The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) launched in September 2014 to spearhead research “that will help humanity adapt to a surging population and respond to water and food scarcity worldwide.” Recently, Spectrum interviewed John Lienhard, director of J-WAFS and professor of mechanical engineering, to learn more about the new center’s mission.

What is the role of J-WAFS?

JL: Our mission is to support the work of the MIT community in water and food and to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And we want to make that whole have a positive impact on the world outside MIT. Many others are working in the food and water space around the world—we clearly are not the first group to tackle these big issues—but we think that MIT’s unique footprint will make for unique contributions through J-WAFS.

What strengths does MIT bring to the table?

JL: MIT as a whole has a singular strength in creating basic research and then translating it to innovations in technology that have broad benefits. And we are good at undertaking complex, coupled problems and unraveling them.

Our specific capabilities are diverse. We’ve got tremendous strength in environmental and climate-change science which can help us understand at a regional level what stresses are likely to affect food and water resources. We’ve got unparalleled strength in the biological sciences, which may allow us to look at particular problems of food safety and food production. We have strength in big data and information science that will allow us to examine and manage water and food systems at a level of detail and responsiveness not previously possible. We’ve got strength in sensors and nanotechnology that will allow us to detect rotting food, leaking pipes, and unsafe water—and to correlate that information to actually improve distribution. And we’ve got strength in water purification, desalination, and technology for safer water supplies.

One important point about these great technical solutions is that if nobody will adopt them, they’re not very useful. Our faculty in the social sciences bring understanding of what makes something more or less acceptable in a particular country or culture, how you communicate—or negotiate—about these issues, and how to approach the economic barriers to implementing a solution.

And we’ve got great strengths in business and innovation, too. If there’s one thing MIT does well, it’s create technology and spin it out to market. In fact, we’ve just started the J-WAFS Solutions program to assist MIT students and faculty in translating their innovations in water and food, business and technology, into the marketplace.

J-WAFS specifically emphasizes solutions that vary by area of activity. Why?

JL: The problems of water and food are different in every setting: problems and solutions in urban China are different from problems and solutions in rural India, and those are different from what’s happening in the Arabian Gulf or from what’s happening in Brazil. And if we are going to create opportunities for MIT faculty and students to work on those problems, we need partners and collaborators in these regions who know the regional context well and know who to go to to get things done, and who, ultimately, will be the ones who translate ideas from research collaboration with MIT into solutions that are used in their own country or region.

Does this mean J-WAFS leans towards international issues?

JL: We are definitely seeking international partners, but we’re also interested in domestic problems. And there’s clearly overlap in both the basic science and the technologies that might apply here or overseas. When we look internationally, development is a massive need in important parts of the world, and J-WAFS wants to contribute to that. But research and innovation will also help more developed societies deal with the challenges that they will face from population growth, climate change, and urbanization. Water and food are not only a problem for the developing world: they are also a problem for the first world and for everyone in between.

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