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From Personalized Climate to Trash Trackers, Researchers Explore Radical Redesign of Cities

MIT's Senseable Cities Lab advocates using social media to build “open source,” sustainable urban spaces

Imagine a room “smart” enough to know just how hot or cold you’re feeling throughout the day. Better yet, imagine that this room is capable of regulating the bubble of air around you to the perfect temperature for maximum comfort. No more sweaty summer days or icy winter mornings at the office. It’s almost like a dream come true, right?

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by Giulia Bruno/MIT The lab's "Local Warming" technology made its debut at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale in Italy last month. Beams of infrared radiation from units in the ceiling follow each person in the room, creating personal climates.

MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory has designed a localized-heating technology coined, “Local Warming,” that does just this. As if out of a science fiction novel, the lab’s new technology is able to measure individual building occupant’s personal temperatures in order to adjust their ambient heating levels accordingly. The technology makes use of WiFi-based motion sensing and ceiling-mounted dynamic heating elements to provide direct heating or cooling to indvidual occupants of a building.

Beyond solving the perpetual workplace sweater-weather struggle, the lab’s design also drastically cuts down on wasted energy. Since commercial buildings account for over 20 percent of US energy consumption, highly-localized heating can reduce both carbon emissions and utility costs.

The Local Warming venture is just one among a diverse set of projects in the Senseable City Lab’s portfolio, each of which challenge the status quo of urban design. Inspired by the democratizing effect of user-controlled social media technologies and open source data networks, this pioneering lab’s researchers are looking to build sustainable cities by engaging with, and empowering its denizens.

Why such a focus on cities? You may ask. Well, because now, for the first time in anthropological history, more than half of the human population lives in urban as opposed to rural landscapes. And because more and more urban dwellers have access to, and are using, hand-held smartphones and other mobile devices.

“I think architecture means reinventing the interface between people and the outside world. New technologies have a key role in this process, as they are giving us the true possibility to control and manage our cities in a more intelligent way, and to improve our lifestyle,” says lab director Carlo Ratti.

The lab’s Copenhagen Wheel, for example, transforms a regular bicycle into an interactive, hybrid “e-bike.” This fashionable wheel is controlled through the cyclist’s smartphone and maps out pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in “real-time.” It also gathers data on the cyclist’s surroundings, including road conditions, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, noise, temperature, and humidity levels. This data can be shared with friends or, if the user chooses, with all the cohabitants of his/her city.

Inspired by the New York City Green Initiative, another of the lab’s projects, TrashTrack, similarly looks to gather useful data on urban landscapes. Small, mobile trackers are placed on discarded parcels of trash to digitally map what the Lab terms, the “removal-chain,” of metropolitan refuse.

These projects are, in a way, more about capturing what you don’t see.  The power of the lab’s sensory technologies lies in their capacity to reveal and share information about urban areas on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

“Over the past decade, digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure,” Ratti says. In combination with growing open source databases, urbanites have more opportunity to understand and directly contribute to the design of metropolitan areas. “Our cities are quickly becoming like ‘computers in open air,’” Ratti says.

A crucial component that connects each of the lab’s projects, Ratti stresses, is collaboration. This collaboration extends beyond the mere collection of data from smartphones, and into the realm of urban planning itself. Ensuring public involvement within the design process is key for building what Ratti calls, “our common urban future.” This is where some of the research team’s most recent work comes into play.

“In terms of methodology,” Ratti says, “we want to push the boundaries of collaboration — trying to develop an 'Open Source' methodology for design.”

The concept of Open Source Architecture or, “OSArc,” is a cocktail of social justice with a splash of community-based politics and hint of radical theory. The key ideas of OSArc are empowerment and decentralization. The recent outcry over London’s spikey barbs placed along edges of covered rotundas and walkways to deter the city’s homeless would not, for example, be conceivable under an OSArc model of active citizen design.

“OSArc relies upon amateurs as much as experienced professionals — the genius of the mass as much as that of the individual — eroding the binary distinction between author and audience,” states a recent MIT editorial.

“I recall that during my teenage years, I read quite a bit of science fiction literature. I liked these kinds of novels but such descriptions of the future, in retrospect, were almost comical,” Ratti says. “I thought that as designers we had the possibility not to just predict, but to concretely help shape our future, along the lines of Alan Key's axiom, ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it.’” And if the work produced by the Senseable City Lab were any indicator, the best designs for the future are drawn from a cross-section of people, not from a single mind

Hanna MorrisHanna Morris photo
Hanna Morris is an intern at Earth Island Journal. She is studying Society and Environment with a focus in Global Environmental Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. Hanna is the communications director for the UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center and founder of the Communicating Sustainability DeCAL.

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