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The Future of Smart City Technology, From an MIT Professor

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Carlo Ratti’s The City of Tomorrow examines how tech will shift and reshape the urban landscape

On the long list of seemingly futuristic concepts that seem to be rapidly coming to fruition, the idea of a smart, tech-enabled city is one that seemingly can’t arrive soon enough. With cities worldwide expected to rapidly expand in the next few decades due to massive population shifts, it seems like an ideal time for technology to arrive to help make our crowded urban centers more efficient and elegant.

MIT Professor Carlo Ratti, an engineer, designer and director of the school’s Senseable City Lab, has been observing the technical shifts and social change occurring in cities around the globe, and helping design the technologies that will be a part of upcoming radical shift in the urban fabric. In his new book, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life (Yale University Press), which he co-wrote with Matthew Claudel, Ratti explains his vision of how life in our future metropolises will look, based on his present experiments with transportation, architecture, and technology. Curbed spoke with Ratti about new ways to think about the coming of the intelligent city.

How can governments do a better job of testing and encouraging innovation to bring about new smart city development?

“We see the key thing is establishing great design. How can we experiment with new things to bring about a transformation of the present? Cities need to adapt that definition. Science is about how the world is, design is about how the world could be.”

Are there any cities doing a great job of innovating?

“There’s not one single city doing everything right, but there are many doing great things. Singapore is doing well in the field of mobility, Copenhagen in the field of sustainability, and Boston is great in the field of citizen participation.”

As cities become more and more wired, there’s an incredible amount of data being generated regarding people’s lifestyles, habits, and actions. How do we keep it useful and open, while still protecting people’s privacy?

“There are a lot of times when open public data is good, such as when cities track the location of buses or public transportation. Cities have opened up APIs for public transportation, and with that data, citizens have created apps and programs that help organize and even improve local transportation. The work that we did with HubCab a project the Senseable City lab did in New York City that analyzed taxicab data to see how ridesharing might affect transportation, led to a collaboration with Uber and an examination of how shared rides might work with programs such as UberPool. That’s the kind of experimentation that can come from open, shared data.”

“At the same time, we need to think about information such as credit card and cellphone data that can’t be opened to the public. The open data movement is very interesting and important, especially in terms of opening up urban data that helps manage a city. But we need to realize that some data will never be opened to the public.”

HubCab – Seven Days of Taxi Pickups and Taxi Dropoffs in New York from Benedikt Groß on Vimeo.

One of the topics you discuss in your book is this idea of buildings being more reactive and smart. How interactive will architecture get, and how will it change the look of oiur cities?

“I think it’ll be very interactive. But overall, the interaction will happen through people; our lives will change a lot, but public space won’t. A city from Roman times doesn’t look terribly different from a city today. The shift is more about how our human life and interactions in the city will change, not the shapes of buildings. That’s where we’ll see a lot of transformation.”

It’s not really as much about infrastructure changes, but how we interact with the infrastructure.

“Yes. The city will talk to us more. We’ll have new buildings, new materials, and more interactive facades, but overall, the key components will remain the same. Buildings are about horizontal floors for living, vertical walls for partitions, facades that protect us from the outside, and windows that give us a view of the outside. They were like that a hundred years ago, and they’ll be there tomorrow and in the future.”

What are some great examples of these new types of buildings and architecture?

“The project we did at the World Expo in Zaragoza, Spain, the Digital Water Pavilion, offered a vision of digital, fluid architecture. Think about a park; there are so many things you can do, between interactive lights and more responsive technology. This coming technological change is like the internet. That transformed so many parts of our lives, and the upcoming Internet of Things will do the same to our environment and cities. For instance, the city of Melbourne successfully developed an “internet of trees,” which allows residents to visualize and map urban forests.. It’s a platform, like an open street map for trees, that will help them grow, monitor, and measure, and help people take care of their parks, and compare them against those of other cities.”

The changes you’re talking about is very decentralized. Is there a Jane Jacobs of high-tech city development, someone who’s looking at all these shifts from a street-level, people-first perspective?

“That’s funny, I wrote a Scientific American article recently where Jane Jacobs was part of the piece. To a varying degree, Smart City technologies have two different features. One is optimization, such as using road infrastructure better, via self-driving cars, and efficiency. The other aspect is being more social. How can we come together to use the city better and waste less? When you think about it, the city of the 20th century was a very wasteful one. We had different neighborhoods that we would use the at different times of the day. The city of the future will let us share things, and share space, and use them more efficiently. Think about Airbnb and Uber, they allow us to be more efficient, and at the same time, you create social connections. In a way, it’s what Jacobs was talking about, and a way to build a support structure in a modern neighborhood. Think about autonomous mobility. We can share both the car, and the ride, and it’s creating more connections between people. A few days ago, I took an UberPool home at 3am in Paris, and met a traveler from Mongolia. We had a great conversation, and that never would have happened without that app.”

You’ve worked on numerous projects looking at autonomous vehicles and ridesharing. How do you feel this kind of transportation revolution will reshape our cities?

“There are two components, The self-driving part will remove cars from our cities and create a lot more green space. The other part is the diversification of our the transportation portfolios and an increase in ambient mobility. In the past, you used to have to go to a central station to exchange from say a train to a bus. Now you can transfer in so many different places. You might take a train, then ride an Uber, then pick up a bike, and you can do it in a much easier way, because you have real-time information about all these modes of transportation. That’s what I mean by ambient technology.”

Both companies and cities are racing to develop and roll out smart city technology. Is there an issue between competing agendas? In one way, they’re all working for a better city, but all the actors have their own plans.

“There are a lot of technological and political decisions that will need to be decided by good design practices. A lot of ideas will arise and a lot of decisions will need to be made, and hopefully, we can learn and adapt and make the right decisions.”

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