Waterloo’s leading voices behind future cities

Frank Caivan (left), Vivek Goel, president of the University of Waterloo (centre
Frank Caivan (left), Vivek Goel, president of the University of Waterloo (centre) and Troy van Haastrecht (right) during launch of the Future Cities Institute
With the rising cost of housing, aging infrastructure, climate change and disruptive technology at the forefront of urban planning, cities require data-driven tools and expertise to prosper today, and into the future.

To address this challenge, the University of Waterloo recently announced the launch of the Future Cities Institute founded by CAIVAN (FCI), thanks to a transformational gift of $10 million from Waterloo alumni Frank Cairo (BES ’05) and Troy  (BASc ’93), co-founders of one of Canada’s leading real estate developers, Caivan .

The FCI will connect researchers across the University to develop plans and data-driven applied toolkits for building resilient future cities, and train future leaders.

To build better cities, we need to make decisions that align with the realities that cities will face in the future, and for this, leveraging data to determine optimal solutions is crucially important.

Two researchers lending their expertise to the FCI and contributing to its knowledge production share how scientific data and an interdisciplinary perspective will be paramount to solving complex city problems.

"Interdisciplinary research is at the core of building future cities... and realizing sustainable, equitable and resilient cities requires data-driven decision making from a broad range of expertise from mathematical specialists to researchers of transportation and infrastructure," says Dr. David Del Rey Fernández, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics. Del Rey Fernández joins the FCI with expertise in developing simulation software to support decision-making.

"Future cities require algorithms powering simulations providing mathematical guarantees to make decisions. In this way, the simulation software is predictive and therefore informed decisions can be made," he adds.

Adding his voice to the conversation, Dr. Stephen Smith, professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been researching future transportation systems since his postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a research project in Singapore.

"I spent about three or four months in Singapore, which has a very extensive public transportation system, and they were interested in how to continue getting people moving in the city as the population continues to increase, but where there is no ability to physically expand the city boundaries," Smith says. "That experience got me quite interested in city development and transportation. Today, I work mostly in autonomy and decision making, so you can think of my work as building optimization tools that enable systems to make better decisions."

When asked how his expertise intersects with building better cities for humanity, Smith acknowledges that it is primarily from an optimization perspective. "There are lots of existing pieces of software to model cities but a lot of them aren’t really designed for the purpose of performing mathematical optimization," he says.  "I see myself developing methods for city builders and planners to leverage optimization in making more informed decisions, and to better explore the space of possible solutions."

Del Rey Fernández also emphasizes that to develop implementable solutions, future cities require the expertise of researchers in the social sciences who can shed light on people’s preferences, along with policy scholars to understand how solutions can be implemented within existing legislative frameworks.

"I believe that academia will be essential in developing tools that will support data-driven decision making for the evolution of the cities of the future," he says. "The interdisciplinarity of the problem is what has attracted me to the area as well as the impact research in this area could have on people’s wellbeing," he adds.

Both researchers agree that now is the right time to leverage technology for future cities building, citing that the technology is already available that enables city builders to input the large amounts of data that exists into modelling software to explore multiple possible scenarios that lead to better decision making.

In 2023, the University launched a Master of Future Cities degree program that is designed to provide earlyand mid-career professionals with competency in futures and systems thinking. Students of the program will also gain competency in foresight methods that can be used to better address the significant challenges of today while anticipating and generating innovative and sustainable options for uncertain and increasingly complex futures in the context of cities.

The FCI is a remarkable mobilization of Waterloo’s extensive expertise, uniquely tailored to shape the destiny of our cities, and stands as a pivotal and proactive embodiment of the University’s ambitious Waterloo at 100 vision.
Darren McAlmont