Technology that reduces energy consumption and informs consumers about sustainable products should be used to make improvements to urban infrastructure, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of urban planning Carlo Ratti said at an event Nov. 30.
Cities cover 2 percent of Earth’s surface but contain over 50 percent of the population, make up 75 percent of the world’s energy consumption and produce 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, Ratti said at the event, which was held in the Intercultural Center Auditorium.
The Georgetown University Italian Research Institute hosted the event in collaboration with the Italian Embassy; the Italian Cultural Institute, an office dedicated to the promotion of Italian culture in the United States and housed in the Italian Embassy; and the Georgetown College art, art history and Italian departments.
Ratti, an Italian architect and engineer, is the director of Senseable City Laboratory, a research initiative at MIT. In 2007, Ratti’s work on a building made of water was recognized among Time Magazine’s “Best Inventions of the Year.”
The internet’s ability to create wider online networks between people has altered the way they live, according to Ratti. He disagrees, however, with scholars who suggest this connectedness has made physical space obsolete.
“Technology hasn’t killed physical space,” Ratti said. “Something else has happened, which is this kind of convergence of technology with the city, of digital and physical.”
Technology instead can be used to analyze energy usage and track movement, which can make transportation, shopping, working and the overall experience of living in a city more efficient, Ratti said.
In 2014, Ratti conducted a study analyzing taxi data in New York City at the request of former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D).
The study found that although people in New York have experienced trouble finding rides, many taxis in the city consistently remained empty. Manhattan needs only 60 percent of its current number of taxis to satisfy the transportation of its people, according to the report.
Ratti used his findings to work with Uber’s carpooling feature, which allows multiple parties to ride-share simultaneously in the same vehicle. A widespread use of the feature would lower the number of cars and therefore reduce the amount of traffic and pollution, according to Ratti.
“Two people going more or less in the same direction share a ride, which means one less car on the road, which is less energy consumption, less pollution and less congestion on our roads,” Ratti said.
However, a 2018 report by transportation expert and consultant Bruce Schaller has also found that ride-share services like UberPool can increase traffic congestion in urban centers by redirecting commuters away from public transportation alternatives.
Self-driving cars have the potential to further improve the transportation system over the next few years, according to Ratti.
“If you’ve got an intelligence system where every car knows where it is and where all the other cars are, you don’t need to stop anymore,” Ratti said. “You can keep on going just avoiding collisions.”
The expanding role of technology in the workplace will allow people to access information differently and use spaces more flexibly, eliminating the need to create spaces strictly for work, Ratti said.
“We don’t need to be in our office anymore for meetings,” Ratti said. “We can build buildings that are more sociable, and also buildings that can save a lot more energy and a lot more space.”
Ratti believes the exploration of data can promote consumers to make more informed and environmentally sustainable purchasing decisions. The implementation of real-time product information in grocery stores will allow for consumers to choose products based on their environmental effects, he said.
The Carlo Ratti Associati, an international design and innovation practice founded by Ratti, along with Coop Italia, Italy’s largest supermarket chain, built a grocery store equipped with interactive smart screens. The screens provide customers with the products’ nutritional values and the amount of energy consumed during the item’s production.
The evolving use of technology must be considered in the development of urban infrastructure in order to ensure the city’s longevity, according to Ratti.
“It’s very, very important that the infrastructure that we build in cities today will last for 5,000 to 10,000 years, but the way we use it may change in five, 10 or 20,” Ratti said. “It’s very important that we try to future-proof it to make sure that what we build today can be adapted to different futures.”