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Siqi Zheng’s courses include one that shows how real estate companies can be profitable while building and operating sustainably. Her 11th grade, 1949 (Sustainable Real Estate) at the MIT Center for Real Estate (CRE) attracts students from across the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA + P) and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Harvard University students also enroll each other to take their course.

For Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Champion Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability, the circle seems to be coming full circle.

“Like these students, I migrated from Harvard to MIT,” says Zheng. “Fifteen years ago I was one of them. Now I’m pulling Harvard students into my courses. “

Not only did Zheng advance from classes at CRE during a postdoc at Harvard Graduate School of Design to joining the SA + P faculty in 2017, but also took on the role of CRE’s Faculty Director last summer. Her goals in this new position include promoting the centre’s culture of sustainability and innovation – precisely these qualities that brought her to MIT as a student.

While Zheng’s PhD focused on housing and China’s transition from a centrally planned economy to a market-based system, MIT focused on the urban economy and the “clean air and blue skies” of Cambridge, Massachusetts – as opposed to the polluted air in Beijing – that changed their focus on urban sustainability.

“In 2006 I audited several very good courses in urban and real estate economics at CRE. It opened a window for me to say: ‘I have to study cities instead of just living – and in a broader sense – to understand urban dynamics.’ My research area became the intersection of urban economy and ecological sustainability. “

After her postdoc, Zheng returned to Beijing and worked as an assistant professor and director of the Hang Lung Center for Real Estate at Tsinghua University.

Creative urban research

Shortly after arriving at MIT, Zheng founded the China Future City Lab, which gave her the opportunity to focus on the country’s rapid economic growth alongside the tension of more sustainable urbanization. Their research shows that Chinese urban households are willing to pay higher house prices to live in cities and locations with better environmental quality, and this demand has increased over time. She also identified a significant markup on green buildings that gives real estate developers a monetary incentive to build energy efficient structures. Little by little, she says, her research and team have expanded along with her interest in other rapidly urbanizing countries; she renamed her laboratory Sustainable Urbanization Lab.

Zheng’s research is remarkably diverse and productive, with many collaborators in the United States and overseas. Last year, Zheng was one of six MIT faculties to receive a scholarship from Harvard Medical School to help combat the effects of Covid-19. While the other researchers focused on clinical areas like vaccine development and diagnostic tools, Zheng’s research examined the role of social distancing in shaping the Covid-19 curve. Zheng’s research, currently under review for publication, compares how the mood of people in cities around the world has responded to the shock of the pandemic and the measures required by each government to slow the spread of the virus.

“My overarching goal as a scientist is to develop our understanding of the behavioral principles for urban real estate and environmental measures aimed at sustainable urbanization,” says Zheng. “I look at incentives and how a person’s behavior in our society and its outcomes are aggregated. Last year we had to slow the spread of the virus without a vaccine. We had to rely on people in all countries to distance themselves socially. We wanted to understand the interactions between individual feelings, voluntary behavior and government intervention – how they work together and their results. “

Zheng’s team is currently monitoring social media data to identify behavioral changes in the US population before and after vaccination. Her theory is that once people are vaccinated against Covid-19, they are happier and display riskier behaviors such as eating in restaurants or wearing a mask.

“We observed emotional states on social media before the vaccination process began,” she says. “We can measure their emotional status and activity based on their social media posts. After vaccination, people lose their fear and anxiety and stop taking precautionary measures. “

Zheng began using social media data as a tool to assess the emotional status of a population a few years ago when she studied emotions related to air pollution levels in China. Her article, “Air Pollution Lowers Expressed Happiness in Chinese City People on Social Media” appeared in Nature Human Behavior in 2019 and was the magazine’s fourth most popular article that year.

Zheng used the same approach to understand how climate change is affecting people in China by coupling meteorological conditions with more than 400 million social media posts from 43 million users. Finding that extreme weather worsens emotional expressions on social media enabled researchers to predict the potentially harmful effects of global warming on subjective well-being.

Strategic directions of CRE

In collaboration with CRE Executive Director Professor Kairos Shen and Deputy Director Lisa Thoma, Zheng drafts a strategic plan for CRE. One focus is the expansion of interdisciplinary research. She is enthusiastic about the new work of the postdocs and doctoral students at the center, which, in her opinion, promote synergies with teaching.

“This is MIT,” says Zheng. “We have excellent teaching – but that’s not enough. We need to have a strong research focus to support teaching because we need to push our brilliant students to the limits of the field. “

A parallel strategy broadens the centre’s global perspective. Pointing out the commonly used phrase “location, location, location,” Zheng points out that while CRE’s attention is focused on the United States and Boston, half of its overseas students and the majority of its alumni are in Asia are. As such, she is working to develop collaborations with academic institutions and alumni who are now leaders in this field in Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and India. Asia is also the region with the fastest urbanization and real estate growth potential. That is why Zheng and her colleagues are now developing their “MIT Asia Real Estate Initiative”.

“I like creating things from scratch,” says Zheng. “The center is small, flexible and future-oriented, so that I have the opportunity to develop some new exciting programs and achieve new effects.”

As part of her globalization strategy, Zheng also expects to expand MIT / CRE’s online educational offering. While the center only accepts 30 PhD students each year, Zheng sees opportunities for professionals in the global real estate industry to expand their education with an online certificate program. Zheng is currently designing six new courses to join the two already online.

After Zheng and her team began their new role during the global pandemic, they only worked remotely. While Zheng strives to get to know her team members “in person, not just through Zoom,” she continues to manage, teach, and deepen MIT / CRE’s global connections. She is active on her social media accounts, sharing the center’s many research activities, industry developments, and student achievements. On the weekends, however, she posts photos of hikes and explorations with her husband and son.

“I want to be less intense outside of work; Spending time outside in nature helps me relax, ”she says.