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MIT embarks on collaborative climate resiliency planning

MIT and Novartis are co-chairing a new working group on Cambridge climate resiliency.
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When the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, releases the results of its first climate change vulnerability assessment, expected this summer, the report and technical resources will show that the MIT and Cambridge community can expect a hotter, more flood-prone future. Cambridge will experience an increase in inland flooding during extreme weather events and more days of extreme heat in the future due to climate change. With this knowledge, Cambridge residents, businesses, and institutions, including MIT, must begin to consider how climate change will affect business continuity, planning, and operations, and how best to respond.

Convention might have us working in silos — each individual university or business conducting an internal analysis to prepare response plans independent of one another. MIT and its partners in Cambridge, however, have chosen to try something entirely different.

MIT has long partnered with Harvard University and the City of Cambridge on sustainability-related issues, by serving on local committees, sharing best practices for improving the efficiency of campus operations, supporting expansion of the Hubway bike-sharing program, creating publically accessible green space, and hosting farmers markets. These efforts are best represented by the Cambridge Compact for a Sustainable Future, which has turned recent efforts towards collaborative climate risk preparedness.

In May 2013, the City of Cambridge, along with MIT and Harvard, agreed to formalize their longstanding cooperation on issues related to sustainability and climate change by founding the Cambridge Compact for a Sustainable Future, and inviting others to sign on. Together, the entities realized that by building a lasting partnership between the city and its local businesses and universities, they could foster innovative solutions that have a lasting impact. The compact now has 20 signatories — ranging from Akamai to Whole Foods. In order to advance multiple sustainability goals, the compact began forming several working groups this past spring.

A newly formed Climate Resiliency Working Group was launched in June and is co-chaired by Sarah Brylinsky of the MIT Office of Sustainability and Dan Noberini, director of health, safety, and environment at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research. The working group includes members from the city, Harvard, and several private sector interests representing real estate developers, technology companies, and biotech researchers. The working group enters MIT into exciting and uncharted territory, as the Institute explores the potential for collaborative climate resiliency planning across sectors.

After launching in June, the group is kicking off its work by having all members bring their respective organizations’ disaster response plans for heat and flooding emergencies to the table to share with the group. The first goal is to build a common language of metrics, definitions, and objectives around climate resilience. From there, the group intends to paint a clearer picture of what a collaborative, cross-sectorial climate resiliency plan could look like. Potential focuses in the future could include working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to strengthen the resiliency of the area’s transit system, for example.

All organizations in the compact bring different goals, history, and expertise to the table. Instead of viewing that as a hindrance to partnership, the Office of Sustainability and MIT see the diversity of concerns and interests in preparing for a new climate future as a great opportunity. The office aims to create value through collaboration and resource-sharing that otherwise would go unrealized. We know the climate-resilient cities of the future will look very different from the cities of today and view this effort as an important step toward building a more resilient Cambridge and fostering an open process from which other communities can gain valuable insight.

The Office of Sustainability and compact members are interested in sharing resources and processes with other public-private partnerships on climate risk, or other universities working to address climate risk, vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience in their local communities.  Inquiries and information about these activities can be directed to

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