The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Carlo Ratti, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab, which researches how new technologies impact how people live in cities. Ratti discussed how data from sewers can reveal surprisingly valuable insights into public health, as well as how data visualizations can help people interpret data to drive meaningful change.
Joshua New: You launched the Senseable City Lab back in 2004 to research the impact of connected technologies on urban life. What has surprised you the most over the past 12 years? Were you able to anticipate how things like smartphones and the Internet of Things could pretty dramatically change city life?
Carlo Ratti: I started the Senseable City Lab (SCL) back in 2004, and I was soon joined by Assaf Biderman as co-director. At the time, new technologies promised exciting transformations in the field of communication, transportation, and fabrication. We tried to imagine how these developments could impact urban studies and how the unprecedented merging of the digital and physical worlds could affect our understanding of cities. Since its inception, SCL has grown quickly from a two-person endeavor to over 40 researchers between Boston and Singapore with over 300 alumni from all over the world who have worked in SCL to date.
I would say that we anticipated what people later called smart cities. That is, the beginning of a new technological revolution: the Internet entering physical space—the very space of our cities, the traditional domain of architecture—and becoming Internet of Things, opening the door to a new world of applications that can encompass many domains.
New: The Senseable City Lab has a particular focus on working with disadvantaged communities. How have you seen connected technologies benefit these underserved communities?
Ratti: New technologies are a great opportunity for all communities. We are particularly passionate about what we see today in the emerging world, where the absence of preexisting technologies can cause a “leapfrogging” effect. Take the case of cellphones: when they started they were the exclusive preserve of the Western upper classes. Fast forward a couple of decades and they have become tremendously widespread across the world, in particular in the African continent where countries without an existing telecommunications infrastructure are now leapfrogging into the future. Different parts of Africa are now leading the way in many applications, from mobile banking to the empowerment of farmers with real-time crop information. This is one of many signs of how innovation developed in emerging markets can then spread across the world.
New: The Senseable City Lab has a project called Underworlds, which studies how real-time data from sewage can improve things like public health and urban planning decisions. Recently, Underworlds launched its Luigi robot, a robot equipped with a suite of sensors that travels through sewer pipes to collect data. What do you hope to learn from Luigi, and how can you put this data to good use?
Ratti: It is a well-known fact that you can tell a lot about a person’s health by sampling their microbiome: presence of illness, certain genetic tendencies, and overall health. As this information is flushed down the toilet, it lives on in our sewage: the collective microbiome. The Underworlds platform proposes to tap into this wealth of information and is designed to detect and characterize viruses, bacteria, and chemicals in a city’s sewage. By sampling over time and across space, we are hoping to detect fluctuations in urban health parameters. Probably the most obvious first application is contagious disease monitoring, and the prediction of outbreaks of infectious disease before symptoms arise. In addition, this platform could change the way non-communicable diseases are studied, because biomarkers for diseases such as obesity and diabetes can be measured at unprecedented scale and temporal resolution. Furthermore, we can see what chemicals are being released into the water by industries, quantify a population’s antibiotic resistance, as well as understand ecosystems of bacteria and their antagonistic viruses.
New: A lot of your projects use interesting data visualizations to convey information and help people interpret your research. Can you speak to the importance of making data easy to interpret in a smart city context when policymakers, researchers, businesses, administrators, and the public could all be interested in the same data?
Ratti: Visualizations are a way to communicate scientific findings to a broader public. Let me give you one example. In our Trash Track project in Seattle we added location-tracking tags to trash and then followed trash as it moves through the city’s sanitation system. Out of the many things we learned is that the simple sharing of information through simple visualizations can promote behavioral change. People involved in the project would be able to follow their trash and this led some of them to make different decisions. One person told us, “I used to drink water in plastic bottles every day and throw them away and stop thinking about them. Now after the project I know that these bottles go a few miles from home to a landfill and will stay there forever. As a result, I stopped drinking water in plastic bottles.”
New: You have a background in architecture and have frequently discussed the value of developing architecture that can sense and share data. When building a smart or “senseable” city from the ground up, how much would architectural processes change? Can we just embed sensors into infrastructure and buildings but essentially keep building cities the same way, or should we be building things fundamentally differently based on the potential of the Internet of Things?
Ratti: We can imagine that, from an architectural point of view, the city of the future quite possibly will not look very different from the city of today—much in the same way that the Roman urbs is not all that different from the city as we know it today. In any case, it will be able to maintain its character of permanence. Indeed, it will always have horizontal floors for living, vertical walls in order to separate spaces, and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside—such “fundamentals,” celebrated in Rem Koolhaas’s 2014 Venice Biennale, are unlikely to change. The key elements of architecture will still be there, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What could change will be our way of experiencing the city, through the Internet of Things.