MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative

Raising funds—and consciousness—for post-quake disaster resiliency planning
July 20, 2011

CAMBRIDGE, MA—More than four months after this year's massive March 11th disaster in Japan's Tohoku region – an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear plant failure – reconstruction and relocation efforts are moving ahead rapidly.

Joining in that effort is a group of MIT faculty from a cross-section of disciplines that has been stirred to action and is mobilizing its own response with the launch of the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative, says Pat Gercik, associate director of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives program within the Center for International Studies. She is also the 3/11 Initiative's program coordinator and overseer of fundraising efforts. 

The goal: Raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Memorial Community Center in the devastated town of Minami Sanriku, as well as for a multi-year, longer range effort to study and promote disaster-resilient planning, design, and reconstruction.

With educational and business ties to Japan that go back many decades, perhaps it was to be expected that such an initiative would emanate from the MIT community, specifically from the MIT Center for International Studies' MIT Japan Program, but with enthusiastic support from other departments and programs.

Multi-Phase Program, One Objective 
The 3/11 Initiative's program elements have already been defined and will be carried out by a group of faculty and students guided largely by MIT School of Architecture & Planning faculty members Shun Kanda and Jim Wescoat.

"There has been a lot of activity going on," Gercik points out. "The learning opportunities have been tremendous already."

Other members of the core 3/11 Initiative Team include Ute Meta Bauer and Jegan Vincent de Paul of the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT); Department of Architecture students; Ian Condry, Foreign Languages and Literatures Department; the Department of Political Science's Richard Samuels; the Media Lab's Kent Larson; Keio University professor Hiroto Kobayashi; and Miyagi University professor, Yoshihiro Hiraoka.

The 3/11 Initiative's two-phased proposal calls for, beginning this summer, gathering input from Japanese stakeholders for the design and construction of the Minami Sanriku Memorial Community Center.

The Center will provide an important symbol of a resurgent community and a vital gathering place for the displaced, now in temporary housing, who will find it a focal point for social services as well as community and family reconnection.

At the same time, and for a projected five-year period, the 3/11 Initiative's Phase II will organize an ongoing series of workshops and seminars with the longer range goal of creating alterative visions for resettlement and new communities more aware of the need for – and able to execute – disaster-resilient planning and construction.

"In working with all our Japanese and U.S. colleagues, we're there to learn as much as to consult in order to most effectively address key issues for the future," says Shun Kanda.

"In addition to the immediate social need for a memorial community center, our underlying aim is to create a more holistic approach to disaster relief planning and disaster-resilient design that isn't quite embedded in Japan yet. They already have great expertise in individual disciplines such as disaster relief, seismography, engineering, medical technology, and more. We see our role as finding practices and processes that integrate all of those areas for better-informed reconstruction efforts as well as more effective responses to disasters by future generations."

Not the least of those concerns will be site analyses that anticipate earthquakes and related coastal hazards, adds landscape architect Jim Wescoat who is with the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. Such analyses will help determine the siting of new buildings based on such considerations as elevation, slope, soils, vegetation, runoff, proximity to the coast, hazards perception, and more.

The Science and Arts of Disaster Response 
"We're taking both structural and non-structural approaches to disaster-resilient design," Wescoat reports. "Those approaches will include yet go beyond whether to build seawalls and safe havens to protect coastal communities. They will also include looking at things like evacuation preparedness, insurance, and a broad array of psychological, behavioral and cultural considerations related to disaster resilience, relocation, and recovery. Those topics will be covered in a fall seminar on disaster-resilient design for graduate students that will follow our summer design workshop and develop comparative perspectives on natural hazards in Japan, South Asia, and the U.S."

Adding to the eclectic MIT participation in the 3/11 Initiative will be the involvement of other faculty who will address the disaster through their own disciplines' unique perspectives and capabilities.

The Media Lab's Kent Larson, for example, is organizing a 2-day Media Lab-led workshop in August. "That workshop," Larson reports, "will piggy-back on Shun's effort."

The 3/11 Initiative has also spawned a new class in MIT's Art, Architecture, and Technology Program entitled Artistic Intervention – Creative Responses. Co-taught by the School of Architecture's Ute Meta Bauer and Jegan Vincent de Paul, the course will investigate what roles artistic practice – e.g., the performing arts, graphic arts, etc. – can play in providing positive contributions to complex and traumatic situations. It will also include a case study on the tsunami-impacted Japanese town of Minami Sanriku and how artistic intervention there can help mitigate community trauma and help it heal.

"The arts have less of a direct problem-solving capacity than architecture and engineering can provide," Bauer explains. "Artists often try to understand such a condition in its full scope, and can serve as a witness through photography, film, literature, and sound – and give voice to what cannot be said at such a moment of trauma. The arts have a different way to critically analyze a specific setting. At this point, we plan to first listen and see, and then develop along with the course's students suggestions about how to intervene and respond in a subtle way to the vast loss on so many levels."

ACT faculty, Bauer points out, have carried out projects in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, taught art in post-war zones and zones of conflict (North Iraq, Gaza and the West Bank, Tijuana/San Diego border region), and addressed the experience of genocide in civil wars in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.

"How to evaluate what artistic interventions can do and mean is also an important and interesting question, and will be taken up in the class, as well," says Bauer. "Artistic projects and artistic interventions can't be evaluated through quantitative or qualitative metrics borrowed or transferred from other disciplines. We have to develop our own methods of evaluation. But maybe evaluation in the traditional sense is not what is at stake here."

RSVP with Money and Materials 
What may be at stake in a larger, more immediate sense with the Memorial Community Center project, says Shun Kanda, is the creation of a successful model that aids in reintegrating at least a portion of Japanese society with itself. This, while the broader 3/11 Initiative looks at the longer-range goal of reducing the impact of natural and man-made disasters through more insightful, holistic planning. "As an educator and a leader of the 3/11 Initiative, this is an opportunity to help the next generation by taking disaster resiliency as a serious issue, one that has been overlooked in professional and academic circles in both the U.S. and Japan."

Tax-deductible contributions for the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative may be sent via CONTRIBUTIONS

(This article was written by William Manning and reprinted with permission by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program)


The Center for International Studies (CIS) supports interna­tional research and education at MIT. It is the home of MIT’s Security Studies Program; the MIT International Science & Technology Initiative, its pioneering global education program; the Program on Emerging Technologies; and seminars and research on migration, South Asia politics, the Middle East, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, and East Asia. The Center has traditionally been aligned with the social sciences while also working with MIT’s premier science and engineering scholars. CIS produces research that creatively addresses global issues while helping to educate the next generation of global citizens.