The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life

Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel

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McLuhan readily acknowledged that “the more you create village conditions,” the more you generate “discontinuity and division and diversity. The Global Village absolutely insures maximal disagreement on all points. It never occurred to me that uniformity and tranquility were properties of the Global Village. It has more spite and envy. The spaces and times are pulled out from between people. A world in which people encounter each other in depth all the time. The tribal-global village is far more divisive—full of fighting—than any nationalism ever was. Village is fission, not fusion, in depth all the time.”
cities are human magnets.
People fundamentally want to be with other people, they want to be in a beautiful place, they want to be at the center of it all: people want to live in cities.
This information flow generally has three components. First, instrumentation: an omnipresent array of sensors measuring environmental conditions and movements (both human and material). Second, analytics: the algorithms that consume massive amounts of urban data to find patterns and even predict future scenarios. Third, actuators: digitally controlled devices that can respond to data in real time and impact physical space.
As digital systems slip quietly into the background, an entirely new generation of consumer products will be introduced—“ everyware”—imagined as intuitive, integrated, and invisible, an unobtrusive class of devices and systems that scarcely demand any attention from users. Everyware will become an ecosystem of quiet technology, deeply assimilated in urban space.
“How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?”
Jacobs emerged as a champion of the citizens’ city in the face of her contemporaries’ uncompromising approach—most contentiously, Robert Moses’ highway-based urban efficiency. Jacobs mounted what she herself called “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” arguing that there is a higher goal for urban design than promoting high-volume traffic flow.
And just as ordinary people have hacked software, “citizen developers” can begin to hack their city. Various crowd-based platforms have proven the strength, ingenuity, bug fixing, and ideation of the world-at-large. A broad mix of experts, amateurs, corporate teams, and wildcard players is remarkably productive in unexpected ways if it can be effectively organized.
The new formal language was enabled in large part by parametric design software: digital tools that allow the architect to script an internal logic, input data values (objective contextual factors, zoning, or functionality requirements), and run an algorithm to negotiate those constraints and produce formal, often extraordinarily complex artifacts. Rather than detailing intricate specificities by hand, the architect writes parameters, and the computer churns out highly elaborate results.
Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, located in central Tokyo—is a paradigmatic example of Metabolist theory. It is conceived as a central spine, onto which individual housing pods can be attached and rearranged. In theory, infinite combinations of pods and connections between them allow residents to create larger or smaller spaces in response to different families, budgets, or changes in housing demand over time. Yet the Capsule Tower reveals a deep conceptual flaw: since the building’s completion in 1972, not a single pod has been shifted or combined.
“All evolution is co-evolution; individual species and their environments change and evolve on parallel courses, constantly exchanging information.”
Schemes that targeted public transit exacerbated societal shifts toward personal mobility. What has come to be known as the “Great American Streetcar Conspiracy”—although the conspiracy remains unproven—choked public transit in cities across the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. A group of automobile companies, allegedly led by General Motors, implemented programs to purchase streetcar and electric train systems and subsequently dismantle them.
Among Mumford’s less subtle arguments is the iconic phrase “Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.”
when roads are crowded with commuters, the system responds by charging them more, effectively mitigating peak congestion. Various forms of Electronic Road Pricing have been implemented by cities around the world, including London, Singapore, Stockholm, and Milan, improving traffic in their downtown road networks. With similar intent, many corporations have introduced offset working hours to shift commute times earlier or later without impacting the duration of the workday.
It has been estimated that every shared car can remove between ten and thirty privately owned cars from the road.