New York. Bright lights? Certainly. Big city? Unquestionably. Lab experiment?... In this Distinguished Lecture for the University of Warwick, Steven Koonin discusses his new role as the head of New York University’s new Center for Urban Science and Progress and how NYC is about to go ‘under the digital microscope’.


New YorkIn an interview from 2008, SimCity developer Will Wright described the potential for information technology to reduce the friction between the people in an institution, especially when they’re all inputting in some way to that organisation.

"Any human institutional system that draws on the intelligence of all its members is a ‘metabrain’,” he explains. “Up to now, we have had high friction between the ‘neurons’ of the ‘metabrain’; technology is lowering that friction tremendously. Computers are allowing us to aggregate our intelligence in ways that were never possible before. The computer is the broker. What they are really exploring is the collective creativity of millions of people. They are aggregating human intelligence into a system that is more powerful than we thought artificial intelligence was going to be."

Wright’s work is entertainment focused, with SimCity being one of the longest running and best-selling computer games across multiple formats and its spin-off The Sims being just as popular. The real-world benefits of creating a highly detailed, interactive digital representation of the urban environment has not, however, gone unnoticed by academics, city planners and businesses. Modern computer power and interdisciplinary academic techniques are helping to develop the use of informatics in city management and are creating a new ‘urban science’ in the process.

Dr Steven Koonin was previously the Under Secretary of Energy for Science at the United States Department of Energy and is now the first director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in New York City. Part of CUSP’s mission is to bring together all the possible data on New York and to use informatics to create what Koonin describes as a “super SimCity” for the twenty-first century.

CUSP is an NYU academic programme and is part of the New York City applied sciences initiative. It has, at present, six other university partners and the University of Warwick is amongst that first cohort. The Center is as much about the social sciences as the physical but CUSP is not just an academic institution. CUSP is a partnership of academic, corporate and government agencies. Industrial partners, led by IBM and CISCO, include Siemens, Xerox, Consolidated Edison and National Grid US. 13 City and State agencies in New York are also partners along with MTA (which runs the subway and buses) and the Port Authority which manages bridges and the ports. The Center will pull in data from these sources and more with an aim to understanding how New York works and then, through evidence-based changes, making it work better.

“You can’t improve what you can’t measure,” explains Koonin, adding elsewhere in the lecture. “We are initially about the data – observing, analysing, modelling the city to develop new solutions, new tools and to educate people in how to do this.”

New York is the ‘guinea pig’ for this model but there is potential, and demand, for the emerging field of ‘urban science’ across the world’s major conurbations. As cities grow to accommodate an ever increasing world population, CUSP is aiming to research and address the problems that will emerge over the next 40 years.

“Unless we get cities right, we’re going to mess things up terribly,” explains Koonin. “The cities that we are building now, whether additions to existing cities or new build cities will largely determine the sustainability of society through the rest of this century. And so we’ve got to get it right over the next several decades.”

One of the greatest challenges facing CUSP is the dynamic nature of cities. The population of a city is not only moving, it is continually expanding. It is estimated that, globally, about two million people a week are being born into or are moving to urban areas. By the end of the year, around 20 million people will have been added to the urban population. That’s roughly a city the size of metropolitan New York.

CUSP will look at how the residents and visitors of New York behave in a number of different scenarios to create the ‘Super Sim City’ of New York that can help the city, and others like it, better manage their resources and systems in the future.

“How do you optimise these systems?” asks Koonin. Using data to "take the pulse of the city"; he says there are "opportunities to look at the city in ways that are not traditionally thought of.”

Not everything CUSP is suggesting involves the city rolling out high tech gadgets or expensive monitoring systems. Some of the technology is already there in the hands of citizens right now. Almost every New Yorker carries a mobile phone (or cell phone for our American readers). The devices themselves produce a lot of useful data but with the addition of peripherals, such as smart health monitors that connect to phones via Bluetooth, there is a chance to see the city in entirely new ways.

“If we could get one per cent of a city population to wear those, we’d have an interesting experiment,” says Koonin.

In addition to mobile technology, there is also the potential to use CCTV and infrared filming to see New York from a data perspective that could help improve people’s lives and the environment. Infrared filming is already being used, for example, to produce heat maps and energy usage data for buildings in New York so that resources to improve those areas can be better targeted.

The use of informatics in this way is a large scale project and Koonin has clear plans to expand the Center over the next five years to meet the programme’s needs. Within five years he expects to have 50 full-time senior researchers, 30 faculty members, 20 industrial researchers, 30 post-docs, 400 masters students and 100 PhD students. The first intake of masters students is set to start in September 2013.

Directing the CUSP programme will be a task in itself.

“A lot of it is about balance,” he says. “We’ve got diverse stakeholders. I’ve got academics. I’ve got industry. I’ve got government. I’ve got the broader citizenry. We need to strike that balance. I also want to try to promote productive dialogue between the social and physical sciences. This is not such an easy thing to do we’re discovering! The languages are quite different but by bringing together people around particular problems there’s a hope that we can make progress.”