We are living in a global suburban age. Modern suburban development has endured in our cultural imagination for almost a century. While statistics demonstrate that the amount of the world population in metropolitan areas is rapidly increasing, rarely is it understood that the bulk of this growth occurs in the suburbanized peripheries of cities. Domestically, over 69% of all U.S. residents live in suburban areas; internationally, many other developed countries are predominately suburban, while many developing countries are rapidly suburbanizing as well. By 2030, an estimated half a million square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of land worldwide will become suburbia. Suburbanization is a contemporary global phenomenon.
With the success, growth, and increasing global social and economic dependence on suburbs, the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism believes it is time to explore how they may be improved through better design and planning. What new land tenure models are needed to ensure that suburbs will become the frontier of innovation, tapping into flexible land-use to enable experimental economies, programs, and building? What technological innovations and productive systems will be embedded within suburban development to allow for self-sufficiency, or even perhaps to become a net producer of food, water, and energy? How do new forms of suburbs in these contexts evolve over time?
The Future of Suburbia conference will outline four design frameworks that project a future that is heterogeneous, experimental, autonomous and productive. Each of these themes will be explored by panelists from a broad array of fields including: design, architecture, urban planning, history and demographics, policy, energy, mobility, health, environment, economics, and applied and future technologies.
Join us in conversation to discuss the Future of Suburbia.
Future of Suburbia will take place on the 6th floor of the Media Lab (E14). The Media Lab is located on the corner of Amherst Street and Ames Street.
Media Lab (Map )
Building E14, 75 Amherst Street,
Cambridge, MA. 02139-4307 USA
Getting to the MIT Media Lab (Building E14 ):
If you are coming from Kendall Square: walk down Carleton St., turn right on Amherst St.
The closest subway station to campus is Kendall Square on the Red Line. Public transportation fares and schedules may be found at the MBTA website .
The campus map  has directions for getting to MIT from the airport, via public transportation, and by car.
More information will be coming soon.
Allison Arieff is Editorial Director of the urban planning and policy think tank, SPUR. She has been a contributing columnist to The New York Times since 2006. Arieff writes about architecture, design, cities and suburbs, for numerous publications including California Sunday, the MIT Technology Review, Dialogue, and CityLab. She is a former Editor-at-Large for GOOD and Sunset magazines, she was, from 2006–2008 and was Senior Content Lead for the global design and innovation firm, IDEO. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Dwell (and was the magazine’s founding Senior Editor): Dwell won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2005 under her tenure. Arieff is author of the books Prefab and Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America, and has contributed to numerous books on architecture, design and sustainability. She lectures and consults regularly on design and media and has done radio and TV appearances on NPR, KQED Forum, and CNN Money, among others. Arieff got her start in publishing with stints at Random House, Oxford University Press and Chronicle Books. She has a BA in History, an MA in art history and completed her PhD coursework in American Studies at New York University.
Professor Eran Ben-Joseph is the head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research and teaching areas include urban and physical design, standards and regulations, sustainable site planning technologies and urban retrofitting. He published numerous articles, monographs, book chapters and authored and co-authored the books: Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, Regulating Place: Standards and the Shaping of Urban America, The Code of the City, RENEW Town and ReThinking a Lot. Eran worked as a city planner, urban designer and landscape architect in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the United States on projects including new towns and residential developments, streetscapes, stream restorations, and parks and recreation planning. He has led national and international multi-disciplinary projects in Singapore, Barcelona, Santiago, Tokyo and Washington DC among other places. Eran is the recipient of the Wade Award for his work on Representation of Places – a collaboration project with MIT Media Lab and the Milka Bliznakov Prize for his historical work on Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture. He holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Chiba National University of Japan.
