Possible versus Doable

Nestled in the heart of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the SENSEable City Lab has no boundaries. Its omni-disciplinary approach ensures that it transcends the language and thinking of city designers, planners, engineers, physicists, biologists and social scientists and plays and partners with governments, citizens and communities.

Its mission to anticipate the design and use of the city takes them on intriguing journeys of research, analysis and modelling addressing everything from mobility, human behaviour, air quality, and the wonders of nature and waste.

An architect and engineer by training, director of City Lab Professor Carlo Ratti, has long been using data to peel back the layers of a city. Technology was initially seen as a force that would bring about the city’s demise allowing people to retreat and scatter to the regions telecommuting and co living and working. Yet Ratti’s work highlights that technology has in fact become a central driving force of the city, stimulating its growth and shaping urban experiences.

As early as 2006 Ratti and the City Lab team started to collect and interrogate data on the movement of people in the city with the unbridled goal of modelling where without inconvenience vehicles can be shared. With cars typically being used only fifty per cent of the time and sit idle ninety per cent of the time is parking spots it is no wonder that the concept of car and ride sharing has become a primary tool to fight city traffic congestion.

The Lab’s open data modelling takes the fight against congestion one step further demonstrating how autonomous vehicles could half the size of the distinctive yellow taxis fleet in Manhattan, New York and how in Singapore, obsolete parking stations can be redesigned and repurposed to higher value office and public spaces.

While the power of data to change human behaviour and change a city is clearly technically possible, Professor Peter Newman warns of the over and indiscriminate use of technology.

Newman’s adopts a system approach to the urban fabric emphasising that different cities dictate different combinations of three central elements - walking, public transit and motor vehicles. It is these three elements that influence the quality, lifestyle and economy of a city.

(see The Theory of Urban Fabrics)

Depending on the presence and combination of these elements, despite the implementation of autonomous vehicles being ‘doable’ based on data modelling their introduction may disrupt and detract the sustainability and livability of the city.

Newman has been intricately involved in one of Western Australia’s leading applied urban projects, White Gum Valley.

Located three kilometres from the Fremantle city centre White Gum Valley is a residential estate that designed and delivered on the principles of technology, sustainability and community; where it is easy and affordable for people to live in a way that makes smart use of resources. This zero carbon project will house 180 residents who share localised solar energy generation using blockchain, participate in peer to peer energy trading and have a community irrigation system.

White Gum Valley is a living lab where data will inform and support the residents and the performance of the estate.

In a world where technology can provide rich insights and valuable data into the possible it is more often how we apply that knowledge that matters.

Katherine O’Regan

Executive Director, Cities Leadership Institute

This article is based on presentations at the 2018 International Cities, Town Centres and Communities Conference, Perth.

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