Last April, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYU President John Sexton announced the formation of the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), an applied science research institute led by NYU and NYU-Poly in partnership with academic institutions, global companies and New York City government agencies. CUSP is focused on the grand technical, intellectual, engineering, academic, and human challenges posed by a rapidly urbanizing world. Several weeks ago, I was appointed executive-in-residence at CUSP by its Director, Steve Koonin.
Urban systems are the quintessential example of complex sociotechnical systems, the emerging field studying systems that combine powerful and ubiquitous digital technologies with the people and organizations they are transforming. Such systems exhibit a level of complexity that, until recently, has often been beyond our ability to understand and control. Not only do we have to deal with the complexities associated with large scale IT infrastructures, but with the even more complex issues involved in human and organizational behaviors.
This emerging field aims to go beyond the analysis of cities and similar sociotechnical systems. It aims to be prescriptive in nature, applying its findings to help us design better performing systems and organizations, as is the case with other engineering and management disciplines. It is multidisciplinary in nature, and should enable us to address a particular domain, - e.g., transportation, energy, finance, - by bringing together a number of different methodologies, including: systems-oriented techniques like optimization, stochastic systems, systems simulation and systems dynamics; social sciences, management and planning; and engineering capabilities focusing on design, development, testing and operations.
Without a doubt, the key ingredient that makes an urban system so truly complex is the presence of people. People’s behavior exhibits a very high degree of variance, as is also the case with social organizations, be they the communities in which they live, the institutions where they work, and the government agencies with which they interact.
Moreover, cities are complex systems of systems. Just about all the critical infrastructures and institutions of society come together in a metropolitan area, including transportation, energy, healthcare, commerce, finance, education, security, entertainment, food, water and on and on and on. Just about every area of human endeavor is somehow part of the mix of cities.
Up to now, we have only be able to focus on the components of a city pretty much in isolation. First of all, they are each complex enough in their own right even before we start exploring how they interact with each other in the everyday life of a city and its people. And, until recently, we did not have the proper technologies and tools that would enable us to analyze, model and optimize the city as a holistic system of systems.
How do you deal with highly unpredictable complex systems like cities and their various components, which are themselves equally complex and unpredictable? Advances in information technologies and in our understanding of complex systems can be a big help if properly applied. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of information about the real-time behavior of people, organizations, markets, and so on, which we can then analyze with powerful supercomputers. In addition, we can model these complex systems, so we can better understand their behavior, improve their operations and try to anticipate and avoid highly improbable but potentially catastrophic events. We can realistically consider Urban Science as an emerging discipline because of the new tools and methodologies now at our disposal.
The critical requirement for dealing with a highly complex problem in a more scientific way is access to information so we can begin to understand what is going on. Whether in medicine or astronomy, the ability to gather and analyze information makes all the difference in our ability to attack and solve complex new problems. Big data, sophisticated analytics, and powerful supercomputers are among the most exciting new research capabilities for understanding, designing and operating complex sociotechnical systems.
Consequently, one of the key focus areas in CUSP is urban informatics, - defined as “the collection, integration, and analysis of data to improve urban systems and quality of life.” Urban informatics will enable the CUSP partners to leverage high volume, high variety and high velocity information to discover new insights, enhance decision making and optimize the overall management of cities.
These large volumes and varieties of information will likely include personal data. Personal data is one of the most valuable and sensitive assets for individuals and society. Even if properly anonymized, it must be treated with the utmost care to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected at all times. CUSP will develop a set of principles for the use of personal data in its research projects. In addition, it will collaborate with experts around the world to develop technologies, processes and policies for the proper management of personal information.
CUSP intends to apply urban informatics to projects in a variety of areas, including energy and the environment, safety and security, transportation and health. Given the proper access and analysis of information in each such area, you should be able to develop models to optimize designs and outcomes as well as tools and processes to improve management operations. Furthermore, you can develop prototypes to experiment with innovative new solutions, and educational programs to train the talent needed to deal with highly complex urban problems.
A recent comprehensive study by the Economist Intelligence Unit analyzed the competitiveness of 120 of the world’s major cities. New York was ranked number one, particularly because of its appeal to a wide range of businesses and talented people. A similar 2009 study conducted by Japan’s Mori Memorial Foundation to explore the comprehensive power of cities to attract creative people and excellent companies from around the world, also ranked New York as its top overall city.
It is thus only fitting that the Center for Urban Science and Progress, with its ambitious, far-reaching objective of setting the research and educational agenda for the science of cities, is located in New York. I am really excited to be part of this new endeavor.