Alan Berger is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he teaches courses open to the entire student body. He is founding director of P-REX lab , at MIT, a research lab focused on environmental problems caused by urbanization, including the design, remediation, and reuse of waste landscapes worldwide. He is also Co-Director of CAU, MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism . All of his research and work emphasizes the link between our consumption of natural resources, and the waste and destruction of landscape, to help us better understand how to proceed with redesigning around our wasteful lifestyles for more intelligent design and development outcomes. Unlike conventional practice, there are no scalar limits in his outlook or pedagogy: projects are defined by the extent of the urban and environmental problems being addressed. He coined the term “Systemic Design” to describe the reintegration of disvalued landscapes into our urbanized territories and regional ecologies. In addition to his award winning books Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, and Reclaiming the American West, his other books include Designing the Reclaimed Landscape, Nansha Coastal City: Landscape and Urbanism in the Pearl River Delta (with Margaret Crawford). His most recently published books are Systemic Design Can Change the World and Landscape + Urbanism Around the Bay of Mumbai (with Rahul Mehrotra). He also edited CAU's 2013 Report on the State of Health + Urbanism. He has established, (in collaboration with USEPA Superfund Region 8 and Tiffany & Company Foundation) the world's first web portal for community-based reclamation design advocacy at waste2place.mit.edu . Prior to MIT he was Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard-GSD, 2002-2008. He is a Prince Charitable Trusts Fellow of The American Academy in Rome.
Bruegmann received his BA from Principia College in 1970 and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976 with a dissertation on late 18th and early 19th century European hospitals and other institutions. In 1977 he became assistant professor in the Art History Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is currently professor with appointments in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning and Policy. He also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia College of the Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University. He has also worked for the Historic American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service.> His fields of research and teaching are architectural, urban, landscape, and planning history and historical preservation. He has received scholarships and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Graham Foundation, the Buell Center for the study of American Architecture at Columbia University and the Institute for the Humanities and the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. > His research on Holabird & Root (earlier known as Holabird & Roche) in the 1980s improved public awareness of that firm and its contributions to the commercial architecture of Chicago and other cities. A comprehensive three-volume catalog of the firm's commissions from 1910-1940 was followed by a book describing the firm's first four decades and influence on Chicago. In recent years he has been examining the issue of urban sprawl. His 2005 book, Sprawl: A Compact History, takes a contrarian view, offering statistical and historical arguments to disprove the most frequently offered criticisms of dispersed development patterns as unhealthy and undesirable. Other works by Bruegmann recount the architectural history of Benicia, California, and of the United States Air Force Academy.
Joel Budd writes stories and editorials about urbanisation, development and demography for The Economist magazine in London. He is the author of an essay, “A Planet of Suburbs”, which appeared in December 2014. He has been on The Economist’s staff since 2003 and has previously held the jobs of Britain editor, media correspondent, and Los Angeles correspondent. Before becoming a journalist he took an ill-advised detour into academia, earning a PhD in early modern European history from New York University.
Joseph F. Coughlin, Ph.D., is founder and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab. He teaches in MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the Sloan School’s Advanced Management Program. His research focuses on how demographic change, technology, social trends and consumer behavior drive innovations in business and government. He teaches graduate courses in transportation planning, environment and livable communities and leads the US Department of Transportation New England University Transportation Center a MIT led consortium of New England universities conducting research on next generation transportation and community design. He has authored more than 100 research publications and a book on aging and transportation. Dr. Coughlin is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Slate and the online Disruptive Demographics on BigThink.com. He was named by The Wall Street Journal as one of “12 pioneers inventing the future of retirement…,” and by Fast Company Magazine as one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business.” Dr. Coughlin was appointed by President George W. Bush to the White House Conference on Aging Advisory Committee and has advised non-profits, governments and corporations worldwide. He is writing a forthcoming book with Public Affairs Press examining the convergence old age, business & technology.
