The future of cities

By Elie Bou-Zeid
September 15, 2019

This article is from the Fall 2019 EQuad News.

Urbanization has always been about technology.

Head and shoulders portrait of Elie Bou-Zeid

Agricultural technology produced the food that made the first cities viable, construction and elevator technologies allowed them to concentrate into small areas while their populations increased, and transportation technology reversed that trend and caused them to sprawl.

The big question looking forward is: How will technological breakthroughs — in sensors, models, data analytics, networks, and connected devices — shape the 21st-century metropolis, from the dense urban cores to the distant connected  communities and regional Earth systems that are vital for providing the resources cities need?

The associated grand challenge is to guide technological advances on a path that improves urban living. A path that makes future metropolises, as well as smaller agglomerations, more resilient in the face of natural and human-made disasters and shocks, more sustainable in using resources, more socioeconomically equitable, and simply more livable. Given that about 70% of the planet’s population will live in urban regions by 2050, and that these built-up agglomerations will be responsible for well over 70% of resource use and anthropogenic emissions, this coming transformation of the city is crucial to the human race’s future and its quality of life. It is also why Princeton Engineering has recently launched its Metropolis Project for urban science and engineering.

The Metropolis Project will create a research ecosystem that enables Princeton to play a central role in meeting the urbanization challenge. We will leverage our world-class programs in disciplines necessary to make breakthroughs and shift paradigms about the future of the city: engineering and computer science, natural sciences, architecture, economics, policy, demography, and history, among others. We will also take advantage of our relatively small size, which facilitates and encourages interdisciplinary and fundamental research. Interdisciplinarity has to be at the core of our vision. To have a deep impact, this work requires close interactions between three groups: (i) Developers who advance science and engineer technologies such as algorithms, sensors, structures, models, cyberphysical systems, and many more; (ii) Users who refine and apply innovations to engineer the building blocks and advance the systems of a metropolis (water, communications, government, etc.) — the early adopters of new technologies; (iii) Integrators who examine how the impact of specific technologies, design principles, or engineered systems cascades through the metropolitan system of systems — they design economic, engineering, or policy analyses to achieve practical improvements.

Princeton has unique strengths in all these pillars and the vision to see beyond the problems of the few large metropolises of the developed world. We are in a position to lead on the most pressing interdisciplinary inquiries that are required to reimagine the metropolises of the future.

In the following pages, we survey how research of Princeton faculty, students, and postdocs is enabling a better urban future. In the wired city, we consider the important role of new hardware, software, and information networks in collecting and analyzing data and creating knowledge. The sustainable city showcases innovative building blocks of the metropolis such as new materials, structures, and systems. The built city then looks at the larger scale, considering how buildings can be better designed and monitored and evaluating the risks cities incur from natural hazards such as flooding. The livable city surveys sensor technologies and models to monitor and improve urban environmental quality. Finally, the moving city delves into critical and rapid shifts in transportation technology and patterns in the modern metropolis. These are but a few samples of how Princeton researchers work daily to shape a better urban future.

Elie Bou-Zeid is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Program in Environmental Engineering and Water Resources.