Making cities smarter

Imagine your city as it might be in the not-so-distant future. 

Transportation in this city is various, pleasant, and low-impact. There are safe and efficient bike lanes, and anyone can order a cheap ride from an autonomous, minimal-emissions vehicle. Because fewer people drive, and almost no one idles in traffic, air quality is high. There are plenty of parks and open spaces because cars are less prevalent. Life in your city is happy, healthy, and sustainable. Your city is, above all, a smart city.

The smart city, like the smart home, is built on and around the “Internet of things,” in which networked products gather, store, and share user data while communicating with one another in order to create improved and highly-efficient living environments. In a smart city, the Internet of things expands outward from the home into a plethora of automated and interconnected urban devices. The communication between and among these devices allows for vast amounts of municipal data to be gathered and eventually analyzed. A smart city leverages its collection of massive data to learn about its residents, showcasing the ways in which smart cities are beginning to transcend the Internet of things, by gathering massive data sets that are gradually helping researchers understand vast and complex networks.

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However differently smart cities may be defined or described, underlying them all is an array of interconnected social networks and systems, an understanding of which allows for data-driven urban planning that stands to vastly improve the quality of urban life. Sarah Williams, an Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) affiliate and assistant professor of urban design who directs MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab — an urban studies center that uses both data visualization and data collection to identify and understand various urban phenomena — is an example of an urban planner using this data to communicate the complexities of urban life in order to drive decisions. “When data is made comprehensible to a large number of people,” Williams remarks, “it is well-positioned to drive social change. Creating tools that synthesize and collect data transforms how we see the world, at one time showing us the effects of policies while also providing essential information to develop new urban strategies.”

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William’s research shows the kind of impact IDSS researchers are having by developing and communicating an understanding of vast and complex urban social networks. At the same time, other IDSS researchers are helping to develop smart technologies that will power future cities, such as autonomous vehicles and smart energy meters, using a systems approach to build effective solutions for the improvement of urban life and the solution of societal problems.

Transportation is one of the greatest of those problems, and one of the most essential areas for innovation within the smart city — particularly the promise of autonomous vehicles. Emilio Frazzoli, an IDSS faculty affiliate based in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has made significant inroads in the area of autonomous vehicle innovation. Frazzoli joined project leader and senior paper author Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science — as well as other colleagues — in testing an autonomous vehicle pilot scheme last fall in Singapore, where the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) is based. Over six days, autonomous golf carts were made available to visitors in a large, public garden in Singapore, where passengers could summon them through an online booking station and book rides to and from predetermined points. The small carts, a minimalist version of an autonomous vehicle with a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour, adroitly navigated paths in the garden, making sure to avoid pedestrians and cyclists.

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