“We could run a whole city with just 20% of the cars.”

Carlo Ratti heads the renowned Senseable City Lab at MIT and runs an architecture firm. So he’s not only researching urban spaces but actually shaping them. We asked him about his vision for the cities of the future.

Carlo, you work in Boston, Rome and Singapore, to mention just three cities. Which city do you feel is the most futuristic?

In lots of cities you find very different foretastes of the future. Singapore is experimenting with the most innovative mobility models and will soon be one of the leaders in testing autonomous cars. Boston is leading the way in citizens’ participation. There's a project there called Urban Mechanics: the idea is to enable citizens to more or less repair their own city. Via an app you ask them for feedback so you can understand and deal with their problems. And then there’s Copenhagen.


What do you like about the Danish capital?

Copenhagen aims to be the first city that’s totally carbon neutral. To achieve that goal they’re designing things like energy generation and mobility in a sustainable way.


How important is the concept of the “smart city” in this context?

There’s a new wave of digital transformation sweeping through the world’s metropolises. The first wave 20 years ago was about building the digital infrastructure. Today, it’s about how the internet of things is merging the digital and physical worlds. This convergence – where the internet is advancing into real spaces – will fundamentally change our cities in pretty much every dimension. 


Have you got a concrete example?

Waste collection is a good one because it’s pretty mundane. There are now, for example, networked bins that know when they’re full and pass this information on to the waste collection authority. So garbage trucks only have to go and empty them when it’s actually necessary. That’s more efficient. Another example is mobility. We wouldn't have ride-hailing services without the internet of things. And we couldn't have autonomous cars, either. You need a lot of connected sensors that provide loads of real-time data so autonomous cars can make decisions on their own. Right now, this is slowly becoming reality.


How are autonomous vehicles going to change our cities?

We worked out that if autonomous vehicles were used efficiently, you could run a whole city with just 20% of the cars we have today – because they wouldn’t be standing around all day. But if people stop using public transport because they prefer to sit in an autonomous vehicle, we could easily end up with more cars on the streets than we have today. It’s hard to predict. Technology can go in many directions.


How do we make sure it does in the right direction?

First of all, it’s important to have a genuine public debate about what type of city we actually want to live in. And then it’ll depend a lot on actual policies and the taxation of mobility models. Money is important for two reasons: First, new forms of mobility are going to rob public authorities of a lot of revenues from parking fees, car tax and so on; and second, you can use taxes to incentivize good behavior – like sharing vehicles, for example. Ultimately, you’re left with the question of who's actually going to pay for all the changes.  


What’s going to happen with all the data that a truly smart city will generate?

I think data are a very powerful agent for change. They show us how we’re behaving and what impact our lifestyle has on our cities. One example: A few years ago, we did a project where we looked at how people were recycling waste. We gave people questionnaires to fill out and then measured the recycling quota in that region. At the end we shared all the information and data from the survey with them. Most of the participants really did change their behavior for the better as soon as they got the data. They were able to see their behavior in a different context.  


What do you tell people who worry about the impact of these new technologies on their right to privacy and data protection? 

I can’t simply take away their concerns. We already live in a kind of surveillance state – voluntarily. Think about all the data we produce on Facebook or Instagram – that’s already being stored somewhere. And if you use an Android or Apple phone, all your movements are recorded too. They even know if you're going by car, bus or bike.


So what should we do?

At a societal level there’s an urgent need for debates on how we can make better use of data in the public interest. But the question isn’t about how the smart cities of the future will deal with this problem. It’s about what we’re doing right now!


An architect and engineer by training, Carlo Ratti lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he heads the renowned Senseable City Lab. He is also a founding partner of the international design office Carlo Ratti Associati. So he is not only researching urban spaces but actually shaping them.