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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Smart Cities

"Data Can Lead to Behavioral Changes"

Following the Wired Magazine Carlo Ratti is one of the "50 people who will change the world".

The city of tomorrow will not look dramatically different from the city of today, says Carlo Ratti. The architect and MIT researcher explains, how digital technologies and smart data will change the way we live in cities.

You have said that every city can be transformed into a smart city. How radical would a solution have to be?

Ratti: I would say that it’s not about systemic solutions – it is more like an incremental process that is already being applied in many dimensions. Let me explain it with an analogy. What is happening on an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One car racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. Cars were transformed into computers that were monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, thus becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race. In a similar way, over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure.  Cities are quickly becoming like computers in open air.

As this transformation takes place, will we see it happening?

Ratti: From an architectural point of view, the city of tomorrow will not compulsory look dramatically different from the city of today - much in the same way that the Roman urbs were not all that different than the city as we know it today. The key elements of architecture will be there in the future, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What will change will be the way we live in cities.

Might digital technologies create a positive loop in which we change our behavior with regard to waste or the use of water?

Ratti: It is funny you ask, as we have been working extensively on sewage and waste management. Our Trash Track project focuses on how pervasive technologies can expose the challenges of waste management. We use hundreds of small, smart, location-aware tags, which are attached to different types of trash that can be followed through a city’s waste management system. An important aspect of Trash Track is that data can lead to behavioral changes. It can provide citizens with information that empowers them to take better-informed decisions or even have a role in changing the city around them, which results in a more livable urban condition for all. One thing we learned is that just sharing information can promote behavioral change. People involved in the project were able to follow their trash. Afterwards, one person told us: "I used to drink water in plastic bottles and throw them away and forget about them. Now that I know that those bottles go to a landfill just a few miles from home. I cannot do that anymore." The Underworlds project focuses on sewage, to open up a new world of information on human health and behavior. We are currently designing prototype smart platforms that collect sewage, filter it and use computational techniques to analyze genetic material and identify viruses and bacteria, as well as spotting specific chemicals. It is like measuring the human microbiome of an entire neighborhood.

"Progress has always been profoundly marked by the gradual externalization of our functions. This fact, per se, has a liberating effect; technology presents us with a wider range of choices."

Smart cities will be densely networked. How can they protect themselves from hacker attacks and the misuse of data?

Ratti: One option could be to promote widespread adoption of hacking itself. Familiarity with hackers’ tools and methods provides a powerful advantage in determining 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 identify flaws in digital networks, ultimately rendering them more resistant to attack. 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.

What opportunities might smart cities offer in case of a terrorist attack?

Ratti: In the case of an emergency, what you need is real time information: What happened? Where? What should everyone do? The answers to these questions can now be easily found. Real time information adds to resilience and flexibility, as we know better what is happening in any moment and respond to it.

In what ways do you expect autonomous and networked driving to change our mobility behavior?  

Ratti: Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life. This is not because you do not need to keep your hands on the steering wheel, but 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. This means that there will be fewer cars on the road and possibly more room for  green areas and public spaces. Our recent research shows that we could run a city such as New York, Singapore or Delhi with 20 percent of the cars we have today. Imagine how different our cities would look if we were to remove 4 cars out of 5 vehicles.

All of the systems we’ve been discussing generate data. What kinds of new business opportunities do you foresee?

Ratti: There could be many examples. Here is one we are directly involved with. HubCab is an interactive visualization that invites you to explore the ways in which over 170 million taxi trips connect the City of New York in a given year. Studying this data, we demonstrate the vast potential of taxi shareability; the total number of taxi trips in New York City could be reduced by 40 percent, fleet operation costs and pollution could be reduced by 30 percent, while overall service and timeliness would remain about the same. Collecting data is actually the basis of city planning. Over a century ago, Élisée Reclus claimed that all planning had to start from surveying and the collection of data. The only difference today is that we have access to a staggering amount of robust, real-time data!

In your opinion, will all of this data tend to improve the quality of urban life?

Ratti: French anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan in his book “Le geste e la parole” underlines how it is possible to draw a curve of human civilization simply by looking at the way tools are used across history. From the Neolithic to the twentieth century, progress has always been profoundly marked by the gradual externalization of our functions. This fact, per se, has a liberating effect; technology presents us with a wider range of choices.

Carlo Ratti (46) is an architect and engineer by training. Carlo Ratti practices in Italy and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He graduated from the Politecnico di Torino and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, later earning his MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is currently serving as a member of the World Economic Forum ‘Global Agenda Council for Urban Management’.

Interview by Susanne Gold
Picture credits: from top: 1.picture Mark Peterson 2007/Redux/laif, 2.picture Lars Krüger