“The time is right now to look at water and food security because both humankind and the planet itself are changing rapidly,” says Mohammed Jameel ’78, founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab at MIT. Jameel recently shared his thoughts with Spectrum.
Of all the issues you could focus your philanthropic efforts on, why this new lab on water and food security?
MJ: In the past, I have supported and still support initiatives related to several global and regional issues, including education, job creation, and poverty alleviation. The time is right now to look at water and food security because both humankind and the planet itself are changing rapidly. As population and living standards rise, humans are putting unprecedented strains on water and food resources. In addition, the climate is changing and becoming less predictable.
Water and food are essential to life. Today, one billion people lack reliable access to safe water and about 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger or malnutrition. How will we find enough food to feed another two billion people by mid-century with an agricultural footprint and water resources that may be in decline? If we are serious about improving water and food security, we need to stimulate new approaches to long-standing problems. For example, if we can commercialize new disruptive technologies in water and food security that can be profitably adopted by the private sector, we have a chance to make a difference on a massive scale.
The focus of this lab is unique. It brings together faculty and students across a range of disciplines including engineering, science, urban planning, management, and social science. It will provide funding for research conducted by MIT students, postdocs, and faculty to advance these projects to the point where they are positioned to attract venture funding and establish themselves as new companies. It will also sponsor international partnerships.
There is a big opportunity to make a real difference, and I have challenged the lab to positively impact the lives of 500 million people in 10 years. It is a big number, but it will be a measure of great success if we can achieve it.
What inspired you about MIT’s vision of water and food security?
MJ: In September 2012, when Rafael Reif gave his inaugural speech as President of MIT, he identified the problem of water and food security as one of the most critical issues facing humankind and one that MIT was uniquely placed to address. That speech marked the beginning of a conversation with Rafael and Professor John Lienhard to explore what could be done to accelerate the work that MIT was doing in this area. It was out of this conversation that the idea of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab emerged, with John Lienhard as the director.
What do you see as the important impacts of population growth, climate change, urbanization, and development on water and food security?
MJ: All of these trends put pressure on water and food security. Water is becoming more scarce and the agricultural footprint is declining because of urbanization and climate change. So we really need to take an “anti-disciplinary” approach that is familiar to MIT, and bring in diverse talent not only to study the problem, but also to ensure that the research effort translates into real action through innovation, commercialization, policy advice, and international partnerships.
What do you see as the role of technology, entrepreneurship, and business innovation in tackling problems of water and food?
MJ: Developing and commercializing disruptive technology will be key to addressing water and food insecurity. MIT understands this, and one of the defining characteristics of MIT labs is the interplay of research and innovation. We have recently signed an agreement to create a Solutions Fund operated by the lab in collaboration with the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. This fund will provide initial capital to help technologies that improve food supplies or meet needs for clean water move out of the lab and into commercial production. The funds are intended to advance these projects to the point where they are positioned to attract venture funding and establish themselves as new companies. It is a significant fund, expected to provide enough money for about 15 projects over the next five years. It will also pilot a new co-investment model for intellectual property licensing at MIT, which, if successful, will likely be implemented by other programs at MIT, such as those dealing with energy or health care. The new lab also supports the MIT Water Club, which has a big focus on fostering water innovation and supporting the commercialization of breakthrough, scalable water technologies and processes.
What importance do you see for regional partnerships in MIT’s contribution to these issues?
MJ: Regional partnerships are critical to ensuring that MIT’s research has meaningful impacts on the ground. Last year, the new lab convened and sponsored an international, non-partisan Eastern Nile Working Group. Right now, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is being built on the Nile River just upstream from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan without any management agreement with Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors. It is in its early days, but that’s a real-world problem affecting one of the world’s largest water systems, depended on by more than 200 million people.
Are you optimistic/hopeful that it will be possible to make meaningful progress on these issues in time to make a difference in the coming decades?
MJ: I do not want to raise expectations unrealistically, but we are thinking big. I believe in MIT, and I believe in the power of science to develop disruptive technologies. The most effective way to help improve water and food security is to create new, sustainable technologies that are disruptive to current technologies and can be adopted by global industry. This lab will be the first to combine water and food at a global level, so it has an opportunity to change millions of lives for the better.