Sensors are giving designers access to information to support better design in urban planning. Carlo Ratti, 2017 HIVE dean, talks about how to use the data from sensors to transform cities. Now, we ask how can sensors capture how we live in our homes and can that improve housing?

The evolution of the world’s cities is at a turning point. And, according to Carlo Ratti, MIT professor, architect, engineer and expert on the impact of technology on urban environments, the catalyst is the Internet of Things (IoT).

“It’s a very interesting time for cities,” he says in an exclusive video interview with I-CIO. “And the reason is that all the digital technologies that have changed our lives over the past 10 or 20 years are now entering physical space. It’s about the internet becoming the Internet of Things and, as such, the way we understand, we design and we live in cities is being radically transformed.”

He stresses that the change should not be characterized solely as a digital revolution. In his view, the term ‘smart cities’ puts undue emphasis on the technology. Rather, the sensing nature of IoT needs to be coupled with a ‘response’ element that is focused on creating positive outcomes for the inhabitants of cities. “We call this ‘senseable cities,’” says Ratti, who directs the Senseable City Lab at MIT. “We think the emphasis should be on the human side, not on the technological side of things.”
An imperative to digitalize cities
Certainly there is a growing need to explore how cities can be made to function. To emphasize this Ratti cites four ‘big numbers’ — 2, 50, 75 and 80 — that encapsulate the next phase for cities and the need to set their digitalization on a positive course. “Cities are only 2% of the crust of the planet but they are where 50% of the population lives. They account for 75% of energy consumption and produce 80% of [mankind’s] CO2 emissions. So if we can do something to make our cities more efficient and more sustainable then that can be a big deal for the planet,” he says.

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