contactDiary Integrated City Industrial Cluster

Mahindra moves into India's industrial space

Cities are probably as old as civilisation yet they go through regular transformations, and Prof Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT says we’re at another moment of radical change. The 47-year-old academic and architect works on design projects around the world to blend IoT technology with architecture, and also mentors startups emerging from his lab. Recently in Delhi for Confluence 2018, a conference on urbanisation, he tells Shalini Umachandran how digital systems are transforming urban life.

What is a Senseable City? Is it like a smart/sustainable city?

I don’t like the term smart city because the focus is too much on technology. That’s why we picked Senseable City. It has two meanings — a city that is able to sense information from digital networks, as well as a city that’s sensible in design. That puts the emphasis on the human side rather than just the technology. A senseable city, or if you want a smart city, is the convergence of the digital and physical world. The Internet of Things (IoT) can change many dimensions of urban life, from productivity to citizen participation. The Senseable City Lab anticipates and studies these changes. Most people now have a smartphone — it’s a way to get real-time information from the city to make better decisions real time. If there’s a place that physical infrastructure is yet to reach, you can use digital to compensate.

Could you give an example?

It's happening in many spaces like mobility — car-sharing or what Uber is doing. IoT lets us think about new ways of mobility based on real-time vehicle availability. Google Maps’ real-time traffic maps are another example. These are solutions that can have an impact not just in the US but also in countries like India. Each country will give these innovations their own flavour but the big trends will have universal applicability.

The new clusters will offer companies clear land titles (land being a complex, emotive issue in India), plug-and-play infrastructure, and business support services such as warehousing, logistics, banks and dining, as well as fulfilment centres, industrial kitchens and industrial waste management.

The Indian government is making a push for smart cities. How do you actually create smart or senseable cities?

The best way to do it is to create an ecosystem where the citizens themselves can develop ways to transform the city. For example, in China bicycle-sharing apps like Mobike and Ofo grew out of interesting ideas people had for the local market, and then they started conquering other markets. In general, the idea of letting people develop solutions is a good one because they can think about the problems and find the best way out. Governments must do some top-down things related to municipal services, which can benefit from technology, but I would recommend that governments put in effort to create a rich innovation ecosystem.

Is it hard to create an innovation ecosystem, especially with bureaucratic governments that are risk-averse?

I don't think so. If you wait for someone else to try something and then copy it, you will always be catching up. This is a time of fast innovation. Governments need to create a system of innovation where people are engaged with the city. First make rules so that people can use the city as a space for experimentation. They do a lot of that in Singapore. The government is making the city like a living lab, a place where you can try out things. You also need to encourage young people at universities to try things, set up incubators. The people themselves will be the ones to take action.

Have any of the experiments from your lab been replicated on a larger scale?

Quite a few startups have come up in the US and Europe to take forward experiments we tried in our lab. Our role in the lab is to try things that will inspire people. Since we are in the university, we want to push the boundary with experiments. People can then turn these into an application. We did some work on data analytics that later led to a collaboration with Uber and became Uber Pool. You start with an experiment, and the experiment will later enter real life.

Apart from creating co-working office spaces in India, you’re building a space for digital nomads with high-speed internet and other facilities near Darjeeling. Isn’t that like shifting the problems of a city to a relatively untouched spot?

Not at all. If you go on holidays to Darjeeling or Kalimpong, you go for a couple of days, generate a lot of traffic, waste energy, and spend very little time actually learning about the place. The future of tourism has to be people spending more time connecting with the local community, and generating less traffic and garbage. It’s important to think about tourism as something slower and more sustainable. We are working on sustainable tourism through co-living projects in Europe. In Milan, we are converting the 2015 World Expo site into an innovation park, where students and start-uppers can spend six months to a year working and living with locals. These are new ways to do tourism for the longer term so it becomes slightly more sustainable.

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