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Carlo Ratti: from “smart city” to “senseable city”

carlo ratti
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Carlo Ratti: from “smart city” to “senseable city”

Though the term ‘smart city’ has yet to appear in the dictionary, its meaning is already the subject of debates both technological and civic. Carlo Ratti, the architect and engineer at the head of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, one of the world’s premier smart city research hubs, prefers to use the term ‘senseable city.’ What exactly is behind this concept? He explains.

  • connectivity
  • design

Could you explain what a ‘senseable city’ is?

We live in a fascinating age in which technology is present in everything. This has a direct impact on the way we design, live in, and understand cities, particularly with regards to the convergence of the physical and the digital. The most obvious example is in the evolution of the Internet, which has metamorphosed into an Internet of Things. This metamorphosis has ended up making cities “intelligent”—they’ve become ‘smart cities’. That’s a term I don’t really like to use, as it puts technology at the heart of the whole definition and concept. I prefer to use a more human term that priorities peoples’ needs: ‘senseable cities’. In this conception, the most important consideration is how to anticipate and fulfill the needs of the people who live in a given city. The city thus becomes a sensitive city, in which the optimisation of urban spaces can only be carried out by taking social considerations into account from the very start.

What role should technology play in the future of cities?

In 1966, the architect Cedric Price asked the following question, which I think is very apt: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” This question was as important at the time he asked it as it is today. That’s why it’s interesting to approach it through the lens of ‘senseable cities’. Technology certainly can help us live better, but how do we use it in a more responsible way? How can it be used to meet the greatest challenges of this century, from climate change to discrimination? Technology is a tool, but it has to coexist with big societal issues. For example, technology could be used in policy to start conversations about the kind of future we want in cities.

So you’re talking about a vision for the future in which the people co-create the city.

Absolutely! It’s important to have their input, and to constantly ask for their opinion on the kind of city that they want to see in the future.

carlo ratti
Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer at the head of the MIT’s Senseable City Lab

How do you create a smart city that’s capable of adapting to and interacting with its inhabitants?

It’s already happening today with the Internet of Things. Thanks to sensors, for example, buildings are starting to respond to us, almost as if they’re living things. You’ll note that designers and architects are always thinking about how to render our surroundings more intelligent and organic so we can better communicate with them. We’re very involved in these kinds of considerations. We developed the “Dynamic Street”, an experimental project created in partnership with Toronto SideWalk Labs. We created a modular street that could be reconfigured according to footfall, time of day, and use. To make cities truly interactive, we have to continue with more of these kinds of city experiments in partnership with startups and residents.

We’re witnessing a surge in civic smartphone apps. Is this another way to create ‘senseable’ cities?

Apps like these create new possibilities, new habits, a new kind of language. I think the key thing is to get feedback—which is a word that’s really key in the creation of ‘senseable’ cities. I actually think that ‘feedback’ is the defining word in the creation of the smart city. In this field of work, we have to draw inspiration from nature’s ability to rapidly integrate feedback. Technology needs to be able to collect citizen feedback just as quickly and use it as a principal element in the evolution of cities.

Concretely speaking, how do you move from the current model of cities to a ‘senseable’ one?

It’s a question of democratic education. And all education is based on participation. Cities have to keep their citizens involved and allow them to take part in debates. In Latin, there are two words used to describe cities: ‘urbs’, or the physical city, and ‘civitas’, or its citizens. We have to return to this model in order to bring equilibrium back to cities—and we have to do it via the people.

Speaking of citizen contributions, your “Paris Navigating Gym” is a boat powered by exercise. Could human energy be harnessed to power the cities of the future?

I don’t think so. The goal of that project was to show people the importance of their own energy. This was a major undertaking from an education standpoint, as it got people thinking about the efficiency of the human body, and of the energy it produces and uses. But in a day, the ‘human machine’ uses less energy than a computer does.

