MIT Senseable City Lab envisions future cities

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CAMBRIDGE – The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its researchers have long been reshaping our reality. Teachers at the school and its alumni are credited with, among many other things, creating the World Wide Web (which brought you this article), email, microprocessors, positron emission tomography, or PET, medical scans and even Bose audio speakers.

It’s hard to overstate the Institute’s importance in both creating many of the modern world’s key technologies and in using science to better understand humanity and its needs. Today, MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory continues those traditions by taking innovation to the streets, literally.

“The primary goal of the lab is to envision urban futures and the impact of digital technologies,” Ricardo Alvarez, a lab researcher, said in a recent interview. One project looks at the way sensor-equipped vehicles that can communicate with each other can move through a four-way intersection without the aid of traffic signals or stop signs.

Members of the lab work on projects imagining city functions of the future in places all over the world. Their work is eclectic, ranging from visualizing how intersections might function to creating bioacoustic chambers sensitive enough to record mosquito wingbeats. Such technology could be used to identify disease-carrying species to help prevent the spread of illnesses like malaria.

But much of what the lab does revolves around urban planning and design.

“There’s a dual dynamic: one is understanding what’s happening on the ground – a lot of projects in the lab are on understanding, kind of, getting new glimpses of invisible patterns within cities,” Alvarez, a doctoral candidate, said about the lab. “But there’s another angle, and it’s essentially a design process and envisioning those urban futures, which is a lot about imagining.”

“We work a lot with big data,” he said, “because it shows a lot of hidden patterns.”

This marriage of data-driven research with innovative design keeps the lab on the cutting edge of urban development, innovation, and related public policy. And since MIT calls Cambridge home, the city is often host to its latest experiments and innovations. One project that exemplifies the fusion of data with design was born out of a partnership with the Dutch electronics and lighting manufacturer Philips.

“Why don’t we imagine how we can transform that street light?” Alvarez posited. “What’s the value of that street light today ­– is it the light, or is it the real estate? Because if it’s the real estate, then it’s a completely different ball game regarding what we can do with that real estate, beyond just the light. And from that you sort of imagine future systems.”

Working with fellow researchers Alaa AlRadwan and Michelle Sit, Alvarez and the team are currently tinkering with Cambridge’s streetlights, adding sensors that monitor traffic flow nearby and potentially other things, like air quality. Ultimately, sensors integrated into the lights may help reduce congestion.

The sensors include a camera and a data processor which combined cost no more than $60. The camera supplies images to a larger information system through the processor. The data is fed into a machine learning process that teaches the system to determine the best time for a nearby traffic signal to change, AlRadwan said.

Sit has been working to identify the most efficient processors to handle the images, which once stripped of their data are discarded to mitigate privacy concerns. Part of the research involves predicting when periods of increased traffic may occur.

For Sit, this means “figuring out what the literature is on computer vision, deep learning on automation, the detection of those key elements.” Because the sensors are equipped with wireless capabilities and designed to share information, Sit will first install some cameras at intersections on MIT’s Cambridge campus “to figure out the optimal angles” for installing the cameras and recording movement.

“You need data to teach the system,” AlRadwan explained.

In May the team will begin testing an air quality sensor for use on street light posts as well. The hope is that improved traffic flow will result in lower pollution levels.

“Usually, most of the pollution happens because cars stop and then when they need to accelerate to regain speed, they spew a lot of fumes,” Alavarez explained. “When you multiply that by many street crossings, then you have the potential to simultaneously improve the lives of people as they move about their daily business, and at the same time, reducing pollution.”

Another project AlRadwan is working on is called Underworlds, aiming to develop a smart sewage system that will evaluate waste to detect virsues, bacteria and chemicals that can create “a public health census,” AlRadwan said. The work is being done with a local government in Kuwait.

Cambridge has given permission for testing parts of the system in city sewers and the team is developing small robots that will crawl through sewer pipes to examine the untreated waste.

The data can be evaluated neighborhood by neighborhood, AlRadwan said, adding that it “gives us the ability to really analyze what different urban factors affect health of different neighborhood.”

As the physical world becomes ever more digitized and layered with technologies, how those digital systems are used acquires ever greater value.

“The reality is that we keep pumping in more and more technology every day,” Alvarez said. “Right now you interact with a city in a dramatically different way than you used to interact with a city 15 years ago, and it’s primarily because of technologies.”