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About Mission 2017:
Solving Complex Problems (12.000) is designed to provide students the opportunity to work as part of a team that proposes solutions to a complex, or “unsolveable”, problem that requires a strongly interdisciplinary approach. Over the past seven years we have focused on large problems related to the environmental health and sustainability of the planet. These included collapse of the global fisheries, access to clean fresh water in western North America, stemming the rise of greenhouse gases, feeding nine billion people, dealing with loss of biodiversity, and finally, the scarcity and distribution of strategic metals. Common to each problem is that almost all proposed solutions will cost enormous amounts of money and thus we must prioritize! This year we will focus on a serious problem: Global Water Security.

click to hear students talking about the programWater security — the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks — is basic to both food and energy security and therefore cannot be considered in isolation. This is appropriate as the United Nations declared 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated:

“Water is central to the well-being of people and the planet…. We must work together to protect this fragile, finite, resource”

Global population is expected to exceed 8 billion by 2025 and, when coupled with a rising stadard of living, creates increased pressure on ever-dwindling water resources. Nowadays, nearly 800 million people do not have access to sources of clean drinking water and 2.5 billion are without modern sanitation. It is not enough to deal with water alone because ecosystem health is critical to providing sufficient clean water and therefore must be considered in any realistic plan. A recent study of threats to human water security and biodiversity services (Vorosmarty et al, 2010) concluded that over 80% (4.8 billion people) of the global population is exposed to high levels of water security threat. Humans have attempted to respond to water-related natural disasters and overpopulation by designing and building dams, levees, and water distribution systems rather than implementing policies that limit growth, development, and water use. While engineered solutions may increase water security, they come at a cost in decreasing biodiversity, major interbasinal water transfers, and tremendous cost. Nonetheless, the resource is finite and strict allocation limits will have to be implemented.

waterMost of us take clean fresh water for granted and don’t think about what life would be like without it. We must ask ourselves whether access to clean fresh water is a basic human right and if so how do we go about ensuring that it is upheld. This will require some fundamental modifications to our economic systems because they do not adequately value water and other natural resources. Consider that investment bankers now speculate on grain and weather futures, which drive commodity prices higher so that the poor have an even harder time surviving. One common solution is to raise the price of fresh water, which should reduce waste; however, this solution would put the cost of water out of the price range for hundreds of millions of people.

Food production is intimately tied to water availability and globally prodiction is being concentrated into the hands of a small number of large multinational companies. These companies play a major role in global water management, investing in water-rich regions of Latin America, western Africa, and Asia. These corporations are exporting food to water poor regions (often called virtual water) and are essentially major global water managers. In addition some countries from water poor areas are investing in farm land in other countries. Saudia Arabia has invested in African farmland and the government of Ethiopia encourages foreign investment in their agriculture. There is concern in many areas that western agribusiness will have too much control on food prices and availability. carrying waterMuch work on global water governance is needed now if global water and food security are to be maintained.

For centuries people have fought over water and conflict will continue unless we develop new international solutions to manage the global water supply. For example, Asia faces the most pressing water issues of any continent and China is in the process of building many major water projects, including the construction of huge dams on rivers that flow from China into neighboring countries. Although the dams will provide power to a rapidly growing and industrialized China, they threaten local biodiversity and will severely reduce waterflow to neighboring countries. Moreover, predicted shifts in climate suggest warmer and drier conditions for much of Asia. Therefore, the consequences of the major water projects will be severe, and could destabilize large parts of Asia as an ever-increasing population fights for control of constantly decreasing water resources.

Your Mission is to devise and plan the implementation of bold new strategies to ensure that all nations — including those considered to be underdeveloped — have access to clean fresh water while preserving fresh water ecosystems. Your plan should include incentives to get people to act on your solutions. This issue cannot be ignored and quite simply, the future of humankind hangs in the balance.

Want to know more right now? Check out the Bonn Water Declaration and this very cool video.

water pollution


Mission 2017 is also part of the Terrascope program and the issues associated with Global Water Security, the year-long theme of Terrascope. By enrolling in 12.000 you become part of the Terrascope program and community, even if you do not continue in the Spring. See and hear what former students are saying about the program here.

Spring Field Trip:

During spring break in March of 2014 we will take a field trip to explore the problems and issues associated with the Mission 2017 theme. In the past, the location has involved international travel but ultimately depends on the directions you take in class and the nature of your solution. We will keep you updated.

About 12.000:

"Solving Complex Problems" (12.000) is a nine-unit, Fall-semester subject designed to provide freshmen with the opportunity to work as part of an "imagineering" team to design a viable solution to a complex problem that requires an interdisciplinary approach. This year it will be known as Mission 2017 - Global Water Security.

waterEach year's class explores a different problem in detail through the study of complimentary case histories and the development of creative solution strategies. It includes training in web site development, effective written and oral communication, and team building. Initially developed with major financial support from the Alex and Britt d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education, and now supported by the Dean for Undergraduate Education, 12.000 is designed to enhance the freshman experience by helping students develop contexts for other subjects in the sciences and humanities, and by helping them to establish learning communities that include upperclassmen, faculty, MIT alumni, and professionals in science and engineering fields.

Why Mission?

The Mission class offers freshman a completely different way to learn. In contrast to the core classes that rely on lectures and problem sets, Mission attempts to teach students how to think about solving complex problems. Students in Mission are independent, largely self-directed, and interactive. bathroomThey learn how to build teams and develop solutions that require teamwork between scientists and engineers including economics and social sciences. Mission students will learn that many problems are just too big and complex to be solved by any one person or discipline and must involve integration. At the end of the class the students of Mission will have developed new and innovative solutions to an "unsolvable" problem and been exposed to a variety of different disciplines. Unlike any other class open to freshman, we treat you as capable science and engineering researchers from Day 1 and our expectation is for you to produce a plan that will attract the attention of people from around the world. Websites developed for past Missions still elicit questions and comments from around the world years after they were posted.

History of the Class

Mission, or 12.000, was offered first in Fall 2000, when the assignment (Mission 2004) was to develop a viable mission plan for the exploration of Mars with the aim of finding evidence for the present or past existence of life. The assignment for Fall 2001 (Mission 2005) was to design undersea research stations for both coral reef and abyssal environments. dam constructionFall of 2002 (Mission 2006) charged students with developing a strategy for monitoring and preserving the Amazon Rainforest. As in previous years, the students in Mission 2006 described their final design in a content-rich web site and an oral presentation in front of a panel of international experts. Mission 2007 was focused on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Mission 2008 - Galapagos, Mission 2009 -Tsunamis and Mission 2010 - Saving N'awlinz, Mission 2011 - Saving our oceans, Mission 2012 - Clean water-assuring clean fresh water for western North America, Mission 2013 - CO2 sequestration, and Mission 2014, Feeding the World, Mission 2015, Whole Earth Triage - Securing the future of biodiversity, and Mission 2016, The Future of Strategic Resources.

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