This energy mostly serves a vital function: it makes the body work and keeps it alive. However, some of that unused energy can be collected, transformed, and used to power outside objects, as here in the case of the boat. But scaled to the size of a city, you’d need a lot more people than the city could possibly hold in order to power it with human energy.

That said, it’s true that we use human energy every day in soft mobility. You see it already with walking and cycling. But that tends to evolve. With bicycles, for example, human energy is being combined more and more with a new source of energy (electric) in order to help save some of the former. It’s hybrid energy. The convergence of the natural and the artificial.

What kinds of mobility systems do you envision in the near future?

I imagine multiple systems interwoven together. Today, thanks to smartphones, we already have access to so much information and choice around mobility. The future lies in these growing options. And I think we’re just at the beginning. We need to be conscious of the fact that there’s a powerful dynamic at work here: behind every choice of transport, there’s a person and a way of getting around. Which over time will create an infinite number of combinations that will be centralised in all the multimodal transport apps out there.

Digital services are growing, bringing with them fresh, new debates about pollution. Do you think technology is an ally or enemy of the decarbonisation of cities?

We know that information and communication technologies use up energy. The question we need to ask ourselves is: how are we using it? We can waste energy by using technology to post Instagram photos—or instead, we can use it to reduce traffic jams in cities… The optimisation that technology allows for can help reduce carbon emissions, even if it’s partially responsible for them.

What does your dream smart city look like?

To paraphrase the great architect Yona Friedman, I’d say it’s a city created “with the people, by the people, and for the people.” Everything starts with people. Also, I’d say architects and designers have to strive for greater convergence between the natural and the artificial, and find a way for these two worlds to work together in a more efficient way.

 

Interview by Vincent Thobel, L’ADN journalist

L’ADN is the media on innovation that every day analyses the best concepts of the new economy on the web and in magazine format.

 

Copyrights: Sara Magni, David Pike, CRA

how design fiction impacts mobility

design fiction
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how design fiction impacts mobility

What can ‘design fiction’ tell us about mobility? How can it help us anticipate our future mobility practices? Noémie Aubron, founder of the highly-successful newsletter La Mutante and expert consultant in innovation processes provides insight into the powers of low tech.

  • connectivity
  • design

To what areas does ‘design fiction’ apply in your work?

I try to articulate the scientific and the rational—almost like prospective studies—through things that are based more on intuition and paying attention to little hints of things to come: behaviours that may seem a bit strange in the present, but that hint at the future and that can fleshed out into a prospective scenario. To bring this material or vision to life, we tend to turn to slightly more artistic formats; that’s why you’ve got the term ‘design’ in ‘design fiction.’ Role play, art exhibits, magazine posters, fiction writing… the idea is to articulate things that until now, have never been articulated. Humans don’t change fundamentally; it’s the environment that evolves, and in this respect, the behavioural dimension is very important.

How do you choose between possibility and pure speculation?

That depends on the subject we want to address, as well as the audience, bearing in mind that the goal is to get you to experience something that will end up resonating with you. For certain audiences, an overly-speculative scenario just won’t work. In my work, I tend to gravitate towards things that are probable. I like to anchor my work in prospective scenarios that are more tried-and-tested.

What’s interesting is the ability to articulate things that we’ll experience in the long term through what can be done concretely.

Speculative work can be good for opening up minds, but it’s hard to tie it back to daily life, or even more so, for example, to a company’s road map. By basing things on what’s probable, it’s easier to envision something more realistic that may actually happen, and if you can take that seriously, you can be better prepared to face it.

What mobility-related ideas do you find most interesting?

There’s one subject in mobility that I find highly interesting, which is somewhat overdone and yet not completely resolved: automation systems. I think there’s still much more to be imagined in that area. I think that’s how technology works. But what about our practices? Another subject is mobility’s place in cities. The point of design fiction is to try and understand how we place a given practice within its context and within society at large. In designing urban mobility, these two things overlap, and there are many things we’ll need to invent that address how people live in urban settings—so, around how we get around.

Will future areas of exploration be more focused on mobility practices than on technology?

