Urban Theory and Analytics Program

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Blue sky research for Rust Belt cities using theory and artificial intelligence


In 1529, Sir Francis Bacon, the father of modern scientific inquiry, famously quipped “scientia potestas est”, or “knowledge is power”, as it unveiled “the secret motion of things”. The presence of knowledge, however, isn’t wished for, willed into, guessed upon, or lied about. It’s manufactured, done so via the study of the causes and effects of natural and social phenomena.

Often, the motivation of every government and for- and non-profit entity is first and foremost to gain knowledge. This could be about an emerging market, a proactive policy, or an effective intervention. That’s not a contested statement. What’s curious is the extent biases, misinformation, and disinformation harms so much of the knowledge-making capacity of various organizations.

This is partly because the human mind, notes cognitive psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, is “noisy”. “We have in our heads a wonderful computer,” said Kahneman. “It’s made of meat, but it’s a computer. It’s extremely noisy…but there is no magic there.” Elaborating, human attention is scarce. There’s only so much we can store, recall, attend to, and compute. And then when all else fails, we use our “gut”.

To say there’s a better way to make knowledge so as to inform decisions is an understatement. This “better way” has drove much of civilization’s progress to date, if only through the mantra of making what was harder easier. Or what was scarce more abundant. The agricultural revolution was about making more food at less cost with fewer laborers. The industrial revolution made the scarcity of human labor abundant by replicating it with steam and gears. The software revolution created an abundance of memory, unleashing a torrent of information into our handheld devices. Today, the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution is making the scarcity of human attention less so via the advance of cognitive computing.

In today’s AI era, it’s in particular these last set of abundances—memory, information, and attention—that are the building blocks of the next order. That means better knowledge, and ultimately strategic decisions made with more precision.

This in a nutshell is the raison d'etre for the Center for Population Dynamic’s Urban Theory and Analytics (UTA) program: utilizing emergent methods to drowned out noise with knowledge. This weaving of computer science and social science puts UTA in the middle of a nascent, interdisciplinary domain called “computational social science”, which arose out of “an urgent need for a greater comprehension of the complexity of our interconnected global society and an ability to apply such insights in policy decisions…” so note the authors of the article “Manifesto of computational social science”.

Our domain expertise is in economic, community, and human development, focusing on the Rust Belt. Specifically, we simplify the complex of how and why the global economy changes, and then how those changes become manifest in regional economies, neighborhood conditions, and ultimately individual wellbeing. Past work can be found here.

That computer science innovations are tightening the process of knowledge making, resulting in a product with a higher degree of precision and efficacy, well, there’s a lot of upside there, particularly where societal and human development is concerned. Yet while technological advance has made progress tackling the problems of science—microchips are better, telecommunication is clearer, virtual reality is nearer—it’s done less to tackle the problems of living. Which of course begs the question: “Knowledge for who? Knowledge for what?”

While the answer to this question is further elucidated in a founding white paper called “The Future of Growth”, it’s enough to say that the “knowledge is power” axiom cuts both ways, if only because “power is knowledge”, with question-and-answer-seeking too often bendable toward those with influence and affluence. And if knowledge is only produced to grease the distending divide between the empowered and disempowered, then its knowledge that has not so much uncovered insights as covered them up.

Richey Piiparinen, Director
Joshua Valdez, Research Fellow
Jim Russell, Non-Resident Fellow