James Wescoat, MIT’s new Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture, speaks often of the need for wisdom in contemporary water management studies.

“Wisdom is about looking at water within wider historical and geographical contexts, seeing what other cultures can tell us about innovation, and designing worthy alternatives,” he says.

An esteemed professor, geographer, landscape architect, water management expert, and South Asian heritage conservationist, Wescoat is well suited to this charge. He’s an authority on Mughal gardens, which have a special relevance to his field. “India and Pakistan have historical gardens, landscapes, and water structures that are very good at conserving water — where small amounts of water have magnificent benefits.”

Wescoat hopes that systems like these will inform how water-conserving design can be adapted in the developed world. “Big cities are facing issues of pressing water supply, quality, and hazards,” says Wescoat, “and we can compare places with long histories and different cultures to help advance problem-solving today. South Asia and the U.S. offer water conservation precedents for one another that draw creatively upon history, geography, and cultural identity.”

By making such global linkages, Wescoat believes, the major issues with water — efficiency, equity, health, energy, and food security — can be solved. The professor makes several trips to India and Pakistan every year, including design workshops with students, to do field research and to explore novel water solutions. Some of the ideas developed will be tested locally on the MIT campus.

“We plan to exchange water-conserving design solutions with other regions in ways that contribute to environmental and social harmony. And we’ll test those solutions to see how they scale, diffuse through space and time.” He concludes, “This type of work is perfect for MIT. It’s written right into our mission that we should develop in each member of our community the ability to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind. I think we understand creativity and efficacy, in some measure. Now, with water-conserving design, we’re focusing on the nature of wisdom.”