Shifting Priorities, Finding Places


Walter Schiesswohl

Walter Schiesswohl

How Media Lab and HafenCity University researchers are tackling the refugee crisis in Hamburg, using algorithms and LEGO bricks.

By Kent Larson and Ariel Noyman

In late 2015, in collaboration with HafenCity University (HCU), we launched a project to help Hamburg transform its proposed 2024 Olympic Village and the adjacent Rothenburgsort neighborhood into an “innovation district.” At a meeting with Mayor Olaf Scholz, we presented ideas to build a large CityScope platform of the area using our optically tagged LEGO bricks, simulation algorithms, and augmented reality to model urban interventions for more livable, entrepreneurial communities.

Towards the end of the session, I asked the mayor, “What is your greatest challenge in Hamburg? What keeps you up at night?” He said that, by far, his most pressing concern was to accommodate the accelerating influx of refugees escaping conflict in the Middle East. Then, he jokingly suggested: “Perhaps we could do this with your magic LEGO,” and everyone laughed. I responded by saying, “Seriously, we could.”

Two weeks later, the mayor narrowly lost a referendum on the city’s Olympics bid, largely due to the emotional, politically charged climate stemming from an anticipated 80,000 refugees who would need urgent assistance in Hamburg. He soon asked our team of researchers from HCU and the MIT Media Lab to redirect the initial project in order to help residents across the city to identify housing sites for the refugees and asylum seekers.

Only nine months after the failed referendum, our Finding Places project (a play on our research group name, Changing Places) has helped to identify locations for accommodating thousands of refugees in Germany’s second-largest city; construction is already underway at several of these sites. Finding Places is being cited as a creative, positive model for dealing with a “grave humanitarian crisis” and what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called a “near existential threat” caused by the recent mass influx of refugees from the horrors of war.

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