisory Group, Climate Ready Boston Executive Summary. Climate Ready Boston, December 2016, https://www.boston.gov/sites/default/files/02_20161206_executivesummary_digital.pdf

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