Sense and the city

Enlighten • Pulse #6 • 8 min
By Stela Karabina By Carlo Ratti Director of the MIT SENSEable City Lab

Here at Pulse, we wanted to know what the ‘ideal’ city would look like. How can we change cities for the better, what new technologies could help drive that change, and where does sustainable mobility fit in? So, we spoke to internationally renowned architect, engineer and inventor Carlo Ratti, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he’s at the helm of the MIT SENSEable City Lab — a research group advocating for a city that senses and responds, where the interaction between inhabitants and their urban environment is fostered through technology.


Carlo Ratti, italian architect, engineer, inventor and educator

Carlo Ratti, what is the ‘ideal’ city?

Shakespeare asks: “What is a city but the people?” Today, like 400 years ago, I’d say that to understand a city we need to start from the community of its citizens — and how they live happy, healthy lives. If the question is more about my personal pick of an ‘ideal’ city, then I’d take inspiration from Georges Perec and his book Espèces d’espaces. Here, he dreams of an apartment where each room faces a different arrondissement of Paris. My ideal city would have Cape Town’s climate, Prague’s lay of the land, Manhattan’s skyline, Sydney’s fusion cuisine — and Rio de Janeiro’s nightlife! We’ll need a bit of Rio spirit when the Covid crisis is over!

You also take inspiration from American historian Lewis Mumford whom you quoted saying cities can be both heaven and hell. How can we make them more ‘heaven’ and less ‘hell’?

Again, I’d start from people and their aspirations, not technology. In fact, the same technology can take us in very different directions. A good example is a technology that’s about to hit the ground: self-driving cars. Autonomous cars can enable car-sharing and ride-sharing. In the near future, we can imagine a scenario where ‘your’ car takes you to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle, gives a lift to someone else in your family. Or indeed, to anyone else in your neighbourhood or social media community. It could also be used by people on different rides at the same time. The combination of car-sharing and ride-sharing could drastically reduce the number of car in a city. That would bring benefits like less congestion, shorter travel times and lower environmental impact.
However, the same technology could equally lead to a very different scenario. The cost of travelling a mile might drop so much that people abandon public transport in favour of autonomous cars. That would lead to a rise in the number of car and gridlock. Where we end up, somewhere between these two scenarios, will depend on government policies. City authorities must put the right incentives in place – from congestion charging to free mass transit – to achieve what citizens want.

So what you’re saying is technology is not where to start from when trying to improve cities, but it can certainly help along the way, as your work at the MIT SENSEable City Lab shows.

Absolutely. In his seminal book The Five Bases of the General Theory of Urbanization, published in 1859, urbanist Ildefons Cerdà envisaged city planning as a science. “The building of cities,” he wrote, “if it is not so already, will soon become a genuine science calling for major and profound research in every branch of human knowledge and, most especially, in social science.” Over 150 years later, data is making Cerdà’s vision a reality. It’s helping us better understand cities and make them the subject of scientific inquiry. For instance, data can be used to propose changes to how a city operates. With the HubCab project, which we started at the MIT SENSEable City Lab in 2013, we analysed data from over 170 million taxi trips in New York City to reveal mobility patterns and understand how to build a more efficient system where people share rides — bringing down the cost of each trip and reducing its environmental impact.
However, we must never forget to critically examine the use of data. As we enter a world that’s more and more like a ‘dataville’ — a city based on data — we should keep asking two key questions: who has access tothe data? And what’s it used for? With this in mind, we’ve been working extensively at MIT on the ethical issues around big data. In 2013, we launched an initiative called Engaging Data, which involves key figures from government, privacy rights groups, academia and business. I believe it’s critical to have an open, frank discussion.

How can sensors further help us develop more liveable cities?

We have sensors in our phones, cars, buildings, etc. Sensors generate data, which must be shared and used to shape our behaviours and help build more liveable cities. It’s the first step to better understanding and then transforming a city.
I’d add another dimension of how data can enact behavioural change and hence have an enduring impact on city life. Here’s an example. With the Trash Track project in Seattle, we added tags to urban waste items and followed them through the city’s ‘disposal chain’. One of the many things we learned is that information sharing through simple visualisations can promote behavioural change.
Those involved in the project followed items they had disposed of, with some objects travelling as much as 6,152 km. Using questionnaires, we found that this knowledge had prompted some of them, and others, to rethink and make different choices.
After Trash Track was rolled out, one person said: “I used to drink water from plastic bottles. I’d throw them away and never think about them again. However, I now know they go to landfill a few miles away and will stay there forever. As a result, I’ve stopped drinking bottled water.”

What about sustainable mobility? How could it be enhanced?

We need to provide people with as many public transport and mobility choices as possible — from minibuses to scooters and cars with new form factors. With this ‘transportation portfolio’ available, we’ll be able to. choose the best mobility option in real time, through what we might call a ‘Moving Web’.
I’m thinking about a single platform to share and choose mobility services across all public transport providers, with one point of payment. This will let people plan a trip more easily and efficiently. It’s not just about knowing how long each segment would take, but being able to grab that option in real time. Implementing the Moving Web will require an integrating platform, similar to what happened in the airline industry a few decades ago, with systems like Amadeus for comparing options from multiple airlines.

In the current crisis, what are the greatest challenges for cities, now and going forward?

The challenges are always the same. They’re linked to the most obvious feature of cities: their density. That’s what makes cities exciting, but it also causes issues like traffic, pollution and unaffordable housing.
Density is also what has made cites vulnerable to pandemics in the past and Covid-19 today. Fortunately, data can help here! We’ve all heard about contact tracing apps, which help experts understand people’s encounters and in turn the spread of the disease. Similarly, we can source data from urban sewage to monitor the virus’s spread. In the last five years, our SENSEable City Lab led the Underworlds project, an MIT-wide research initiative to monitor human health at neighbourhood level by deploying small robotic sampling devices into the sewer system. We showed we can detect many viruses and bacteria in sewage. One outcome was a startup called Biobot, which is now collaborating with various cities in the United States to collect samples from wastewater treatment facilities to test for Covid-19.

MIT SENSEable City Lab

The MIT SENSEable City Laboratory aims to investigate and anticipate how digital technologies are transforming cities and urban lifestyles. Part of the MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Lab’s mission is to creatively intervene and investigate the interface between people, technologies and the city.

Carlo Ratti

Italian architect, engineer, inventor and educator
Carlo Ratti is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the MIT SENSEable City Lab, a research group exploring how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design and ultimately live in cities. Ratti is also a founding partner of the international design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati, which he established in 2004 in Torino, Italy, and now has a branch in New York City.


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