Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Urban Theorist Bill Mitchell

Ryan Chin, of MIT’s Smart Cities group writes that while Mitchell was perhaps the world’s leading urban theorist, he was also a great mentor and advocate for students.

It seemed that MIT professor Bill Mitchell, who died June 11th at the age of 65, “was always on his way somewhere else, but you always felt he had time for you,” writes Ryan Chin, who worked with him at the Smart Cities group in MIT’s Media Lab:

The esteemed sociologist Manuel Castells called William. J. Mitchell the world’s leading urban theorist, but for his students, Bill was a mentor and an advocate for you and your ideas. He knew the best way to motivate students was to have them look towards a place that you can imagine but couldn’t quite get to immediately. This basically required two components: 1) imagination and 2) proactive pursuit of what you had just imagined. Bill never explicitly expressed this, he lived it, and this rubbed off on everyone he touched.

His life’s work exemplified this philosophy and resulted in the seminal publications Computer Aided Architectural Design and the Logic of Architecture. These books explored the application of computational tools like Computer Aided Design (CAD) to the field of Architecture. Bill’s second seminal set of publications focused on how digital technologies such as the Internet will affect the design of cities. His trilogy of books, City of Bits, e-topia, and Me++: The Cyborg Self and Networked City, positioned him as the world’s urban thought leader. He took the perspective that “cities are systems of systems, and that there are emerging opportunities to introduce digital nervous systems, intelligent responsiveness, and optimization at every level of system integration – from that of individual devices to that of buildings, and ultimately to that of complete cities and urban regions.”

While serving as the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, Bill reshaped the school by recruiting women and under-represented minority faculty that brought the same digital design ethos. He also headed a $1 billion dollar MIT campus construction plan that brought new facilities for Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Brain and Cognitive Science, the Media Lab extension, and a new student dormitory. Bill enabled world famous architects to help reshape the campus including Frank Gehry, Charles Correa, Fumihiko Maki, Laurie Olin, and Stephen Holl.

After stepping down as Dean in 2003, he formed the Smart Cities group at the MIT Media Lab, where he lead a team of graduate students in the design development of the CityCar, a lightweight electric vehicle, that utilizes in-wheel electric motors and can fold to occupy one-third of a traditional parking space. The CityCar was designed to address the problems of mobility in cities such as urban congestion, energy inefficiency, and CO2 emissions. CityCars were designed to be used in shared-use models otherwise known as “Mobility-on-Demand Systems.” This research resulted in another seminal publication, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st century, written with automotive industry experts from General Motors. Today, the Smart Cities group is working with Media Lab sponsors to industrialize the CityCar concept.

In one of his last interviews, he was asked how we can reinvent the automobile in Detroit when legacy costs, existing business models, huge fixed capital investments, have created a dinosaur thinking culture impeding progress. Again, his response exemplified the same can-do attitude that served his students so well. He said, “It’s important to get the technology and the policy right, but in the end, the way you break a logjam is by engaging people’s imagination, people’s desire, by creating things that they never thought of before.”

When Big Think interviewed Mitchell in January, he spoke about a wide variety of topics related to mobility, sustainability, and the future of cities. Smart Cities research is particularly concerned with the emerging roles of networked intelligence in fabrication and construction, urban mobility, building design and intelligently responsive operation, and public space. Mitchell described his research as being related to “the ability of cities to, over time, remain in balance with the resource streams that are available to them, and they have to do with social justice and equity of the fundamental conditions of satisfactory citizenship.”


Up Next