There was a lot of excitement in New York this week as the mayor, the president of New York University, and a lot of other dignitaries crowed around a podium in Brooklyn. The announcement: NYU is joining the effort to create a powerhouse tech triangle in the city’s most populous borough. The university plans to take over the mostly vacant MTA building at 370 Jay Street to house a new Center for Urban Science and Progress.  The building will undergo a massive renovation (as depicted in the above photo and rendering, courtesy NYU).

Officials proclaimed many benefits of this project to the development of Brooklyn’s downtown. But the new graduate program itself is intended to contribute knowledge and expertise to an emerging global industry — the business of smart cities — according to CUSP ‘s new director, physicist Steven Koonin. Koonin has formerly served as provost for the California Institute of Technology, chief scientist at BP, and an undersecretary at the Department of Energy.

James Garrett, the head of Civil Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (one of CUSP’s academic partners), gives an example of the kind of project students might tackle. Imagine a network of sensors that monitor the integrity of underground water pipes throughout a city to warn of a potential water main break. Now, envision testing that kind of system in a city as complex as New York. The goal, he says, is to understand “how systems interact with each other and to use New York City as a living test bed.”

The nascent smart cities field is being pioneered by technology corporations such as IBM and Siemens. Steven Koonin tells NPR that “urban science” is about “understanding cities in a detailed systemic way.” He likens the study of a city’s networks of roads, pipelines and even health care to systems biology. “In many fields of science, the data is king. The goal is to move to a really data driven approach in cities … to improve efficiency, resilience and quality of life.” 

Franklyn Cater