Cities In The Future Might Track Our Every Movement

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Many predictions for cities of the future have fallen spectacularly flat ― where are ourmoving sidewalks and zeppelins? But as technology is rapidly integrated into our lives and the built environment, considering the implications for cities in the coming decades is crucial.

The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life, a slim but expansive book published this summer, traces the history of technology’s impact on cities to the present and potential future, focusing on transformations in areas like transportation, architecture, labor and energy.

Authors Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, who conduct research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Senseable City Laboratory, pointedly refuse to make specific predictions. Instead, they look at how emerging technology could change cities through a practice they call “futurecraft.”

Ratti and Claudel say they imagine hypothetical future scenarios and their consequences, and then bring those ideas to the public as a way to accelerate positive technological change ― and hopefully create a better future.

Many of the ideas in The City of Tomorrow rely on the increased data that is making cities “smarter,” or using that data to operate more efficiently. For example, technology like sensors in lighting grids and transit networks would let infrastructure respond to real-time usage. In the future, sensors, combined with sources like cell phone data, could provide an overwhelming amount of information about a city and its residents.

“Physical space could be laced ubiquitously with nanosensors ― scattered micro devices that are smaller than grains of rice,” Ratti and Claudel write about so-called “smart dust.”

“Using smartphone-integrated sensing devices, pedestrian commuters could generate data at the human scale, as though a tracer were running through the veins of the cities, showing the urban environment that commuters live in and move through,” they continue.

Pervasive data collection and tracking of citizens can also prompt visions of a dystopian future, with concerns about privacy, and how information is used and who owns it. We’ve already seen how data can be used against residents, such as landlords mining applicants’ online history or using cameras to catch tenants violating their lease. 

But smarter cities can also be more equitable and sustainable ones, equipping residents with tools to understand and change their environment, Ratti and Claudel argue:

Through your smartphone, you can understand and digest the broader, complex reality of the city. It serves as a control room, revealing urban systems such as transportation, weather and social and interactive media. Understanding these urban dynamics enables people to more effectively (or enjoyably) inhabit the city.

At the Senseable City Lab, they’ve shown how some of the emerging technologies can have civic benefits: for instance, they’ve been attaching GPS trackers to everyday garbage and recyclable electronics to see how our trash moves around the country and globe, revealing new information about waste management systems that are largely invisible to citizens.

Ratti and Claudel envision a potential future where new technology ― from individualized heating grids to neighborhood 3D-printing fabrication studios ― “weaves into a tapestry of citizen empowerment.”

“The city of tomorrow is the city we build together,” the authors told The Huffington Post by email. They continued by elaborating on their thoughts about the problem with smart cities, the changing role of the car and how residents can use technology to improve their communities.

The term “smart city” gets thrown around a lot. Would you change anything about how smart cities are commonly discussed or used as a model?

The term itself, “Smart City,” is somewhat over-used, even abused. “Senseable City” is, to us, a better framework to approach urban design and science ― it brings the human side of cities to the foreground. The word senseable has a double meaning; it means “able to sense” and “sensible.” The common denominator of all of our projects is that they are focused, first and foremost, on people. Technology is an important part of our work (we are MIT after all!) but it is only an enabler of the deeper focus on urban life.  

I came away from your book with the message that developing technologies could lead to cities that are more democratic, equitable and livable, but that it isn’t a certain outcome. How can we make sure technology is used for the civic good rather than at people’s expense?

Technology is always neutral ― it can be applied to many different ends, both good and bad. The crucial deciding factor is to enable and respect a public discourse about publictechnologies. The only way we can really determine what’s best for the city ― for all of us ― is if we arrive at a decision together.

But in order for technologies to be really understood and debated, they need to be prototyped, deployed, and broadly demonstrated. For that reason, we don’t only work academically: many of the projects in the book began as an academic or scientific concept, but were then translated into a video, a museum exhibition, or what we call an “urban demo.”

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