Could smart cities save the world?

One MIT researcher believes so, but we’re asking ourselves why? Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, thinks that Big Data could revolutionise urban living. Yet one of the first remarks he has made denounces somewhat overused terms such as “smart cities”, as he believes that it is rather a question of adapting our strategic approach to the problems faced by global cities, rather than keeping a running tally of the issues yet to be overcome.


The era of phygital

In a nutshell, the smart cities question can be summarised by the way we integrate the internet (and data) into the physical makeup of a city. In the phygital age, incorporating this mix of experiences of real life with those of the digital world, it is vital that we understand how urban agglomerations work in terms of resource consumption, pollution and urban transport systems. It’s for this reason that Paris and Brasilia, for example, don’t function in the same way. Architecture, urbanism and the way they evolve through regional regeneration projects are part of this urban change model which doesn’t vary much from place-to-place. That said, local populations’ behaviour and the public services offered to them are constantly evolving.

Concerning means of transport, including peoples’ purchasing habits and related goods delivery methods, we already have an idea of how this urban flux continues to have an effect on the functional aspect of cities across the world. Travelling to work by scooter, or by shared electric scooter, rather than by bus or by car, has an impact on transport routes, commuting times and greenhouse gas emissions alike. This phenomenon applies, albeit differently, whether you’re in Nairobi or New York. It’s worth remembering that urban areas take up 2% of the earth’s surface, accommodate 50% of the world’s population (which is projected to grow to 75% by 2050), and consume 75% of global energy supplies, thus emitting 80% of the world’s pollution.


The challenge of the smart city

The objective of smart cities isn’t to build cities from scratch, even though Google set out on doing so in one of its latest projects (Google Quayside), but rather to closely analyse the figures relating to each urban agglomeration and work to optimise the existing processes which enhance their smooth running. Carlo Ratti’s underlying principle relies more on a bottom-up urban vision, which is more adaptive to urban trends given that it takes into consideration new behaviours, thus allowing cities to adapt to the latest technological advances.


Big Data serving our cities

The world moves to the often erratic beat of new scientific advances, and the development of the cities we live in today is directly linked to the intrinsic human capacity to adapt to to these changes. Big Data must help us to better understand and adjust existing urban models by injecting a bit of agility and tact to our sprawling, yet fragile urban landscapes. By recognising the advantages associated with hyper-connected cities, in a way which encourages us all to be part of this dynamic, positive urban movement, Big Data will soon become more of a friend than a foe for city dwellers.

This is the hopeful, yet equally impassioned vision of one researcher who wants to save our planet.