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MIT faculty approves new urban science major

Interdisciplinary undergraduate program combines urban planning and computer science.
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Urban settlements and technology around the world are co-evolving as flows of population, finance, and politics are reshaping the very identity of cities and nations. Rapid and profound changes are driven by pervasive sensing, the growth and availability of continuous data streams, advanced analytics, interactive communications and social networks, and distributed intelligence. At MIT, urban planners and computer scientists are embracing these exciting new developments.

The rise of autonomous vehicles, sensor-enabled self-management of natural resources, cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, biometric identity, the sharing or gig economy, and continuous public engagement opportunities through social networks and data and visualization are a few of the elements that are converging to shape our places of living.

In recognition of this convergence and the rise of a new discipline bringing together the Institute’s existing programs in urban planning and computer science, the MIT faculty approved a new undergraduate degree, the bachelor of science in urban science and planning with computer science (Course 11-6), at its May 16 meeting.

The new major will jointly reside in and be administered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

Combining urban planning and public policy, design and visualization, data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, pervasive sensor technology, robotics, and other aspects of both computer science and city planning, the program will reflect how urban scientists are making sense of cities and urban data in ways never before imagined — and using what they learn to reshape the world in real-time.

“The new joint major will provide important and unique opportunities for MIT students to engage deeply in developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be more effective scientists, planners, and policy makers,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “It will incorporate STEM education and research with a humanistic attitude, societal impact, social innovation, and policy change — a novel model for decision making to enable systemic positive change and create a better world. This is really unexplored, fertile new ground for research, education, and practice.”

The goal of the program is to train undergraduates in the theory and practice of computer science and urban planning and policy-making including ethics and justice, statistics, data science, geospatial analysis, visualization, robotics, and machine learning.

“The new program offers students an opportunity to investigate some of the most pressing problems and challenges facing urban areas today,” says Asu Ozdaglar, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Its interdisciplinary approach will help them combine technical tools with fundamental skills in urban policy to create innovative strategies and solutions addressing real-world problems with great societal impact.”

Although this field draws on existing disciplines, the combination will shape a unique area of knowledge. Practitioners are neither computer scientists nor urban planners in a conventional sense, but represent new kinds of actors with new sets of tools and methodologies. Already, in areas as diverse as transportation, public health, and cybersecurity, researchers and practitioners at MIT are pioneering work along these lines, demonstrating the potential for collaborative efforts.

“Every now and then, the world puts in front of us new problems that require new tools and forms of knowledge to address them,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “The growing challenges that cities are facing today has prompted us to develop this new major in urban science. We are combining the tools of AI and big data with those of urban planning, the social sciences, and policy. We are also mobilizing SA+P’s design capacities to unleash the creative potentials of quantitative intelligence through urban science and other collaborations with Engineering and the other schools at MIT.”

The urban science major proposes a comprehensive pedagogy, adding new material and integrated coursework. A centerpiece of this integration will be the degree’s “urban science synthesis lab” requirement, where high-tech tools will be brought together to solve real-world problems.

“This degree program will broaden our students’ perspectives and deepen their exposure in new and exciting directions,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering. “Just like the 6-14 program that EECS and Economics launched last year, this new course of study will empower and challenge students and researchers to think in new ways and form new connections. The value and relevance of computational thinking just keeps growing.”

The new major will be available to all undergraduates starting in fall 2018.

Press Mentions


Wired reporter Aarian Marshall highlights how MIT is launching a new undergraduate major that will combine computer science and urban planning. Prof. Eran Ben-Joseph explains that the motivation for the major is studying how, “you make a better connection between the training and computation, and what the implication of the work will be, for communities, for policies.”

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