A Conversation With Carlo Ratti, Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab

What does the rise of the smart city mean for citizen empowerment? What are the consequences of Google's city-planning ambitions? And does autonomous mobility lead to new space typologies? Architect and engineer Carlo Ratti is founding partner of Carlo Ratti Associati design and innovation office, and Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab. Professor Ratti is also Principal Investigator at AMS Institute and Research Lead for the Roboat project. We asked him about his views on the increasing ties between technology and urbanism.

In your view, how can technology on the one hand and design on the other hand help people living in cities to become empowered? What might be the influence of privacy and data ownership issues on opportunities of citizen empowerment?
“Let me say that technology is usually neutral, it depends on us how we want to use it. But smart technologies have certainly the potential to make us more empowered. One important mechanism is that they provide us with the ‘tools’ to be more aware of the environment surrounding ourselves. Regarding privacy: it is a crucial question today — but I would say that it is a broader issue than what is happening in cities. Everyday — just through our smartphones, credit cards, etc. — we leave behind us lots of ‘digital footprints’, which are recorded thousands of times every day and stored somewhere in the Cloud. The worrying thing about this is that we live in an asymmetrical world, where just a few companies and public institutions know a lot about us, while we know little about them. I would even prefer a society in which there were no privacy and everyone knew everything about everyone else — as it used to happen, I am told, in hunter-gatherer societies — than what we have today. For this reason, I believe that it is very urgent that we have an open conversation about privacy. Towards this goal, at MIT we have been working extensively on ethical issues connected to Big Data. To this end, over the past years we have convened initiatives called Engaging Data — involving leading figures from government, privacy rights group, academia, and business.”

Carlo Ratti

A growing number of people have a concern that data algorithms may in the future be able to better predict things and make decisions in real life than humans are, implying that humans will lose their authority to algorithms. Do you think this concern is justified? How do you think such concerns should be addressed?
“Yes, I think that those concerns are legit. Algorithmically-controlled autonomous cars might soon become more skilled at driving than humans — and humans might be banned from certain streets. Moreover, I think there is a more general reason why we should be concerned of algorithms’ impact on our lives, and it deals with the risk that algorithms might hamper innovation. Let me give you a very practical example of that. Just consider Amazon. It has a mountain of information about all of its users, which it uses to predict what they might want to buy next. As in all forms of centralized artificial intelligence, past patterns are used to forecast future ones. Amazon can look at the last 10 books you purchased and, with increasing accuracy, thanks to an algorithm, suggest what you might want to read next. But here we should consider what is lost when algorithms dictate our choices. The most meaningful book you should read after those previous 10 is not one that fits neatly into an established pattern, but rather one that surprises or challenges you to look at the world in a different way.

The Future Food District was a thematic pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 that explored how digital technology can change the way that people interact with food. Photos courtesy of Carlo Ratti Associati

Indeed, with centralized algorithms managing every facet of society, data-driven technocracy is threatening to overwhelm innovation, which often stems from serendipitous findings. Decentralized decision-making is crucial for the enrichment of society. Data-driven optimization, conversely, derives solutions from a predetermined paradigm, which, in its current form, often excludes the transformational or counterintuitive ideas that propel humanity forward.”

Sidewalk Toronto

In November of last year, Google’s daughter company Sidewalk Labs announced that it will develop Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, starting with Quayside, the city’s newest neighborhood. According to the company’s website, “Sidewalk Toronto will combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighborhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” What do you think of this kind of urban development, in which a tech company such as Sidewalk Labs can shape the urban environment to a large extent?
“Cities are open platform, which come into existence through a myriad of individual accretive actions, not by top-down decisions — so there is certainly a tension top-down bottom-up. But I am sure that Sidewalk Labs will incorporate this thinking in Toronto…”

Many products and services, including for example driving a car or doing groceries, are becoming or might become subject to processes of automatization and robotization. Do you think that such developments may give rise to the emergence of entirely new types of spaces or places in cities? What might such places look like, according to you?
“The same technology can have diametrically opposite outcomes. Robotization could destroy economics or social cohesion in our cities. But with the right policies in place (taxation, etc.) it can go the opposite direction. It will depend on what policies we put in place. Let’s think about the impact of automation on mobility, which will make self-driving cars a reality. This could lead to very positive scenarios. In the near future, thanks to sharing and the advent of self-drving cars, ‘your’ autonomous 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 to anyone else in the neighborhood. This could potentially blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. Our recent research shows that we could run a city such as New York, Singapore or Delhi with a small percentage of the cars we have today.

With the development of an autonomous, solar-powered public transport network, Babcock Ranch in Florida sets an example for future mobility

In general, fewer cars could mean shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller environmental impact. Among urban infrastructure, parking could be slashed significantly. Over time, vast areas of valuable urban land currently occupied by parking lots could be reinvented for a whole new spectrum of social functions. Potential uses for ubiquitous reclaimed parking area are almost unlimited, and their cost could be covered by the community or by private investors — eventually offsetting the city’s lost revenue from traditional metering.

However, let’s look also at the risks. Additional problems might arise from what one could call the “unfair competitive advantage” of vehicle autonomy. The cost of traveling a mile might drop so substantially that people would abandon public transportation in favor of autonomous cars. That, in turn, could lead to an increase in the number of vehicles in a city — and with that increase, surreal gridlock. Additionally, keeping cars moving at all hours rather than parked 96% of the time could increase pollution.

Roboat is the world’s first major research program on autonomous floating vessels. Image courtesy of AMS Institute and MIT Senseable City Lab

Autonomous cars might generate another unintended consequence: aggravating urban sprawl. This would not be the first time that a technological innovation in mobility resulted in such an effect. In the future, what if people, newly able to commute while sleeping or working, decide to relocate out of the city, consuming land and expanding unsustainable, sprawling communities?

A couple of other threats are worth mentioning. Fines, parking fees and car-associated taxes such as driver registrations represent a substantial revenue source for all kinds of local and national jurisdictions. Widespread autonomous vehicles could eliminate this crucial flow of money. As Robin Chase, the founder of ZipCar, wrote recently, ‘Simply eliminating the drivers from cars, and keeping everything else about our system the same, will be a disaster.’ As was the case in the 20th century, much will depend on a healthy cycle of trial and error. Still, if we can manage the transition in a thoughtful way, self-driving cars could help us achieve a safer and more pleasant urban experience.”

Smart solutions are often discussed and envisioned in urban contexts. Do you think that technology-driven approaches solutions are exclusively viable in cities, or is there a future for such things in non-urban contexts too? Can there be such thing as the smart village, rather than the smart city?
“It is only a difference of density and intensity — the same technologies can apply to urban and rural areas…”