If MIT aims to help invent the future, we have to think hard about cities. For the first time, cities constitute our species’ dominant habitat. Now home to more than half of all human beings, cities have become the central stage on which our shared future will unfold. In that context, finding ways to seize the opportunities cities generate and to solve the problems they suffer becomes an urgent assignment.

As this issue of Spectrum makes clear, cities are already focal points for many of today’s most important global challenges: Poverty. Human health. Water and food. Energy. Transportation. Environmental degradation and climate change. Innovation, the digital economy, and economic growth. And as humanity becomes more city-centered, cities are undergoing their own transformation, growing less centralized, more complex, and much, much bigger.

For all these reasons, we believe cities present important opportunities for MIT to apply its interdisciplinary creativity and hands-on problem solving to help invent a sustainable society.

We begin from our core strength in urban planning and architecture, magnified and extended by our expertise in a distinctive range of connected fields. For instance, cities are unending sources of data and impressive examples of interconnected systems; this creates rich opportunities to apply MIT’s capabilities in sensors, big data, and systems thinking. Cities represent the primary source of demand for concrete, the root of 5–10% of the world’s CO² emissions—which makes them ideal settings for nanoscience approaches to “greener” forms of concrete. And because cities are disproportionately coastal, they suffer outsized impacts from rising sea levels—and they stand to benefit most from new engineering, science, and policy ideas in response.

At MIT, we know how to listen to cities, how to read them—and how to act on what we learn. With the recent launch of our Center for Advanced Urbanism, we are seeking to reinvent them for the future, applying our cross-disciplinary strengths to help create cities that are cleaner, healthier, “smarter,” more innovative, more prosperous, more resilient, and more livable.

We have never seen anything like the vast cities of tomorrow; they represent the frontier of human experience, and managing their growth will require the very best thinking from our faculty, students, and alumni around the world. There is no template and no textbook. In helping to shape tomorrow’s cities, we are truly “learning by doing”—a perfect assignment for MIT.


L. Rafael Reif

L. Rafael Reif

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