Peter Del Tredici holds a BA degree in Zoology from the University of California, Berkeley (1968), a MA degree in Biology from the University of Oregon (1969), and a Ph.D. in Biology from Boston University (1991). He retired from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University 2014 after working there for 35 years as Plant Propagator, Curator of the Larz Anderson Bonsai Collection, Editor of Arnoldia, Director of Living Collections and Senior Research Scientist. Dr. Del Tredici is an Associate Professor in Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he has been teaching in the Landscape Architecture Department since 1992. He is the winner of the Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal and Award for 1999 presented by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College and in 2013 he was awarded the Veitch Gold Medal by The Royal Horticultural Society (England) “in recognition of services given in the advancement of the science and practice of horticulture.”
Dr. Del Tredici's interests are wide ranging and include such subjects as plant exploration in China, the root systems of woody plants, the botany and horticulture of magnolias, stewartias and hemlocks, and the natural and cultural history of the ginkgo tree. His recent work is focused on urban ecology and has resulted in the publication of the widely acclaimed “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide” (Cornell University Press, 2010) as well as a GPS-based mobile app, "Other Order" which interprets the Bussey Brook Meadow section of the Arnold Arboretum (with Teri Rueb). He lectures widely in North America and Europe and is the author of more than 130 scientific and popular articles.
Paul Feiler is the Principal Executive for CITE Development LLC, with responsibility for the leadership, development and on-going management of the CITE Test and Evaluation Facility, located in New Mexico, and its subsidiary businesses. Paul also serves as a Managing Director with Berkeley Research Group, leading their national Strategy and Dynamic Capabilities Practice. He provides expert advisory services related to the commercialization of large scale innovations and design and development of strategy and implementation of transformational change with large organizations in high velocity and/or turbulent markets. Dr. Feiler offers over 25 years of professional experience leading strategy development and major change projects in energy, healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and higher education industries, and with government institutions. He focuses on helping leaders realize long-term, sustained growth in shareholder value through practical, systematic, and organized approaches that produce outstanding business results, create a winning culture, inspire and align followers, and build momentum to realize strategic vision. Dr. Feiler's engagements have involved developing and resetting strategy, strategy execution and implementation, global change projects, capability improvement, strategic risk management, and metrics and measurement systems. > Dr. Feiler has negotiated deals in diverse environments and mediated numerous complex disputes in pre-litigation and court-ordered settings, which have produced agreements in business, employer-employee, civil, and ecclesiastical cases. He also possesses an outstanding track record of developing leaders who create value and inspire followership. > From 2012 to 2013, Dr. Feiler developed, implemented, and transitioned to management a global strategic capability plan for a major oil and gas company. From 2010 to 2011, he led a major transformation of the Global Drilling and Completions division of another major company, which addressed post-Macondo (Deepwater Horizon) risk implications. From 2002 to 2010, Paul served as Chief Operating Office and National Strategy Practice leader for a large consulting firm where he led over 30 strategy and business improvement engagements for upper mid-market to large global corporations.
He currently serves as Director of Business Sector Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores (Infonavit), a tripartite institution that shares decision-making between the Government, the Sector Workers and Employers Sector.
During his experience in the Federal Government, he has been Director General of Territorial Development for Housing in the National Commission on Housing Development now the National Housing Commission (CONAVI), part of the Boards of Directors of the Regulatory Commission of the Land tenure (CORETT), the National Popular Housing Trust Fund (FONHAPO) and INFONAVIT.
He has represented the Mexican government at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank on housing issues and promoted the modernization of public property records, information systems for housing and the design of models for government collaboration that incorporates social fabric.
He is a member of the Technical Committee owner Mortgage Trust (FHIPO).
For his career of more than 15 years in the housing sector he was awarded the Man of Housing 2012.
At the end of 2014 he was elected as Regional Director for North America by the Inter-American Housing Union.
Robert T. “Bob” Geolas serves as President and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, the organization entrusted with keeping Research Triangle Park at the top of North Carolina’s innovation economy. For nearly 60 years RTP has led the world in life altering discoveries across technology and science. As the President and CEO, Bob works to continue growing RTP’s historic legacy for future generations of North Carolinians.
