Imagining and innovating smart cities where science meets citizens

Lori Castle
New York 40° 42' 52.38" N, -74° 0' 25.632" E

Senseable City Lab, a research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees the future city built not just by designers, planners and engineers, but one where biologists, physicists and social scientists are creators and citizens are the greatest changemakers.


Professor Carlo Ratti


We asked Dr. Carlo Ratti, Professor of the Practice, Director Senseable City Lab, to tell us more about this vision and the lab’s mission of anticipating and critically studying the radical transformation of the way we understand cities and scrutinizing the emerging tools used to build them.

So what will the smart city look like and what is its role in shaping the future of humanity?

“At the Senseable City Lab we are investigating how technologies are transforming our cities,” says Professor Ratti. “For us, the word ‘Senseable’ has a double implication; it means both ‘able to sense’ and ‘sensible.’

When we talk about ‘Senseable City’ we want to put the human experience — and not the technological component — at the core of our work. We believe in a ground-up approach to create cities in which people are the agents of change.”

This is not to say technology won’t underpin people’s ability to change. In fact, digital mapping is a very important component of smart cities.

Professor Ratti says,  “Collecting data is actually the basis of city planning. Over a century ago, the great French geographer and anarchist Élisée Reclus claimed that all planning exercise had to start from surveying and collection of data.

This is still true today; the only difference is that we have access to a staggering amount of robust real-time data. Mapping this data can inform design and, above all, can inform citizens, promoting behavioral change and involving people in the management of the urban environment.”

Talking trash

As an example, Professor Ratti cites Senseable Lab’s Trash Track project, where they added tags to trash and then followed it as it moved through the city's sanitation system. Out of the many things gleaned from the experiment, researchers were able to understand that the simply sharing information can promote behavioral change.

“People involved in the project were able to follow their trash and this led to some of them making different decisions,” he says. “For instance, one of the participants told us: ‘I used to drink water in plastic bottles every day and throw them away and stop thinking about them. Now, after the project, I know that these bottles go a few miles from home to a landfill and will stay there forever. As a result, I stopped drinking water in plastic bottles.’”



New found purpose

The user perspective of autonomous vehicles is, from the outset, fairly selfish, but there are far greater implications than not having to pay attention.

“At first blush, it seems that the key advantage of an autonomous car is freeing the driver’s hands from the steering wheel (and, of course, allowing us to shamelessly text while driving!),” says Professor Ratti.

The real transformational advantage, however, is that self-driving vehicles might blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. ‘Your’ car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then give a lift to someone else in your family — or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social media community, or city.

In other terms, self driving allows potential sharing: today cars are idle 95 per cent of the time, so they are an ideal candidate for the sharing economy.”

A recent paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SMART Future Mobility team illustrates Professor Ratti’s points, revealing that the mobility demand of a city like Singapore — potentially host to the world’s first publicly ­accessible fleet of self­-driving cars — could be met with 30 per cent of its existing vehicles.

He says, “Furthermore, other researchers in the same group suggest that this number could be cut by another 40 per cent if passengers traveling similar routes at the same time were willing to share a vehicle — an estimate supported by an analysis of New York City Taxis’ shareability networks.

This implies a city in which everyone can travel on demand with just one­ fifth of the number of cars in use today. This is a theoretical limit, but imagine the possible impact on the city.”

The new Space-Age

Self-driving cars would demand far less parking real estate, because they could remain on the go. The need for parking lots in Singapore or other urban areas might decrease substantially — by up to 70 per cent, according to initial research done at Senseable City Lab.

What could the longer-term consequences be? Professor Ratti says, “Over time, vast areas of valuable urban land currently occupied by parking lots could be reinvented for a whole new spectrum of social functions.

Creative uses are already promoted across the world during Parking Day, a worldwide event held on the third Friday of September, in which artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public places.

The same dynamic re-purposing could happen tomorrow on a much larger scale and with permanent solutions, leading to a reclamation of a large percentage of the urban fabric.

Vacant lots could be populated with green areas, a variety of shared public amenities or “maker space” facilities, providing working tools — 3D printers, CNC machines — for design and fabrication. Potential uses for ubiquitous reclaimed parking areas are almost unlimited, and their cost could be covered by the community or by private investors — eventually offsetting the city’s lost revenue from traditional metering.”

Topics: Big Data, Features, Smart cities