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Cities WITHOUT—City Science Summit 2019

The third City Science Summit, the City Science group’s annual event, kicked off October 1, 2019 in the HafenCity district of Hamburg, Europe’s largest inner-city urban development project. Bringing together members of the City Science Network and guests from around the world, the event was an opportunity to explore the theme of Cities Without: imagining a future without top-down and increasingly obsolete urban systems, and with lightweight, distributed, autonomous systems.

Watch the Cities WITHOUT talks online

Since 2015, the City Science group has been expanding a worldwide network of cities, governments and industries, with a shared goal of confronting urban challenges where and when they occur. One of the groups City Science Lab was established in the city of Hamburg, in a collaboration with HafenCity University. This connection resulted in several projects, including Finding Places, a participation and decision-making process to allocate refugee accommodation in Hamburg using CityScope. In 2019, the HafenCity CityScienceLab has grown into an independent research entity with dozens of projects and some 30 researchers, making it an ideal location for the 2019 City Science Summit.

Cities WITHOUT was hosted at Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, October 1, 2019. Credit: Sarah Adam

The public program began at the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s new concert hall, a chimerical work of civic art that merges a sturdy, red-brick warehouse with a gleaming, sculptural wave-form of glass and steel. Kent Larson, Director of the City Science group at the MIT Media Lab, and Gesa Ziemer, director of the CityScienceLab at HafenCity Universität Hamburg (HCU), introduced the program for the first day of the event. “I’m sure some of you have been wondering about this title,” Larson said. “We’re looking at 3.5 billion people possibly living in informal settlements, without proper access to water, and power, and sanitation, and shelter. We are asking the question, ‘Can we envision a future without increasingly obsolete systems that I believe are no longer working well? And can we envision a future with all of these new possibilities that we see emerging, that are much more community-driven, bottom-up, and much more distributed and lightweight?’”

Lord Norman Foster presents at Cities WITHOUT. Credit: Angela Pfeiffer

Lord Norman Foster delivered the keynote address, in which he expanded further on the theme of the event: “The future, our future, is global cities. And although they consume 70 percent of the energy, and are responsible so far for 70 percent of the emissions, they are also the generators of wealth. A typical city can generate as much wealth as a country…And it’s worth noting that one in eight [people] currently live in slums”; by 2050, up to one in three people will. “What does that mean?” Lord Foster asked. “It means they don’t have adequate shelter, they don’t have clean water, modern sanitation, or access to power.” Access to power, he said, is key — as it increases, infant mortality declines, while life expectancy, human development indicators, and political reforms all rise. Following a whirlwind overview of promising technologies and the Norman Foster Foundation’s collaborative projects with the residents of communities in India, who are co-designing their own infrastructure to improve local resilience and combat the effects of global warming, he concluded, “So it leads to the manifesto, which comes full circle: Power without grids, sanitation without sewers, meat without animals, mobility without autos, food without soil, and buildings without construction.”

Lord Norman Foster poses with Joerg Noenning of HafenCity University and Ariel Noyman of MIT City Science, showing off Legos from the CityScope platform. Credit: Ariel Noyman

Jörg Müller-Lietzkow, president of HCU, added another consideration: Cities without fear. “Our cities have to be the place for those who have lost everything,” he said. “When I heard for the first time about HCU, and they asked me if I was interested in being president there, you start Googling — everybody does it, right? And I found FindingPlaces,” an award-winning collaboration between the City Science research group and the CityScienceLab at HCU to integrate thousands of refugees into the city of Hamburg in 2016. “And I said, ‘Yes, this is a fantastic university and I have to do that.’ In a free world, I think we have to ensure that no right-wing parties or presidents building walls stop us from being free and stop us helping people who are in need.”

Guadalupe Babio, a research assistant at MIT City Science, presents Sanitation WITHOUT Sewers at Cities WITHOUT. Credit: Angela Pfeiffer

Following the opening presentations, more than a dozen speakers presented lightning talks organized around three themes — Physical, Process, and Personal — each of which was illustrated with a short video directed by Gabriela Bila, a research assistant in the City Science group. (A full listing of the lightning talks can be found at the end of this post, and viewed online.) The talks included conversations on Mobility without Cars, Order without Planning, and Economy without Currency, to name a few, adding to the event’s theme of questioning current methodologies and proposing new strategies for more equitable communities.

Watch all of the talks from Cities WITHOUT

The second day of Cities Without included a series of public workshops, held in and around the main HCU campus. With topics as diverse as In/Formality Without Bias, Participation Without Consensus, Art Without Humans, Hamburg Without Borders, and Methods Without Methodologies, the workshops invited participants to project their creativity and problem-solving skills into the negative spaces between familiar terrain (with) and new horizons (without). Workshops were presented by members of the HCU and MIT communities, external collaborators and members of the City Science Network including representatives from the University of Guadalajara, the country of Andorra, Tongji University, Aalto University and Taipei Tech; as well as guests and collaborators from India, Cairo, Keio University, the University of Sao Paulo and more.

Guests arrive at Day 2 of Cities WITHOUT, hosted at HafenCity University. Credit: Ariel Noyman

The workshop groups delivered their final presentations before the closing reception — limited to two minutes each, they led the audience through a dizzying array of problem spaces and possibilities. Many of these groups will continue their work, in Hamburg and around the world; more documentation and information will be uploaded to the City Science Summit website as it becomes available.

Day 2 of Cities WITHOUT concludes with group presentations of workshops. Credit: Rosa Thoneick

The City Science research group enables dynamic, evolving places that respond to the complexities of life. Together with the City Science Network, the teams strive to better understand and predict patterns in our communities to help anticipate future proposals and interventions. The network acknowledges the need for new strategies and tools to create the places where people live and work, and the mobility systems that connect them. Cities Without offers a lens to understand our future cities, and starting point for conversations about the opportunities to create a more livable, equitable and resilient future.

As planning for the next City Science Summit continues, please visit the website for updates, including a call for papers related to the theme of Cities Without.

Lightning Talks


  • Mobility Without Cars: Michael Lin (research assistant, City Science research group, MIT Media Lab)
  • Sanitation Without Sewers: Guadalupe Babio (research assistant, City Science research group, MIT Media Lab)
  • Material Without Boundaries: Don Ingber (director, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University)



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