To achieve this, Bob is responsible for maintaining and expanding relationships between North Carolina’s educational institutions and RTP industry. He also leads the first redevelopment in RTP’s history – Park Center. The Park Center project signals a new beginning for RTP, and will include inspiring areas of density meant to encourage creative thought. Through a focused effort of creative collaborations, and his ability to dream big, Bob has ignited a new era in RTP’s history.
As part of the Park Center project, Bob initiated the launch of a new space in RTP called The Frontier. Imagined as an open innovation area, The Frontier is a tangible example of what Park Center one day will be: a place where anyone can come to access resources, feel connected to a community, and be inspired by the work that’s occurring. Bob’s vision and implementation of The Frontier is only the beginning of what’s to come in RTP’s future.
With more than 20 years of experience uplifting research Parks, Bob has a proven track record of success. Prior to his current role, Bob was the Executive Director of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) where he took a vision for the campus from dream to reality. In his earlier career, Bob led North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus and Centennial Biomedical Campus. During his tenure, more than 1.48 million square feet of space was developed.
Susannah Hagan is Research Professor in Architecture in the University of Westminster’s Department of Architecture and the Built Environment. Before that she was Professor of Architectural Research and Head of Research in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art from 2012-2016, leading the research cluster PS2 (Public Space ProjectS). Trained as an architect at Columbia University, New York and the Architectural Association, London, she is also the founder and director of R_E_D (Research into Environment + Design – www.theredgroup.org ), a European design research consultancy that specialises in promoting the role of design in making cities more environmentally resilient, with past work in England, Sweden, and the Baltic cities. She is on the editorial boards of arq: Architectural Research Quarterly and The Architectural Review, and is a member of the AHRC Peer Review College. She has published extensively on both architecture and urban design, drawing together history, theory, design practice and environmental practice (e.g. Taking Shape: a new contract between architecture and nature (2001), and Digitalia: architecture and the environmental, the digital and the avant-garde (2008). Her latest book, Ecological Urbanism: the nature of the city (2015) is for students and practitioners, and examines the roles of design and designers in the environmental recalibration of cities.
Professor Mitchell Joachim is a leading figure in ecological design, architecture, and urbanism. He is the founding co-president of Terreform ONE, a nonprofit think tank for architecture and smart city design. Terreform ONE was an Official Selection of the Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition 2014 and OfficeUS Outpost of the American Pavilion. Before coming to NYU, Professor Joachim was an architect at the offices of Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei., served as the Frank Gehry Chair at the University of Toronto, and taught at Pratt, Columbia, Syracuse, Cornell, University of Washington, Rensselaer Polytechnic, and Parsons School of Design. A TED Senior Fellow, Professor Joachim has been awarded fellowships with Moshe Safdie and Martin Society for Sustainability at MIT. He won the AIA New York Urban Design Merit Award, 1st Place International Architecture Award, Zumtobel Group Award for Sustainability and Humanity, History Channel Infiniti Award for City of the Future, Time Magazine’s Best Invention, and the Victor Papanek Social Design Award. His living ecological home design, Fab Tree Hab, has been exhibited at MoMA and widely published. He has received recognition for his work by Wired, Rolling Stone, Popular Science, and Dwell. In 2015, Images Publishing Group honored him by selecting him as one of Fifty Under Fifty Innovators of the 21st Century. Professor Joachim and Nina Tandon’s book, Super Cells: Building with Biology, was published by TED Books in 2014. Professor Joachim, along with Peter Anker and Louise Harpman, published Global Design: Elsewhere Envisioned (Prestel 2014), a showcase of design research as it relates to visionary architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism, and ecological planning.
Jed Kolko was Chief Economist and VP of Analytics at Trulia, the online real estate marketplace, from 2011 to 2015. He wrote his chapter in Infinite Suburbia while at Trulia. He led Trulia’s housing and economics research and was the company’s spokesperson about the national housing market. He is now an independent economist advising companies and non-profits on their data-science and research strategies. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC-Berkeley.
