Sean Chen wanted to be a lot of things when he was a kid—including the secretary of state, a marine biologist, and a music composer—but it was likely his strong memory that led him to the career he has today.
"I distinctly remember in fifth grade drawing a simple city plan. It was a 20-by-20 grid with a town square in the center and space for a school, a space for a town hall, an area for businesses, and another one for homes," Chen says. "I always wanted to make sense and order of the world, to understand how it was put together and how it might be put together in a way that made sense to me."
Today, as a city planner and economist, Chen does just that. His current fellowship at the Army Corps of Engineers is part of the Scholars in the Nation's Service Initiative at Princeton University. His work at the corps' Institute for Water Resources—which he describes as the "internal think tank" of the corps—centers on evaluating the economic and social value of various engineering projects, as well as working on innovative solutions to improve public decision-making through things like green infrastructure and serious gaming, which uses a computer game to simulate real-world decision-making processes.
It may not come as a surprise that Chen is a self-confessed geek when it comes to traveling to new cities to scope out their transit systems or airports. In his spare time, he says, he's been working on a "fun side-project" determining where the Washington, D.C., metro should extend its network.
Also an accomplished cellist—Chen auditioned for (and was accepted to) Juilliard when he was an early teen—he is enchanted by the pedestrian dynamic that author and activist Jane Jacobs called the "sidewalk ballet," wherein the myriad actors in an urban setting coalesce into something both organic and orderly. It's clear, though, that, as Chen looks forward to the career he plans to spend improving this so-called ballet, he wants to leave a legacy in urban spaces that's rooted in reality, not theory.
"On one hand, I want to contribute to the underlying theory and understanding of cities as social systems," he says. "On the other hand, there is a lot to be done actually on the ground, a lot of issues and problems, but also a lot of great opportunities to dream of a better future. If I can one day visit a place and say that I helped make it a more livable and beautiful place, I'll be happy."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.