Carlo Ratti “Smart technologies can help us make our cities more efficient”

Interview with Carlo Ratti, Director, MIT Senseable City Lab | by Euroasia Industry

Ratti, Carlo 200x200By 2050, the UN expects the number of city dwellers to reach 6.3 billion and the balance of humans in cities to rise to about 70 per cent. In an era of mass urbanization, what do you feel are the most pressing challenges that cities face?

4 numbers characterize the importance of cities: 2-5-75-80. Globally, cities are only 2% of the planet’s surface, but are home to 50% of the population and are responsible for 75 % of energy consumption and 80% of carbon dioxide emissions. We don’t need to wait until 2050, we have to work on cities today. If we improve them, even slightly, we can have a great impact on the whole planet.

Sustainability is clearly a key driver of the smart city ethos. How do see such innovations addressing environmental challenges?

Smart technologies can help us make our cities more efficient. Let me give you an example based on mobility. The sharing economy is now entering many domains (think AirBNB, etc.) and can be applied to our transportation infrastructure. Cars are idle 95% of the time, making them an ideal candidate for the sharing economy. It has been estimated that every shared car can replace ~10-30 privately owned cars. Also, the impact of car sharing will grow exponentially with the advent of self-driving cars. Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life, because they will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. “Your” car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family – or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community, or city.

A recent paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SMART Future Mobility team shows 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% of its existing vehicles. Furthermore, other researchers in the same group suggest that this number could be cut by another 40% 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.

Such reductions in the number of cars would dramatically lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it. Fewer cars may also mean shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller environmental impact.

At MIT Senseable City Lab we are looking into this through various projects (e.g. HubCab and Ambient Mobility

Another important aspect is citizen engagement – how Big Data for instance can promote behavioral change. Here is an example: in our Trash Track project in Seattle we added tags to trash and then followed trash as it moves through the city’s sanitation system. We discovered many things… and one of the things we learned in the trash track project is that just sharing information can promote behavioral change. People involved in the project would be able to follow their trash and this prompted many of them to change their habits. One person told us: “I used to drink water in plastic bottles and throw them away and think that they would disappear but now I know it is not true anymore. They just go a few miles from home to a landfill. So I stopped drinking water in plastic bottles…”

What are the advantages, socially speaking, of deploying smart city technologies and concepts?

As mentioned above, smart technologies can help us make our cities more sustainable. The other important result is in citizen participation; our aim is to better connect citizen to their cities, and give them the right tools to manage them.

What are the economical benefits that you can identify for the city?

It is not possible to generalize – it depends on which aspect you are looking at. Entire new industries will emerge – in the case of transportation, think about Uber (and similar players) today and new mobilities (as explained above) in the future…

Could you please tell me more about some of the specific smart city projects or initiatives in which your organization is involved, or that you identify as particularly interesting/effective?

First, let me say a few words about methodology. In general, we aim to explore how ubiquitous computing – i.e. the increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years – is opening up a new approach to the study of the built environment. We want to investigate and intervene at the interface between people, technologies and the city – developing research and applications that empower citizens to make choices that result in a more livable urban condition. We see the role of our lab as developing an “urban demo”, i.e. an idea made tangible in the city. From there, the path to implementation can be manifold – through one of our partner cities and companies or through the start-up innovation chain.

Using this methodology we are looking at many aspects: from mobility to waste, from energy to citizen engagement. You can find a summary at

The liberation of data obviously heralds huge opportunities in respect of the development of apps. What do you think are the most promising apps in respect of smart city living and the provision of reliable consumer services?

I think real-time data collection can really help us in several fields. I am particularly interested in sharing urban infrastructure, as discussed above – and the role real-time data has to play here.

As I already mentioned, I think it will be both an urban revolution, as well as a cultural one. The sharing economy paradigm is already radically changing the way we conceive of “property”, in every sector, increasing the adoption of sharing dynamics, things as ideas or services.

Furthermore, there is an idea which I find very engaging: could the concept of “conspicuous consumption” as outlined by Thorsten Veblen – an evident, displayed consumption – become a “conspicuous sharing”?

The opportunities proposed by smart city systems are clearly myriad, yet threats also exist – the risk of software bugs and cyber terrorism on the one hand, and the threat to privacy on the other. How should planners address such concerns?

Yes, it is a very interesting question. I thought that you might be interested in this article I wrote just a few weeks ago for Project Syndicate:

Hacking for Humanity

CAMBRIDGE – “Life,” Oscar Wilde famously said, “imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” In the case of Sony Pictures’ movie The Interview, the world found itself confronted with a further iteration: life imitating art imitating life. The movie’s release sparked international intrigue, drama, and shadowy geopolitical power struggles. It even prompted a grave US Presidential address – all for a simple case of hacking.

Hacking into information systems is nothing new; it goes hand in hand with the emergence of telecommunications. One of the first attacks struck Guglielmo Marconi’s demonstration of radio transmission in 1903, when he communicated from Cornwall to London, 300 miles away. Nevil Maskelyne, a music-hall magician and would-be wireless tycoon, who had been frustrated by the Italian inventor’s patents, managed to take control of the system and broadcast obscene messages to the Royal Institution’s scandalized audience.

Though hacking is as old as wireless itself, much has changed since Marconi’s time. Information networks now blanket our planet, collecting and transferring immense amounts of data in real time. They enable many familiar activities: instantaneous communications, social media, financial transactions, and logistics management. Most important, information is no longer sequestered in a virtual realm, but permeates the environment in which we live. The physical, biological, and digital worlds have begun to converge – giving rise to what scientists refer to as “cyber-physical systems.”

