Ben Levine: A City-University Partnership Upon a Hill

BEN LEVINE - Metrolab Interim Director I had the pleasure of visiting Boston and participating in the Boston Area Research Initiative’s (BARI) recent conference Data-Driven Research, Policy, & Practice: Lessons from Boston, for Boston.

It’s no secret that Boston’s terrific universities have been a major factor in driving economic growth in the region; nor is it a secret that Boston has a thriving civic technology community, beginning with the leadership of Mayor Marty Walsh and his brilliant team, including Nigel Jacob and Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

So what happens when you combine the power of Boston’s universities with the challenges and opportunities facing the region? BARI’s conference revealed the work already underway and provided a glimpse into the future of city/university collaboration.

BARI was founded in 2011 and is a collaborative interuniversity center that is based at Northeastern and Harvard Universities but also works closely with centers and faculty from Boston University, Emerson College, UMass Boston, MIT, and Tufts University. It focuses on data- and technology-centric urban research projects, largely in partnership with the City of Boston. It is the archetype of what MetroLab seeks to foster across our network: an R&D department for the city. BARI’s success is a reflection of the terrific work of its leadership, including co-directors Dan O’Brien, Robert Sampson, and Christopher Winship, and their colleagues.

I had a two primary takeaways from the conference. First, there is a groundswell of interest among faculty and students in urban-focused research. This is something that we see across our network and nowhere is it more obvious than in Boston. Second, there are numerous projects under the BARI umbrella that offer new, creative, impactful learnings not just for the city of Boston but for cities and regions more broadly.

Here are just a few examples:

  • A project from Boston University used Boston-area traffic data to explore how “cooperation” can result in significant traffic reductions relative to “selfish” route choices. Their finding: that we could halve traffic at certain times with a coordinated approach.
  • A project from the Harvard Graduate School of Design developed a web platform for the urban water system for the City of Chelsea, MA. It includes an algorithmic method to prioritize opportunities for the use of green infrastructure, which reduces pollutants in our streams, rivers, and oceans while greening public spaces.
  • A Northeastern project used business permits to understand commercial gentrification in Boston. The project’s use of big data to understand these trends goes beyond traditional methods, which include ethnographic and qualitative comparisons.
  • Another Northeastern project uses spatial data to understand neighborhood’s accessibility to amenities and services. This project quantifies issues of access — by scoring distances to supermarkets, banks, parks, and public transportation.

You can read more about the projects presented at the conference here.

I was thrilled to close the first day with remarks about MetroLab and its worth with cities and universities. I touched on prior impacts of technology change on cities — and asked how the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (AI, autonomous & connected vehicles, cloud computing, data science, cyber-physical systems, etc.) — will impact cities. As cities negotiate these disruptive forces, we will need partnerships like BARI — which offers technical expertise across disciplines, new and creative approaches, a platform-agnostic perspective, and an institutionalized program that works across governmental jurisdictions and political cycles.