The Internet of Things and the city of tomorrow

Cities and IoT are about to collide.

CR_LarsKruger_MediumResIoT enables physical devices, vehicles, buildings, bridges and roads to collect and exchange data through networks. We spoke to professor Carlo Ratti about effects of pervasive technologies like IoT on city design and urban planning. Carlo Ratti teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He is the author of the book “The City of Tomorrow” and has presented at TED.

ResearchGate: What would a day in the life of person living in a City of Tomorrow look like?

Carlo Ratti: Digital technologies and ubiquitous computing are transforming most aspects of our lives –the way we move, communicate, learn, work, etc. In general, we will have an increased number of options as technology opens up new possibilities. French anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan underlines how it is possible to draw a curve of human civilization by simply looking at the way tools are used across history. From the Neolithic to the twentieth century, from the first utensils made of rocks to the development of digital technologies, from stone-axes that extended the capabilities of the hand to “outsourcing” our mental processes to computers, progress has always been profoundly marked by the gradual subcontracting of our functions. The development of new technologies always had the same goal—that is, to increase our chances and opportunities.

RG: Your book mentions that it is increasingly difficult to divorce the physical space from the digital. Does this mean that all aspects of city design should factor in IoT? Or are some aspects of city design divorced from its influence? 

Ratti: From an architectural point of view, I do not think that the city of tomorrow will look dramatically different from the city of today — much in the same way that the Roman ‘urbs’ is not all that different from the city as we know it today. We will always need horizontal floors for living, vertical walls in order to separate spaces and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside. The key elements of architecture will still be there, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What will change dramatically is the way we live in the city, at the convergence of the digital and physical world. IoT will have its biggest impact on the experience of the city, not necessarily its physical form.

RG: Is there an upcoming IoT development that would have a particularly profound impact on the way we design cities? Or is there something that is particularly exciting to you?

Ratti: IoT will impact many dimensions of the city. I see three types of changes:

First, there is sharing. Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life, 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. Some recent papers by MIT show that today’s mobility demand of a city like Singapore could be satisfied by just one-fifth of the number of cars currently in use. Such reductions in car numbers would dramatically lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it. Fewer cars may also mean shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller environmental impact.

–A second change is parking. Parking infrastructure is so pervasive that in the United States it covers around 5,000 square miles, an area larger than Puerto Rico. Increased sharing of vehicles, as outlined above, would dramatically lower the need for parking spaces. Over time, vast areas of valuable urban land currently occupied by parking spaces could be reinvented for a whole new spectrum of social functions. Creative uses are already promoted across the world during Parking Day, a worldwide event held on the third Friday of September, where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public places. The same dynamic re-purposing could happen tomorrow on a much larger scale and with permanent solutions, leading to the reclamation of a large percentage of the urban fabric.

–Finally, urban infrastructure is subject to change. Traffic lights are a 150-years-old technology originally conceived for horse carriages. With the advent of widespread autonomy, slot-based intersections could replace traditional traffic lights, significantly reducing queues and delays. This idea is based on a scenario where sensor-laden vehicles pass through intersections by communicating and remaining at a safe distance from each other, rather than grinding to a halt at traffic lights. Vehicle speed could be controlled so that each vehicle reaches the intersection in synch with the assigned slot – so that stop and go is avoided. The latter, in turn, would reduce emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases caused by the acceleration and deceleration cycles.

RG: Is the influence of IoT upon city design entirely positive? Does the generation of all this data concern you?

Ratti: Privacy issues should be taken very seriously. In general, I think the issue is not in “data collection” but in the way it is used. In other words, the issue is not technological, but political: who has access to the data? What is it used for? This reminds me of a short story by Italian novelist Italo Calvino called "The Memory of the World", which was written well before the "digital revolution." In this story, Calvino draws a dystopian society in which every detail and moment experienced by humanity is recorded for posterity. Needless to say that this quickly leads to intrigue and paradox.

To avoid such an ending, we need to have an open discussion about data. Towards this goal, at MIT we have been working extensively on the ethical issues related with Big Data. In 2013 we launched an initiative called “Engaging Data” involving leading figures from government, privacy rights group, academia, and business. I think it is critical to focus on these issues and have an open, frank discussion at a collective level.

RG: Would distance ever become irrelevant in city design? In the sense that “If I am connected, why does it matter where I am?”

Ratti: This is an old prediction. In the 1990s British economist Frances Cairncross predicted: “Distance will die”. When every place is connected instantaneously to every other place on the planet, she argued, space itself would become irrelevant.

History, however, has charted a far different course. Today’s technology does allow global and instantaneous communication, but most of us still commute to offices for work every day. What early digital commentators missed is that even if we can work from anywhere that does not mean we want to. We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, to generate ideas, and to pool talents and perspectives. Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of human life.

RG: The integration of diverse cultural groups within a city is a problem across European cities that has been brought to the fore as a result of recent terrorist attacks. Is there anything the city of the future could do to tackle this?

Ratti: Italian writer Primo Levi, in the preface of his masterpiece “Se questo è un uomo”, highlights that the notion of “diversity” is the logical premise that brought mankind to concentration camps. The integration of different cultural groups starts from their reciprocal knowledge. In this sense, the Internet could be a powerful uniting force. I like to believe in what philosopher Peter Singer wrote in the introduction to his book “The Expanding Circle”: “If more mobility and more communication were already making a difference [to change in the racist attitudes that had existed for so long in some parts of the United States] in 1944, what should we expect from the vastly greater changes that are happening now, linking people all over the world, and opening up communities that hitherto had little access to ideas from outside? The experiment is under way, and there will be no stopping it. What it will do for the rate at which we make moral progress and expand the circle of those about whom we are concerned, remains to be seen.”

RG: Would the city of the future be safer? If so, in what sense?

Ratti: It depends about which type of safety. The city of IoT will also be more vulnerable to cyber-physical attacks. As always, technology is rather neutral, it will be up to us to decide how to use it.

Want to learn more about IoT? Read more here:





Scope and challenges of Internet of Things




A Survey on Enabling Technologies, Protocols and Applications






Click here to see the complete list of scientific disciplines writing about IoT.

To learn more about what IoT researchers are working on now have a look at these Projects:

Featured image courtesy of flickr.