All our ways of living in relation to transport use are being turned so upside-down that the real vehicle of change may be humans rather than technology. The ways that people want to get around is becoming a big trend. It’s interesting to think that perhaps sociology has as much of a place in this question as technology does. Understanding people’s needs and desires is just as crucial as the development of new technologies.

néomie aubron
Noémie Aubron, specialist in innovation approaches

How might climate change impact our ideas around mobility?

Climate change is now something that shapes almost all future scenarios: we can’t push it aside. I do a lot of work on what’s known as ‘low tech’, which I believe is going to be a long-term trend. What’s striking is that when you dig deeper into ideas around mobility, you have this diverse variety of responses to climate change that range from very low-tech to very elaborate. And depending on the sociological lens or prospective scenario you’re looking at the question through, the answer won’t be at all the same, and even the practices around mobility will be very different. If you look at mobility through the lens of climate change, there are so many ideas that come up and just as many possibilities depending on prevailing sociological forces, thus bringing us back to this very sociological dimension of mobility.

Speaking of mobility, what other interesting ‘hints of things to come’ have you been able to identify?

To me, mobility is part of a much bigger subject. I see a lot of new practices—I think of mobility as a moment that becomes about more than just getting from point A to B. Mobility might become a kind of ‘bubble’ in which we do other things… And all this could be made possible by autonomous driving systems. The idea of mobility that’s paired with ‘concentration practices’ is a very interesting area to explore.

Is the future of mobility, especially urban mobility, also about anticipating the role different regions will play in energy distribution?

In terms of energy, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get past our sociological barriers, but I’m convinced that in the future, people will choose to live in a given place based on its political orientation. Certain cities might want to develop shared resilient energy systems; perhaps there will be as many smaller utopias and ways of living as there are cities. I definitely see how we might have decentralised energy systems in cities where that would be important, while other cities might develop more technological solutions because their populations care more about that kind of thing.

We’ll invent new ways of being, but with local particularities.

The decentralisation of energy, the ability to decarbonise energy production and to put a kind of energetic autonomy in place… that’s a probable scenario, but not necessarily in all areas.

 

In a scenario in which autonomous systems become democratised, what might we be able to do onboard a self-driving vehicle in the future?

Work, of course—but vehicles might also become a space for leisure. A place where you can do karaoke, play board games, video games… I imagine space for parties, real spaces for entertainment where we’d spend time together with multiple people. Like a kind of reinvented Blablacar, but without drivers and where everyone travels together at the same time to play. The journey time would serve to create or reinforce social ties. For people with very busy schedules, autonomous systems could give us some space to breathe—where you could, say, give yourself a manicure. I envision a kind of ‘wellbeing bubble’ in which you can take time for yourself. The question here is how to turn travel time into free time for things we don’t have time to do. In terms of ideas, this opens up a vast field of possibilities and innovation.

What role might virtual reality play in these vehicles? Fulfil the promise of ‘travel within travel’?

For those who work, VR might allow you to feel like you’re at the office—or at least provide a space to concentrate in that would help you ignore what’s around you. We’ll no longer be getting into cars, but into another world. Virtual reality holds very great potential.

 

Interview by Sarah Sabsibo, L’ADN journalist

L’ADN is the media on innovation that every day analyses the best concepts of the new economy on the web and in magazine format.

 

Copyrights: Brice Coustillet, Ryoji Iwata – Unsplash

Mobilize, draw me an experience

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Mobilize, draw me an experience

01.04.2021

  • connectivity
  • design
  • shared mobility
  • transport on demand

Responding to the challenges and problems of travel in urban areas, designing a comprehensive experience, starting – not from the drawing board – but from the smartphone… This is how the EZ-1 Prototype was born: the realization of a mobility experience designed for the new needs of consumers, cities and operators. Patrick Lecharpy, Mobilize’s Design Director, looks back on this unprecedented ‘creative exploit’.

