Cities in transformation- toward an intelligent future

Carlo Ratti
Director, MIT - Department of Urban Studies and Planning
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Are cities about to die? This is what many people were thinking just a few years ago… Back in the 1990s, scholars speculated about the impact of the ongoing digital revolution on the viability of cities. The mainstream view was that, as digital media and the internet had killed distance, they would also kill cities. Technology writer George Gilder proclaimed that “cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era” and concluded that, due to the continued growth of personal computing, telecommunications and distributed production, “we are headed for the death of cities”.

In actual fact, this is exactly opposite to the view that has shaped our conversations as part of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council 2011. Starting in Abu Dhabi – and during our discussions leading up to Davos – we have observed that cities have never prospered as much as they have over the past couple of decades. China is currently building more urban fabric than has ever been built by humanity. Since 2008, for the first time in history, over half the world’s population lives in urban areas and, according to some estimates, there is a US$ 40 trillion opportunity in global infrastructure investment, mostly urban.

The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither has it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way. Extensive transformations on their way are going to revolutionize urban life; from the analysis of traffic and energy consumption to citizen empowerment and participation (as we saw during the Arab Spring). These transformations are best explained with an analogy.

What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One motor racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit had been primarily credited to the car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that could be monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race.

In a similar way, over the past decade, digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases—especially from the government—that people can study and add to are revealing all kinds of information, whilst public kiosks and displays are helping both the literate and illiterate gain access to it. Add to this a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital-control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming “computers in open air.”

 It is now up to us to programme digital technologies in a collaborative way so that cities can become more sustainable and serve us better. At the Annual Meeting 2012, let’s discuss how to make this possible – together with mayors, industry and, most importantly, citizens from all over the world. We can continue to explore the possibilities collaboratively on this open, online platform.

 To ignite this dialogue here and now, the Global Agenda Council on Infrastructure and Urban Development has developed a prototype book –”Urban Anthologies: Learning from Our Cities” –showcasing  transformational models for infrastructure and urban development from cities around the world, many of which successfully employ a number of these technologies. The book is a user-friendly tool, designed to equip mayors, ministers and leaders of the private and civil service sectors with the information and tools to take the first step in enabling cities to leverage technology in meaningful ways.

Please share with us your ideas and success stories on how best to employ these digital technologies.

*Carlo Ratti is Director of SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT and member of the Global Agenda Council on Infrastructure and Urban Development

 Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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