The Senseable City

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Smart cities are well-known for integrating technology with urban environments; sensable cities use that technology to put people at the heart of the city.

A prolific inventor, educator, and engineer, Carlo Ratti is the director of the Senseable City Laboratory at MIT. The lab takes an omni-disciplinary approach to cities, combining: designers, planners, engineers, physicists, biologists and social scientists to empower citizens to solve urban problems.

In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak with Carlo about the role of technology on architecture, planning, and design. We hear about the knowledge gained from sensors and data, discuss the challenges of updating existing cities, and discover how new technologies can be used to fundamentally change how we perceive, inhabit, and create cities.

Episode highlights

  • “It’s the convergence of digital and physical. Physical infrastructure that also works better thanks to data and intelligence. We say that the city of tomorrow is still going to be made of concrete and asphalt, but also of silicon and intelligence.”
  • “I don't like the word ‘smart city’, because it gives too much emphasis on the technological side of things — like a computer for living in. I like the idea of a ‘sensable city’ that uses technology, but puts people at the centre.”
  • “Cities are only 2% of the surface of the planet, but they're 55% of the population, 75%, of energy consumption, and 80% of carbon dioxide emissions. So if we can do something to make our cities a little bit more sustainable, that would be a big deal globally.“
  • “We decided we wanted to quantify the potential for sharing rides in New York [using GPS data] we discovered that, if people were ready to share a ride, we could cut fleet by 40%, . So it's a very simple example of how data can help us understand better mobility, understand better the city, but also try to think about how we can redesign mobility systems."
  • “I think architects should forget about the old ideas of the ‘promethean architect’ — one person single handedly making decisions for millions of people. I think we need to realise it’s something much more choral, harmonising different voices.”
  • “We've been looking at how segregation has changed during COVID […] we discovered something very interesting, that if we do not meet in physical space, then what happens is that our social networks suffer. We lose what sociologists calls ‘weak ties’, which is very important for creativity and for reaching out to other communities.”
  • “Ultimately, citizens should be the one to decide what they proceed with and want. So the important thing is that there's a feedback loop between ideas generated and response by society.”
  • “One of the things we learned over the years is that sometimes you fall in love with an idea. But if you fall in love with your idea and forget about the economic side, or you forget about politics, then it's not going to be realised […] The important thing we should fall in love with is impact. Impact means you might need to revise your idea in order to make it a reality.”
  • “The data we collect really allows us to understand dimensions of a city that we couldn't understand just 10 or 20 years ago. And that was an old dream of architecture planning engineer Paul Cézanne […] he dreamt about the day when transforming a city would become like a science, really through the availability of data. Well, it took over 100 years, but now that data is available.”
  • “Probably the ideal city of today is not the ideal city of the Renaissance. It’s like a collection, a mosaic of all these different experiments happening globally.”

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