This story is from the 2017 Access Magazine: Our Connected Future. Explore more from this issue
MIT's Senseable City Lab

Making Sense of MIT’s ‘Senseable City’

MIT's Senseable City Lab explores the growing intersection between urban planning and technology. Access connected with Director Carlo Ratti about transparency, innovation and what to expect from the city of the future.

MIT's Senseable City Lab

“Smart” is a word people use to describe cities that are connecting people through technology. But you use a spin on the word “sensible.” Why is that?

I’m not a big fan of the expression “smart city” — to me, it puts too much emphasis on technology. Rather, I prefer to use the term “Senseable City” with its double meaning, both “able to sense” and “sensible.” The word “senseable” puts more emphasis on the human, as opposed to technological, side of things. We want to investigate and intervene at the interface between people, technologies and the city — to develop research and applications that empower citizens to make choices that result in a more livable urban condition for all.

photo of Carlo Ratti
Carlo Ratti, director, Senseable City Lab, MIT

That empowerment connects with the idea of transparency, so how transparent will the Senseable City be? Will people be aware of the technology?

If we’re talking about data collection, we should be extremely transparent. But if we talk about the layering of technology on the physical environment, we could embrace Mark Weiser’s ideas. Weiser was the visionary 20th century computer scientist who coined the term “ubiquitous computing.” In his idea, when computing becomes ubiquitous, it can be found everywhere in the space around us and ultimately “recedes into the background of our lives.”

So, as these technologies recede, how could big data and the Internet of Things impact the urban experience?

The impact of the Internet of Things extends to many sectors, but let’s take mobility. Autonomous vehicles, for instance, promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life, because they could blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. Your car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family, or to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community or city. This is particularly important, as cars are idle 95 percent of the time.

Transportation is a huge part of the urban experience. How about architecture and urban planning itself? Is open source data transforming it?

Open urban data is an old dream of architecture and planning. During the second half of the 20th century, urbanist William H. Whyte used on-site cameras to capture human flow inside New York’s buildings and public spaces. His methods were insightful but labor intensive. Today, with the diffusion of hand-held electronics, data collection is becoming effortless. The knowledge of human movement could radically inform design. Perhaps with better data, the built environment can adapt to us — a living, tailored architecture that is molded on inhabitants.


  1. I really like the idea about cars sitting idle 95 percent of the time being used for other people to get around and more utilization. Excellent thought!

    Cindy Curry June 30, 2017

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