Q&A: MIT's Carlo Ratti on people-driven 'senseable' cities

Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEeable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Photo by: Daniele Ratti

Carlo Ratti thinks the city of the future isn’t just smart, it’s “senseable.” The director of the SENSEeable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an architect and engineer by training, Ratti and his team create technological solutions that respond to, rather than replace, citizens of cities around the world.

From emerging areas that can leapfrog traditional technologies to quickly embrace the next generation of tech, to established cities struggling to embrace new solutions, Ratti advocates for a bottom-up, people-driven approach.

Devex spoke with Ratti about smart versus senseable cities; how emerging nations can quickly surpass their more developed counterparts; and the skills industry professionals will need to keep pace with a changing world.

Here are some of the highlights from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You’ve spoken of your preference for the term “senseable” city over “smart” city because “senseable” reflects a city that responds to humans, whereas “smart” responds more to technology. How do you see these two concepts coexisting, particularly in developing nations?

Today’s cities are changing quickly: In the midst of rapid urbanization the concept of smart cities — or “senseable cities,” as we prefer to call them — is emerging. This phenomenon is simply the manifestation of a broader technological trend: The internet is entering the spaces we live in, and is becoming the Internet of Things. As a result, many aspects of urban life are being rapidly transformed: From energy to waste management, from mobility to water distribution, from city planning to citizen engagement. The way we see the difference between “smart” and “senseable” is a matter of focus — on technology per se, or on people.

This process is not limited to areas traditionally identified as leaders of technological progress, but can ultimately play a role in the development of emerging nations. We often focus on new ideas at the cutting edge, where — almost by definition — every original concept begins before spreading to different contexts. This dissemination, particularly in the developing world or contexts that do not have similar pre-existing technologies, can cause a “leapfrogging” effect.

Cell phones, for example, have become tremendously widespread across the African continent over only a few years, while Western countries went through a long, protracted development from analogue landlines. Because there was no existing telecommunications’ infrastructure, countries could leap directly to the latest technology, bypassing interim stages.

Envision a previously under-developed area that is seeing its first rapid urban population boom: What features would you advise local leadership to put into place early to ensure the city can keep pace with the needs of its newly arriving residents?

My suggestion is that governments should steer away from the temptation to play a too deterministic and top-down role, encouraging primarily citizens to take action through “bottom-up” dynamics. Rather than focusing too much on the installation and control of hardware — fixed, static "sensing systems" — it is important to get people excited about transforming their cities themselves.

For an example of how this develops, look to Africa, where the explosive demographic situation in many African cities has led to serious mobility issues. Take Nairobi: Its roads were developed for a settlement of 350,000 people, and they are now serving over 3 million inhabitants. As a result, it has become one of the world's most congested cities.

Ubiquitous technologies are lending a hand. For instance Twende Twende is a mobile phone service that was developed in IBM's research center in the Kenyan capital. Swahili for “let’s go”, Twende Twende takes images captured by existing low-cost cameras and applies network-flow algorithms to estimate traffic flow. The solution does not require expensive road construction, but rather uses cameras already present around the city to help facilitate traffic flows. This is just an example that might be successful or not in the long term, but it represents an expanding trend.

How can cities struggling with dire issues of food insecurity, conflict and crime, housing crises and high unemployment implement “senseable” solutions, when so many other issues pose an immediate demand?

New ideas tend to develop at the cutting edge, before spreading to different contexts. My experience of Africa is that it is one of the places where, if one gives enough power to individuals, unexpected things can happen in a bottom-up way.

Lots of examples come to mind: Developed by a Kenyan farmer, iCow is an app that works on the type of basic mobile phones farmers own, empowering them to improve their own lives by accessing critical information. Or Yoza, a locally developed android app, which helps users find laundry services using location detection and social ratings technologies to match service providers with clients — few of the laundry women have smartphones to access the app, but Yoza calls them up on their regular phones to sign them up and book them for jobs, helping both clients and washerwomen.

Many of the apps and innovations mentioned might vanish in a few years — as it is common in most innovation ecosystems. However, their creative approach in addressing societal challenges in Africa can be seen as a promising sign of urban innovation.

How will professionals working in the industry need to adapt to our changing “senseable” cities climate? Specifically, what skills will they need to learn to be their most effective in our technologically-changing world?

To answer this, I would like to quote the final words of a famous 2013 paper by [Oxford University professors] Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne on the consequences of robotics on the job market:

“As technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerization — i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

Creative and social skills: These are what will be really necessary to live in a senseable city.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the author

  • Molly McCluskey

    Molly McCluskey is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, U.S. News & World Report, Middle East Eye, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and an array of national and international publications. She has written extensively on global economic issues and their impacts on individuals, institutions and nations. In 2014, Molly was selected for the prestigious International Women’s Media Foundation’s Democratic Republic of the Congo reporting fellowship, and in 2016 won the McGraw Fellowship for Business Reporting. She recently completed her third term as a member of the Board of Governors of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She divides her time between the U.S. and Europe.