Innovation for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief


This new interdisciplinary course explores innovative solutions for disaster relief and preparedness through both design and engineering.  Case studies and interactive exercises are used to provide an overview of large-scale disaster relief issues, including generalized goals, operating environments, response communities, and technical challenges.  Projects will be developed through case studies and hands-on design exercises, emphasizing the importance of system-oriented, sustainable design.  Technical topics will include sensing, communications, power systems, and data analysis.

Course Objectives

  1. Introduce generalized dynamics of disaster response, recovery, and preparedness.
  2. Introduce technical challenges associated with large-scale disaster relief activities.
  3. Introduce relevant emerging technologies that could enable new capabilities.
  4. Explore system-oriented design and prototype design processes for student projects.

Course Structure

This course will meet once a week on Mondays from 1-4pm. Half of each class will be dedicated to case studies and lectures to provide an overview of how recent disasters have unfolded and how those events have played into strengthening resilience for future events.  The second half of each session will address innovation through hands-on design exercises and prototyping, emphasizing the importance of system-oriented, sustainable design.  Topics will include shelter, water, sensing, communications, power systems, and data analysis through which students will team up for a final project.  Each year the class with investigate one specific type of hazard for the projects. This coming spring 2017, the class will focus on hurricanes and cyclones and will draw upon lessons learned from recent events like Hurricane Matthew.

For the lecture and discussion sessions, we will incorporate system-dynamic games to allow students to explore some of the complex interactions and dynamics associated with large-scale disaster response, such as implicit competing objectives between relief organizations.  These games would offer another hands-on dimension to the course, essentially allowing the students to experience some of the high-level decision challenges that responders often encounter.  We will also incorporate special experts from relevant relief organizations such as the US’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Projects and Expectations

Students will first work to distill their areas of interest based on discussions we have with experts from various focus areas, such as preparedness or response.  Through the team-based projects, we will focus the technology challenges, constraints, and potential solutions through systemic thinking and design approaches.

This course will also make use of technical expertise from across MIT, including the Urban Risk Lab and Lincoln Laboratory and the Humanitarian Response Lab.  Subject matter experts will help students apply advanced technologies to some of the toughest disaster relief challenges and will guide the students through their team projects.