From 2006 to 2011, he was Associate Director and Research Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, where he led research projects and advised public officials and business leaders on economic, housing and technology policies. From 2000 to 2005, he directed Forrester’s consumer market research program, advising corporate executives on technology adoption and demand. He has also held positions at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (now FHFA), the World Bank, and the Progressive Policy Institute.
Jed is regularly cited in the national media. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg View, FiveThirtyEight, Wonkblog, and Atlantic CityLab, and has authored a dozen academic articles. He earned his A.B. in social studies and his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University. He lives in San Francisco and can be reached via his website (www.jedkolko.com ) or on Twitter (@jedkolko).
Described by the New York Times as “America’s uber-geographer,” Joel Kotkin is an
internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends. His
new book, THE HUMAN CITY: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, will be published by Agate
in April, 2016.
Mr. Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange,
California and Executive Director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity
Urbanism (opportunityurbanism.org). He is Executive Editor of the widely read website
www.newgeography.com  and writes the weekly “New Geographer” column for
Forbes.com. He serves on the editorial board of the Orange County Register and writes a
weekly column for that paper, and is a regular contributor to the Daily Beast and Real
He is the author of seven previously published books, including the widely praised THE
NEW CLASS CONFLICT (Telos Press), which describes the changing dynamics of class
Other past books include THE NEXT HUNDRED MILLION: America in 2050,
published by The Penguin Press. The book explores how the nation will evolve in the
next four decades. THE CITY: A GLOBAL HISTORY and TRIBES: How Race, Religion
and Identity Are Reshaping the Global Economy, were also published in numerous
languages including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German and Arabic.
Mr. Kotkin has published reports on topics ranging from the future of class in global
cities to the places with the best opportunities for minorities. His 2013 report, “Postfamilialism:
Humanity’s Future,” an examination of the world’s future demography, was
published by the Civil Service College of Singapore and Chapman University and has
been widely commented on not only in the United States, but in Israel, Brazil, Canada
and other countries.
Over the past decade, Mr. Kotkin has completed studies focusing on several major cities,
including a worldwide study focusing on the future of London, Mumbai and Mexico City,
and studies of New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Houston, San Bernardino and St.
Louis, among others. In 2010 he completed an international study on “the new world
order” for the Legatum Institute in London, UK that traced trans-national ethnic
networks, particularly in East Asia. He also has worked in smaller communities,
including a report -working with Praxis Strategy Group - on the rise of the Great Plains
for Texas Tech University.
Currently Kotkin is coordinating major studies on Texas urbanism, the future of localism
and the re-industrialization of the American heartland for the Center for Opportunity
Urbanism. As director of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman, he was
the lead author of a major study on housing, and is currently involved in a project about
the future of Orange County, CA.
A licensed architect and certified city planner, Ellen Lou leads Urban Design + Planning Group for SOM's San Francisco office. Lou has directed many world-renowned urban design and planning efforts in the United States and the Pacific Rim countries. Her areas of specialization include urban, brownfield reuse, master plans for new towns and communities, historic revitalization, and campus master plans.
Lou is particularly skilled in developing innovative ideas to address challenging urban planning contexts and in guiding development interests to create public benefit. She is keenly interested in promoting sustainable development. Her tenets of sustainable planning include creating pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented developments, integrating elements of site features with development needs, and engendering a sense of identity rooted in the culture and aspirations of the place.
Lou is also active in civic and educational outreach. She has lectured and served as visiting instructor and guest critic for architecture and urban design courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, North Dakota University, California Academy of Arts, and University of California Berkeley. She has also participated in community workshops and design charrettes organized by the San Francisco Planning Department and the Association of Bay Area Government in East Bay and San Francisco. Lou serves as a board member for San Francisco Urban Planning and Research, as well as on the San Jose Downtown Architecture Review Committee.