Automobiles, for example, have evolved from straightforward mechanical systems into veritable computers on wheels. The same thing is happening to other consumer goods: We now have connected washing machines and learning thermostats, not to mention Bluetooth toothbrushes and computerized infant scales.

Indeed, cyber-physical systems range from the macro level (think urban transport, like Uber) to the micro (say, the beating of a human heart). Our very bodies, strapped with connected wearables, are today imbued with more computing power than all of NASA at the time of the Apollo missions.

All of this promises to revolutionize many aspects of human life – mobility, energy management, health care, and much more – and may point toward a greener and more efficient future. But cyber-physical systems also heighten our vulnerabilities to malicious hacking, an issue that is being discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Far from being isolated in cyberspace, attacks can now have devastating consequences in the physical world. It is an annoyance when a software virus crashes our computers; but what if the virus crashes our cars?

Malicious hackers are difficult to combat with traditional government and industry tools – the Sony Pictures case being a telling example. Hacking can be carried out anywhere and everywhere, potentially involving multiple networks in obscure locations. It defies conventional retaliation and protection strategies. As then-US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in 2012, given its current systems, the United States is vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that could derail trains, poison water supplies, and cripple power grids.

So, how can such a scenario be prevented?

One option, surprisingly, could be to promote widespread adoption of hacking itself. Familiarity with hackers’ tools and methods provides a powerful advantage in diagnosing the strength of existing systems, and even in designing tighter security from the bottom up – a practice known as “white hat” hacking. Ethical infiltration enables a security team to render digital networks more resistant to attack by identifying the flaws. This may become routine practice – a kind of cyber fire drill – for governments and businesses, even as academic and industry research focuses in the coming years on the development of further technical safeguards.

In general, today’s defenses take the form of autonomous, constantly vigilant digital “supervisors” – computers and code that control other computers and code. Similar to traditional military command-and-control protocols, they gain power in numbers and can quickly react to a broad array of attacks. Such a digital ecosystem strengthens checks and balances, reducing the possibility of failure and mitigating the effects of an incursion.

In such a future scenario, a Hollywood blockbuster might be about networks of computers fighting each other, while humans stand by. It would portray the broader idea of “singularity,” a hypothetical turning point when the artificial surpasses the human. Fortunately, in this case, life is still far from imitating art.

How is the regulatory landscape evolving to accommodate potentially disruptive advances in urban governance arising from smart city systems (innovative technology and ‘big data’)?

In terms of Smart City planning and funding, such systems are invariably designed to benefit a wide array of governmental departments. However, this very crossover has the potential to make funding for such wide-reaching innovations difficult. How can authorities overcome that problem? What other challenges can you identify?

Let me reply to both questions together, as they are about the role of government.

Government certainly has an important role to play in supporting academic research and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to venture capital – unglamorous but crucial domains, such as municipal waste or water services. The public sector can also promote the use of open platforms and standards in such projects, which would speed up adoption in cities worldwide.

But, most importantly, governments should use their funds to develop a bottom-up innovation ecosystem geared toward smart cities, similar to the one that is growing in the US. Policymakers must go beyond supporting traditional incubators by producing and nurturing the regulatory frameworks that allow innovations to thrive. Considering the legal hurdles that continuously plague applications like Uber or Airbnb, this level of support is sorely needed.

Governments should steer away from the temptation to play a more deterministic and top-down role. It is not their prerogative to decide what the next smart-city solution should be – or, worse, to use their citizens’ money to bolster the position of the technology multinationals that are now marketing themselves in this field. These companies’ ready-made, proprietary, and typically dull offerings represent a route that should be avoided.

In your opinion, will the most successful smart cities of the future be based on a ‘top-down’ or a flat structure in terms of their implementation?

I strongly believe in bottom-up approaches, but we will see a bit of both.

Bottom up is also entering the world of design, as we argue in our latest book “Open Source Architecture”, Thames & Hudson, London, 2015.

Given the immense costs involved in implementing smart infrastructure, is there a need for private sector participation in our smart cities of the future, and what might such engagement entail?

Yes, of course. See above…

The smart city sector clearly represents a huge opportunity for developers – some analysts forecast that it could represent a US$39.5 billion marketplace by 2016. But what segments of the economy do you believe are set to gain most in terms of the benefits derived from the actual deployment of such systems?

Transportation is being transformed as we speak (car sharing and applications like Uber). The same applies to most sectors. The changes induced by the new era of ubiquitous computing are as far-reaching as those brought about a couple of decades ago by the Internet.

Finally, is there anything else that you would like to add regarding any upcoming projects or interesting future investments/plans, etc.?

I think it’s important to understand the role of designers in the above framework. We like to think of design as FUTURECRAFTING (Futurecraft is also the title of an exhibition that will open on our work at the Spazio FMG during Milan Design week, on April 13th, Here are some excerpts:

According to Herber Simon, “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are… Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be” (Herbert Simon, The Science of Design, 1988). As it changes existing situations into preferred ones, the act of design is inherently future-facing, aiming to transform the present by effecting material or experiential change. And if design is future-focused, its question becomes: how to accelerate transformation of the present? How to fast-forward the development of tomorrow?

This is what we call “Futurecraft”. We believe that designers must challenge what exists today, introduce new and alternate possibilities, and ultimately pave the way toward a more desirable future. Ultimately, ideas may or may not be realized, but by virtue of being stated, explored, and debated, a concept will necessarily have made an impact. Provocation is a better metric than certainty, for ideas both positive and negative. This could be the triumph of failed design: each proposal influences the evolution and resolution of tomorrow. Designers introduce visions of a possible future – galvanizing the crowd by Futurecraft.

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