“It was the first time we were asked to imagine a mobility solution that would perfectly meet the new needs of users, cities and operators. A real challenge!”
Patrick Lecharpy
Mobilize’s Design Director

 

 

A challenge that Patrick Lecharpy took up with more enthusiasm since the Mobilize Design entity that he heads was specially created to ‘think comprehensively’ and take into account the mobility ecosystem as a whole.

  • connectivity
  • design
  • shared mobility
  • transport on demand

The basis of this approach is that everyone’s expectations must be considered.

Operators and municipalities have many needs: parking, congestion, multimodality, reduction of environmental impact, energy savings and the circular economy.

Users, both urban and suburban, are looking for travel solutions adapted to their professional needs, as well as their personal needs… without having to invest in a vehicle.

In any case, a mobility experience cannot be conceived without a smartphone application. It’s where users start their experience, it’s their first point of contact with the service. In this approach, it is also the application that must allow users to recognize the vehicle remotely, to unlock it or even take a virtual tour of its interior.

smartphone_experience_mobilite
The smartphone at the centre of the Mobilize mobility experience

An unprecedented request, an unprecedented response

“Once we had all these elements, our mission was very clear,” says a smiling Patrick Lecharpy, “we had to create a vehicle that would provide a service that would meet all the needs of all customers for all possible uses. And, of course, it needed to look good!”

So we had to invent a new creative approach!

emmanuelle-dauboin
Emmanuelle Dauboin, Design Project Manager for Mobilize

The Mobilize Design team boasts a major advantage: it is structured like a startup, made-up of creatives who use the city on a daily basis, tuned into the expectations of future customers and capable of expressing them in terms of experience and design.

Although local authorities and operators provided a lot of food for thought, Patrick Lecharpy wanted to go further and capture the new cultural and emotional forces of today.

“The best approach was to send my team directly to the source, to get the most accurate information, on the ground.”

eduardo-lana-y-costa
Eduardo Lana-Y-Costa, Designer for Mobilize

The whole team got involved: some tested the existing offers while others experimented for a few months with all the different modes of shared transport.

Everyone then shared their feelings and observed uses with Eduardo, Interaction Designer, who then sketched the first storyboards. Little by little, the EZ-1 Prototype began to take shape…

A new experience in shared mobility

“This new approach allowed us to capitalize on all these experiences and, to our great surprise, move forward much faster in a very responsive and interactive way,” recalls Patrick Lecharpy.

For the Design team, it was the first time that so many experiences were pooled around a single project. And all of them proved to be essential to design the most relevant experience around a connected, electric, recycled, recyclable vehicle, dedicated to car-sharing. More than just a means of transportation, the EZ-1 Prototype will be a new experience in shared mobility.

mobilize-ez-1-prototype
Mobilize EZ-1 Prototype

“We want to offer as many people as possible the chance to access a means of transportation that is easy to use, fun and even playful, without the need to purchase the object,” explains Patrick Lecharpy. “In terms of mobility, we are truly in the process of writing ‘the next story’.”

 

Writer: Renault Group

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ecological and accessible mobility? understand it in three minutes flat.

accessible mobility
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ecological and accessible mobility? understand it in three minutes flat

Mobilize, the new Renault Group brand, aims to propose mobility and energy services that meet the needs of users and contribute to reducing pollution in cities. Unprecedented in the sector, these services are designed to meet the expectations of users who want to travel in a decarbonated way, without having to own their vehicle.

Three innovative and combined approaches to this goal are summarized here. Take just three minutes to discover them. Ready, set, go!

  • design
  • energy transition
  • shared mobility

★ ☆ ☆
redefining mobility

Mobilize. It’s a name that means something. This new brand from the Renault Group was created to design new ways of travel that are better adapted to our urban society. In the near future, means of transport will be decarbonized, easy to access using a smartphone and flexible. In cities, twenty-first-century residents can use a bike-share service to reach a station, where they then take a tram to the office.

