Portrait of Lazarus Chok
Portrait of Lazarus Chok

As a recent alumni of NYU’s Center of Urban Science + Progress (CUSP), Lazarus Chok is optimistic about his ability to tackle urban challenges. After seeing the culmination of his classmates’ work in their final presentations, Lazarus was inspired by the cohort’s willingness to address difficult urban issues. “You could see the diversity of ideas from this group of students that are ready to take on challenges that are so broad.” While he listened to the powerful lessons and applications learned over the course of the master’s program, Lazarus could sense how far he and his classmates had come, and could imagine the possibilities of using his newly developed skills to actually solve real-world problems.

Originally from Singapore, Lazarus earned his bachelor’s degree in geography from the London School of Economics, but always had an interest in cities and how they can be improved. “Human society as a whole is pretty good at learning from past mistakes and course correcting or rectifying things,” he said. “Cities have been around for centuries already, but we haven’t been able to perfect or even get close to an ideal version of a city, even after centuries of adaptation and iteration.”

Throughout his undergraduate studies, Lazarus learned much about the social science of how humans interact with their environment, about geography conflicts, and how this affects real estate markets. But after focusing on the theoretical quandaries, he was still drawn to the question of what to do with his knowledge. Wanting to find a way to apply data science to the problems he was observing, Lazarus came to CUSP for his MS in Applied Urban Science and Informatics to hone his technical skills and get to work.

“I think a lot of my peers at CUSP also felt the same way--they were very frustrated,” Lazarus explained. “Whether in undergraduate studies or our previous life experiences, we’ve seen so many problems to fix and wanted to know how we go about fixing them. Learning to pick up this new skill set and finding a more quantitative way of looking at the city was definitely an interesting process.”

Over the course of his year at CUSP, Lazarus ambitiously took on three separate research projects to do just that.

One of his projects was an independent study done in collaboration with Industry Assistant Professor Victòria Alsina Burgués and investigated how cities can better foster innovation. National innovation systems have historically proved successful, such as the National Science Foundation and DARPA, but theories for developing innovation at the city level are still underdeveloped. Lazarus compared the institutions driving the development of emerging technologies in New York City, Beijing, and Singapore and distilled various principles that can be transferred across cities. The full study is available for download.

Lazarus also authored Optimizing the City in partnership with the non-profit research organization Charter Cities Institute. “We developed a piece on optimizing the city for dynamic learning, which looks at how we can help cities learn faster and adapt to new situations,” he said. “For instance, if we look across the world at how cities have performed in response to COVID-19, some cities have unfortunately bore the brunt of the pandemic, whereas some cities have emerged resilient and in fact thrived and capitalized on some of the opportunities that appeared. So this research piece really looks at it from a meta perspective–what are the principles that underpin cities that have managed to adapt really well to different crises, whether it’s a pandemic or a financial crisis. And those principles are not necessarily only applicable for developed countries, but also in developing cities.”

Finally, Lazarus completed his Capstone project with two classmates under the sponsorship of the Automation and Intelligence for Civil Engineering (AI4CE) Lab at NYU. A cornerstone of the master’s degree curriculum, the Capstone Program is a six-month applied urban analytics project that partners CUSP graduate student teams with a public, private, or academic organization with the goal of addressing a critical urban issue or research question. AI4CE and the CUSP team set out to create a standard metric to quantify the geometric properties of 2D urban layouts to help urban planners objectively measure, compare, and evaluate city designs.

“It was exciting because we had so many perspectives at play. Although we all had different backgrounds–an architect, software engineer and a social scientist–we worked really well together,” Lazarus recalled of his Capstone experience. “We dove right into the deep end of the technical side of things and were expected to learn how to build deep learning models and implement scalable solutions. We were also given the opportunity to submit a publication to a conference, together with our Ph.D. student mentors.”

Looking back, Lazarus was impressed with how much he was able to learn over just 12 months and how well he was able to connect with fellow students, even virtually. “It was great to see people coming together for something even in a very limited time and in a remote pandemic situation,” he said. Now that Lazarus has completed his degree, he will be starting a career as an urban planner within the Singapore government, confident in his ability to have an impact. “I didn’t come out of the degree knowing just the basics, but also learning how to build on skills we have developed. I think that’s the biggest takeaway. Don’t underestimate how much you can learn!”

Lazarus and two classmates visit Grand Central Station.