By Chia Evers | MIT Media Lab
The City Science group at the MIT Media Lab, directed by Principal Research Scientist Kent Larson, launched the City Science Network nine years ago to create sister labs around the world that could share data, code, design ideas, and systems for analysis, simulation, and community engagement. Today, 10 affiliated City Science labs are operating in Asia, North America, South America, Europe, and the Middle East, with cooperation agreements that support 30 researchers at the MIT Media Lab.
The many research projects of the network are based on the belief that cities — the source of 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 90 percent of global population growth — must be at the center of solutions to climate change, equity, and other grand challenges of our era, and that the most successful cities in the future will evolve into a network of vibrant communities that dramatically reduce emissions while improving social and economic conditions.
As an example, City Science researchers at MIT recently developed a community-scale climate model to help cities set priorities for effective climate policy. Climate scientists have established that carbon dioxide emissions must be limited to approximately 2.5 tons per person per year if we are to have an 80 percent chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. However, the population of Kendall Square, where MIT and the Media Lab are based, emits almost seven times this amount.
A series of 10 possible interventions were modeled with a surprising result: When both embodied and operational energy were considered, creating local housing matched to jobs for net-zero commuting plus walkable access to all amenities needed in daily life was potentially far more impactful than conventional solutions such as solar power and electric vehicles. This study established the need to prioritize bottom-up community-scale action in addition to top-down national-scale solutions. To help achieve this goal, researchers are now developing incentive-based alternatives to century-old zoning ordinances: new rules for the city to incentivize the development of more vibrant, entrepreneurial communities with dramatically lower emissions.
One of the network’s earliest projects illustrates its potential to improve social and economic conditions. This was a collaboration with the Hamburg City Science Lab to help local communities identify sites to build housing for the anticipated 70,000 refugees from the war in Syria. This politically and emotionally charged effort required a new approach to community consensus building.
Working with the vision established by Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz (now German chancellor), the City Science teams built tangible CityScope platforms that enabled participants in 44 workshops to collectively explore the viability of refugee housing sites. Placing optically tagged LEGO modules representing housing blocks onto possible community building sites provided real-time feedback as to access to jobs, schools, shopping, and other useful information as alternatives were explored. With this system, the mayor’s three goals were achieved: Each district, rich or poor, shared the burden equally; refugees were evenly assimilated into the city rather than concentrated in pockets; and residents, rather than leadership, led the decision-making process. This project is now recognized as a model for community consensus-building involving difficult issues.
Since then, the network has extended its aims, with a current focus on “Innovation in Informality,” learning from and building on hyper-local solutions developed by network collaborators in informal and semi-formal urban settlements. The United Nations estimates that some 25 percent of the world’s population lives in settlements like these — densely populated, unplanned communities that lack adequate access to basic infrastructure and services.
In Mexico, the City Science group and the University of Guadalajara’s City Science Lab are working together on the Axol project, a distributed network of low-cost water quality sensors that work with the tanks, buckets, and wells used by households in informal communities. The sensors feed information to a phone-optimized web interface that can help users monitor their water usage and identify trends, so they can more easily develop strategies to promote water conservation and efficient usage, especially in dry periods. On the local level, Axol is meant to empower communities to take control of their own water resources and promote sustainable practices that will benefit both people and the environment. If deployed at scale, it could create research opportunities and provide policymakers with the data they need to improve water infrastructure and make informed decisions about the allocation of resources.
Another project currently underway in Chile, with City Science Lab @ Biobío, focuses on the informal and semi-formal Costanera communities along the banks of the Biobió River. This collaboration, which began in 2022, will model current community and government plans, and include an entrepreneurship model intended to help people stay in the area while building wealth. The City Science Network has a particular interest in working with local people and community leaders, including the Mapuche women in these areas; their local knowledge, high standards, and deep commitment to their communities make them vital participants in these efforts.
What sets the City Science Network apart from similar programs to bring cities together to discuss best practices is its focus on deeper engagement. Network members meet regularly to share design ideas, solutions, data, computational tools, code, and other resources. As the network grows, its members continue to deepen their relationships, discover new interests and approaches, and build trust with each other and with the communities in which they work. These factors help magnify the impact of the network’s projects, as having access to an extended network lets collaborators apply innovations developed in many different contexts with a larger team that can refine, extend, and deploy ideas far beyond MIT.
The network collaborates on projects and meets often for lectures and workshops in addition to the annual City Science Summit. This year, the summit, held Oct. 4-6 at the MIT Media Lab, was designed to be part of MIT Technology Review’s ClimateTech event. This year's summit also welcomed the newest member of the City Science Network, NUR — the Negev Urban Research in Israel. The City Science Lab @ Gipuzkoa at the Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa and the Mubil Foundation, which joined the network last December, is also a first-time participant in the event.
As the network continues its work, it looks toward helping local communities grow into cities that include clusters of high-performing, entrepreneurial, and walkable neighborhoods that could aspire to achieve zero commuting, zero energy, maximum creative collisions, maximum equity, and maximum public health. These communities will offer a unique combination of density, diversity, access, and public amenities to inspire, promote social interaction, ensure equity, and increase creative and entrepreneurial engagement.