Among the courses taught by Sichi Zheng is a course on how real estate companies can be profitable in sustainable construction and operation. Her class, 11.S949 (Sustainable Real Estate) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (CRE) Center for Real Estate draws students from the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA + P) and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Harvard University students also cross-register to attend her course.
For Zheng, Professor Samuel Tak Lee, professor of sustainable urban development and real estate, it felt like the circle had closed.
“Like these students, I moved from Harvard to MIT,” says Zheng. “Fifteen years ago, I was one of them. Now I am recruiting Harvard students. “
Zheng not only moved on to CRE courses as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design to join the SA + P faculty in 2017, but she took over the role of CRE faculty director last summer. Her goals in this new position include fostering a culture of sustainability and innovation at the center – the very qualities that brought her to MIT as a student.
While Zheng’s doctoral studies focused on housing and China’s transition from a centrally planned economy to a market system, MIT focused on the urban economy and the “clean air and blue skies” of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as opposed to polluted air in Beijing – this changed her focus on urban sustainability.
“Back in 2006, I audited several very good courses at CRE in city economics and real estate. This opened up an opportunity for me to say, “I need to study cities, not just housing – and more broadly – to understand urban dynamics.” My area of research has become the intersection of urban economics and environmental sustainability. “
After her postdoctoral fellowship, Zheng returned to Beijing and entered Tsinghua University as an assistant professor and director of its Hang Lung Real Estate Center.
Creative Urban Research
Shortly after joining MIT, Zheng founded the China Future City Lab, which gave her the opportunity to focus on the country’s rapid economic growth alongside the challenges of more sustainable urbanization. Her research shows that Chinese urban households are willing to pay higher property prices to live in cities and places with better environmental quality, and this demand has increased over time. It also identified a significant premium to the price of green buildings, which gives developers a monetary incentive to build energy efficient buildings. Gradually, she said, her research and team expanded along with her interest in other emerging economies; she renamed her laboratory the laboratory for sustainable urbanization.
Zheng’s research is unusually varied and fruitful, with many collaborators in the United States and abroad. Last year, Zheng was one of six MIT faculty members who received a Harvard Medical School grant to deal with the consequences of Covid-19. While other researchers focused on clinical areas such as vaccine development and diagnostics, Zheng’s study examined the role of social distancing in shaping the Covid-19 curve. Currently pending publication, Zheng’s study compares how the mood of people in cities around the world responded to the shock of the pandemic with each government’s policies to slow the spread of the virus.
“My main goal as a scientist is to shape our understanding of the behavioral foundations of urban real estate and environmental actions aimed at sustainable urbanization,” says Zheng. “I look at incentives and how human behavior integrates into our society and its results. Last year, without a vaccine, we needed to slow the spread of the virus. We had to rely on people in all countries who were at a social distance. We wanted to understand the relationship between individual sentiment, voluntary behavior and government intervention – how they work together and their results. “
Zheng’s team is currently monitoring social media data to identify changes in the behavior of the US population before and after vaccinations. Their theory is that people who have received the Covid-19 vaccine become happier and adopt more risky behaviors, such as dining in a restaurant or not wearing masks.
“We tracked our emotional state on social media prior to starting the vaccination process,” she says. “We can measure their emotional status and activity from their posts on social media. After being vaccinated, people lose anxiety and fear and stop taking action. “
Zheng began using social media data as a tool for assessing the emotional status of a population several years ago, when she studied emotions combined with levels of air pollution in China. Her article “Air Pollution Reduces Social Media Joy in Chinese Citizens.” Nature Human behavior in 2019 and was the magazine’s fourth most popular newspaper this year.
Zheng used the same approach to understand how climate change is affecting people in China, combining weather conditions with over 400 million social media posts from 43 million users. Finding that extreme weather worsens emotional expression on social media has allowed researchers to predict the potentially harmful effects of global warming on subjective well-being.
CRE strategic directions
Working with CRE Executive Director Professor Kairos Shen and Deputy Director Lisa Thoma, Zheng draws up a strategic plan for CRE. One of the directions is the expansion of interdisciplinary research. She is encouraged by the new work done by the PhD and PhD students at the center, which she believes contributes to synergy with teaching.
“This is MIT,” says Zheng. “We have excellent training, but this is not enough. We need to put a lot of emphasis on research to support learning because we need to bring our brilliant students to the forefront. ”
A parallel strategy broadens the center’s global perspective. Zheng notes the commonly used expression “location, location, location,” pointing out that while CRE’s attention was drawn to the United States and Boston, half of its students came from overseas and most of its graduates reside in Asia. As such, she is working to expand collaboration with academic institutions and alumni who are currently leaders in the field in Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and India. Asia is also the region with the fastest potential for urbanization and real estate growth. This is why Zheng and her colleagues are now developing their MIT Asia Real Estate Initiative.
“I love creating things from scratch,” says Zheng. “The center is small, flexible and future-oriented, so I have the opportunity to create exciting new programs and make new impact.”
As part of his globalization strategy, Zheng also plans to expand MIT / CRE’s online learning offerings. While the center only accepts 30 graduate students each year, Zheng sees opportunities for professionals in the global real estate industry to expand their education through an online certificate program. Zheng is currently developing six new courses to join two existing online courses.
Starting their new role during the global pandemic, Zheng and her team only worked remotely. Seeking to get to know his team members “in person, not just through Zoom,” Zheng continues to lead various research initiatives, educating and deepening MIT / CRE’s global connections. She actively maintains her social media accounts, sharing the results of the Center’s extensive research, industry developments and student achievements. However, on weekends, she posts photos of hiking and traveling with her husband and son.
“I want to be less stressful outside of work; Spending time in nature helps me to relax, ”she says.