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The digital canvas presented by smart cities

Kenny MacIver — August 2016

IoT has the potential to revolutionize urban infrastructure, making cities less congested, less polluted and more energy-efficient, says Carlo Ratti, head of MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

The evolution of the world’s cities is at a turning point. And, according to Carlo Ratti, MIT professor, architect, engineer and expert on the impact of technology on urban environments, the catalyst is the Internet of Things (IoT).

“It’s a very interesting time for cities,” he says in an exclusive video interview with I-CIO. “And the reason is that all the digital technologies that have changed our lives over the past 10 or 20 years are now entering physical space. It’s about the internet becoming the Internet of Things and, as such, the way we understand, we design and we live in cities is being radically transformed.”

He stresses that the change should not be characterized solely as a digital revolution. In his view, the term ‘smart cities’ puts undue emphasis on the technology. Rather, the sensing nature of IoT needs to be coupled with a ‘response’ element that is focused on creating positive outcomes for the inhabitants of cities. “We call this ‘senseable cities,’” says Ratti, who directs the Senseable City Lab at MIT. “We think the emphasis should be on the human side, not on the technological side of things.”
An imperative to digitalize cities

Certainly there is a growing need to explore how cities can be made to function. To emphasize this Ratti cites four ‘big numbers’ — 2, 50, 75 and 80 — that encapsulate the next phase for cities and the need to set their digitalization on a positive course. “Cities are only 2% of the crust of the planet but they are where 50% of the population lives. They account for 75% of energy consumption and produce 80% of [mankind’s] CO2 emissions. So if we can do something to make our cities more efficient and more sustainable then that can be a big deal for the planet,” he says.

That, he says, highlights some of the fundamentals of smart cities. “A lot of the technologies surrounding smart cities have two components. One is about sustainability: it’s about saving energy, being more flexible so we don’t have some of the waste that we had in the 20th century. That can be about [creating more efficient] transportation, about energy, about waste management — you name it.”

But alongside efficiency, digitally powered cities exhibit another key characteristic: the opportunity to share assets. “So another crucial component of the city is about sociability,” says Ratti.

The portends are there in the sharing of apartment space through Airbnb or in car- and ride-sharing schemes such as Uber, DriveNow, Lyft or Zipcar. The next phase of that will take resource sharing to a new level, he argues — both in terms of efficiency and sociability. “All of this is part of the same phenomenon. It’s about the ability we have today to tag our physical environment and interact with it in a more dynamic way.”

“The city has always been a canvas for our dreams. But today it’s not just a physical canvas, it’s a digital one too.”

Ratti has undertaken some illuminating research to back up such predictions. A few years ago, his team at MIT took advantage of the open data policy set by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg who, until he stepped down at the beginning of 2014, “was obsessed with data,” says Ratti.

“Mayor Bloomberg had a sign [on his office wall] that read, ‘In God we trust, everybody else bring data.’ And so he made a lot of data accessible about New York.” Ratti’s team worked with one of the major databases that detailed taxi trips around the city. By developing a new analytics in order to crunch that big data set, they came up with a stunning insight. “In Manhattan, you could take everybody to their destination within a few minutes of when they needed to be there with 40% fewer taxis than we have today.”

His conclusion: “If we are ready to share mobility, we could actually run a much leaner infrastructure just by pooling trips. And every trip you pool means one vehicle less on the road, less congestion, less pollution and less energy consumption.”

Such examples underscore how the digitalization of cities has the potential to have a highly positive, large-scale impact. But it also highlights how the IoT-driven transformation is part of a relationship between mankind and cities that has evolved in sophistication over 5,000 years.

As Ratti says: “The city has always been a canvas for society, a canvas for our dreams. But today it’s not just a physical canvas, it’s a digital one too.”

Read more about smart cities from Carlo Ratti:
How the digitalization of cities empowers people
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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