Students examine global issues through Social Agency Lab

Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, is bursting at the seams. The city, which was once a modestly sized center of manufacturing, has recently swelled in population as new neighborhoods composed of temporary structures and hastily built homes spring into existence. While policymakers and academics possess many assumptions about these “ger districts” and their inhabitants, there are few studies of actual conditions. Although based half a world away from Mongolia, the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Social Agency Lab is helping to fill this knowledge gap.

The Social Agency Lab is a multidisciplinary research group. Its mission is to study “the way in which individuals, institutions and organizations shape social outcomes in cities.” It features work done by research assistants and students who are conducting a thesis.

The project relative to rapid urbanization in Mongolia grew out of thesis research by Raven Anderson (MUP ’14). Anderson studied institutional actors in Ulaanbaatar. For instance, he sought to define the different policy approaches to urban growth being considered by stakeholders. The Social Agency Lab is now building on that work by examining whether those policies match the desires of the residents of ger districts.

As part of this effort, Aldarsaikhan Tuvshinbat (MUP ’15) spent last summer leading door-to-door surveys in ger districts. Tuvshinbat found it surprising that preliminary survey results contradict perceptions about the neighborhoods and their residents. Said Tuvshinbat, “The traditional view is that the people who live in outlying neighborhoods are newcomers, while inner location people have been there for a long time. The picture that is emerging is actually the opposite [… Furthermore,] people might not like density, but they do want more apartments.”

The Social Agency Lab often uncovers such important information. In another ongoing project, lab participants are examining the process of rubble removal after disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Adelene Tan (MArch ’16) recounts that part of this effort has been examining disaster plans in cities that are at risk for earthquakes. Said Tan, “It’s very evident that while all of these cities have plans [for disasters], they are focused on building [preparedness]. None of them actually deal with how you deal with debris: where it goes, who is responsible.”

Part of the Social Agency Lab’s model is that, while its projects have a local focus, they seek global implication. Said Tan, “Rubble is the umbrella and then you have all of these cities that deal with the issue differently.” Similarly, the rapid urbanization that is occurring in Mongolia has analogues throughout the world. The Social Agency Lab seeks to extract lessons for policymakers, planners, and researchers in a diversity of contexts through a process that is often driven by the interests of students.

The lab’s faculty leader, Professor Michael Hooper, believes that this student leadership is a valuable aspect of research. Said Hooper, “I love that students propose things that captivate you, and you get dragged along for the ride, which is fantastic, and it becomes your own research interest!”  

Photo courtesy of Aldarsaikhan Tuvshinbat.