Monday, May 18, 2009

smart cities at MIT

According to their overview: “At the MIT Media Lab, the future is lived not imagined.” And what a future it is.

I had the privilege in late April of attending an all day seminar at the MIT Media Lab focused on smart sustainable cities. Twice a year, the Lab produces a Sponsor Day where companies and organizations that help to underwrite their activities are invited to a focused session presented by professors and students. Since IBM is a sponsor, I got to attend, along with colleagues from IBM Research, the Global Innovation Outlook team and CHQ strategy.

Multiple teams shared their perspectives on various attributes of the city of the future, with most aspects of urban life extrapolated out many years.

The main speaker was Bill Mitchell who leads a research group focused on *smart cities*. He and his colleagues talked about topics ranging from urban nervous systems, smart distributed energy systems, health networks, learning networks and personal mobility. Let me share some of the topics and my impressions.

Living Networks: Jarmo Suominen asked that we think of buildings not as skeleton and skin as they were in the 18th century, but rather as intelligent nodes that connect and behave like an intelligent system. Keep in mind that over the next 15 years there will be 350 million Chinese moving from the country to the cities. That is more than the current population of the US. Homes are again centers of work, entertainment and healthcare. Work is becoming distributed and mobile. The economy is weightless. Envisioning a future where architecture participates in the media experience. Architecture as a scrim – people are able to project cell phone images onto the LG HQ building in Seoul.

Smart Distributed Energy Systems: I loved the description of renewable energy sources like solar and wind as – at the end of the day – really just weather! So you need to manage them accordingly and design for variables including daily, seasonal and inter-annual changes. Much of the challenge around energy use is in how we think of it. Our culture has a bit of a feeling of entitlement – like we can use however much energy we want whenever we want. But that conservation is one of the key next steps toward smarter energy. Distributed systems for energy built around what is available. Using ZigBee to connect the nodes. Buildings that both produce and consume energy, much like the Internet. A two way interaction not one way – bi-directional.

Urban Nervous Systems: Turning the security paradigm on its side by shifting from privacy to accountability. Citing Kim Cameron’s The Laws of Identity.

Health Care: John Halamka talked about digitized health care estimating it would take $34B to do this. He had his entire genome sequenced in order to identify where there were weaknesses. He has a proclivity for glaucoma so he can now do wellness care to try to prevent the onset of some of these conditions. Or be aware of genetic tendency in his daughter.

Learning NetworksMitchel Resnick stated that who is allowed to be in the learning network determines what is learned. Quest to Learn is a NYC school for digital kids, bridging the traditional and 21st century literacies. Described as *hard fun*. Again – the importance of human behavior. His perspective is that policy factors are one of the key delineators or roadblocks to incorporation broader vies of learning using technology. (I think this applies to business settings as well.)

Personal Networks – discussion ranged from electric bicycles (Green Wheel) to electric scooters, tiny citycars and personal biomechatronics – load bearing exoskeletons for augmentation of human running and carrying. Even a *personal aircraft* was discussed - Terrafugia - designed by MIT-trained aeronautical engineers! The bicycle is described as the culmination/evolution of a 100 year old technology which works best in flat areas, but does not do well with complex topology. Mobility on demand requires intermodal interchange. For example, if you are going shopping for groceries, you could in theory take an electric scooter to get there, but to return home with your bags you would need a different mode, perhaps a city car. One of my favorite demos was an animation of the citycar showing a prototype of a tiny micro-auto that has no engine but electric motors in the wheels. It can turn 360 degrees and fold up on itself in order to take up less space at the curb when parked.

All in all a very fascinating day. I will describe some of the other demos we saw in another posting.