From Abu Dhabi to Zürich, MIT graduates are converging to talk about the welfare and future of cities. “I’ve been involved in the topic for more than 40 years, waving the flag and saying the planet’s going urban,” said Tim Campbell PhD ’80, author of Beyond Smart Cities (Routledge 2012). “In the last couple of years, that corner’s been turned. There are lots more meetings being held, and everyone’s asking the urban question.”
Campbell is chairman of the Urban Age Institute, which is dedicated to building alliances among leaders and innovators in the areas of technology and urban sustainability. At its annual Meeting of the Minds conference, held last September in Toronto, “there were tons of MIT people,” said Campbell.
One of them was Patricia McCarney, PhD ’87, professor at the University of Toronto, and director of the new Global Cities Institute (GCI). McCarney has built a global network of more than 250 cities across 80 countries within her Global City Indicators Facility, a comprehensive database of vital urban data, giving cities the tools to learn from each other. GCI launched a series of reports drawing on this database with a study outlining strategies for addressing a rapidly aging urban population. “Urban design models that integrate seniors into walkable, mixed-use areas are the hallmarks of a healthy city,” said McCarney.
Another Toronto participant, Fred Salvucci ’61, SM ’62, the former secretary of transportation for Massachusetts and current MIT Transit Lab research associate, discussed Boston’s transportation megaproject, the Big Dig, over which he presided for more than a decade. “It’s important to figure out how to do megaprojects better, because these kind of interventions are essential if we’re to make cities greener, denser, and more transit-oriented, and if people are to function happily rather than miserably,” he said.
In Europe, a flurry of conferences drew participants like Susanne Seitinger MCP ’04, SM ’06, PhD ’10, who noted, “Wherever I go, I bump into a lot of MIT people.” The city innovations manager at Philips Color Kinetics, Seitinger was scheduled to attend Futurapolis, in Toulouse, France. An MIT Media Lab graduate profoundly influenced by the late William Mitchell, former dean of the School of Architecture and Smart Cities guru, Seitinger’s agenda included sharing her research on LED lighting that can both shrink cities’ energy bills and be programmed to illuminate an urban environment “like a painting.”
At a symposium hosted by the MIT Club of Germany last October, alumni gathered in Stuttgart to explore urban development and mobility. Invited speakers included Christian Marion MArch ’87, a French urban planner and member of the MIT Club of France, who compared large infrastructure projects in France and Germany, and J. Meejin Yoon, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, who discussed integrating urban planning and mobility. “The exchange of new ideas and professional experiences is at the very beginning,” stated Helmut Lotze MCP/MArch ’94, and MIT Club of Germany board member. An architect and city planner in Düsseldorf, Lotze expressed the desire “to improve networking.”
A few weeks later and half a world away, the MIT Industrial Liaison Program sponsored a conference in Beijing focusing on innovation and technologies to help with China’s rapid and wrenching urbanization. One participant, Tianwen Liu MBA and Sloan Fellow ’96, noted that “many MIT alumni are now business leaders in various industries, and we all want to contribute to helping China succeed in the mega- urbanization movement, including building sustainable and more livable future cities.”
Liu, the chairman and CEO of Chinese IT giant iSoftstone, said he is working with the Chinese government to “introduce MIT technologies and best practices,” including MIT executive education programs, in several cities. He hoped “that the mayors and officials involved in the urbanization projects will be exposed to the latest urban planning and city management know-how.”
(Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Chris Pfaff; iSoftstone; Leslie Cashen; Stuart Darsch; Benjamin Brook; Helmut Lotze)