Designing the cities of tomorrow | MIT News


Reflecting on the mission and approach of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT and its role as director, Carlo Ratti quotes Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, who said: “The engineer, and more generally the designer, is concerned with the way things should be — how they should be to achieve goals and function. Simon was a political scientist and economist, but his groundbreaking research on decision-making in organizations drew on disparate disciplines, including computer science and cognitive science.

Ratti also acknowledges that, given the breadth of his work, relying on methodologies from a single domain would be limiting. Our urban spaces are multifaceted constructions, a complex web of evolving systems, and collaboration between disciplines is essential to give them meaning. “The city is a universe,” says Ratti, a professor of practice in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “It can be seen through the prism of economics or sociology or architecture and design. But a city-focused lab really requires an omnidisciplinary approach.

This is why SENSEable City Lab is expanding its ranks of researchers with various specialties. It thrives, in large part, on a collaborative effort, uniting planners and designers with engineers and physicists, systems mathematicians with economists and sociologists. Together they find a common language to engage with each other, industry partners, metropolitan governments, individual citizens and disadvantaged communities to shape the future.

In 2011, for example, the sharing economy was booming, but offers like Uber pool (UberXshare), Lyftline (Lyft Shared) and Ola didn’t exist yet. No one had quantified the viability of shared rides for passengers heading in the same direction until Ratti and SENSEable City introduced a new concept they called “sharing networks” through the HubCab project. This notably led to the first collaboration between the Institute and Uber. By analyzing the movements of New York’s 13,500 medallion taxis, they have assembled a dataset containing the GPS coordinates of pick-up and drop-off points and the corresponding times for more than 170 million taxi rides. Subsequently, this dataset helped them develop a new tool for efficient modeling and optimization of carpooling opportunities. Their analysis showed that taxi sharing could reduce the number of trips made by 40%, reducing congestion, energy consumption and pollution.

More recently, on the social sustainability front, Ratti and his lab have put big data to use in a project they call Proximate. To understand connectivity and how remote working affects innovation, they analyzed MIT’s email exchange network before and after the Institute-wide lockdown due to Covid- 19. The effort builds on the work of sociologist and Stanford University professor Mark Granovetter, who is perhaps best known for his theory that “weak ties” – looser relationships outside of our core web friends, family and colleagues – are crucial bridges between social groups. that encourage societal diversity, innovation and creativity. Ratti’s examination of communications between 2,834 MIT professors and postdocs showed a clear disintegration of “weak ties” when interactions became purely digital in nature. In other words, digital networks, for all their benefits, cannot replace face-to-face interactions – not if we hope to keep innovating. “The physical space welcomes and encourages the unexpected, the fortuitous, in a way that does not happen, or has not yet happened, in a virtual setting,” Ratti explains.

And, in an effort to expand the impact of his lab at MIT, Ratti established a series of satellite labs around the world. The SENSEable Amsterdam Lab (SAL) is involved in an ongoing collaboration with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions to help the Dutch capital become carbon neutral by 2050. The first SAL project is a multifunctional autonomous mobility solution suitable for a city of over 60 miles of canals. The Roboboat The platform has the power to transform urban waterways: it can be used to transport people, deliver goods or for services like waste collection. It could even be used to create on-demand infrastructure, such as a floating bridge or a concert stage.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, through a partnership with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Ratti and his colleagues are harnessing big data to examine integration and segregation in Stockholm. Their findings: Nowadays, people tend to self-segregate by socioeconomic strata, whether they move around the city or go online, creating what Ratti calls “liminal ghettos.” “These are not the ghettos of the past, but they are insidious and invisible fault lines,” he explains. “Once we understand these fault lines, we can take steps to bridge them so that cities fulfill their primary function, ensuring that together we are more than each of us individually.”

Effectively running a city-focused lab requires getting out of the lab and physically inhabiting urban spaces, Ratti says. But he also looks beyond earthly innovations. In a truly interdisciplinary effort that demonstrates the diversity of thought and creativity, he has begun exploring the feasibility of fabricating and deploying a silicon bubble raft roughly the size of Brazil in space. The goal: to reverse global warming by deflecting solar radiation before it reaches our planet. The Space Bubbles project is designed as an emergency response should current efforts to reduce emissions fail. He is accompanied by a team of MIT experts, including Charles Primmerman (MIT Lincoln Laboratory), Professor Daniela Rus (MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Professor Gareth McKinley (MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering) and Professor Markus Buehler (MIT departments of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering).

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, combined with the rise of big data, have transformed almost every aspect of our daily lives and the way we interact with each other and with our built environment; consider the maturation of the Internet of Things and its profound effect on urban spaces. In the hands of Carlo Ratti and his SENSEable City Lab at MIT, technological advances become tools to understand our cities and ourselves, to acquire new knowledge and to explore opportunities to rethink the future. “The convergence between the digital and physical world is radically changing how we can understand and design cities, and ultimately how we can live in urban spaces in a different and better way,” says Ratti.


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