Science of cities CSH Neffke


Frank Neffke leads the science of cities team


The Hub has grown considerably since the beginning of the year. One of the great senior scientists that will enrich our expertise—and team—in the future is Frank Neffke.

Before joining the Hub, Frank served as director of research of the Growth Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School. Frank started his academic career in the Netherlands, where he studied econometrics and philosophy and obtained a PhD degree in economic geography from Utrecht University. After working as an assistant professor at the Erasmus School of Economics in Rotterdam, he joined the Growth Lab in 2012.


Over the past years Frank led the scientific part of a multidisciplinary team that developed METROVERSE—The Growth Lab’s Urban Economy Navigator. Metroverse is an online tool that allows users to quickly understand and compare the economies of more than 1,000 cities worldwide at an unprecedented level of detail. The tool was launched in June 2021 (see the YouTube clip of the launch explaining the tool in some detail at the end of the page).

METROVERSE produces new insights about what cities specialize in today, as well as what they could become good at in the future.

Frank will continue to work on Metroverse from Vienna. Apart from that, he will build up and lead a research team at the Hub, focusing on the “science of cities.”


“The world we live in becomes increasingly complex,” Frank explains. “Humanity accumulates knowledge at a much faster rate than any single individual could hope to absorb. To cope with that, we need to divide this knowledge, so that different people can focus on different bits and pieces. In an abstract sense, what an economy does is find ways to coordinate these distributed skills and know-how. Cities are remarkably effective at doing this. Although our world has changed tremendously over the course of human history, cities seem to be a constant across time and across societies. They have served humanity and helped people coordinate their skills and efforts over the course of millennia. In the broadest sense, we’ll work towards understanding how cities work, how they change, and how they connect to one another.”

These are particularly exciting times to work on this topic, says Frank. “In recent years, we have seen very rapid changes in cities, with very rapid urbanization trends at the global level and new technologies that help people collaborate in virtual instead of geographical meeting places. At the same time, the science of cities has seen tremendous advances in theoretical frameworks and in the availability of detailed data about how urban economies work, as well as methods to make sense out of these data.”


“If we understand why and how cities have been such durable features of human life on earth, we may also understand how we can make them even better. For individual cities, we will try to understand their potential for structural transformation: How can cities diversify into new economic activities, invent new technologies or develop new fields of science? And how do these three realms, the economy, technology and science interact in a city? This has consequences not only for the productivity of a city, but also for the careers and opportunities of individual workers.”

“At a higher level, we would like to understand how cities connect to other cities. If we all start teleworking, why wouldn’t firms offshore activities altogether to places where labor is much cheaper? For which activities is this a possibility? For which will it be hard? Where will these jobs go—to the other end of the world, or just around the corner? And how can workers and education systems prepare for such changes? A lot of interesting questions I am looking forward to investigate at the Hub,” Frank concludes.



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