Others, who live in suburban areas, can walk 400 meters to an electric car-sharing station and drive to their company in the city center, where it’s difficult to park, but where they have reserved parking places.

With this in mind, Mobilize designs electric cars that are specially adapted to various mobility services and to travel in urban areas with major constraints. The vehicles proposed “disrupt” the automotive industry. For decades, powerful gas-guzzlers from car plants were meant to cover long distances using fossil energy.

By 2030, cars will no longer be seen as a consumer object but as a link in the chain of mobility solutions. In 2021, young urbanites are looking for the right way to travel, rather than wanting to own a car. With a smartphone, they can quickly check to see which means of transportation to the airport or a suburban park is the closest to home and the fastest.

Mobilize listens to the profound aspirations of this new generation and offers the appropriate services, where a minimalistic car that is connected and pollutes as little as possible is one of many options.

★ ★ ☆
designing a global experience

Mobilize is much more than just a new brand. It’s a laboratory that is inventing the way we’ll travel in 2030, then in 2050. The teams behind this innovative structure design both the technology of these electric, connected vehicles and the software that enables using them with solid reliability. In this way, users won’t be in for unpleasant surprises, such as opening the door and discovering a car that has an uncharged battery. Above all, Mobilize produces cars that are tailored to be part of an ecosystem of car-sharing stations and transversal mobility.

“We offer a unique combination of hardware and software, with dedicated vehicles and cutting-edge services. In the future, when we offer access to a car within one minute from a living area, we will be proposing users an unparalleled, high-quality service. This offer will be adapted to the new needs of mobility, car-sharing and last-mile delivery”, says Clotilde Delbos, Managing Director of Mobilize, in the presentation of Renault’s new strategies.

Patrick Lecharpy, Director of Design for Mobilize, sums up the issues that shaped the way his teams approached the topic: “On the design side, the idea was not only to come up with a new vehicle, but also to think about the issues and problems of travel in urban areas. At Mobilize, we are therefore designing a global experience. Designing services required fully understanding users and their expectations, as well as the needs of operators and cities. Urban areas are faced with problems of parking, congestion and pollution. As for users, they don’t necessarily want to own a car but still need mobility solutions that are easy to access and pleasant to use”, says Patrick Lecharpy.

Mobilize tested all the available means of urban transport for several months; each time, this led to the same conclusion. “What’s the first point of contact for a service? A smartphone. The user experience always starts with an app”, continues Lecharpy. This is a mantra that Mobilize designers are well aware of.

★ ★ ★
vehicles designed for services

After this thorough grounding, Mobilize created a first prototype. A totally new mobility object was imagined to respond to the issues of the years 2020 to 2030. This vehicle was designed entirely for car-sharing. “It’s connected, electric, recycled and recyclable. A little vehicle that’s in tune with the times. The goal is to make it sustainable and propose an enjoyable experience of shared mobility. Driving it in a city will go well beyond simply traveling from Point A to Point B”, says Patrick Lecharpy.

In cities where the place of individual cars has been reduced, year after year, this prototype has a real role to play. “The day cities declare that their centers are 20 mph zones, our vehicle dedicated to car-sharing will be perfect because we can put three of them in one parking place. It’s in our interest to work with cities that are trying to avoid congestion, limit pollution and reduce parking space to recover areas for planting greenery”, adds Clotilde Delbos. Effectively, one car-sharing vehicle can replace up to ten private cars, opening up lots of room. The model has been designed with reinforced bumpers to adapt to users who are, in fact, less accustomed to driving than the owners of private vehicles.

Mobilize also wants to reinvent last-mile delivery. This is a crucial issue in metropolitan areas where, with the digital revolution accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, an increasing number of inhabitants are requesting delivery of products ordered online, with the risk of seeing scooters and thermal vans invade the streets. Under experimentation since 2019 by logistics professionals, a prototype that is specially dedicated to last-mile delivery enables Mobilize teams to analyze various types of feedback and adapt the concept or transform it into a standard utility vehicle. Stay tuned.