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Start Reinventing the Cities of the Future
25 February 2015

Reinventing the Cities of the Future

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

“We live in a period of extreme urbanization and an estimated 90% of the population growth will take place in cities,” says Kent Larson, director of the working group Changing Places from MIT Media Lab, in his latest public appearances as a lecturer around the world.

Faced with these challenges, the Changing Places team from MIT seeks answers so that the cities of tomorrow are more livable and sustainable. The solutions include maximizing the usable space of apartments and offices, inventing new forms of transport, new vehicles and even growing vegetables with unconventional methods.

Spaces: City Home and City Office

One of the projects studies how to make spaces more efficient, whether in a private setting City Home or at work City Office-. Hasier Larrea, an MIT mechanical engineer and researcher in the Changing Places group, says that the project aims to “increase the functionality” of a space for work or private use. “What matters is not the square metres, but rather the functionality you get from what you have,” he says.

The tests are performed in the same Media Lab of MIT, where there is a replica of the invention. In the case of City Home, in a space of 20 square metres, a movable wall –‘robowall’– moves on rails on the floor and divides the room into two sections that are enlarged or reduced according to the needs of the resident.

If one sets foot in the room of City Home, what is most surprising is witnessing how, in seconds and with just a few arm gestures, the room of a student automatically becomes a stylish party zone, which even includes disco lights.

This mobility can also be vertical and from the ceiling can descend a bed, or a table for rustling up dinner for up to six guests. With just one click, and in the same square metres, the same space is rearranged either for working, sleeping, cooking or entertaining. Here are the details:

One of the keys of the design is the ‘Internet of Things’, since most of the furniture or physical elements of the room have integrated sensors that allow for mobility by sensing human signals. Hasier Larrea does not put limits on the functionality of the elements of the room while the world of artificial intelligence continues to evolve.

“Today, the internet of things in the houses is limited to lights or thermostats. We also want the walls, beds and tables to be able to talk and listen and to develop new functionality,” explains Larrea to OpenMind. In this way, the elements of the room could move as a function of the sunlight, temperature or time of day without any prior human activation.

Agriculture: City Farm

“Cultivate and consume here.” This is the premise of Caleb Harper, the creator of the urban agriculture project City Farm, which is also part of the MIT working group Changing Places. The idea is to cultivate food in the cities and avoid the high costs of growing crops in the fields and transporting them to the city.

The results prove him right. According to the researcher himself, “City Farm reduces water consumption by 98% compared with traditional methods” and “90% of its plantings grow successfully and much faster than in conventional agriculture.” He claims that the lettuces of Farm City grow in 15-20 days while it takes up to 90 days in the field. The key is in the use of hydroponics and aeroponics, which spray mineral salts onto the roots of the vegetables.

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City Farm’s lab, an urban agriculture project / Credits: Cris Crisman / MIT Media Lab

City Farm is installed behind a glass facade in the Media Lab. All kinds of seeds are sprouted and tomatoes, lettuce and aromatic herbs are grown for all tastes. All the vegetables are analyzed in detail using a computer and various sensors. “If a plant has grown poorly, we gather all the data to see what has happened,” he says.

Transportation: mobility on demand

Several projects are underway in the field of transport within the Changing Places MIT team. The Hiriko, introduced in 2009, is a car that contracts when parked, so that three vehicles occupy the space of a conventional car. Currently the project is still being developed and already complies with European standards of road safety.

Another mobility project is the PEV (Persuasive Electric Vehicle) bicycle designed as an ideal means of transport for going from work to home. It works with pedals, and an additional electric motor makes moving around easier. It is also notable for being convertible for the transport of packages.

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PEV people mover (right) and package delivery system (left) / Credits: MIT Media Lab

Beyond the means of transportation, the trend in this field is moving towards mobility on demand in which asymmetric displacements are conceived, such as those defined by Ryan Chin, a researcher at Changing Places. As he explains it, the idea is that citizens will go on foot to do the shopping at the supermarket, for example, and then from a mobile they can request the services of a car, scooter or bicycle for the return trip home.

Mobility: You Are Here

For its part, the Social Computing Group at MIT is working on the project You Are Here, which maps world cities based on variables such as bicycle accidents, distances to a metro stop or the opening hours of entertainment venues.”

One of the keys of the project is to situate the citizen as protagonist. Yonatan Coen, one of the researchers of the group carrying out this project, argues that “it is easier to see the change when you see yourself personally reflected in the data.” For example, “if you know that your street has fewer trees than that of your neighbor, this may be enough for the change,” explains Coen to OpenMind.

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London bike sharing efficiency (click to see the interactive map) / Credits: MIT Media Lab

The project has published dozens of maps of cities in the US in which data has been collected that is closely linked with the mobility of neighborhoods and cities. “It is still early to provide a rating based on the best and worst cities,” argues Coen. However, the data confirm that the best cities meet basic needs such as access to businesses, ease of transport for short and long distances, proximity to green spaces, public spaces, places of socialization, clean air and low noise pollution.

In addition, Coen argues that technology will favor a gradual decentralization in cities: “Building large schools, supermarkets or hotels only leads to urban inequality. Insisting on big solutions, something typical of the industrial era, only leads to having more problems in the future. It makes no sense to build hotels in a world in which there is already Airbnb.”

Going back to the initial speech of Kent Larson, director of Changing Places, the idea that is common to all these projects is to respond to the growth in large cities with technological innovation, but with one important caveat. “That cities be a place for people, not for machines, in which technology is made use of only when it is useful,” says Larson from MIT.

By Carlos Betriu

for Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)

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