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How the digitalization of cities empowers people

Kenny MacIver — August 2016
The forces shaping tomorrow’s smart cities — from planners and architects to technology companies — need to adopt a human-centric approach, argues MIT professor Carlo Ratti.

For centuries, the job of shaping the future of cities has been the domain of urban planners, architects and social theorists. But today, says the founding partner at Carlo Ratti Associati, a new player has entered that arena: the technologist.

“The smart city is a computer scientist’s dream come true,” says the architect, engineer and author on the impact of digitalization on cities. “Cutting-edge cities are now shaped by the advent of pervasive information technology, enabling real-time connection, interaction and communication. Ubiquitous technology is suffusing every dimension of urban space, transforming it into a computer for living.”

The upshot: “The race for urban optimization is at full tilt, where every piece of information is instantly revealed and the urban machine can be controlled and optimized.”

The applications are already proving to be endless, he says. From waste, water and public infrastructure management to transportation and energy consumption, technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data will have a broad and deep impact on cities — and their citizens — all round the world. But even as such smart cities evolve, there is debate about how that change should be orchestrated. Ratti argues that many smart city approaches to date have either been too focused on technology or on imposing citywide control and not enough on the citizen.

“The new city is one where digital systems have a very real impact on how we experience, navigate and socialize, but the idea of smart cities — the consistent, ubiquitous high-volume information flow at the intersection of habitation and computing — should be recast as something more human-centric,” he argues.

“A different application of ubiquitous computing and urban-scale digital networks has started to emerge — a vision of a city based less on technology-driven optimization and more on the empowerment of people,” he says. To convey that, he and colleagues at MIT prefer to use the term ‘senseable cities’ for the deployment of millions of sensors collecting data on all aspects of urban physical space and then feeding that to an array of network-enabled actuators and applications.

Rather than metropolitan-scale computers imposing control, he says, cities need “optimization that is inflected with humanization.” he says. “It [needs to be] a convergence of bits and atoms, systems and citizens interacting.”
Citizen engagement

One of the most exciting facets of that ‘human-centric optimization,’ says Ratti, is how IoT can open up citizen participation — “how, through data, we as citizens can play a new role in cities.”

He gives the example of New Urban Mechanics (NUM), a citizen participation project implemented by the City of Boston. NUM’s Citizens Connect smartphone app empowers residents to be the city’s eyes and ears, engaging them in the process of maintaining their own city neighborhoods. “In effect, it makes everybody in the city [act] like a mechanic for the city,” says Ratti. So instead of an infrastructure issue, such as a dangerous pothole or broken street lighting, requiring discovery and assessment by city officials before a repair team can be dispatched, citizens actively collect and share data about issues and effectively call in maintenance squads. In recent years Citizens Connect (and its companion apps) have accounted for 28% of all service requests in the City. “That’s all about using connectivity to better understand what is going on and fix and transform our cities,” says Ratti.

He doesn’t argue that the basic structures of cities will be transformed by IoT; rather that the experience of living in cities will change. Just look at what is about to happened to transportation, he suggests.  The technology of self-driving cars is almost ready for mainstream-market use. But the most exciting aspect of that for Ratti is not the fact that drivers will be able to engage in other activities during journeys; rather the sharing of autonomous vehicles will have a major impact on the efficiency of transport utilization.

“Of course you will now be able to shamelessly text while ‘driving.’ But the exciting thing is that a self-driving car can give you a ride to the office in the morning and can give a ride to somebody else while you’re there. So what you’re effectively creating is a system which is a combination of public and private transportation.”

His team at MIT has built a model that shows that in cities as large as London or Singapore everybody could still get to their chosen destinations with 20% fewer cars than are on the roads  today. “That 20% is a theoretical minimum, a lower band,” says Ratti. “But it still tells you something about the incredible change that could happen if we move in that direction.”

“The digital revolution did not kill urban spaces — far from it. The two are becoming increasingly enmeshed.”

Of course, according to many futurologists in the 1990s, the impact of the internet on urbanization was not meant to go this way. “People thought that because of the web and because of connectivity we could — and would — work anywhere. And because of that, we wouldn’t need cities any more,” observes Ratti. “A prevailing opinion was that ‘distance would die.’ Physicality, it seemed, would lose all relevance as it was subsumed by the connective fabric of the internet. The argument held that if information can be instantaneously transferred anywhere, to anyone, then all places are equivalent.”

However, rather than the network subsuming and replacing space, the two are becoming increasingly enmeshed, he says. “In short the digital revolution did not kill urban spaces — far from it — but neither did it leave them unaffected. It is true that the internet allows us to work anywhere, to be connected all the time but still we want to be with other people, we want to have the richness of encounters and exchanging ideas, and that’s ultimately what cities are for.”

Read more about smart cities from Carlo Ratti:
The digital canvas presented by smart cities
What makes a great smart city


• Carlo Ratti, founding partner at Carlo Ratti Associati, was a keynote speaker at Fujitsu World Tour 2016 in Milan. His latest book, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life, co-authored with Matthew Claudel, is out now.

• Photography: Ben Gold
First published
August 2016
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About: Carlo Ratti
Lecturer, architect, engineer and inventor Carlo Ratti is a professor at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. The co-author of ‘The City of Tomorrow’ and ‘Decoding the City,’ he is the founder of Carlo Ratti Associati which explores the dramatic impact of digital technologies on architecture, planning, design and urban life.

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