Ali Modarres is the Director of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma. He is the editor of Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning. Dr. Modarres earned his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Arizona and holds master and bachelor degrees in landscape architecture from the same institution. He specializes in urban geography and his primary research and publication interests are socio-spatial urban dynamics and the political economy of urban design. He has published in the areas of social geography, transportation planning, and public policy. Some of his recent articles have appeared in the Transport Geography, Current Research on Cities, and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
Joan Iverson Nassauer, Professor of Landscape Architecture in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, develops ecological design proposals and investigates how human experience is affected by and can sustain environmentally beneficial landscape patterns. The author of more than 80 refereed papers and books, her current design research addresses green infrastructure for highly vacant urban neighborhoods and ecosystem services from suburban landscapes. A Fellow by the American Society of Landscape Architects (1992), she was named Distinguished Scholar by the International Association of Landscape Ecology (IALE) (2007) and Distinguished Practitioner of Landscape Ecology in the United States (1998). She is co-editor in chief of Landscape and Urban Planning.
As a director of Other Architects, David oversees the design of projects from inception to completion. His approach draws on comprehensive knowledge of historical and contemporary architecture aided by a capacity for strategic and lateral thinking. An award-winning designer and critic, David’s work has been exhibited in Sydney, Canberra, Perth and Milan, and his writing has been published in Australia, India, Mexico, Italy and Spain.
Winner of the 2013 Open Agenda competition and the 2012 bi-annual Adrian Ashton Prize for Architectural Journalism, he has twice been shortlisted for Creative Director of the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2007 and 2013). He was co-convenor of the 2013 Affirmative Architecture symposium and the 2012 Developing Architectural Education in Response to Climate Change (DARC) international workshop, and was Creative Director of Natural Artifice, the 2011 Australian Institute of Architects National Conference. David is an Associate of the School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney, and resident architecture critic for The Monthly magazine. He has worked at leading Australian offices Architectus, McBride Charles Ryan, Gregory Burgess Architects and Candalepas Associates, and completed a year long industrial design residency at the Fabrica creative workshop in Treviso, Italy. He has a Bachelor of Design degree from the University of Sydney and a Master of Architecture with Distinction from RMIT. Having undertaken projects for Melbourne General Cemetery and Sydney’s Jewish Mortuary Chapel, David is emerging as a leading expert in the area of funerary architecture. He leads a UTS Master of Architecture design studio exploring new modes of interment, burial infrastructure and memorialisation.
Depending on the day, Matthew is an artist, photojournalist, or cinematographer. His interest in China was sparked by Mandarin courses in high school, and he quickly became fascinated with the country’s expansive history. Matthew then immersed himself in the anthropology department at Columbia University. After graduating he returned to China to explore documentary projects and other creative outlets. Since then Matthew's photography investigating youth culture and urban development in China appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Wired, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and The New Republic among many others. He also shot video for The New York Times. Kapital Creation is his first full-length film. He earned his MFA in Art Practice from SVA.
David Rudlin is a director of URBED, Honorary Professor at Manchester University and winner of the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize. A planner by training, he started his career with Manchester City Council working on the early stages of the redevelopment of Hulme while at the same time being a founder member of the housing cooperative that built the flagship Homes for Change scheme. He joined URBED in 1990 to manage the Award-winning Little Germany Action project in Bradford. Since then he as developed the practice’s masterplanning, sustainability and community involvement specialisms, working extensively across the UK. This includes completed masterplans for the New England Quarter in Brighton, Temple Quay in Bristol and the Millennium Village in Telford.
He is the author of a number of research reports and a book ‘Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood’ published by the Architectural Press 2009. This was described by Richard Rogers as ‘the best analysis (he) had read of the crisis facing the contemporary city’. He chairs the Sheffield Design Panel, BEAM in Wakefield and is also a director of the Academy of Urbanism and Honorary Professor at Manchester University.
