CFL moving to MIT


August 30, 2019. Andres Sevtsuk.

I am excited to announce that I am making yet another move in the academic world and returning to MIT as an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) this fall. As part of DUSP, I will help run the newly established Urban Science degree at MIT, established jointly between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
I have spent four intellectually stimulating and personally fulfilling years in the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard GSD. It has been a true honor to teach and work with amazing colleagues and students at the GSD and, to be honest, I was not looking to leave. Harvard is a great university and the GSD is a unique school where planning and design are investigated at the highest level. So why this move?

I was contacted by friends and faculty at MIT towards the end of last year about a new joint degree program that MIT had just been approved between two powerful departments – DUSP and EECS – and the Institute was looking to hire new faculty to run this initiative. This posed a truly inspiring challenge for me. I have worked at the intersection of urban planning, design and computation for years. But never before have these interests been formalized in a way that MIT was setting up. The intellectual endeavor of helping start a new field that lies close to my professional interests was truly inspiring for me. It was an invitation I could not decline.
While I have enormous respect for traditional social science in urban planning as well as the hands-on studio culture that explores ways in which existing places and communities can be improved with designs, plans and policies, I think a combination of planning and CS can introduce a whole new methodology to tackling urban questions. These new methodologies and tools for problem solving could impact how we do social science, how we work in studio, and ultimately how we intervene to improve city life in sustainable and just ways.

This is not the first time that urban planning and computation flirt with each other. The earliest attempts to blend informatics and city planning can be traced back to the very early days of information theory in the 1950s at MIT. As Claude Shannon and Norman Weaver published their ground-breaking work on the mathematical theory of communication[1], a number of planners attempted to connect the nascent field of information theory back to planning. Richard Meier published a book with MIT Press, entitled “A Communications Theory of Urban Growth”, where he set out the idea of a “hubit”—a basic unit of information that a person deciphers from the surrounding environment using all bodily sensors, whether in the form of first hand perception of the built environment, or through radio, TV, newspapers, books etc.[2] Looking at a historic art-deco façade communicates valuable information just like smelling delicious food from a South Asian restaurant, observing other people on a street or reading what a critic thinks about a new theater show. Meier argued that the ultimate draw to cities lies in their unique capacity to serve the highest quantities and qualities of hubits, enabling people to seek out opportunities, to organize with likeminded folks, or to merely satisfy an innate desire to learn and discover more about other people and the world around us. Much of this early work on cities and communication remained conceptual.

The second time computer science and planning coincided at MIT was in the 1970s, during the development of System Dynamics. Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial put forth a practical methodology for evaluating alternative problem solutions, which were widely adopted as policy analysis tools amongst planners.[3] Jay Forrester’s work on Systems Theory in the 1970s (at MIT) applied control and feedback ideas of cybernetics onto social phenomena. Systems Theory has been used to model relatively complex multi-agent processes, including real estate cycles, corporate decision-making mechanisms, competition over resources etc. Forrester proposed that the city too, “shows the general characteristics of a complex system” paving a way for the application of computational analysis to urban space.[4] These developments gave rise to quantitative decisions and systems modeling, but neither cybernetics nor systems theory produced a profound influence on the spatial configurations or design decision-making mechanisms in urban design and planning.

To say that now is the third date, is actually somewhat inaccurate. Computation and planning have moved in sync quite steadily since personal computers and the world wide web became mainstream in the 1990s. Nick Negroponte and John de Monchaux set up the MIT Media Lab in the late 80s and Bill Mitchell, my late adviser at MIT, introduced urbanism and environmental design to the Media Lab as well as CAD and computing to the school of architecture and planning . The emergence of Geographic Information Systems or GIS—which grew out of a Ford Foundation grant to the GSD— introduced ways in which spatial information could be stored by locating every geometric object on the surface of the earth and enabling every physical feature on a map to carry a potentially endless table of data with it. This data can be cross-referenced with other data or spatially related with other places, producing powerful ways for understanding and modeling both the natural and built environment around us.

But as they say, the third time is the charm. This time the effort is headed jointly by computer scientists and urban planners and designers at MIT, suggesting that not only will the work explore new analytical approaches to urban questions, but it must also place planning history and planning theory at the center of what urban science becomes. Planners know that there are numerous issues that are not best addressed quantitatively, that many urban problems are intractable because they are rooted in complex power dynamics and politics. For good reasons, urban planners and designers are also wary of excessive instrumentation of urban space with technologies that often end up reinforcing dominant practices, views and unequal power relationships. I think these are all welcome challenges that will make the work more interesting and meaningful, shifting the focus from leaning too heavily on computation to also incorporating urban practices and processes that we do not typically think of as technological, but which critical thinking, analysis, visualization and debate can certainly highlight and address and maybe even improve. Lots of interesting work to be done.

I feel humbled by the opportunity to join this effort at MIT, as much as I will also miss my talented and inspiring colleagues at the GSD. I am thankful to Rahul Mehrotra and Diane Davis for bringing me to the GSD and to Alex Krieger and Sarah Whiting who generously contributed to making the MIT transition seamless and fast. I am also truly thankful to all my UPD and GSD colleagues and RAs whom I had the pleasure to work with over the past four years. I feel truly privileged to have been given the opportunity to work in two world-class universities that just happen to be located down the street from each other. And I don’t take the privilege lightly. As a foreign faculty member, who grew up in public housing in Soviet-occupied Estonia and lived in several countries overseas, the opportunities the American educational system has granted me have been transformative. I feel good that as a faculty member I can extend this appreciation to a new generation of students while also learning together with them how to make the world a better place. And I can think of no better place than MIT to tackle the challenges ahead with profound optimism and rigor.

See also: MIT faculty approve newest urban science major. 

[1] Shannon, C., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. University of Illinois Press.
[2] Meier, Richard L. A Communications Theory of Urban Growth. Joint Centre of Urban Studies of the M.I.T. and Harvard University. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1962.
[3] Stokey, E., & Zeckhauser, R. (1978). A primer for policy analysis (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
[4] Forrester, J. (1970). Systems Analysis as a tool for Urban Planning. Systems Science and Cybernetics, 6(4), 258–265.