Become smarter by stretching – not increasing – your infrastructure

Tue, 2015-09-15 18:15 -- Kevin Ebi

Think you need to greatly expand your city’s infrastructure? You may have nearly twice as much as you need. Surprised? Data and innovations that are already starting to appear are working to make that true.

The pace of change in cities is accelerating with the proliferation of mobile devices, according to Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Laboratory. Just 30 years after the first real-world mobile devices appeared, we now have 5 billion in use – nearly one for every person on Earth. And soon, there could be 50 billion.

Ratti says it’s not just the addition of the devices, change is driven by how those devices are used. We’ve gone from using them for person-to-person communication to connecting people with data. Growth will occur in communications between people and machines and, eventually, machines and machines.

“Almost every atom of our individual space is becoming a sensor and an actor,” Ratti said during a keynote presentation at Smart Cities Week. He says that transformation is resulting in amazing new insights. Those insights have the potential to dramatically transform cities.

Too much infrastructure?
One of the most surprising findings is that cities may not need more infrastructure. Their existing infrastructure is already more than capable of getting everyone where they need to go when they need to get there.

The Sensable City Lab developed Hubcab to track the use of taxi cabs in New York City. By tracking each trip and people who needed to hail cabs, it learned that often a taxi cab carrying just one passenger passes by numerous people who need to get to the same place, or at least a place nearby.

A system that could bring together strangers so that they could share rides could reduce the infrastructure needed by 40%.

Rassi says he only has the data for New York City, but doesn’t doubt that it’s true for many other cities as well.

Removing bottlenecks
One of the most dramatic transformations is still years off as it relies on smart traffic controls and connected, autonomous vehicles.

His simulation showed that even the smartest traffic signals today rapidly result in traffic jams as cars arrive at an intersection only to have to wait for many more to potentially cross or turn in front of them. The problem is that the intersection has no way to know where a driver wants to go, so even its optimal state is rarely optimized for anyone.

A model with fully autonomous vehicles continues humming along even after increasing number of cars are added to the road, even though the intersection always gives priority to the vehicle that arrived first. With all the cars working together and responding to each other, the intersection looks like a swarming beehive, a flurry of activity with everyone constantly moving, yet nobody getting into anyone else’s way.

Better human-machine experience
Much closer on the horizon is something called the Copenhagen Wheel. It’s a replacement wheel for bicycles that makes biking around the city almost effortless.

The replacement wheel contains sensors, a generator and a motor. As you slow down, the generator captures energy from your brakes. When you start to go up a hill, the motor kicks in to assist, making it feel like you’re still on flat ground. Sensors, meantime, monitor your effort feeding into an app that tracks your fitness.

With the pilot project complete, the technology has been licensed and pre-orders are already being accepted.

In addition to improving fitness levels, the Copenhagen Wheel makes it easier and attractive for more people to commute by bicycle, important in a city where nearly a third of commuters already bike.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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