As computers become ubiquitous, the range of devices that must understand their physical context will increase substantially. Robots, computers and embedded devices need not only to be able to sense their environment, but should also integrate information from the environment into all decision making. Many of the open questions in robotics are instances of how to integrate spatial and temporal reasoning into computation systems: what are appropriate models of the world, how to automatically build such models, and how to generate reliable actions in the real world.
My research has focussed specifically on the problems that result from uncertainty in the world, such as sensor noise or unpredictable action outcome. Probabilistic, decision-theoretic models have proven to be ideally suited for state estimation in the face of uncertainty; I believe that such models can be equally useful for planning. For example, I have formulated algorithms for a class of planning models called Partially Observable Markov Decision Processes (POMDPs). The POMDP framework is a general model for planning with incomplete information, however, it suffers from substantial computational intractability. My contribution has been an approach for finding approximate policies for large (and currently unsolvable) POMDP models that are relevant to real world systems.
POMDP policies are computed over beliefs (probability distributions over states), and one major source of POMDP intractability is that the space of beliefs grows in dimensionality with the size of the state space. My approach stems from the observation that only certain features of the belief space may be necessary for finding good policies. For instance, many problems exhibit a specific kind of sparse structure in the belief space; by taking advantage of this structure, it is possible to approximate very high-dimensional belief spaces with very low-dimensional representations. I have developed an algorithm that uses a dimensionality reduction technique, called Exponential Family Principal Components Analysis, to find a compact representation of the belief space. By planning only over this low-dimensional space of belief features, the vast majority of implausible beliefs are eliminated from consideration. This approximation allows for much more efficient planning, with relatively little loss in policy performance for many problems.
These kinds of approximation models naturally grow out of real world problems, and I believe it is essential to work with deployed systems, performing real tasks, to gain insight into the best way to address interesting scientific problems. For example, my experience with Minerva, the tour-guide robot in the Smithsonian Museum, led me to develop Coastal Navigation, a motion planning strategy that trades off the costs of motion and of positional uncertainty, to achieve goals with maximum likelihood. I have also been a lead developer of the Nursebot, a robot for assisting nurses and the elderly with daily activities. One of the most valuable lessons from this domain is the need for both state estimation and planning techniques that can cope with a wide variety of human behaviours.
I intend to continue working on the issue of planning under uncertainty, motivated by mobile robots in a variety of environments, but also with regard to a wide range of applications. Unfortunately, existing algorithms are limited in a number of ways. The kinds of environmental models that robots can build reliably is very restricted: while robots can now build two-dimensional maps of connected spaces, the technologies used to build these maps do not scale well to large spaces, to higher dimensions, or to simpler representations for low-power devices. More flexible representations, and algorithms for reasoning about these representations in a wider variety of tasks, are essential for better integration of physical modelling and reasoning in many domains.
I am also very interested exploring robot autonomy, especially in human interaction. Most standard models of interaction are based on abstract game-theoretic principles; consequently, almost no deployed systems make use of these models. Additionally, while there are a wide variety of algorithms for detecting and modelling people, there are few if any principled ways for integrating people into general decision making.
In general, my research reflects the belief that decision-theoretic models give tremendous promise of principled spatial and temporal reasoning, integrated in a range of computational devices. However, there are many open questions, and consequently a great number of scientific challenges and opportunities to which I look forward.
Knut received a PhD in Transportation Engineering and Computer Science from Centre for Transport, Imperial College, London in the UK and an EMBA from the London School of Economics. In his academic life Knut worked on highly reliable computational algorithms for navigation applications for civil aviation and on financial modelling connected to inner city road charging. Knut joint Hyperloop Technologies in January 2016 as Vice President. Before that Knut lead Siemen’s Think Tank on Mobility. Prior to Siemens Knut held various senior positions at the Swiss Federal Railroad and Oliver Wyman’s surface transportation practice.