Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

A new graduate course at Cornell Tech aims to use technological solutions to help New York City reopen.

March 1, 2021

New Cornell Tech Course Targets New York City COVID-19 Recovery

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Graduate students at Cornell Tech are the newest engineers undertaking one of the most ambitious public works projects in recent history — reopening New York City. 

This past fall, graduate students at Cornell Tech had the opportunity to craft technology-based projects to aid New York City’s reopening efforts in four major sectors: shops and restaurants, office spaces, cultural institutions and schools.

The course, offered as part of Cornell Tech’s new two-year dual master’s degree program in urban tech, allowed students to propose a series of projects, each focusing on a different branch of New York City’s public sector.

One project, called “Restarting the Workspace” utilized robots and automation for contactless interactions in the post-pandemic workplace. In addition, the project proposed an updated design of new office spaces to simultaneously accommodate physical distancing and multi-person collaboration and the utilization of artificial intelligence to detect COVID-19 transmission within office spaces. 

The “Reopening Cafes” project used sensors and location data to guide potential customers to seating that conformed to social distancing requirements. 

Students working on the “Reopening Cultural Institutions” project sought to create a virtual experience for patrons of the arts, during a time when many museums and galleries remain closed to the public.  

Other students tackled the task of reopening schools — proposing an interactive platform with a digitized bulletin board that can help students organize their academic responsibilities and connect with each other. 

The graduate students who curated these projects are the inaugural cohort of the program. According to Michael Samuelian, the founding director of the Urban Hub, the objective of the class was to gather a group of students who would use their diverse skillset to solve these urban challenges.

Although the Urban Tech Program remains in its nascent stage, its students and leadership are already working on expanding the Hub’s reach. Anthony Townsend, the Hub’s first urbanist-in-residence, has been working on a series of webinars called “What’s Next for Urban Tech” to foster interest in and promote dialogue about the utility of urban tech engineering. 

Despite the New York City focus of the program, Samuelian hopes that the benefits of urban tech will have an impact beyond the confines of the city.

“I think that it’s important to keep a foot in New York City, but challenges are not only limited to New York,” Samuelian said. “Some of the most interesting solutions are happening in other parts of the country, and certainly other parts of the world, and one of my goals is to also bring these best practices to campus.” 

The Urban Systems class, a requirement for completion of the masters program, will be offered each year. This year’s focus was “Defending Density,” but Samuelian expects that future classes will tackle the broad topic of “urban systems” through a different lens in order to respond to the dynamic, ever-changing needs of society. 

“I was really thrilled with the class and really honored to teach it and we’ll see what it’s like next year,” Samuelian said. “I want to be wide open and have people to come to us with their challenges.”